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Lectionary Sermons: Ordinary Time

Creation Cries Out, "The Birth Pangs are Drawing Nigh"

By Derek Olsen

Text(s)
Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

Our Gospel lesson today warns us about the birth-pangs - the events that precede the last judgment. Now generally, the Gospel connects into something about the Church year. What exactly is this saying - one happy thought to prepare us for Thanksgiving is the destruction of the world? Remember that the turkey may not be the only thing to get cooked. Why at this time, are we looking at this story? Is it because we are coming to the end of the year and we are running out of passages from Mark that haven't been used so far? Perhaps this is the leftovers. Call me crazy, but I think that the lectionary designers had something else in mind.

As we come to the end of our calendar year we see preparations for Christmas. You know how it is - as soon as the Halloween decorations come down the Christmas trees go up. I was up at Lenox Mall earlier in the month and there were already Santa Clauses, Christmas trees and "festive holiday items" in all of the department stores. I always know when holiday time is approaching because the sales people at the bottoms of the elevators give the perfume sample to me instead of my wife and try to direct me to the not-so-subtle gift boxes. The business world is getting us in gear for Christmas.

Well, the reason why we have this text from Mark for today is - I think - in response to the merchandizing in the stores. The stores tell us of the coming of Christmas. The lectionary speaks about the coming of Christmas as well, but with a very different focus. The stores point to the coming of the shopping season; the lectionary points to the coming of Christ. The lectionary reminds us that Christmas proclaims the past coming of Christ - the incarnation at Bethlehem - and foretells his future coming as the judge of the world at the end of days. The choice of this text reminds us that something more comes at Christmas than just reindeer - even more than just a cute and cuddly baby.

In meditating upon our Gospel this week, I was struck - as are many people - by the signs of the end: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. The reference to earthquakes in particular stayed with me. Earthquakes appear a number of times throughout Scripture but the reference that particularly came to mind is from Psalm 114. "The sea looked back and fled; the Jordan turned back, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs." The mountains skipped like rams. Have you ever seen a big dog shake water off of itself? The way that the front legs and the shoulders plant into the ground and then the hind legs generate a twisting spiraling motion? When I hear those verses that's what I imagine - the mountains bracing themselves down into the earth and the hills twisting and shaking like the back of a giant dog. It's an image of power, of primal strength, of raw energy, which we - you and I - cannot control. Looking a little further in the Psalm we find out why the hills shake themselves: Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob. It is because they recognize the coming and the presence of God.

I used to think that God made earthquakes happen to let people know that he was around. What this Scripture tells us is that it is the other way around. God is not doing it; the earth itself cries out at the presence of its Creator. Praise the Lord from the earth, mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars! The earth recognizes its Lord and exults. We feel the earthquake as it calls out in greeting. This earth, this creation, these creatures that surround us, bear witness to God, cry out in testimony, to the incarnation, to the crucifixion, to the resurrection, to the coming again in glory. The world confesses with tongues of rock, with tongues of wind, the glory of the God who creates it, who sustains it, who grants it life and breath and power.

When we look at the earth - what do we see? When we talk about the stewardship of creation - what do we talk about? When I hear that word I think of managing and parceling out inanimate Things. It is hard to care about a thing. What Scripture reveals to us is more than things. This earth on which we walk, this air which we breathe this water which we drink these are not just things but fellow witnesses of the coming of our God. "For," as Saint Paul reminds the Romans, "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." The labor pains are here! And the earth cries out - along with us - for its redemption.

When we corrupt the earth, when we poison the waters and the air, we poison fellow witnesses. We silence the testimony to our Living God. The Church is the assembly of the saints. It's the assembly of those who bear witness to the truth of Christ and who look for his coming. Who are we to say that the earth and the creatures of earth are to be denied our care? We don't parcel out things when we care for creation. We minister to our neighbors - to our fellow witness to the glory and majesty of our Living God.

The year draws to a close - signs of death appear. The leaves fall from the trees, the nights grow longer - the days, shorter. The harvest is cut down. But it awaits a coming again. It awaits a resurrection. There is One coming. "The days are surely coming," says the Lord, "when I will raise up for David a righteous branch." The earth stirs in its slumber, knowing that the birth-pangs are drawing nigh. Are we ready? Our new year has not come. Advent has not begun, but the lectionary reminds us that there is one who is coming. There is an infant coming to be born - and - one coming with the clouds of heaven. And there is one who seeks to be born in each of your hearts in the bleak mid-winter. The thunder calls a welcome - the geese cackle a hymn. The fruit trees and cedars murmur in their forests. They know the coming of their king. Do we? Are we blinded by tinsel? The living earth calls to its Living God. Are we as wise? Creation knows life; creation knows death. It knows seasons and times. Instead of silencing it - perhaps we should listen first. Amen.

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