Good morning. As usual on Sundays, I want to share a word of faith with all who care to read it.
This week, my church made the difficult decision to cancel our youth production of Godspell completely this year. As a member of the supporting musical crew, along with my friends Jimmy and Manny, the annual regional performance tour is such a blessing to so many kids and adults, and has been for almost 25 years. Each tour is a special memory for the seniors that participate, and this year, those memories was not allowed to occur. Andrea, Ryann, Hannah, Vivian, and all the cast – just know that your sponsors feel really bad about it. We tried.
So today, in honor of Godspell (which is based in Matthew), I want to focus on a passage from Matthew 24.
The chaos around us is growing. There are voices from all directions claiming to know “truth”, claiming to have the answers, claiming to be “the way.” They come from those antagonistic to the Gospel and those claiming to represent it. It is becoming more difficult daily to be sure which voices are speaking truth. We read in Matthew:
“Jesus answered: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of WARS and rumors of WARS, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. NATION will rise against NATION, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of BIRTH PAINS.” (Matt 24: 4-8)
A lot of pseudo-prophecy books and sermons have been written on this passage, ranting about Israel, Islam, sharia law, World War III, the China menace, and so on. In this soliloquy, Jesus is telling the disciples what the “end times” will look like – the disciple’s question being specifically in response to Jesus’ claim in verse 2 that in those days, the Temple would be obliterated. I don’t believe He was referencing the actual building, but that is for another essay The disciples thought He was, though, and they wanted to be ready. So Jesus gave them an answer that probably sounded quite cryptic to them, just like it does to us today. So let’s focus on the words I’ve capitalized – was Jesus talking about the apocalyptic prophecies we hear loudly today? I am convinced that He was not.
“WARS” – it’s no surprise that so many have framed this passage in terms of violence and destruction. That’s what WAR means in English. The Greek word is polemos; it is often translated “war.” But it has a secondary meaning – “quarrel or dispute”. We get the English word “polemic” from it. A polemic is “a strong verbal/ written attack against something.” I believe Jesus was talking about THIS definition. The “end times” began on Jesus’ ascension, not when Israel became a nation or any other such markers. Jesus was telling the disciples that as soon as He left, the voices would start. The deceptions would grow. The “polemics” would be written. This isn’t about modern warfare or nuclear annihilation – it’s about voices.
“NATION” – the Greek word is ethnos. We get words like “ethnography” and “ethnocentrism” from it. It literally means “race” or “tribe.” Jesus had no interest in the modern definition of “nation” – an arbitrary boundary that separates land so that we can label it differently. He didn’t care how many “lines in the sand” people would draw, saying “This is mine and that is yours.” He knew that His people, the Kingdom of God current and present, would be assailed by the other “tribes” out there. He knew why the polemics would be written – to discredit, corrode, and corrupt the Kingdom. It would be strange to use the modern definition of the word “nation” to a group of listeners that at the time didn’t even have one.
“BIRTH PANGS” – this is a rarely-used word: odin. It is used four times in this form but translated as different English words depending on the translators: “sorrows”, “travails”, and “agony”. Why would Jesus use this word? Birth of what? I think that question misses the point. Imagine being a pregnant woman (guys, try your best on this one). You have hosted your baby and now it is time for it to emerge. This is the quintessential “point of no return”, isn’t it? Like it or not, the uterus will contract and the body will force the child through the birth canal. It is not up for discussion. In a way, the woman is “trapped by agony”, isn’t she? The pain is inescapable – it only subsides when the baby is born, and then it all becomes worth it.
THIS is what Jesus meant. The polemics, the strife, the cacophony of voices, the war against the Kingdom – it is inescapable. As Christians, we ASKED for it. But in the agony and the sorrow, in those moments where we feel like we are “trapped” by death and pain, we have something that is worth all that pain.
Salvation. Truth. Hope. A new heaven and a new earth.
This is the message of Godspell, and the message of Jesus. It doesn’t require fancy words, political power, or worldly wealth, and it doesn’t come without cost. Your witness to the world is how you willingly, gladly, and diligently show every day that you are willing to pay that cost, assured that what you have received in return is worth it.
Have a blessed day.