One of the saddest consequences of sin is that one of God’s greatest blessings is accompanied by some of the greatest pain a person can endure: childbirth. Nine months of waiting and anticipating, nausea and discomfort, culminating in indescribable hours of labor and delivery. And yet, that final pain is the part that expecting mothers look forward to the most. Why? Because it means the months of discomfort are almost over, and a precious new life will have arrived. As we turn our attention to the end times, Jesus warns us that believers aren’t going to experience perfect joy and peace in this world, but are going to experience all kinds of suffering, birth pains – and he wants us to understand that these birth pains mean that our suffering is almost over and salvation is almost here.
As Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple on Tuesday of Holy Week, one of the disciples was struck by a sudden bout of tourism. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Herod’s temple renovation project (a project 46 years in making) was in full swing. With some of the stones weighing over 100 tons and glazed in gold, it would certainly have been a sight to see.  Jesus, however, is unimpressed. “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” For the disciples, this was unsettling news. The Temple was the center of their religion, the place God came to them and they came to God. This prediction was so crazy that the disciples didn’t bring it up again until they had crossed the Kidron Valley to the Mt. of Olives – and then, only four had the guts to ask Jesus what he meant.
“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” That’s what everyone wants to know, right? There’s a whole cottage industry built to profit from end times speculation. Left Behind. The Late Great Planet Earth. Y2K. The Mayan calendar. Blood moons. Every year some new book or movie comes along speculating about specific times and dates and signs. And, like lemmings, many people (sadly, often Christians) scurry to see the movie, buy the book, and enroll in the seminar. Everyone wants to know when the end will come. But Jesus doesn’t give times or dates, he gives us what we need more: signs to watch for, warnings and encouragements to keep us on the narrow road of faith.
There will be signs in the Church. False christs, false religions and false gospels which aren’t good news at all. We have them today – cults that enslave millions, prophets promising salvation apart from Christ, religious superstars offering access to God apart from his Word. And people will (and do) believe them – especially if they can cook up some great signs and wonders – because people who are not grounded on the rock of Scripture will believe anything. There will be signs in the political world. Wars and rumors of wars…nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear the rumbling of war in some corner of the world. There will be signs in nature, signs of creation groaning against the burden of sin (Romans 8:22): earthquakes in various places, and famines, not to mention floods, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, droughts; signs that are all around us.
Isn’t that the exact opposite of what so many in our world hope for and expect? Aren’t most people expecting peace and prosperity and harmony in the future? That’s why Jesus says watch out that no one deceives you. Don’t be deceived by those who come in Jesus’ name and yet don’t point to Jesus’ words and works, his death and resurrection, his body and blood, Baptism and the forgiveness of sins in his name for salvation – these are false prophets. When you hear of wars – don’t listen to those who promise peace; nor to the alarms that the world will end in a nuclear holocaust – because Jesus has said: these things must happen, but the end is still to come. Don’t be deceived by those who claim that poverty and hunger can be stamped out if we just put our minds to it – nor those who say that we can end natural disasters by giving up fossil fuels, because Jesus has promised there will always be famines and earthquakes. So don’t be deceived, but also, don’t forget Jesus’ encouragement: these are the beginning of birth pains. While these pains are certainly tangible calls for repentance (Luke 13:2-5), for we who have been washed in the water of Baptism, they are signs that Jesus keeps his Word: things will go from bad to worse, the pains will grow more frequent and intense, but these signs mean that our suffering is almost over.
While all the world will experience some end times birth pains, some is reserved only for Jesus’ disciples. They will be handed over to religious councils, beaten in the synagogues, put on trial before the civil authorities. But even this serves God’s good purpose. Through the persecution of God’s people, the Gospel of Jesus would be preached to all nations. Just as Jesus was the target of both religious and state persecution – and the Church was born out of his suffering and death – so God’s evangelism plan for his Church continues to include persecution. The book of Acts bears this out. Time and again, in city after city, the apostles are hauled before religious authorities, they’re told to stop preaching the name of Jesus, they’re beaten and imprisoned and threatened with death. (Acts 4-5) And what happened as a result? The word of God spread. (Acts 6:7)
That’s not exactly what we would expect or hope for, is it? We tend to think that the Church will thrive in times of peace. We tend to think that civil authorities should support and defend Christianity because Christianity supports and defends freedom, morality, family, justice, and obedience to the authorities. We tend to think that all the world should see Christianity as the only truly inclusive religion that preaches hate towards no one and God’s love for all. And yet, the fact remains that the gospel of Christ crucified is the most offensive thing the world has ever heard, because the gospel says that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Just as powerful religious leaders teamed up with the civil authorities to get rid of Christ, so antichristian forces will continue to use the power of government to suppress and punish those who preach salvation through Christ alone. (Revelation 13) So be on your guard. But at the same time do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. This is not an excuse to grow lazy in Bible study – but it is a promise; a promise that if you are unexpectedly put on the spot to defend the faith – the Holy Spirit himself will give you the very words to speak.
But Jesus saves perhaps the most difficult birth pain for last: brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. I know that many of you have experienced shades of this firsthand. Family members – brothers, sisters, parents, children – who skip holidays, who screen your phone calls, who “unfriend” you on Facebook, who (to all appearances) would rather you were dead than be around you. No, it’s not because you burned the turkey one year or voted for the “wrong” candidate – but because of Christ. Because the darkness of unbelief hates the light of faith. (John 3:20) As hard as this might be, don’t be surprised, don’t despair – because Jesus has told you this will happen. And it won’t just be family members – all men will hate you because of me. No matter how nice we are. No matter what humanitarian efforts we undertake to help alleviate the misery of sin in this world – Christianity will never be popular. If you follow Christ, you will be hated – sometimes by those closest to you. Plan on it.
And…take heart. In the midst of this dying world there is life. In the darkest of days we cling to this hope: He who stands firm to the end will be saved. There is salvation at the end of this road. The birth pains, the sufferings of this present time, whatever form they take, are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed. (Romans 8:18) Some of the disciples who first heard these words lived to see the Roman army sweep through Jerusalem and topple every stone of the temple in 70 AD. History records that many Jews believed the end of the world had come, they ran for the hills and lost all hope – they thought God was dead. But Jesus’ disciples knew better, they knew this wasn’t the end because Jesus had warned them, and they boldly spread the gospel throughout the world – knowing that it is through the gospel of Jesus, not through the temple, that God brings salvation to sinners.
Jesus’ disciples never have to fear or despair over the birth pains of the end times. Why not? Because that Gospel has been proclaimed to us too. Because we know that as far as we are concerned the world has already ended. It ended on a Friday. On a hill outside Jerusalem. On a cross. As the religious and civil leaders raged against God and his holy one (Psalm 2:2); as the earth shook and the sky grew dark and the curtain in the Temple tore in two and the dead came out of their graves. (Matthew 27:51-53) In the midst of it all, Jesus cried out it is finished. (John 19:30) That was the consummation of all the birth pains the world has felt since Adam and Eve brought the curse of sin into this world. For all the times we clung to false hopes and false teachers, for all the times we let the pain of the times drown our hope and give in to despair, for all the times we have failed to be watchful and ready, for all the times we have chosen our family over our Savior; Jesus stood firm. He stood firm to the end. He stood firm on his Father’s promise that he wouldn’t abandon him to the grave. (Psalm 16:10) And, in the end, he ushered in salvation for every believer. And when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death and resurrection. (Romans 6:3) The world can’t do anything to you – because you’re already dead to it (Galatians 6:14), and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3) That faith, that confidence in chaotic times – that’s why the world will hate you. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s Jesus. And the pain you feel, well, that’s just another sign that your salvation is almost here.
Birth pains are never pleasant. They mean prolonged hardship and discomfort. And yet, from the hand of God they are blessed signs for believers. Signs that the suffering is almost over, signs that salvation is almost here. Don’t be deceived. It will get worse before it gets better; but rejoice: he who stands firm in Christ to the end will be saved. Amen.
 See John 2:20
 According to Josephus, Antiquities, 15.11.3