In 1 Thessalonians 5:3 Paul likens the end of these last days of Gentile darkness to the suddenness of labour in a pregnant woman. In doing so he echoes the words of Christ in Matthew 24:19. In these passages the image is that of a woman already heavily pregnant, weighed down with the cares of her state, but also pressed by the ongoing cares of living in a troubled world. But with the coming of labour she is forced suddenly to shift her focus and her attention. It doesn’t matter now how pressing or dangerous her other needs are, all other things are overtaken by the coming birth. Paul emphasises the suddenness and unpredictability of this moment; Christ emphasises the danger and distress when it is untimely and tiresome. In both cases the key point is that the labour is all consuming. When the baby is engaged, the process cannot be stopped, not even for the sake of the care of other things.

The clear sign of our times is that the process of labour is underway and given that it has started, it cannot be stopped. Paul said they shall cry “Peace and safety” and so we note the efforts being made in our world at present to end the recent spate of global crises. But as this year has begun with an apparent lull, should man assume that his ability to stop this labour will be any more successful than his ability to stop the body’s natural reaction to the end of a pregnancy? The baby is due!

The use of labour as a comparison to the events of our times is all the more apt when we consider that labour begins a process of rhythmic and predictable experiences. Contractions, pains and upset consume a woman, followed by periods of comparative rest. But the lull ends predictably with new contractions and the cycle grows in intensity and speed until the baby is born. No woman in the experience of labour would think that because the contractions end for a moment, labour is over. No pregnancy remains indefinitely. The contractions return with greater vigour and the labour ends with the birth. So Paul’s words have a clear meaning, “they shall not escape”.

The labour is off …

2012 seems to have opened with a period of comparative quiet which is at once surprising given the events of recent years with natural, financial and political earthquakes, but this is hardly unwelcome given the desire of the world at large for quieter times. The European monetary crisis, the looming Israel-Iran conflict and the Syrian experience of the Arab Spring, have each been the subject of concerted efforts by the world’s leaders to end the pains that have so wearied the globe in recent years. But by willing them quiet, can the pregnancy be considered to be over?

“End of the Marathon” – stopping the March Meltdown

At some points of the beginning of 2012 it seemed as if the predictions of a “1930’s moment” as described by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Chief, Christine Legarde, were simply self evident. Her words from Athens came as European Finance Ministers met with Greek officials and gave themselves a three week extension on their deadline to clinch a Euro saving agreement and secure a second Eurozone- IMF bailout. It was unresolved business from 2011. The media fixated on the events, Athens was in riot; all of Greece seemed aflame, southern European unemployment rates hit 20 percent, while youth unemployment rose as to 50 percent ( 20.02.12). And then, as Ms Legarde warned of “a moment, ultimately leading to a downward spiral that could engulf the entire world” ( 01.24.12) the world came to the March deadline. Global markets were falling and the world held a collective breath of resignation. Then something remarkable happened. The crisis was calmed, although the problem remained, Greece left our news media as fast as the leaders involved declared it over.

The process had simply been exhausting. Olli Rehn, the European Monetary Affairs Commissioner, spoke of his and perhaps the world’s exhaustion on reaching the agreement for a second bailout by likening the experience to a Marathon. “I have learned”, he said “that Marathon is indeed a Greek word”. (The Economist website 21.02.12)

After a 14 hour meeting concluded before dawn, European Finance Ministers, the European Central Bank and representative of private creditors agreed on a package that would bring Greece’s debt ratio to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 120% by 2020, requiring a multi billion Euro debt swap in addition to extra finance. With the acceptance of this package by the Greek Parliament world markets seemed to take their first breath of fresh air for over six months, and remarkably much of the world willingly consigned this crisis to the history books with undue haste.

Christine Lagarde stated, “The world Economy has stepped back from the Brink” (Reported on 21.03.12). While Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, said, ‘I believe that the euro zone has gone through a huge crisis. I believe that this crisis is now almost over.” (Reported on 29.03.12). The Marathon may be over, but those that remember their history recall that Pheidippides collapsed and died after running the fabled distance from Marathon to Athens. After the prolonged agony of Greece, the world appeared to shift its collective gaze quietly away.

The world has clearly fought long and hard for its first quarter of comparative quiet in some time, and perhaps its exhausted response to Greece was not unjustified. Yet the Middle East has also offered a challenge to world stability in recent months.

A brief recap – the Middle East disruption

Israel’s comparatively certain position in the Middle East balance in recent years has come as a consequence of peace accords with some neighbouring states and various forms of accommodation of others. On some occasions it has been in Israel’s immediate or long term interests to become involved in the internal affairs of its neighbours. This has been generally limited more in recent times, at least in public view, to a series of ongoing border clashes with Lebanon and incursions into the Palestinian Territories. In its relations with others, such as Syria, Israel has had reason to value the stability of a hostile but strongly authoritarian regime to its north. These arrangements afforded at least a degree of certainty. However, since the movement known as the Arab Spring swept across the region the assumptions and realities that have underpinned Israel’s position in the Middle East have shifted. So Egypt’s post revolutionary government to the south, the instability of the Syrian uprising to the north and Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the east, have given cause for consternation. None more so than Iran. So what has been the world’s reaction?

‘Too much talk of war’– Stopping the Israel-Iran Showdown

On March 5th one of the more remarkable meetings of the year occurred in the White House with the meeting of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barak Obama. Both men are reported widely to have a cool friendship, particularly after Obama was overheard in a private exchange in 2011 at the G20 summit saying of Netanyahu, “You may be sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day”. The meeting’s primary purpose was to discuss the growing Iranian nuclear threat. Israel’s position was clear. Netanyahu stated, “The Jewish State will not allow those who seek our destruction the means to achieve that goal; a nuclear armed Iran must be stopped”; and “My supreme responsibility as Prime Minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate” (reported on 06.03.12).

Yet although Obama stated emphatically, “The bond between our two countries is unbreakable”, the President went on to emphasise that, “We believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution”. The key message of the meeting was for Israel to be patient and if anything, not to be inflammatory. Obama gave no sign of offering Israel licence to act and instead said, “Already there has been too much talk of war” and “we understand the costs of any military action”. To be clear, the President insisted that the US will “not hesitate” to use force in stopping Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. But the key emphasis appeared however to be less on the growing urgency of Israel’s position, rather on the needs of the world to maintain peace. The world simply does not need a new round of distress.

It has been reported by Time magazine that the mysterious deaths of scientists associated with Iran’s nuclear efforts and largely reported as attributable to Mossad have been scaled down. (Time January 2012). Senior Israeli security Officials stated that “Israel’s intelligence services have scaled back covert operations inside Iran, ratcheting down by ‘dozens of percent’ in recent months secret efforts to delay the enemy’s state nuclear program”. Mossad officials are reported as expressing to Time “Increased dissatisfaction” with this hesitancy. It is interesting that these events seem to fly in the face of Israel’s determination to take action to defeat the Iranian threat. They appear to fall more in line with a ‘cease and desist’ approach to provocation. To what extent is this a response to US pressure?

Haaretz (Haaretz online 11.03.12) reported that Israel has been “courting” Azerbaijan to Iran’s north and US diplomats have stated that “Israel is deeply embedded in Azerbaijan”. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” said an unnamed senior US administration official, “and the airfield is Azerbaijan.” An airfield directly adjacent to Iran affords the advantage to Israel of easy access to strategic targets related to Iran’s nuclear and research facilities. Yet a US spokesman was reported by Haaretz saying, “we’re watching what Iran does closely. But we’re now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we’re not happy about it” … “If Israeli jets wanted to land in Azerbaijan after an attack, they’d probably be allowed to do so.” It is a matter of speculation, but it has been widely reported by a number of news agencies that the US comments on Azerbaijan were planned leaks of actual Israeli preparations intended to lessen the likelihood that Israel would or could take such action.

US aims in restraining Israeli provocation over Iran may well be frustrated in the end by Israel’s ultimate need to take direct military action, but Azerbaijani involvement means that any conflict that follows an Israeli attack would not be limited to the Middle East, but would also include the Caucasus. This is clearly not in the interests of a world working hard to achieve quieter times. Where would Israel’s standing among the community of nations plummet if, by its military action, it unleashed a new round of global political and financial chaos?

‘The Battle is over’ – Stopping the Arab Spring in Syria

On Sunday April 1st a statement of the Syrian Foreign Ministry claimed that the year-old revolt to topple President Bashar al-Assad was over.

“The battle to topple the state is over,” Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi told government channel Syria TV. “Our new goal is to ensure stability and create a perspective for reform and development in Syria while preventing others from sabotaging the path of reform” (The Guardian website 01.04.12)

The announcement that stability is now the goal of the Syrian regime may well be more hopeful than final, and though it may indeed signal a significant government achievement after a year’s civil strife, it certainly came in the wake of US, Gulf Arab States, the Arab League, and UN head Kofi Annan’s calls for an end to the violent twelve month repression of popular resistance to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is using all its diplomatic wiles to maintain the distance of the international community and avoid an intervention that so doomed the Gaddafi regime in Libya. But it equally seems that the wider international community lacks the stomach for any real and effective involvement that will make a difference on the ground, despite the brutality of Syrian action. After tortuous negotiations to secure international support for an Arab League call for Syria’s President to step down, both China and Russia vetoed the UN Security Council vote after Britain, the US and France lost patience with Russia’s attempts to “put equal blame on the armed elements of the opposition for the violence in Syria” (reported by The Telegraph UK online 05.02.12). The Syrian uprising has been a notoriously difficult conflict to report and an accurate state of affairs on the ground has been consistently difficult to obtain by the media. The death toll has been put at over 10,000 (on 27.03.11)

A brief recap – The Syrian Uprising

The movement known as the Syrian Uprising began over a year ago on 26th January 2011. Signalling the arrival of the Arab Spring movement, large public protests called for the resignation of the President and the end of the near fifty year rule of the Ba’ath Party. As this movement began to gain widespread popular momentum, the regime responded by attacking its supporters in a series of withering crackdowns aimed to cut right at the heart of the protests. Evidently reflecting on the experiences of Libya and Egypt, where successful protest movements had staged mass protests and captured the popular imagination, Syria sent its armed forces out against the people on the streets. Tanks were sent into cities and suburbs of greatest resistance and security forces opened fire using snipers to target protestors. Over the last year a blistering series of assaults have taken the regime’s fight right into the neighbourhoods and homes of resisters. Although to date the government has not yet been able to quell this popular sentiment, it appears to have broken the back of the organised resistance.

A quieter future? – The return of Putin writer and a former student of mine, Matthew Clayfield, reported the long expected return to power of former Russian President and former Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in these notable terms: “Never has the result of an election been more uncertain. Or, rather, the result of the result. Because while Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was widely expected to win yesterday’s presidential poll – which he did in a rout … it is rather more difficult to know what to expect from the aftermath of his doing so.” (crikey. com 05.03.12).

The inevitable Birth

As we look to the future in the light of Bible prophecy, the words of Christ, echoed by Paul, sound down to our age. A woman in child birth cannot escape. No act of will, no act of agreement, no act of resistance can prevent the coming of the inevitable. No act of denial can prevent the next cycle of contractions.

Christ said, “as it was in the days of Noah … and … of Lot”: both of these times were remarkable for their ignorance of the things of God and the failure to understand that judgment was coming on their ages. The tragedy of both their age and ours is that knowledge is readily at hand. To deny the state of our world at present is to deny the onset of labour. It will eventually consume the attention of the whole world as a new thing is born in the Earth at Armageddon.