Birth Pangs: A sermon on Romans 8:18-39 prepared by Michelle Ellis, Oct. 18, 2020
The text we read opens by taking about what we suffer now. I’d like to sit together a moment and name some of the things that we’ve suffered together this year. We’ve journeyed and continue to journey through COVID time. Also, as more and more stories come to light about racial injustice in our world we journey through disillusionment, grief, desire for our world to reflect God’s kingdom more closely. Then there are the sufferings specific to each one of us. We’ve seen decline in Rachel’s physical health. Some of us have faced major life changes, moving away from what is familiar and facing what is unknown. There are those of us who are walking with a family member or a friend towards death, those of us who are journeying through the chaos and felt instability of mental illness and the fear that can bring. There are those of us who are living in the midst of a broken relationship with a family member or a spouse or a child. There are those of us who are still missing so dearly someone they love. There are those of us who live closely with unmet desire—for a friend, for a spouse, for a child. We ache for good things, we groan in their absence. We long to be made whole, for our bodies to be made well, for relationships to be reconciled, for our spirits to be at peace. There have been so many things we’ve been living through as a community and within our own secret hearts where we encounter again the heartbreaking reality that things are not how they are meant to be. And we groan. We groan as we come to know all too intimately the many ways in which things are not the way they supposed to be. We groan for the wholeness, the joy, the justice, the belonging that we can’t see.
I laughed somewhat bitterly a number of times this summer at how creation itself seemed to be aware of all that was causing me to groan and seemed to be reflecting back to me my own gloomy outlook. All creation seemed to be groaning and shedding its tears along beside us through a rainy, cool, and somewhat sad summer. As we read today, creation does groan. It groans along with us as we all long to be renewed together. Creation groans as it waits for the flourishing and joy and fruitfulness it was made for.
I want to look together at how Paul frames this longing, this pain and this groaning that we and all of creation experience. First of all notice that Paul takes this pain for granted as part of the time that we are in right now. He takes it for granted that believers will be in pain and experience difficult things. Second, he says these are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us later. This isn’t to diminish our pain. It’s to get us to begin to imagine how great the glory must be, how joyful the new creation will be.
And then Paul says something that I find incredibly helpful in terms of framing our present sufferings, as he calls them. Paul invites us to view suffering as a birth pain. Paul invites us to view the pain and the suffering we experience as the pain that comes with giving birth. The pain of labour is unique. I think it is one of the best kinds of pain, not because it doesn’t hurt—it hurts a lot! I think labour pain is one of the best kinds of pain because the pain of labour is meant to bring about life. The design of the pain of labour is that you can work with the pain to bring new life closer.
Here’s where I think it will be helpful to talk a bit about contractions. As some of you know, when you go into labour you get contractions. Contractions help move the baby along on its journey into the world. Contractions hurt a lot, especially as the baby comes nearer to being born. Contractions are also the time when a mom is supposed to push. When you are in the pain of a contraction, that’s when you can work with your body to help the baby on its way out. I remember when I was in labour, something that the doctor and nurses would say is, “don’t waste the contraction—use it!” It’s always a little annoying to have people shout instructions at you when you’re in a lot of pain, but it helped. It helped because I needed the reminder that the pain wasn’t just for me to endure. It was a sign I needed to join with my body in the work of bringing new life into the world. I could work with the pain towards a purpose. Every time I used the contraction, every time I worked in and with that pain was a time that new life came closer. It brought me closer to the joy I longed for, even if I didn’t always believe it.
I don’t often think of the things that I suffer as being for a purpose. I grieve suffering, I endure suffering, I fight against and sometimes give in to suffering. But I don’t often think of suffering as being a sign that new life is on its way, like a mysterious form of labour. Paul invites us to hold fast to the truth that God is powerful to use even what causes us pain to bring about his life. Through our suffering God can work towards the hope of renewal and restoration that we can’t see, just like a mom experiencing a contraction can use the pain she is experiencing to come closer to hope of knowing her little one, who she can’t yet see. Could you view your own suffering through that lens? Is it possible for you to see suffering as a reminder that new life is coming. What would it look like for you to lean into a contraction instead of run away from it — trusting that someday, somehow, some sway — new life is coming. What might it look like for you to view your own suffering, whatever it may be as a birth pang? How might the Holy Spirit be inviting you to work with him in pushing towards life, even in the midst of pain, maybe even especially because of the pain? Maybe your pain is causing you to come awake to your need for God and is pushing you towards new life. Maybe your pain is creating a deeper longing for what God desires, for what God has promised. Maybe, like a pregnant woman, God is causing you to grow larger in your suffering, in your waiting, larger in desiring what he desires, larger in compassion, larger in wisdom and grace and even in joy, larger and more able to carry the new life he has planted in you.
When I was in labour, there were when I knew a contraction was coming, but I didn’t use it. I ignored my doctor shouting, encouragement for me to use the contraction. I didn’t work with my body to bring new life closer. I was tired. I felt the contraction coming on and I cried through it. The pain was so intense, the work felt so hard, and I felt that I would be in labour forever. We all have times like that. Times when we don’t have it in us to keep going. Times when we’re lost to the world beyond the pain. It’s in those times that Paul says we and creation aren’t the only ones who groan in labour. Paul says, when you don’t know what to pray for, when you are in pain, in despair, deep in grief, when articulate prayer is not something that could even remotely happen, that’s when the Holy Spirit himself will intercede for you in groans far deeper than words. And God, who searches our hearts. God knows so intimately what’s going on. The Holy Spirit is praying for you with groans that words could not express. The Holy Spirit is now the one in labour. The Holy Spirit is the one birthing something new in us as we labour. The Spirit is labouring alongside us and for us to bring about the new life that he knows is coming.
When Jesus was talking with his disciples about what would happen he said to them, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
Let’s pray together: Lord, do the work only you can do. Bring new life out of our pain. Make new what is broken in us. Remind us that your new life is coming. Keep giving us tastes of the joy that is coming. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.