Scripture: Romans 8:22-27
Creation is in labor
When I first started really getting into translating the Hebrew language, one of the things that I found remarkable was how much imagery in the bible is rooted in the image of childbirth. For a language that usually talks about the process of making a baby as simply “knowing” each other, Hebrew tends to compare a lot of things to the swelling of pregnancy, the relentlessness of contractions, and the incomparable “pains” of birth.
Childbirth is a threshold event—there is before, and there is after. (That may be the only clear-cut and certain thing about it.) And aside from death, there may not be another experience in life that draws so firm a line.
So in before-and-after events of Isaiah 42:14 (for example), when God is so pained by the injustice of the world (and especially that perpetrated by Israel) that God steps back and allows their consequences to crash over them with devestating effect, Isaiah knows of no better description than this. God says: “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (NRSV).
When (in Psalm 88) the psalmist is trying to describe the relentless and overwhelming nature of being on the wrong side of God, the best imagery available is that of the relentless and overwhelming contractions of childbirth (often translated as “waves” here), which seemingly interminably wrack the mother’s body.
And so here (in Romans 8), as Paul is searching for a way of describing the ultimate before-and-after event (the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God), he too—Jew among Jews—reaches for the imagery of childbirth.
Starting in v.18, Paul begins to imagine with (and for) the Roman church “the glory about to be revealed to us” (v.18b). And here, it is in fact all of creation that is “groaning in labor pains” (v.22). The Kingdom of God that is being birthed into existence does not just affect we human beings—but everything that is—everything that God made, and called “good” back in Genesis 1.
It’s not too hard to see these “labor pains” if we open our eyes and look around us. Another week has gone by……
Another school shooting……
Another round of dehumanizing rhetoric……
Another series of murders in the Near East due to misguided theology……
More terrorist bombings: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan (2), Iraq (2), Indonesia (5)—and that’s just this past week……
Another week of wars and rumors of wars……of natural disasters and evacuations……
Another week of political corruption being exposed……
Another week of the most vulnerable slipping through the cracks……
Another week of our deep division being exposed by something as simple as a soundbite and the words: “laurel” and “yanny.”
Truly Paul is right: all creation is quaking, wracked by wave after wave of contractions, nearly splitting itself apart as it awaits transformation at the emergence of God’s kingdom.
But what about us? How is our labor coming along?
“Likewise” Means We Too
You see, Paul follows up v.22 with v.23, moving from the labor pains that creation is experiencing to the ones that we are experiencing “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV).
Paul expects that we—if we are followers of Jesus in whom the Kingdom begins—we will be “groaning” as we are similarly wracked by the contractions of a Kingdom that wants to be born.
But I don’t think we’re dilated at all.
And I wonder: Perhaps we need some “spiritual pitocin” to help us along.
You know: if a woman’s labor isn’t moving along as it needs to for everyone to be healthy, she is often given pitocin. It induces labor by jump-starting contractions in the uterus. It is not (admittedly, in my passive experience) a pleasant thing to need. Birth is traumatic enough without anything being forced more than happens naturally. But sometimes that push is exactly what needs to happen in order for mother and child to pass safely from before into after.
And while it might not be pleasant for us, some “spiritual pitocin” might just ensure that we survive the birthing of God’s kingdom too.
It’s been required before, you realize: that little IV bag of the Holy Spirit hooked up to the people of God?
Nearly two-thousand years ago in a city named Jerusalem, the disciples were in labor with the Church of Christ Jesus. It wanted to be born—it needed to be born. But those “contractions” just weren’t happening.
The disciples were still afraid.
The disciples were still struggling to make sense of what happened: Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death; their failings and Jesus’ forgiveness; and the way Jesus just disappeared back to heaven, when they were hoping for an eternal kingdom then and there.
Acts 2 describes the disciples as “all together in one place,” which is remarkably similar to how they were described when the risen Christ first appeared to them in John 20.
Forty days with the risen Christ and they’re still stuck, closed up from the world?
Forty days with the risen Christ and they’ve still not grasped that Jesus meant that “Great Commission” thing?
If something didn’t happen soon, the Church was going to have to come by C-section.
But something did happen on that Pentecost day:
There weren’t any IV bags, but there were tongues of fire.
There were no shrieks of unnatural contractions, but there was a “whoooosh” as the extraordinary Spirit of God filled the room.
There was no cursing at husbands, but the Gospel was miraculously heard in all languages simultaneously.
And the disciples even appeared drunk from the giddiness of this birth.
Against all odds, and despite the Body of Christ not working quite as nature intended, the Church was born.
That same church continues today.
Admittedly, its teenage years were rough.
Sure, there were a lot of bad decisions in early adulthood as we were usually full of passion and just as often misguided.
And it’s no secret that we’ve made huge, blasphemous, God-betraying mistakes—both in the distant and recent past—mistakes that cannot be forgiven lightly……if at all.
But if there is one thing we have, it is the hope that what God is doing does not rest solely on our own shoulders.
As followers of Jesus, we are often messengers—or even ambassadors, as we are called in 2Cor 5:20.
And as followers of Jesus, we are often “the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world”; we “are the feet with which he walks to do good”; we “are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”
But the Pentecost story reminds us that always, always, God will do what it takes to move things along toward health, healing, wholeness, and love.
Kindling the Kingdom
This Lenten season and Eastertide we have been seeking out ways to live the life of Christ more fully—”to walk just as [Jesus] walked,” as 1John describes it (2:6 NRSV).
All of it—our entire journey—combined could be summed up as “kindling the Kingdom of God.” For that is our task today—as every day.
Jesus himself urged us not to get caught up in the uncertainty and busy-ness things, of the fear of each other and whether there would be enough. Instead, he simply insisted: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too (Matthew 6:33 VOICE).
If we need a dose or two of pitocin to birth the kingdom, I am sure God is already measuring it and checking it against our chart. But let’s make sure we’re doing all we can of ourselves, too.
Let us follow Jesus instead of the world.
Let us look to the well-being of others before ourselves.
Let us prove the goodness of creation with our generosity.
Let us pursue justice instead of fairness.
Let us confess our sins so no one can claim we are hypocrites.
Let us seek to see the image of the Creator in each and every person.
Let us overwhelm fear with love.
Let us practice the Kingdom of God as though it were already here.
For such is the model left for us by the one and only person who has taught us true life.
In the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen. And let us pray:
What a journey these past months have been.
If there is one thing that has become clear to us,
it is that we we have become conformed too much to our world,
and transformed too little by your Spirit.
Send that Spirit among us now,
kindling our hearts with fire as in ancient days,
overcoming the obstacles within us and outside us
by the power of your unrelenting love.
May your name be praised
on this and every day,
within our hearts, mind, and lives;
as we offer our whole self to you—
the one who made us,
and will one day resurrect us
to the new, abundant, eternal, and true life
that is available to all
who will become like little children
and follow the Christ.