Romans 8:18 – 27: Birth Pains


A sermon preached on May 27th, 2012, Pentecost Sunday, based upon Romans 8:18 – 27, and on the occasion of having seven persons affirm their faith and take the vows of membership. 

Sometimes we religious people can give the impression that life isn’t really hard at all, that if you just look at life the right way, well everything is hunky dory – that if you can just tune into God, your life will be a smooth ride without any great struggles, any great pain.  Get in touch with God and you will prosper.  Just learn the “power of positive thinking” and your troubles will disappear.

If you listened to the passage that Bob just read however, you know that Paul doesn’t deny just how much suffering is a part of life.  He speaks of “the suffering of the present time.”   He says “the creation was subjected to futility”, and that it is in “bondage to decay.”

The whole creation, he says, is groaning, and we who confess Christ as Lord, he says, are a part of this creation. We groan too.

As a pastor, I am privileged to be given a glimpse into the burdens folks carry.    And when you’re allowed to get a close up glimpse at the way people are quietly suffering, you can’t help but feel tenderly towards them.

The suffering comes in a great variation of forms, but it comes to everybody.

Sometimes we may look at somebody elses life from afar and think to ourselves, “That person doesn’t suffer like I do.  I wish I could live their life.”

If it is true that at any given moment, the level of pain people are bearing varies from person to person.  But this is also true:  there are seasons of suffering.  Nobody lives their whole life in the summertime, where the livin’ is easy.

And for those who haven’t dealt so much with suffering, when their season of suffering does come, having so little experience with suffering, they may be less equipped to deal with it, and find themselves all the more overwhelmed by it.

But even if somebody appears to have no struggles in life, my experience leads me to suspect that this is at least in part a deception – that they have learned to hide their pain well. There is this great conspiracy going on.  Ask somebody, “How ya doing?”  Nine times out of ten the answer will be, “Fine. Just fine.”  A great many of those “just fines,” will be out and out lies.  Sometimes the lie is admirable, arising from the desire not to burden others with what is their responsibility to carry.

But the lies given to the “How ya doing?” question has to do in part with the assumption that life shouldn’t be difficult, so painful – and that if we are experiencing life to be so, well, there must be something wrong with me.

There’s nothing wrong with you.  Life is difficult.  Paul agrees.

(Scott Peck wrote a book thirty years ago that was on the bestseller list for a record breaking 13 years. His first sentence; indeed its first paragraph, is “Life is difficult.”  His second paragraph said that accepting this premise is the beginning of wisdom.  I think it was a great relief for so many people to hear that life is difficult, and that, in part, was why the book was such a best-seller.)

One of the great things about this church is that we’re a community that – to a greater extent than most churches do – recognizes that life is difficult, and that this is a safe place to acknowledge our humanity – our fragility, ours struggles.   I trust that the seven of you who joined our church today did so in part because you sensed this to be true.

But you didn’t join simply because this is a safe place to acknowledge pain.   You sensed that the faith we share invites us to see the pain of our lives from a distinctly different angle from the way the world sees it.

But Paul doesn’t just acknowledge that suffering is a part of life; he frames the suffering of this life in a way that alters everything.  “The whole creation,” he says, “has been groaning in labor pains until now…”  These are labor pains that you and I and everybody else, indeed, the whole creation, is going through.  Something wonderful is on the verge of being born.

This past Wednesday morning at our Living in the Light session we discussed this verse, and got into a lively discussion with the mothers in the group who had given birth to children.   It was, they agreed, the worst physical pain they had ever endured.   But it was pain with a purpose – it was leading to something so incredibly wonderful – and that made it bearable.

(For at least one woman, the pain was a part of the bonding process.   She’d given birth to two children.  She had wanted to experience the births without the interference of pain medication, and this is how her first child was born.  But, in the case of her second child when her body was ready to give birth, the doctor wasn’t there, and so in order to get her to wait until the doctor arrived, she was heavily sedated.   Although she bonded with both her children, she said the bonding with the first child was immediate; with the second child, the bonding process was hindered by the fact that she wasn’t really present to the birth, and the pain it meant.)

So what is it that is on the verge of being born?  Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”

Christianity makes a startling claim here – one that becomes all the more amazing as the scientists weigh in with what they have discovered about just how long creation has been around.  In Paul’s day they thought the creation was just a few thousand years old.  Now we know it is more like 14 billion years old, which makes the claim being made here all the more wondrous.

This whole creation has been waiting all these billions of years for a creature to be birthed who would fully mirror the creator.

The mechanism God chose to govern biological life – what scientists call evolution – is, from a human point of view, an exceedingly slow moving process, but all these years it has been steadily heading towards something, with endless dead ends abandoned, and with an immense amount of suffering along the way.

But if the creation was to be truly free, and it’s creatures not merely marionettes with all the strings pulled by God, then this meant there would necessarily be an enormous amount of pain along the way.

But through it all, the creation has been gradually moving towards the appearance of a creature that could be fully conscious of the wonder of it all, that could choose in freedom to be an open vessel of the love out of which God created the universe – a creature that could rightfully be called a child of the creator.

The first fully realized child of God was Jesus, who, when he was baptized by John at the River Jordan, as he came up out of the water, had the Spirit descended upon him like a dove, hearing the voice of God declare, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

But the birthing didn’t end with the appearance of Jesus.  God intends to birth the rest of us as well.  And that’s what Pentecost was all about:  Those first followers of Jesus had gone through the trauma of his crucifixion, which they had come to realize was one big excruciating contraction in the great cosmic birth process, and then they had caught a great glimpse in his resurrection of what it is creation has been longing for all these billions of years.

And there they were in that same upper room, once more waiting, for the power from on high that Jesus had promised.  Suddenly there it was – the Holy Spirit, appearing like tongues of fire descending one each of them just as it had descended on Jesus at the River Jordan, empowering them to love boldly – the way Jesus loved.  They began to speak in different tongues, creating understanding among all the pilgrims gathered that day in Jerusalem, overcoming in that moment all the divisions of language that separates people from one another as many children of God were birthed that day.

But the birthing isn’t done.  We are still waiting — we who have, as Paul said, “the first fruits of the Spirit.”  We still groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies.

From the point of view of a mother who loves her child, a couple of hours of searing pain

is totally outweighed by the wonder of a lifetime with her child.  Paul says something similar:  “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

There are moments when we catch glimpses of this glory — when love touches us deep within, and we sense our ultimate destination, a place where there is nothing but love.

We groan, Paul says for the redemption of our bodies, which takes dying – which is, in fact, yet another form of birthing – in order to enter the exquisite joy of heaven.

In the meantime we wait.  But we do so patiently, Paul says, because we know the destination towards which everything is headed.  The suffering is only temporary, but the love is eternal.

The last verses Bob read for us remind us we haven’t arrived yet.  Patience is required, and much of that patience is directed with ourselves, as much of the time we thrash about in confusion, stumbling, falling time and time again.  You’ve probably heard the expression:  “Be patient with me; God’s not finished with me yet.” Paul the great expert in Christianity tells us that we don’t even know how to pray as we ought, and Paul, with all his credentials includes himself in that ignorance.

Often times we just don’t have a clue.  But Paul ends with some really reassuring words.

It’s okay not to have a clue, he says. Because, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness;” and when we are clueless about what to even pray about, the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We are not alone.  The Holy Spirit has been given to us, and though often we may take a wrong turn, we will be lead, without even being aware of it, to where we need to go. We will be lead through this birthing process, as frightening as it often seems.

Holy Spirit has our back.

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