Labor Pangs

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
December 18, 2011 - Advent (4 B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Romans 8:18-25
Luke 2:1-6

Pang - that’s a funny word, isn’t it? Although, maybe not so much if you have felt one. A pang is a sudden, sharp, and indelible experience of pain - often associated with giving birth. Of course it can also be associated with mental anguish like doubt or remorse. Most likely, if you have had one then you know it, and you have not forgotten it.

A pang is relatively short lived, although the memory of it can take you back to its origin. So many of our soldiers coming home this Christmas will feel these in the years to come, and our response will be a test of our merit as a society. We tend to think of the initial cause of such pains to be endurable - and certainly they are. One can hardly call it a pang if one does not live through it.

Of course in Paul’s day, as in much of the world today, labor was not something everyone lived through. Birth and death were sometimes intertwined in a way that modern medicine has made seem uncommon. Yet that is the struggle that encompasses all of life and leaves us needing something more to hope for, to trust in, and to offer some sense of meaning and purpose.

In the church we express and experience the struggle between anxiety and hope through the movement of Advent. We remember the claim God has placed upon us and expressed in the line of David. Through God’s claim we become restored and aware of our true nature as God’s beloved children. As children of God we wait with expectation the movement of God in and through our lives! As we experience God’s active presence, we become aware that we are constantly moving from death into life!

So, in a sense, we are in the delivery room. We are awaiting the life that is to come. In a sense we are in the process of being born as well - over and over again.

Of course there is nothing particular about this time of year that forces or creates such an experience. It is simply the time of year we have chosen to give ourselves permission to think and feel things we neglect or deny throughout the year. Perhaps there is something about the change of seasons - some primal connection to the harvest or the lengthening of shadows - that makes us more open to the tension between hope and sorrow that is part of being human.

It doesn’t really matter, though, if we take Paul’s words to heart. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” That’s still a hard pill to swallow when you are in the grip of illness, or without a job, or anytime that your prayers seem to fall into a vacuous void.

But Paul reminds us that “all of creation is subject to futility,” so at least we know that we are not alone. All of creation is in this with us. All of creation is groaning in labor, or at least it was. Paul said, “until now.” All of creation might still be groaning and waiting for the birth of the children of God, but it doesn’t have to be. When we act in concert with God we see all of creation as a part of God - and that includes us! When we place our trust in the things God has in store for us instead of the things we expect God to do, we find ourselves in a position of hope - and hope keeps us alive!

I think that is the allure of putting things on lay away. Certainly that can be a positive way to manage your finances, but I think it is also a way for stores to get you to give them money based on what you hope you can accomplish. That’s what it was for Thomas Coates of Omaha, Nebraska. Unemployed and hoping to make it through, he went to make a payment on toys he had on lay away.

A woman stepped forward and simply paid it for him. Then she paid for several other customers’ lay away items and carts. She said her husband had died and she did not have anyone to spend it on. She just wanted her husband, Ben, to be remembered. Apparently she is not alone. Men and women calling themselves Secret Santas are going in to stores across the country and spending up to $20,000 on other people’s lay away items. Reports of incidences like this have come in from Nebraska, Montana, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan (where it seems to have begun).

Of course you don’t have to do something like this to experience and offer hope. In some ways our basket ministry does it even better. We join with creation by blending new and repurposed items to make gifts for those who cannot give or receive them otherwise. And we did it. With God’s help and your hard work we have produced over 1,000 baskets for people in need.

That’s an interesting thing to think about - people in need. Does anyone really need a Christmas present? We need clean air. We need water, food, clothing, and shelter. We need access to resources that help us to provide for ourselves. We need medical care. Do we need Christmas presents? No.

What we need is the hope they provide. What we need is the deliverance from a life of separation into a life filled with hope and relationships. And Mary and Joseph traveled all the way to Bethlehem to bear and deliver the hope that is offered through Jesus. Say what you will and imagine what you must - but that is one road trip I would not want to be a part of!

Especially given that they arrive to find nowhere to rest but a stable. How terrifying that must have been! That is where the story leaves off today, with Mary in labor. That is where we are, or at least that is where we can be. So much of our lives are focused on control and acquisition, and yet we cannot have a life that is worth living without becoming totally vulnerable, losing all modesty, and staring life and death in the face until we are taken by one or the other.

Meanwhile, all over the world, children are peeking into cabinets and shaking boxes to try and figure out what might be inside. All over the world, children are also being sold into slavery and living in conditions we would not allow a dog to live in. In a few places, here and there, people pretending to be Santa or one of his elves are shining light into the darkness like a midwife holding Mary’s hand. In a few places, here and there, the children of God are being revealed.

Are you one of them? Surely you are. And we who are called children of God exist in the anxiety of this present darkness - because we know that life is coming! We exist in the anxiety of the present moment because it forces us to recognize that life has already come. And so we await our own deliverance from sin and death and the schemes that ensnare - because we know that it has already come.

As we look to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, let us revel in the anxiety that pushes us evermore toward hope, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

May it be so with me. May it be so with you - and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

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