(Sermon I preached March 22, 2020 at Avenue United Methodist Church)
On June 19, 2006, Andrea and I made our way to Kent General to prepare for the birth of our eldest daughter, Abigail. Abbie was already ten days late, and Andrea was scheduled to be induced. Since this was our first child, we did not fully know what to expect- let alone understand what this would be like. We arrived at the hospital, and they got us set up in our room, and we began the wait. We played Skip-Bo and watch Law and Order: SVU, then we tried to get some sleep.
Andrea woke up around 4:30 a.m. with the first painful contraction. Those contractions continued, but when the doctor came in around 9:30 a.m., he thought it would be unlikely that Abbie would be making an appearance that day. Andrea was not happy. The last thing she wanted was to go home and have to do this all over again later. So she got a shower, and I imagine had her very first (of many) heart-to-heart with Abbie. When the doctor came back around 11:00 or 11:30 a.m., he informed us that Abbie would make an appearance at some point in the day.
I can remember listening to Bill Cosby comedy routine on cassette growing up. One of his routines was about his wife giving birth to their first child. Cosby asked his wife how she felt, and she told him to take his bottom lip and pull it up over his head, and he would understand how she felt.
I’m not sure I am qualified to talk about labor pain. I heard groanings and sounds that I’ve never heard from Andrea. Through the birthing the process, the pain that Andrea and others experience is a pain that cannot be separated from the longing and hope for new life. In the midst of pain, there is anticipation to give birth to the child you’ve waited nine months for.
One look around and we can see the pain of people around the world and on our street. We can see the suffering of our neighbors and have lived it out ourselves. The entire continent of Australia was practically on fire. Africa’s food supply is in extreme danger as heavy rains are bringing about a locust plague. In China, Italy, and here in the United States (as well as other places), the Coronavirus pandemic is creating a new reality, a new normal for everyone. We can hear, see, and feel the pain of our neighbor, of our world, and creation.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption into sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:22-3, NIV.
Paul recognizes the sinfulness and brokenness that is evident in our world. Humanity groans as we live with our own sinfulness and the brokenness of those around us. We groan, longing for something better, as we face cancer, loss of life, poverty, illness, racism, injustices, and the list could go on and on. We long for a better world. We want for better relationships. Yet, we get lost on how to go about that on our own.
We are not the only ones groaning. Paul says that all of the Creation groans. The created world is affected by the sinfulness and brokenness of the human inhabitants of the earth. We can look around and see how creation responds to human sinfulness like pollution, global warming, deforestation, strip-mining, oil spills, and the trash is thrown into the earth. There is a connectedness within creation that invokes groaning and longing for something more. What we long for is, as Paul writes, the redemption of our bodies. To be made new through the redeeming work of God.
When a mother goes through the pain of childbirth- the prayer is that it will be meaningful pain as the pain of childbirth brings about new life. This is our hope, as Christians, is that as Creation groans with pain- it is not the pains of death. We hope that, as Christians, the pain that humanity feels is not the pain of death- it is the pain of giving birth. There is meaning in pain. There is meaning in the suffering because God is birthing something new in us and the world.
Here is the truth we hold onto as believers in Jesus Christ: Our present suffering cannot compare to our future glory.
We can endure all things because Jesus lives through us and as we realize that we are adopted into sonship through Jesus. This means that our future is better than our past or present. It means that the best yet to come. It means that we wait patiently for what we hope for- knowing that our present suffering cannot compare to our future glory.
While we wait for that “future glory,” what does Paul say to us in our suffering? What does Paul write to those in Australia who lost everything? Those in Africa who will lose all their crops from the locust? Those in China, Italy, and America who have contracted the Coronavirus?
Paul writes that
“In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Paul is writing to believers in Jesus who are suffering, who are groaning for something more. Perhaps they are losing hope because they are unsure of what the future holds. Paul writes that “in all things” that God works for the good. Paul is saying something different than “everything will work out in the end.” Paul is writing that in every situation that we face in our lives, that God will bring about a higher purpose. Developing a Biblical worldview teaches us that regardless of what we face, that God is trying to teach us or accomplish some higher purpose in us or through us. In that way, God is working for God in those who love him.
This is good news. According to Paul:
“If God is for us, who can be against us.” Romans 8:31, NIV.
We can have the assurance that God is for us. This doesn’t mean that God is for us and against others- it means that God has gone to great lengths to bring out about our redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ. God is for us- because of this, we do not need to worry about anything else. We will face suffering. We will face trials. Life will punch us in the mouth- but we know that God is for us and is working out some greater good. We know that we are more than conquerors- not because of anything we do but because of what Jesus has done.
This is where Paul gets personal. He writes:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:37-39, NIV.
For Paul- there is no doubt that anything can separate us from God’s love. Paul goes through all sorts of possibilities: Death and life, angels or demons, the present nor the future, nor any power…there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This morning we gather by staring at a screen. Our incarnational, in-the-flesh gatherings have been temporarily replaced by a digital community. Our anxiety and stress levels are way up because of the uncertainty, the fear, and the reality of what we face as citizens of planet earth. The pangs and groanings of our neighbor and creation are not the groanings of death! They are birth pangs. For a time, those birth pangs are as close to being unbearable as one can get- but they give way to joy as new life is born. I believe that God is birthing something new in the church. Perhaps it is time to wake up from doing church the same way we always do. Perhaps it is time to decentralize our community from the church building- and to live as the church in our neighborhoods and community. The church is not someplace we go; it is a life that we live. While we can cancel gathering for worship, we cannot cancel living as the church because the church is the body of Christ. While we can cancel our different worship services, no one can cancel living out faith, hope, and love. Social distancing cannot distance us from God.
During this crisis, and whatever crisis comes next, let us remember that in all things, God is working for good. God has a purpose and a plan. Let us take confidence that through Christ that we are conquerors and that neither wildfires, nor locust, nor COVID-19, nor unemployment, nor underemployment; not divorce; nor cancer; nor fear; nor quarantine; nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.