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The Rev. Joe Evans The Rev. Joseph Evans
The Rev. Joe Evans is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, TN.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, TN


It's Coming

Romans 8:18-25

5th Sunday after Pentecost - Year A

July 17, 2011

Celebrities are a big deal in the developed world today. I don't know how newsworthy it was, but it was all over the news not too long ago that actress Natalie Portman was pregnant at the Oscars. If you Google "Natalie Portman pregnant" you are bound to get a variety of results: "engaged to Benjamin Millepied," "pregnant actress a sanitizer-toting germaphobe," and even "Mike Huckabee rips Portman over out-of-wedlock pregnancy."

Arkansas governor and possible presidential hopeful said on the Michael Medved Show:

You know, Michael, one of the things that's troubling is that people see Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, "Hey look, you know, we're having children, we're not married, but we're having these children, and they're doing just fine." But there aren't really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a move.[1]

A pregnant woman has too much else going on that she should also have to take verbal abuse from politicians; but as Huckabee says, there's a difference between Portman and most single moms. For Portman, there will be nannies to care for the baby while she rests and recovers, there will be insurance to pay the medical bills, and there will be a host of staffers to buy groceries and diapers, run errands and massage her feet. There's a big difference between Portman and many single moms who may find themselves caring for a new baby alone, without insurance to pay the bills, while some will attempt to care for a child while working a full-time job that either might or might not offer any kind of maternity leave.

There are some things that are the same however--the baby is coming--that's true no matter who you are or what age you live in--at a certain point the mother realizes that there is only one way this baby is coming out.

That was certainly true in Paul's day, though childbirth was something different from what celebrities experience in the sense that the process was more painful, less public, and carried with it a much greater risk. Should Portman go to one of the private hospitals on the coast of France, she may have a seaside view and epidural. She will benefit from a system of healthcare unavailable to everyone. In the ancient world, where we can assume that in Rome, as in all ancient cultures and still many cultures today, the rate of infant mortality was high as was the chance of a mother dying in labor.

But some things never change and Paul's words still ring true. I assume they resonate with every mother of every time and place: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."

We can assume that the women in his congregation would have known exactly what he was talking about, that childbirth is a time of groaning--but something new is coming. For the mother, there's no going back to how it was before.

However, for the father, that may not be true, especially considering the accepted practice in Roman society of exposure, as the choice to raise a child lay not in the hands of the mother, but in the hands of the father who would examine the newborn and choose whether to raise it or leave it to die, often on the street. The Romans thought it was strange that some nations subsumed by their empire would raise all healthy children, that Egyptians, Germans, and Jews exposed none of their children but raised them all.[2]

As they struggled for hours, risking their own lives and the life of that child who would be born, they had with them also a great worry--that all this work, all this pain, could be for nothing should the father choose not to raise this child.

As Paul elevates this image of the mother, using it as a divine image to explain the pain felt by all people, all of creation, we can assume that he not only sought to give an adequate metaphor for the new Kingdom that is coming, but sought to challenge the patriarchal assumptions of Ancient Rome--that the choice or decision made by a father was not akin to the divine working of God in creation, but the delivery of a new child by a mother, this glorious and unavoidable act was.

He lifts up an act--a new creation that is coming regardless of your waning state of mind, your backsliding, your fear, to make a point about our world--the Kingdom is coming--and there's just as much a chance of stopping it as stopping a child from being born in the heat of labor. 

I remember too well the night my daughter Lily was born. After hours and hours of labor, my wife, Sara, faced an emergency C-section. It was a big change from our expected birth plan, but more than that, it was an emergency C-section, and as they wheeled her out of the delivery room to take her to surgery, I was left wondering whether the birth of my daughter might mean the death of my wife. My wife summoned tremendous strength and courage that night to face that pain and uncertainty, but there was no going back.

I, like many, will never have the privilege of giving birth; but as we all live in the midst of a changing world that we don't always like and rarely understand, we are invited to see the truth-- that the Kingdom is coming and there's no one who can stop it.

  • While we don't like it when people stop going to church.
  • While we don't like it when people argue with us, challenge our beliefs, or try to change who we are or the way things are.
  • While we don't like it when our neighborhoods change. When people from other countries choose to move into a country we consider "ours," and then seem to choose not to assimilate into our culture but choose to speak their own language and worship their own gods.
  • While we don't like it when people choose drugs, attempting to escape pain or boredom. We worry that the young and adults who turn to drugs and face addiction, not growing up into maturity, but running from it.
  • While it seems as though the world has chosen the wrong path, and as a result of sin and bad decisions we feel pain.

But Paul does not present the new creation as though it were a matter of choice. Paul does not portray creation as a Roman father who makes a decision to choose or not choose a newborn child, but as an expectant mother, giving birth to the new creation whether she chooses to or not.

We are used to choice. But the choice between obedience and disobedience does not paint the picture of creation in Romans. Paul does not liken the pain creation suffers to a Roman father who faces a choice, but a "creation" who, like a pregnant mother, "waits in eager expectation" for the joy that is to come.

From this perspective Paul writes, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," that the Kingdom is coming--whether we choose it or not.

It is God who governs our existence, and it is hope and not disappointment that defines who we are as the people of God.

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time," and as we feel the pain of this childbirth what do we expect?

Out of sadness, regret, depression, disappointment, we may expect the worse and come to believe that our whole society is going to hell in a hand basket; but who are we but children of the God who made even the grave a womb of rebirth. While we encounter our world, we must not do so pessimistically; but while trusting that all pain and discomfort are like birth pains--all groans lead the way to new life.

We are resurrection people, and so we encounter our mistakes, not as lost opportunities, not as wrong turns that have led us off course, but as a part of an unavoidable process God is working in us and in the world.

We are resurrection people, and so we look out into the world, not as disappointed judges of the failings of society, but as the hopeful trusting people of the God whose plans will not be thwarted.

We are resurrection people who, like an expectant mother, know that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us, because we are a people with a reason to hope.

Let us pray. We give you thanks, O Holy God, for you are our reason to hope. Give us strength to put all our faith in you and give us eyes to see our world as you see it. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the light of the world, we pray. Amen.

 


[1] Mara Gay, "Mike Huckabee Rips Natalie Portman Over Out-Of-Wedlock Pregnancy," March 4, 2011 2:46 PM, AolNews.com

[2] Paul Veyne edu A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 9

 


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