Lisa Hackney-James: A Long Labor

And Jesus said, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

I wonder, have you ever been present in the room with a pregnant woman who was bringing a child into the world? Or, perhaps, have you yourself been the woman laboring to bring a new life to birth? For those who have not experienced a childbirth firsthand, it might be helpful to dwell for just a moment on Jesus’ choice of metaphor as he foretells the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness. For while each labor and delivery is unique, there are some predictable patterns and rhythms to this most human of dramas.

First, there is the announcement that labor is underway. Whether it’s a twinge that’s just a bit sharper than the aches and pains of late pregnancy, or a dramatic rush of waters breaking, there comes a moment that announces, “The time has come!” Then follows a period of increasing intensity - an increasing certainty that, in fact, something is underway - someone is on the way.

Despite its portrayals in movies, there is nothing predictable or remotely linear about this process. For each mother it is different. And even with each child that a particular mother brings into the world, their labor is different: sometimes breathtakingly fast - a mere few hours - sometimes a process that seems to start and stop, that stretches over days. In this sort of a labor, the mother, in pain and often exhausted, will eventually ask, even cry out, “When will this baby be born!?” and the truthful answer is that no one knows when - only that this baby will come whenever they and their mother’s body are ready.

In this longer, slower sort of labor, the most difficult moments can come when, after hours of managing painful contractions of increasing strength and duration, a mother’s attendant checks her progress and announces, “Still about where you were the last time we checked!” This can be the most heartbreaking of moments. Deflation and exhaustion rise up - and then anxiety, frustration, and even despair creep into a room once abuzz with excitement and anticipation.

For it seems that we human beings can endure many things - even great pain - if we believe that it is a pain that is productive - a pain that is moving us forward, towards something lifegiving. When a mother hears that all the arduous work of the past several hours has seemingly been for nothing, her confidence can be shaken. And then the pain feels all the more acute and exhausting.

This is often the moment in a labor when a mother’s birth attendant will encourage her by reminding her that her baby is on the way - reminding her that once labor has begun, there is an inexorable process set into motion that, while seemingly stalled for the moment, is nevertheless still at work in her body. Still at work in a process that will bring into the world this new life. She needs only to hold on, to endure, and to set her sights on welcoming the new life that is on the way.

I’m not sure how many births Jesus will have attended, but his choice of “the beginning of the birthpangs” suggests that he knew at least a little bit about the challenges of enduring in hope - through a painful time of trial over which one has little control, and in which so much feels on the line.

Knowing what lies ahead for his burgeoning group of followers, Jesus tells his disciples that tough times lie ahead for them; there will be suffering, pain and even death as they follow in the path that he has set for them.

Even the greatest of structures - yes, even the glorious temple in front of you, he says - are all eventually passing away. “And,” Jesus tells them, “your job in the midst of the world’s pain and suffering is to hold on, and to prepare to meet the new life that is on the way.” And he tells us that when we hear that we have a ways to go yet - when the labor seems stalled - we are to endure and rest in confidence knowing that whatever is falling away in our world, it is the sort of pain that is leading to something. For just as with a laboring woman, once the birthpangs of God’s Kingdom have begun, there is only one way this ends - in the fullness of God’s reign coming to birth.

Here in the final months of 2021, we find ourselves in the midst of remarkably painful times. For a second year now, we feel the contractions of a global pandemic with many of the world’s nations undergoing alarming events of flood and fire, famine, wars, and social unrest. Closer to home, we feel the painful contractions of our own country’s polarization, a reckoning around race, and rumors of political insurrection. We are living through times in which it seems that many of the structures we have known - have marveled at - are coming undone. And even the most non-anxious among us might wonder, “Is the world ending?”

And so, Jesus’ apocalyptic words from Mark’s Gospel fall on our ears today in a way that they simply would not have the last time that they came up in our lectionary cycle. In nearly every aspect of our lives - home, work, school, and social settings - we find ourselves in profound discomfort, called on to construct new worlds - new ways of being together - that leave us feeling at least a little bit disoriented, frustrated, and longing for a past world which, while not perfect, was a world in which we knew the patterns, knew for the most part how we fit in, and in which we believed we knew at least the general shape of the future. Indeed, Jesus, things fall apart. And it’s not just the magnificent buildings that can be reduced to rubble.

Whether or not we have endured the experience of a hard labor, each one of us will have experienced different sorts of pain in this life. And for many of us, it seems that this can be more easily endured when we can see or sense that the pain is productive - when we can be assured that the challenge or suffering is a pain that is leading to something new, to something lifegiving.

Likewise, we can fall into despair when we sense - or fear - that the pain that we have experienced is ineffective, leading only to loss. Like that exhausted mother, we can become overwhelmed, angry, doubting ourselves, doubting God, asking, “When will this Kingdom come?!”

In this past year, we have been radically disrupted. No portion of our human family has been spared. And we wonder what sort of pain this might be. Is this difficult time, like the pain of a smashed finger, something to absorb, attend to, and get past? Or is this moment more like the pains of labor - challenging us deeply, but leading us on towards new life that God is ushering in through a redeemed creation?

In his announcement of the beginning of the birthpangs, Jesus points to the eventual fulfillment of God’s desire that all things and all people will be reconciled to God and to one another. When his disciples ask, “How long will this labor go on?” Jesus admits (as any sensible witness to a labor would) that even he does not know the timing of this fulfillment. It will happen when the ones who are giving and coming to birth are all ready.

And, as the best birth attendant often does, Jesus reminds us that the pain to come is a pain that is productive. He reminds us that someone or something is on the way. And he encourages us to live our lives awake and alert to this end, laboring in a holy anticipation, with a sense of confidence and hope.

At the beginning of this reflection, I asked you if you had ever been present for a childbirth. Well, of course that is a bit of a trick question, isn’t it? For if you are able to hear or read these words, you will by definition have been present for at least one childbirth - that is, your own! And while I have not yet heard anyone describe to me what it felt like for them to experience their own birth, it’s not too difficult to imagine that the experience would have gotten our attention - and not in an altogether reassuring way!

As the one being born, whatever our responses to the rumblings of those first birthpangs, we would have surely sensed that our world was changing, with each birthpang becoming less and less comfortable, until ultimately we were forced from our first home and known universe: our mother’s womb.

However we experienced our own birth, I believe it is safe to say that we could not have imagined what awaited us as we emerged into what was to become our new and gloriously expanded world.

In Jesus’ announcement of the birthpangs, I imagine that most of us instinctively move to identify with the laboring mother, imagining ourselves working along with God to bring something new to birth. But what if the life that is coming to new birth is us? What if Jesus is telling us that it is God the Father who is laboring to bring forth new life - laboring to bring a fulfilled creation to birth? In this understanding of his metaphor, it is we who are part of a new creation, coming to life through God’s long labor - an eventual culmination of God’s movement in and through human history.

In this understanding of Jesus’ announcement, we are experiencing birthpangs, but from the other side of God’s womb, then we are the ones being born into an expanded world beyond our current capacity to envision. However he means us to understand our role in this cosmic birth drama, Jesus is most definitely announcing that the labor has begun! And that something wonderful is on the way. When will this Kingdom be born? we ask. And the honest answer is that no one can say - not even Jesus.

But through every upheaval and suffering, we are to draw encouragement from Jesus’ assurance that God is at work in and through us - drawing us all onward, inexorably, toward the only way this can end - in the abundance of life that is the full realization of God’s dream.

Through the birthpangs, we are to hear Jesus’ encouraging word to us - his church - to hang on, to live together in the faith, watching and waiting, and laboring along with the One whose love has been the first home we have known in this life, and whose Kingdom is our ultimate destination.

Let us pray.

O God of abundant life, in these difficult times, help us to remember that you are ever with us, drawing us onward toward a fulfillment of your creation that is beyond our imaging. And whether we are laboring along with you, or are the ones coming to birth, we ask that you sustain us by the power of your Holy Spirit and through your son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope and our salvation. Amen.