(This is a reprise of my 2012 Advent series – enjoy!)
I didn’t really know much about labour and childbirth when I first went to visit my friend who’d just given birth. We were in the car park outside an NHS hospital, the sun was shining and the windows of the hospital were open. As I strolled towards the door, carrying flowers for the new Mum, I heard a cow mooing very loudly. I stopped, a little puzzled. There were no fields around, and the only other sound was the cars from the busy road.
The sound came again. A deep, powerful, almost comic sound, like when you squeeze an accordion and it runs out of air.
“I guess we’re outside the labour ward,” Jon said.
“No!” I replied, “No way is that a woman making that sound?”
We both stopped and listened again to adjudicate on the origin of the sound. Regrettably, there were no cows to be seen. From the context, it must have been a woman in labour.
But it was the most unhuman sound I had ever heard a human make. I couldn’t quite fathom the depth of pain that someone must be feeling to utter that noise. I walked a little more quickly to the hospital and tried to concentrate on the fluffy teddies and cute babies I was about to see.
We don’t often think of Mary in labour when we consider the nativity, do we? I have never yet seen a child’s nativity play, even the ones with real donkeys and hay that has Mary saying, ‘Aaaargh! Make it stop!”
Groans preceded Christ’s coming. He was born in pain into a world of pain. And as we wait, groans precede His second coming.
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 to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:22-26 NIV)
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
This world is creaking. There is so much that is good and beautiful in this world that it is sometimes possible to tune it out. But I hear of women attacked in Afghanistan, children bombed in Gaza, and earthquakes and hurricanes that destroy all in their path, and I can no longer drown out that deep and hoarse sound. The whole creation – people, animals, earth, air – is groaning with the pain of imperfection. The world is not as it should be, nor as it will be. In the meantime, it groans.
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Does being a Christian make you immune from the pain of the world? Does it act as an epidural somehow? The Bible says no – we groan all the more, waiting eagerly for it to be over when Christ returns. We groan inwardly. We yearn for heaven. We hope for what we do not yet have.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
And where is God in this painful world? God is the doctor, yes, and the medicine – but God is also groaning along with us. When we look around and we don’t know the words to pray because it is all just too much – God the Spirit is groaning with us, interceding for us.
And this is the hope of Christmas: the reminder of Immanuel, God with us. Immanuel, God the Father, who heard the groans of His people in exile; Immanuel, God the Son, born into our pain; Immanuel, God the Spirit groaning with us as we wait.
Advent means ‘coming’. For ages I really didn’t understand Advent. Then a few years ago, a preacher explained that traditionally Advent preaching would focus not on the incarnation but on the return of Jesus; not on his first coming but his second coming. It was meant to be a penitential season, a time to pause and reflect.
I want to reflect that double perspective in these four weeks before Christmas – simultaneously meditating on Christ’s first coming and second coming.
Over to you:
- When are the times that you find yourself groaning? To what extent does it help to know that God is groaning too?