Isaiah 65:17-25; Romans 8:18-25
Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church,
© Andy Campbell, 09/03/06
Tomorrow is Labor Day. That one day a year we all celebrate how hard we work by, well, not working. In pulpits all over the country today, pastors are preaching on how we can labor for God, or how our labor is not in vain, or other related topics. I want to talk about a different labor day. Allow me to share some excerpts from the diary of a woman named Anastasia Brien, writing about her pregnancy:
Starting to think about the birth a lot these days. I’ve progressed beyond an obsession with my changing body and am beginning to read a lot about the reality of D-day (or rather B-day). Friends who have had children tell me that no matter what I expect to happen, I’ll definitely be surprised by the reality of the experience so I shouldn’t make too many plans or have expectations that the birth will go a certain way. This is a very difficult concept to apply to the already abstract idea of the childbirth experience. How else can I prepare mentally for it without creating a set of very specific expectations? How can I read about the different ‘methods’ and not choose those that I think will suit me? What is a birth plan if it’s not, well, a birth plan? Is the answer really to simply ‘let go’ and see what happens? Does-not-compute. . . .
Suddenly I’m obsessed with packing my hospital bag. You’d think this would be a ten-minute distraction, especially for someone who has travelled as much as I have, someone who can pack for two weeks in Thailand in five minutes flat. But the hospital bag is a completely different animal. Once again, information overload means that I have no less than six separate lists, either gathered from my NCT class, ripped out of magazines or distributed by the hospital itself. . . .
Not only do I have to bring the essential stuff, I’ve also done tons of research and embarked on an alternative medicine rampage purchasing every single thing that I have read about, or imagined might help me get through labour without drugs. . . . So, I’ve stocked up on a homeopathic labour kit. It includes remedies for intense fear . . . irrationality, negativity, inability to cope, etc.
I’ve told Nick he has to familiarise himself with the instruction sheet and shove the little tablets under my tongue as I display the varying waves of mania as described in the leaflet. I’ve also tapped into aromatherapy and stocked up on the birthing essentials. Apparently clary sage brings on contractions and acts as a painkiller, while lavender relaxes the muscles and makes it easier to push. I’m armed with my smelly candles and rose-scented face spray. I’ve got vitamin C for healing. There’s Bach’s Rescue Remedy for, I suppose, more fear . . .
Then there’s the food and energy section. I’ve got glucose tablets in case I cannot eat. Peppermints in case I’m nauseous. Lucozade in case I’m dehydrated. And every flavour of energy/granola bar that exists in case I have uncontrollable carbohydrate cravings.
This bag is heavy. I know I’ll probably use about one-tenth of the stuff in there, but the tiny element of control that gathering and packing it has given me is probably worth it. It’ll be interesting to see if any of it actually works. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I’m off for a cup of raspberry leaf tea: tones the uterus, tastes like [Scotch tape].
Just as Anastasia began to become bit obsessed with preparing for the last days of her pregnancy, the subject of the Earth’s last days has been of significant interest over the last decade. Perhaps sparked by Y2K anxieties and fueled by the events of 9/11, the American public has taken to open speculation about when, and how, our planet and our species will meet its demise. Adding to this fervor, or perhaps as a result of it, has been the Left Behind series of books which have consistently topped the New York Times Fiction Bestsellers list since the year 2000.
Just this past Wednesday night, ABC’s 20/20 aired a special entitled “Last Days” which looked at seven doomsday scenarios, both natural and man-made. All of this focus on how, exactly, “The End” will come, can be quite depressing. Christians all across the country eagerly search the scriptures for keys to interpreting the “End Times”. The desire to understand, and focus upon, the details of the nature of those events is a grim one.
It is grim because it misses the point. Those event will happen, to be sure, but they in no way signify a final “End”. Though scripture does give us some evidence of what those days will be like, we often miss the context. The last line of the movie Millennium puts it well: “It is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. It is the end of the beginning.”
To talk about those days as the “End” is to ascribe to them a false sense of finality. That is what the television show did. It was looking at possible ways that humanity might end. No more Earth, no more humans. Is that Biblical, though? A quick look back at Genesis chapter 1 can answer that question.
When God created the Heavens and the Earth and all that is on the Earth, He created it to be eternal. That includes humans. We were created for eternity. It was willful disobedience that led to death and decay. But as we know from Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, death has been conquered. We are, however, in an in-between time of sorts. Stuck living in a time where the world is still governed by the consequences of the Fall, but knowing that those consequences are ultimately limited in scope because of Christ’s victory over death and decay.
In that sense, there is going to be an end. But not an end to life, an end to death. The death of Death. But in our vernacular, the “End Times” or “Last Days” don’t spark the kind of hope and optimism that perhaps they should. This is because we have bought into the notion that the end to which those days herald is the end of our species.
Paul, understood it correctly, though. Writing to the Romans, he described those days as what? The pain of a man in the final throes of death? No! He described them as “the pains of childbirth”. Both a dying man and a laboring woman experience pain, but the events that the pain lead up to are opposite. To focus on the pain alone would be to miss the point.
I saw this when April gave birth to both of our daughters. The pain that she went through was intense. Thinking about it brought about times of anxiety during her pregnancy. However, that anxiety was vastly outweighed by the joy that we anticipated once the labor pains were gone and she’d given birth to our daughters.
We both read up on what labor was going to be like. We talked to those who’d had babies to try and get an idea of what the pain would be like. We were curious and we wanted to be prepared. But we kept it in perspective. It wasn’t about the pain, it was about the baby. In that same passage in Romans, Paul continues with the analogy saying that it is this “hope for what we do not yet have” that causes us to “wait eagerly”, not nervously.
What is it that we do not yet have? The prophet Isaiah gave us a glimpse in our first reading today. He tells of “new heavens and a new earth” on which “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard . . . no more”. He says there will be houses and vineyards and that our work will no longer be in vain. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox . . . they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”. That is what is coming after the pangs of labor, not extinction or even a lasting desolation.
That is cause for hope, not despair. There is a labor day coming, a day when the pain will be fierce. However that is not the end, that is beginning of our hope being fulfilled. Is it then wrong for us to be curious about that labor day, to want to know what it will be like? No more so than the curiosity surrounding the pain that accompanies childbearing. But such curiosity should be coupled with the hope of what is to come immediately after that pain!
In fact, Paul goes on to say that it is by that hope we are saved. What a statement! Now, some of you may be thinking, “I thought we were saved by grace through faith”. You are right. Paul says as much in Ephesians 2:8. But hope is the key ingredient in faith. The writer of Hebrews defines faith as being the assurance of what we hope for.
If we are saved by faith, and faith is grounded in hope, what are we hoping? We hope for the very thing that God originally intended when He created us: that we will live eternally on the Earth He created us for, in peace and harmony, with an unrestricted and open relationship with Him. This is our hope, but not yet our reality. That is why it requires faith. It requires faith that what the Scriptures tell us are true.
It requires that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we believe that God has triumphed over the death and decay that we brought upon His creation. That He accomplished that through becoming human and living the life that we couldn’t live. In His perfection He died the death that we should die. In His resurrection He granted the new life we are to live. And that, above all, He extends that life as a free gift, a gift of grace. That is what we hope.
Our faith is that what we hope for is more than a dream, it is a future reality. Paul said that you can’t hope in something you already have. Faith and hope will no longer be needed after those “Last Days” The hope will be fulfilled as reality. But like childbirth, the hoped for reality comes with a painful price.
There will be a labor day. There will be a time when the pain of this world intensifies to a seemingly unbearable state. But, and this is what I want to drive home, that day is not the end of our stories, of our lives. It is the birth of what we now hope for.
It is a major transition, to be sure. It is the end of some things, but the beginning of others. Jesus called it the “End of the Age”. Implied in that is the beginning of another Age. When Jesus spoke to his disciples about that time he emphasized the suddenness of those events. In parables about virgin bridesmaids, gifted stewards, and sheep and goats, Jesus makes it clear that on that day those who have been expecting that day will be the ones who will be rewarded.
Again, it is like childbirth. When the pregnancy is almost over, the expectant couple packs an overnight bag for the hospital, makes sure the gas tank stays full, lays out clothes to jump into before going to bed, all so that when the suddenness of labor comes, they are prepared. We also need to be prepared for that labor day.
How? First, our hearts need to be prepared. We need to share in the hope that God is going to make what we’ve made wrong, right again. We confess that in some way, small or large, we’ve had a hand in perpetuating that wrongness. We humbly ask forgiveness for that and allow God to take control of our thoughts and actions from that point onward.
Next, we build faith upon that hope. What we say and what we do, in all circumstances, is influenced by the hope that we have. Since we know that God will put things right, we work to try and make them like they will be. We do God’s will on Earth, as it is in Heaven. We share that hope with others in what we say about our beliefs and we show them by the way we treat them.
Finally, we invite others to share in that hope and build that faith with us. We tell them that the “End” that is forecasted in the doomsday scenarios is not the end they think it is. We share with them what God’s plan was from the beginning, that we were made from the Earth to live on the Earth for eternity, and how humans compromised that plan, but how God has redeemed that plan and set things back on course.
If we do these things, then the Master will catch us doing good on that day. We will be prepared and not caught unawares. We will know what to expect on the other side of the labor pains. Remember Anastasia? She had her baby, a little boy. She was as prepared as she could be, and when her labor day came things still went vastly different than she’d expected. But reflecting upon the experience she wrote: “It is all worth it, without a shadow of a doubt. When I look down at the rosy cheeks of my gorgeous, chubby, greedy son, I marvel at his perfection and forget all about my painful ordeal.” So it will be with us.
 These diary entries are available on the Internet at http://www.ivillage.co.uk/pregnancyandbaby/pregnancy/archive/0,,166200,00.html.