There’s a very short comedy sketch that’s stuck in my memory. Hugh Laurie plays a very posh man interviewed on the street: “NHS?! Don’t talk to me about the NHS! My wife and I had our baby on the NHS. We had to wait 9 months for it!”
We live in times when we are so grateful for the NHS, overstretched though it is, and also times when we have such great expectations of next day delivery.
Advent speaks of waiting and hoping as we wait. It is shaped by the story of a pregnancy and a birth – long expected but ultimately delivered. But it also shapes our hope in in the midst of the brokenness, frustration and wondering what is to come that we experience in the long-haul of life now. Paul, in Romans 8:18-30, picks up that picture of childbirth as he calls us to hope.
Indeed, we may say that just as the Spirit planted the seed of Christ in Mary to emerge as the hope for the world, so the Spirit plants the seed of hope in us that we may live as those pregnant with the hope of Christ in our world. Reading that passage in Romans 8 this advent leads me to reflect on three things that such hope from the Spirit gives us.
A greater perspective on what will be delivered
“I consider present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed.”(Romans 8:18)
My knowledge of the pain of childbirth is, obviously, second hand, but I think I can safely say two things. One – carrying and giving birth to a child is universally painful and often frustrating. And two – all that pain and suffering is put in perspective when at the end emerges the infinitely greater wonder of new life.
The story of creation is not one of hopeless suffering that only ends in death. The story of this world is of suffering through which God will ultimately bring about life - life far beyond what we could possibly imagine.
Genesis chapter 3 (a passage which often begins traditional services of Nine Lessons and Carols) contains God’s words of judgement on a world that has turned from him. One consequence is that childbirth will be painful for Eve and women (Genesis 3:16 – and no doubt Mary, too). This reflects more widely that life will be painful and frustrating for all humans.
And yet in judgement is great hope. For God promises through Eve the seed who will crush all evil (Genesis 3:15). All creation, says Paul, is in labour pains, but groaning with the eager expectation of true life to come. None of this minimises the awful and painful reality of suffering now, but is to maximise our hope of what will be delivered.
So we look at our broken world now. Who knows what natural disaster, or conflict, or disease, or climate change will bring? Yet our Spirit-given hope is our resistance to the fatalism of a world that thinks that God does not care or even exist, and that these events, or even we humans, determine the ultimate outcome of life and creation.
God is working his purposes out and this present suffering, like the groaning of childbirth, will culminate in something for all in Christ and for the whole of his creation so marvellous, so beyond our imagination that we’ll be like the mother holding her new-born saying, “I consider that my sufferings are not worth comparing with this glory that has been revealed.”
A yearning for what should be but isn’t
Paul talks not just about the whole of creation groaning, but also about those who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groaning inwardly (v23).
Partly we groan because we suffer like the rest of creation. It is no different for Christians, whatever some might say. But it’s more than that. Our experience of the Spirit, in whatever way, actually gives us a little foretaste of something more.
Like me, those who have lost their taste with Covid will perhaps, as they recover, have experienced flashes of it returning among the nothingness or that metallic sensation that food and drink had brought. As Christians – those with the Spirit – we are like those who hold those beautiful foretastes of what’s to come alongside the blandness and bitterness of other parts of life. It’s the truth that you only know how ‘off’ something is if you know how good it should taste. It’s only Spirit-given hope of how things should be that gives us a true sense that this is not how they should be.
So we wait patiently (v25) with the perspective that this suffering does not compare to the glory. But we also groan when we take seriously the gap between the way the world is and the kingdom of God to come. We yearn for what should be but isn’t. And such yearning hope should bring discomfort to the comfortable and cause us to act in the world from that Spirit-given hope.
So we might say that climate change will not end God’s world, but we also act in hope to make a difference as God’s children and stewards of what he has made. Amongst many other things, we can give to this year’s PCI World Development Appeal: Weathering the storm.
We might say that there will be poverty until God makes things new, but we act in hope following the One who calls us to open our hand to the needy. And how acute such need feels at Christmas.
We might recognise that there will always be disease and the virus is beyond our control and only under God’s; and yet we yearn and do our part to make things better.
Above all we say to people: stop living as though God does not exist and receive the truth of Jesus - the light shining in the darkness - and the hope that we can have as God’s children. Christmas offers many opportunities to share that hope.
A reassurance of what has already been guaranteed for us
In Romans 8:30, Paul sets out a beautiful chain of God’s activity in our lives. Along with everything else, the glory to be revealed in us (v18) is here set in the past tense. Our future is captured in the past tense because God who promises and is faithful has assuredly guaranteed it for us in Jesus.
God will complete what he has begun. And so we know that in all things He works for the ultimate good of those who love him (v28). God is not absent in the waiting and suffering but very present, mysteriously working out his purposes. The great sign of that is the incarnation – the birth of Jesus, God with us.
So year upon year, and once again, we stoke our future hope for the new birth of the whole of creation, even in the midst of present suffering, by looking back to the most glorious birth in history.
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth.
May hope, like a child within, form and grow within us. May we give time and space to nurture it this Advent. May God help us to wait patiently, eagerly and actively, enlarged with hope in Christ. Hope that he has guaranteed in his life. Hope that he has planted in us by his Spirit. Hope that one day will be fully delivered.
Hope at Christmas is this year’s PCI Christmas theme intended to help us celebrate the coming of Jesus among us as our Saviour.
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