The Love of the Laboring God


A sermon on Luke 2:1-20

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here).

Have you ever listened to a mother tell her birthing story? The story of what happened to her body and her heart when she gave birth? The story that invites you into her unique and powerful experience of being a gateway to new life?

If you have, then you know what a gift that story is. You get to hear about the way the mother’s courage met her fear; the way the trauma in her body shared space with her deep, determined love for her child. When a mother tells THIS story, the veil of propriety and public image gets pulled back and things get brutally, beautifully real.

Whether or not you have every been privileged to hear a mother tell her birth story, can we all agree that it's not likely to sound like this:

“And (I) gave birth to (my) firstborn son.” (Luke 2:7a).

No details. No emotion. Just: it happened.

While I love the story that we read every Christmas Eve, I have to admit: this part irks me a bit… the way it just glosses over the hours of labor, the straining and groaning, the reality of what giving birth means. I mean, for goodness sake, the description of the government census gets three verses and 40 words, and the actual birth of our Lord & Savior gets only 8 words! What?!

It’s not just the imbalance that bothers me. It’s that this lack of detail in the narrative can so easily lead us to sanitize the birth of Christ. To surround it with a gentle, golden halo and imagine it with Christmas card beauty and serenity. And when that is our image, it becomes remote from our own experiences, detached from the real life that God entered into through the birth of Jesus.

When we contemplate the birth of Christ, I think we NEED something more like the image described in a devotional I read this past week. It read:

“Mary gave birth – not some silent, magical, painless experience, but hours of contractions and labor and pain, ending with the arrival of her baby the way we all arrived on this earth – covered in blood and mucous, crying and cold as we experience the world for the first time.”[1]

The author goes on the write:

“I’m not saying that there wasn’t joy in this moment – in fact, there was huge, unimaginable joy. But this joy didn’t happen because things were quiet and calm and perfect. This joy happened in the midst of real, human experience – noise, chaos, brokenness.”

That is what we are celebrating tonight. The joy that comes in the middle of imperfect, painful reality. The GOD that comes in the middle of our real lives. This is how God shows God’s unimaginable love for us: by entering into ALL that it means to be human – and that includes the struggle, the effort, the pain… as well as the joy.

Now, the pain and labor of childbirth might be an unfamiliar, or even an uncomfortable, image for us to associate with God, but actually, that association can be found in the Hebrew scriptures. In the second section of the book of Isaiah, which was written to the people of Judah while they were in exile, the prophet offers the suffering people a message of hope, spoken directly from God. Through the prophet God proclaims:

“I’ve kept still for a very long time.

I’ve been silent and restrained myself.”

(But then God makes a new promise)

“Like a woman in labor I will moan;

I will pant, I will gasp.” (Isaiah 42:14).

God’s message to an suffering people, who feel abandoned in their struggle is to say: “I won’t be quiet and absent any longer. And the noise you will hear from me will be the groaning of a woman in labor. Because I am ready to do the hard and painful work of birthing new life for you.”

This is what God’s salvation looks like. God doesn’t wave a magic wand like a fairy God mother. God doesn’t stand at a distance. God climbs into the grittiness of real life to save us. God does the painful, messy work of giving birth to hope.

I was introduced to this scriptural image of God as a laboring woman in a chapter from the book Wearing God, by Episcopal priest Lauren Winner. In reflecting on the power of this image from Isaiah 42, Winner begins by noting that the description from Isaiah focuses on breath.

“Like a woman in labor I will moan; I will pant, I will gasp.”

God’s breath has been associated with the work of creation since Genesis chapter 2, when God breathes life into the first human being. Throughout scripture, God’s breath is power, and spirit, and life…

But have you ever imagined God panting?

It’s a little uncomfortable, right? To imagine God as a woman panting with the effort of giving birth. It seems like such a vulnerable posture, nothing like our images of the all-powerful Creator. But the moans and groans of a woman in labor are not signs of weakness, but rather of strength, of effort, of determination.

As Lauren Winner writes: “the groans of labor signal the woman’s active participation in the birthing process, a participation that does not fight the pain (fighting labor pain only makes the pain worse). Isaiah gives us this groaning woman as a picture of the sovereign God, the God who is in control of redemption: God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting. God chooses a participation that does not fight the pain, but that works from inside the pain.”[2]

Working inside the pain is an apt description of the story that starts on this night. God comes to earth through the pain and the effort of a young woman groaning and gasping to birth her child into the world. And the life that issues from her body is a real, human being…

a human who will cry for comfort as a baby,

and will smash his fingers when he is learning to use a hammer with his Dad,

and will feel the pangs of hunger when he wanders in the wilderness,

and will ache with sorrow when his dear friend dies,

and will know the deep cut of betrayal when those he is closest to turn on him, or run away in his hour of need,

and will know the fear, and the abandonment, and the wracking pain of death.

And through all of that, through all of that human frailty and suffering, Jesus will be working inside the pain, working for redemption, working to restore our broken human lives to the union with God for which we were made.

In Jesus, God is both the vulnerable, crying baby that is born this night, and ALSO the strong, panting, laboring woman who brings new life into a broken world through her effort and pain.

And that matters because it means that we are not alone in our pain. The birth of Jesus is God jumping, feet first, into the struggle of real life. It is God groaning along with us.

So, if you are in pain this night – if you are mourning, or anxious, or aching in body or spirit - God is with you in that pain. Your suffering not a sign that you are somehow outside God’s work in the world, because God’s work in the world looks like a laboring woman – leaning into the pain, giving every last ounce of effort to bring forth new life.

This gritty image of the nativity also matters because it invites us to be part of God’s life-giving work. The groans of a laboring mother help her in her labor, but they also call others to her aid. Mysterious as it is – the God of the Universe, the creator of all life has chosen to call us to share in this salvation work of birthing new life. A realistic image of the nativity, an image in which we can hear God groaning like a laboring woman, calls us to aid in the birth.

In this scene, the vulnerable baby and the panting teenage mother strain together in the labor, but they also rely on the help of others. They rely on the host who gave them a relatively private place for their labor and their rest. They rely on Joseph to assist in the birth, and to clean up after. They rely on the shepherds to bring a message of God’s will at work in this birth, to remind them that in addition to the immediacy of what has just happened, there is an even bigger miracle unfolding. The way that God chooses to bring the hope of new life into the world is through cooperative effort.

Which leaves us with a couple of questions:

First, what might God be laboring to bring forth this Christmas? What redemption, what new life is in the process of being born? Where do we see God panting and straining to bring hope to a hurting world?

And second, how can we aid in that delivery? How can we train our ears to hear God’s voice groaning to be heard about the noise of the world, calling us to take up our part in bringing Emmanuel – God with us – into the places of pain where he is most needed?

Jesus is born to us this night. Not just 2,000 years ago, but this night. Jesus is born in every moment where God enters the pain of human life and works inside the pain to bring forth life, to bring forth hope.

So whether you need that hope tonight, or whether you can help in the delivery, know that the Laboring God is calling to you, in love.

Thanks be the God

[1] “Joy and Incarnation”, by Rev. Miriman Samuelson-Roberts. Published by the OurBible app.

[2] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, New York: Harper One, 2015, p. 140.

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