Sunday, December 6, 2020
Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Psalm 19 & Romans 8:18-25
Rev. Troy  Hauser Brydon

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There is an island in the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India named Majuli. One hundred years ago the island had an area of around 340 square miles, but due to deforestation, it was reduced to almost one-third of that size – 136 square miles. The island is home to many animal species, but with their habitat disappearing, there were fewer animals to be found. Majuli Island is also home to over 160,000 people, so the continued loss of land would be devastating to the people as well.  In 1979 a young man named Jadav Payeng was on Majuli Island when he encountered a large number of snakes that had died from excessive heat after a flood had washed them onto a treeless sandbar. He decided on the spot to do something about this growing tragedy. There he planted twenty bamboo seedlings. This was the day he single-handedly began planting his own forest. Since that day, Payeng has been reclaiming the stripped land for forest. Over the past forty years, he has planted an area much larger than Central Park in New York City. As that forest has developed, the animals have started returning and the land is not eroding because of the floods. His forest is home to Bengal tigers, monkeys, rhinos, deer, and birds. A herd of elephants – over 100 strong – comes to his forest for several months every year, birthing at least 10 calves in the past few years. One man. Some seeds. Some time. The creation was groaning for healing, and in that far-flung corner of the world, all it took was one human interested in bringing healing. Things aren’t perfect in his forest. From time to time poachers show up and have to be run off. Others try to cut down his trees for economic gain. Still, this one human cared enough to respond to the groaning of the earth, and he has made a significant difference. There’s a 15-minute documentary called “Forest Man” on YouTube if you want to see what this man has done.  Today is not Earth Day. It’s the second Sunday of Advent, so you may be wondering why the story about creation care. I find that we focus a lot on what Jesus’ coming means for us as humans at this time of year because, well, it does mean everything. But Jesus didn’t just come for people. God’s plan has always been bigger than that. Advent is for the whole creation. Advent is cosmic. It is universal. It’s about you and me. But it’s also about everybody and everything.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” Psalm 19 declares. “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” I think most of us see the handiwork of God in the natural world around us. It’s why we stop to look at sunsets. It’s why our gaze is drawn heavenward with a spectacular full moon or at the flight of a bald eagle. There’s something within us that is in awe at the work of the Creator in the world around us. Yet, the creation is telling us more. It’s not just orderliness and beauty. Encoded into the very cosmos is even more. Not only are the heavens telling the glory of God, they are also suffering along with us under the weight of sin.  This is the bold claim of Paul in Romans 8. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Just like Jadav Payeng heard the groans of his island an India, so Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning as it waits for what God will do in Jesus Christ. The advent of Jesus is about us, but it is also about every square inch of everything. Every. Thing.  We’ve all experienced that brokenness, and this year has been especially filled with groaning. How long, O Lord, will we be apart? How long, O Lord, will we see communities under such stress? How long, O Lord, until school is normal and we can gather in person again. I join Paul here and claiming that these are part of the cosmos being weighed down by brokenness. “All these things are signs that the world as it is, though still God’s good creation, and pregnant with his power and glory, is not at present the way it should be” is how N. T. Wright puts it.  I love the image of the creation being pregnant and in labor, particularly at this time of year when we imagine young Mary, heavy with child, preparing to give birth in a town far from home. In my mind, there is such an idyllic picture of what this looks like, shaped by years of gentle Christmas hymns and images of quiet animals. Yet, I don’t really think that’s what pregnancy and labor are like. Since I am wholly unqualified to talk to you about what it’s like to give birth, I want to hand the next part of the sermon off to Pastor Kristine who has a far more personal understanding of what pregnancy, labor, and delivery are like. So, let me get out of the way and hand things off to her.  For me the pains of childbirth started well before the actual day of when I gave birth. Most women would agree. Advent is a season of waiting and waiting is hard. Matt and I had waited and waited for a positive pregnancy test. But it wasn’t happening. I remember my heart sinking when my doctor told us: “I think it’s time to start infertility treatments.” I had to face the real possibility that I may not be able to have a baby. Up until that point I had hope in the midst of waiting, but now I was just waiting without any hope. When I finally had a positive pregnancy test I didn’t let myself believe it. I wouldn’t let myself celebrate until we could get an appointment with an ultrasound technician who could confirm I was indeed pregnant. So, our wait continued.  When I heard Phoebe’s heartbeat for the first time I cried. And I couldn’t stop crying. I cried all the way to the car and the other couples in the waiting room looked at me with sympathy most likely thinking we’d just received bad news, but it was of course the opposite. And now we had to wait to meet our first baby. We decided not to find out Phoebe’s gender until she was born so the wait was even more heavy with anticipation. Those long 9 months were filled with excitement, but also fear. Many women in my family and friends of mine had had complications during pregnancy and birth so I was fearful that something could go wrong. Turned out I was one of those annoying women who felt amazing during pregnancy. My skin was glowing, I slept better. Even my seasonal allergies even went away. As the nine months drew to a close, however, I stopped feeling so amazing. And more than ever I was tired of waiting.  In the midst of waiting, we had taken birthing classes and I had read the classic book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” All I had read and learned, however, went out the window the moment I went into labor. Luckily the medical world has learned more about what’s helpful to “ease” the pain. Moms to be now have the option to walk around or sit on an exercise ball. Women now have the option to soak in a warm bath or stand in the shower as warm water can help ease the pain. The hospital where I gave birth to Phoebe had a private soaking room where the lights were low and candles were lit while you soaked in a private bath. For about 20 minutes I thought: “Well this isn’t so bad.” There comes a point, however, where nothing helps and you have no choice but to literally sit in the pain. It was a pain like none other. It felt like my body was raging war against itself. I remember saying through tears: “Is it supposed to hurt this bad?” I feel so bad that Mary had to ride a donkey while pregnant.   I was one of those who wanted to give birth naturally, so I chose to not have an epidural. It wasn’t long before I very much regretted that decision. When I finally begged for an epidural it was too late although to make me feel better the nurses kept saying: “Just be patient it’s coming.” However, “it” meant the baby not an epidural. When push came to shove (no pun intended) I felt like I was being ripped in half. To be honest I did have the thought: “This better be worth it.” Apparently, there’s a hormone that makes a woman forget the pains of childbirth. While that’s true what also helps is when you hear the cry of your baby for the first time. But when I heard the cry of both my babies for the first time there was a huge wave of relief that swept over me both mentally and physically. When you hold, actually when you see your baby for the first time, all of that pain, both emotionally and physically we experience during pregnancy and childbirth was worth it. And I am all the better for it. In fact, I appreciate my body so much more after I’ve experienced what it can do during pregnancy and childbirth. No matter how a woman gives birth whether it’s a C-section or otherwise all moms have scars from the birthing process. But they are scars we need to wear proudly and embrace wholeheartedly especially when we see our babies laugh. No matter how old those babies may be. There isn’t a Mom out there who regrets the waiting or the pain. I know I don’t.  I know better than to act as though I know much of anything about labor and birth, so I’m grateful that Kristine was willing to share her story with us today. Paul – no surprise – is more presumptuous than I am. He makes a theological connection between labor and what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Friends, we are a part of that cosmically huge project. “The whole creation is in labor, longing for God’s new world to be born. The church is called to share that pain and that hope. The church is not to be apart from the pain of the world; it is to be in prayer at precisely the place where the world is in pain. That is part of our calling, our high but strange role within God’s purposes for new creation.” 2020 has been a year where we all have felt the brokenness of the creation. I wonder, however, what have we felt God is doing in us? What is being born in us that takes that brokenness and becomes a part of the redeeming of it? That’s the hope God has placed within us. That’s the kind of hope that leads one man to plant a forest to bring healing. That’s the kind of hope being born in us even now. As we, along with the creation, groan in labor, we can have the confidence that what God is doing – even in the difficulty and pain – is for ultimate good. I want to invite you to stick around for the entire service today. The final song we’re going to sing is a new one for us, but when we sing it, I invite you to pray the lyrics. It’s a song about making room in our hearts and our lives for the work of God. When we make room, we become hospitable to God’s redeeming activity. It blesses us, but it also will change the world. Is there room in your heart? Make room in your heart.