“They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.” 
Today, instead of a psalm we read Hannah’s prayer, her song of praise. Hannah, like many women in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, has been barren for most of her life and God’s miracle is to grant her a child. It is what she wants most, but seems to be the most impossible outcome.
Birth is an important theme throughout Scripture. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, gives birth to Isaac after years of being barren and her descendants are to be “as many as the stars”. Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was distraught at not having a child, and after time and prayer she gives birth to Jacob and Esau. Zorah’s wife was barren for most of her life, and the Lord appears to her and tells her she will conceive. She then gives birth to Samson—the great judge of Israel. We hear about Hannah’s answered prayer for a child today—Samuel. Then, in the New Testament, Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, was said to be barren but ends up giving birth to John the Baptist who prepares the way for Jesus, the Christ, son of Mary who “had not known a man”. Throughout scripture, God shows Godself by answering prayers to give new life when it seems impossible and some of the most magnificent songs of praise come from these women who have given birth.
But it is not Christmas yet and our gospel passage stops us at a different point in the process of new life. Our gospel text points toward the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. This passage comes as a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. We’ve just left the teachings and parables from Jesus’ life and begin to look towards Jerusalem, that will be and is in ruins and the death that Jesus now turns towards. And Jesus teaches this is “but the beginning of the birth pangs”.
Ironically, Jesus makes this prediction of destruction around 30 AD and by the time the writers of Mark’s gospel are writing, around 70 AD, they are in the thick of the destruction—some of Jesus’ predictions have already come true. The event happening for Mark’s community is the Jewish Revolt when Roman armies moved in to take Jerusalem. The Jews in the region did a good job, for a few battles, to hold off the Romans for some time but, after Roman reinforcements came, this revolt leads not only to the loss of their sacred city Jerusalem and most of the temple regarded as the most beautiful structure in the world, but, also, the death of tens of thousands of their people. It is regarded as one of the most catastrophic times in Jewish history. In our gospel Jesus tells his disciples this is not the end—although people in the time Mark was written may have wished it were—but he says this is the beginning of birth pangs. If what is happening around them isn’t bad enough he goes on to say that in this…the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. What good news comes out of this? What good news can Mark write about when everything seems to be being destroyed?
In private, Jesus teaches his disciples that what is to come is a new kingdom— the kingdom of God. A new creation must come from this time—a city of justice, mercy, and love. They are to hope for what seems impossible.
In preparing for this sermon, I spoke with several women about what birth “pangs” are like. It is a lot of pain but each woman I spoke with moved quickly from the pain to the joy of giving birth, to the child with them. What comes after the pain they know is worth much much more than the pain that comes with it. Despite knowing this pain, some women give birth to multiple children. This pain is part of the process of new life. While it is not always easy to see this in the moment, Jesus preaches a deep wisdom. We cannot avoid pain to get to new life, we must go through it.
As is preached often in the Episcopal church, we do not believe God wills pain upon us. We do not believe God causes destruction or war—that is on us. That’s a human sin, part of our fallen nature and community. Birth pangs were a common analogy in Judaism at the time and according to Jewish myth, “pangs” in childbearing became worse after Adam and Eve left the garden. But what God reassures us of is that despite the pain, even through the pain, we look towards the new creation—the new kingdom of God.
As followers of Christ we are not immune to pain or destruction. I think at times we want that to be part of the deal, part of why we come here. In Isaiah we are told that those who know this desolation will know even more about the joys of birth: “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married, says the Lord.”
As Christians, we are called into this thin place where pain and new life intersect. And this is, I find, deeply challenging. We are not meant to dwell only in the birth pangs, we also can’t skip over them. But while the pain is present we have faith — faith in the yet-to-come, the new life that is promised. We put our trust in that. It is not a passive waiting, but we work towards, we push towards the new life with all of our self. And God meets us and moves with us through this all. Hannah in “deep distress” prayed to the Lord as she was weeping bitterly. She “poured out her soul to God”. All of the pain, hurt, sadness, doubt and fear she gave to God…and God heard this prayer. New life came from this. We do not have to hide from God what is difficult. We do not have to avoid the hardest parts of life, rather we turn them over to God. Hannah, an example of faithfulness even in her most difficult hour, is given a son, Samuel, who would become one of the most obedient examples to God we have in scripture—the great prophet who would anoint Israel’s first kings. From all of this her song becomes one of a joy she may never have imagined she would utter.
It can be difficult when things trend towards destruction or pain to lift that fear to God and to believe something waits for it.
Next week we celebrate Christ the King and then begin our four-week journey to the birth of Christ. It is difficult to feel the pain, to wait for the birth to come but we can’t skip over it. It is part of the new life—we, for now, can pour out our souls to God and expect, as our scripture shows us again and again, a prayer answered of new life where or when we thought it would never be possible. So, no matter where we find ourselves, let us join Hannah as she sings:
“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.”