January 13, 2013
Text: Isaiah 49:8-16
The Story, Ch. 16
If you are reading through The Story with us, this is the part you probably don’t know so well. It is easy to get bogged down with the unfamiliar names – and hard to see the big picture. What’s happening here?
It isn’t hard to see that God’s people continue to wander away from God and refuse to follow God’s commands. That part is pretty obvious throughout the Scriptures, isn’t it? And I suppose we need not look much further than our own lives to see that the tendency to wander away from God continues.
This part of the story of Scripture is about what happens when we’ve wandered so far away that we can’t find our way back. The prophet Isaiah – or deutero-Isaiah, second-Isaiah, as the author of Isaiah 49 is often called – is speaking to God’s people in exile, far from their homeland, under foreign rule and feeling hopeless. All that is pure and holy in their lives is destroyed. They feel abandoned and alone.
We’ve seen this before, of course. The book of Genesis ends with God’s people oppressed by a foreign ruler – the Egyptian pharaoh – and far from their promised homeland. Exodus describes their cries reaching God’s ears, and God delivering them from their enemies. That’s the dominant portrait of God in the Old Testament: a God who delivers, who saves, who frees.
So what about now? Will God deliver the people again? Especially when – this time around – it is their own stubbornness and sinfulness that led them to this place? They have no one to blame but themselves! What right do they have to cry out for God’s deliverance now?
Isn’t that just the worst place to be – caught in a misery and hopelessness of your own making?
Author Lauren Winner – I’ve referenced her before, some of you will remember – describes in her most recent book, Still, how she felt after a difficult divorce, for which she takes much of the responsibility. She speaks of feeling God’s absence, God’s silence – and of feeling responsible for that absence. It comes, she suggests, in three waves. First, “You understand that the most straightforward explanation of this, God’s absence, is that you have sinned” (Still, 16). This you can do something about; you can confess; you can promise to do better; you can scrutinize and explain away.
Then, she says, as time passes, you begin to think that it is not God who is absent at all, but you who are absent. You think you need to just rediscover yourself, and then you’ll find God. Still…you can do something. You can travel, you can volunteer, you can paint or write or meditate.
But then – after more time passes – you have a frightening realization: I cannot cajole God back. You can do all you wish to turn yourself around, but there is nothing you can do to convince or compel God to return. “God will return, or not, as the whims of God’s capricious grace direct” (Still, 20). And you are pretty sure, by now, that you have no compelling claim upon God’s grace.
The Israelites have reached that moment of realization. Isaiah the prophet tells them of the time of God’s favor, the day of salvation, and they respond only with: “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me” (49:14). They simply can’t believe it is true. Sure, God is a God who delivers, who saves. But not us, not this time. Will God really save us, even when the saving we need is from ourselves? Will God deliver us from our own failures? Surely not. God has forgotten us.
But the prophet answers: Can a nursing mother forget her hungry child? Can a mother ignore the baby she carried in her womb for nine long months.
Now, we know that a mother can. We know our human frailty. We know that mothers sometimes battle postpartum depression or mental illness or just plain poor parenting skills – and they do forget, or even harm, their children. But God? Not God. “Even if a mother could forget, yet I will not forget you,” the Lord says through the prophet (49:15).
And just in case – just to be sure – it continues, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16). God not only will not but even cannot – by divine nature – forget or abandon God’s people.
Do you see the image here? The text describes God as a tattooed mother! What an unexpected – and beautiful – image of God caring for God’s people. There is both a tenderness and a fierceness to God’s love – as tender as a nursing mother snuggling her infant and as fierce as a mother bear defending her cubs. We are – already, and always – nourished by God’s care and engraved on God’s hand.
Lauren Winner was right. We cannot cajole God back. But we do not have to, because despite our fears, God has not and will not leave. Lauren writes of one last wave of emotion that comes after you realize that you are solely “at the whim of God’s grace.” Maybe, she writes, “Maybe this silence, this absence is a gift. Maybe what began as punishment is being converted to gift…Maybe I am being shown something here…” (Still, 20).
What we are shown is that “our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up, precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.”
That’s the truth that Israel is shown through the prophet’s words. They are not forsaken or forgotten. God cares for them as a mother, and they are written into God’s very self.
What happens, then, when God’s people grasp the truth of that reality? The prophet is pretty clear about that too: They are called to share it with others. Isaiah 49:8 says, “I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people…”
Now pause a minute and think of how often we heard ‘covenant’ language as we read through the Old Testament these past months. Covenant is a powerful expression of the relationship between God and God’s people. And for the people of Israel, the covenant was bound to the Temple and the promised land. But the temple has been destroyed and the land is occupied by a foreign army. How can the prophet speak of covenant now, in exile?
The answer is that the people themselves become the sign of God’s covenant with the world. The forgiven, restored people of God become the sign, the proof, of God’s love.
That is our calling as a God’s people – to receive God’s love and share it with others. The prophet suggests some ways we can do that:
- By caring for the land – creation-care (49:8)
- By saying to the prisoner “come out” – out of addiction, out of despair, out of fear (49:9)
- By saying to those in darkness, “Show yourselves” – confronting sin, expecting truth from one another, offering forgiveness for failures brought into the light (49:9)
- By feeding the hungry and providing water for the thirsty (49:10)
- By comforting people who are suffering and comforting those who are grieving (49:10, 13b)
- By proclaiming the good news that God’s peace extends to all nations, far and near, north, south, east and west (49:11-13a)
Those aren’t just abstract concepts. We live them out when we…
- create and tend to gardens (the memorial garden, the community garden)
- host life-giving recovery ministries like AA and NA
- share life together in covenant groups, where we can speak truth to one another
- support local food pantries, 8th Avenue Place, and the Helping Hands fund
- visit the sick, send a card or make a phone call to a grieving friend
- share the ways we have experienced God – and invite others to worship, to Sunday School
We are given as a covenant to the people; God empowers us to share God’s love with others, and to join in God’s work of bringing hope and salvation to the world. In the words of the hymn writer:
With promised mercy will God still
The covenant recall…
That we might worship without fear
And offer lives of praise…
My child, as prophet of the Lord,
You will prepare the way…
Please stand and sing those words, Blest Be the God of Israel, #209…
 See Terence Fretheim’s commentary at Working Preacher for more on maternal imagery for God in Isaiah. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/25/2008&tab=1
 (David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 1/6/13, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=654)