In case you don’t know, I’m doing a field education placement this summer and interning at a church. I gave this sermon at Spruce Pine United Methodist Church on July 31, 2o16.
The sermon text is Isaiah 66:5-14.
Hear the word of the Lord,
you who tremble at his word:
Your own people who hate you
and reject you for my name’s sake
have said, “Let the Lord be glorified,
so that we may see your joy”;
but it is they who shall be put to shame.
Listen, an uproar from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
dealing retribution to his enemies!
Before she was in labor
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her—
that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.
For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants,
and his indignation is against his enemies.
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”
I just want to begin by saying that I recognize that using maternal imagery for God might be uncomfortable for you, but feminine imagery for God is in fact deeply biblical. God is neither male nor female, yet God is described as both father and mother in Scripture. I think we tend to talk more about God as Father, and I want to discuss this less common depiction of God as mother because I believe it has something valuable to teach us about the character of God.
And I want to note that I do not necessarily think that mothering is restricted by gender or by biological relationship. As a friend of mine once told me, “sometimes we all need to mother, and sometimes we all need mothering.”
If we talk about a mother as being the parent who is nurturing and tender, we reinforce gendered stereotypes and ignore that fathers are also nurturing and tender. If we talk about mothers as only women who have given birth to children, we ignore the men and women who have lovingly cared for people with whom they have no biological relation. A mother is someone who holds hands, and wipes away tears, and offers hugs. A mother listens without judgment and loves unconditionally. I have been mothered by many women and men who are not my biological family – who have taken me in and brought me into their household, who have fed me and cared for me, loved me and encouraged me and supported me.
This passage from Isaiah pictures God as a loving mother – nursing her infant, cradling and carrying and comforting her child. Using familial relations for God is always complicated. Describing God as Father or Mother can be difficult for people who don’t have the best of relationships with their parents. If your own father or mother was absent or disengaged, harsh or demanding, cruel or judgmental, or flawed in one of the million other ways that all human beings are flawed – it can be hard to picture God as father or mother without connecting the damaging aspects of our parent’s character with God’s character. This is the danger of metaphor: whenever we describe God as like something else – father, mother, king, shepherd, prince – we all have our own conceptions and ideas of that particular object. And some of those conceptions may be negative, and harmful, and contain characteristics that we would not want to attribute to God.
Anything that we associate with a particular image that is not good, not just, not loving – that is a result of the sin and brokenness of humanity, and those flaws should not be transferred to God. Perhaps our relationship with our mother or father was not perfect – but we cannot apply those damaging and hurtful attributes to God.
This is the beauty of the Bible, however – we are given a multitude of metaphors for God. Scripture describes God as father, king, shepherd – these, we are probably familiar with. But Scripture also describes God as gardener, laboring woman, rock, bread, wine, clothing, sweetness, tree, lion, bear, and mother hen, among other images. We are given this variety of images because no one image can ever fully contain and express God’s character.
God is divine; we are human; and any human description will inevitably fall short of encompassing God. Our language and our understanding does not allow us to fully understand the enormity of God. God is limitless; we are limited. But God gives us these many images so that we can look at them and come to a deeper understanding of who God is. Hopefully, by putting together the metaphors – learning to understand God as both the almighty and all-powerful ruler and also as the small and weak mother chicken – we can begin to glimpse the fullness of God.
That’s my disclaimer about gender and metaphor. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments, please feel free to direct them to Jeremy.
A little historical background – and this is, admittedly, the boring part of the sermon. The book of Isaiah is divided into three sections by most scholars. Our passage is taken from the section referred to as Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66. Third Isaiah is often dated to the post-exilic period of Israel’s life. The biblical tradition tells us that the people of Israel were attacked by Babylon and deported from their land. For 70 years, Israel was a country in exile. The people eventually returned to the land and expected the glorious homecoming that had been depicted in earlier portions of Isaiah and other prophetic books.
However, their return was not as triumphant as they had hoped, as Israel was still under the rule of another government. The people were now faced with the challenge of rebuilding and reshaping the community after the exile and in the face of many hardships. Many of the passages in Third Isaiah are interpreted by contemporary readers as eschatological – referring to the end times and the remaking of the heavens and the earth at Christ’s return. However, for the people of Israel, these passages reflect an immediate hope and expectation that God would show up, that God was at work among the people, and that God’s promised restoration would soon appear. We can attend to these passages as promises for the future, but we also need to remember that God’s kingdom is not just far in the future, but that God is always presently at work among God’s people.
Let me read again part of today’s text. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her – that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
This passage jumps back and forth between describing first the city of Jerusalem and then God as the one who is providing for the people. Jerusalem, also called Zion, is depicted as a mother nursing her child and then later, the prophet describes God using this maternal image: “Thus says the Lord…as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” The prophet is here identifying Jerusalem with God, and does this in other places throughout the book of Isaiah as well. This is God’s holy city, and so God is providing for God’s children through and alongside the city of Jerusalem. And this maternal language gives us an image of a God who is incredibly near to her children.
It’s hard to think of an image that brings up as much intimacy and care and tenderness as a nursing mother. This is God, coming close to us, becoming exposed and vulnerable to provide sustenance. A nursing mother is literally giving of herself to provide for her child. She gives up her time, her comfort, her agenda to feed her child – and she does it out of love, out of care, out of a desire to see her child grow and be healthy. This is a God who is willing to sacrifice for us, a God who promises to provide for us.
And not only provide for us, but bless us far beyond simple provision. In our translation, verse 11 reads “that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.” The word translated here as ‘glorious’ is perhaps more accurately translated as ‘abundant’ or ‘full-laden.’
God promises that we will drink deeply, with delight, from God’s abundance. God declares that God will extend prosperity like a river; the wealth of the nations will come to Jerusalem like an overflowing stream. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice. Isaiah paints a picture of generosity – God’s blessings like a river, a stream flooding its banks and nourishing the land. Your bodies shall flourish like the grass.
What more does a mother want than for her child to flourish? To thrive? To have all the good in the world? This is how God loves us – not out of obligation or with a love that is shallow and false; but God loves us like a mother. God loves us like a woman loves a child that she has carried for nine months and given birth to out of her own womb. God loves us as God’s own flesh and blood.
And God comforts us as a mother. “You shall be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” It seems like lately, there has been an overwhelming amount of pain and heartbreak and hurt in the world. The hate and anger and violence surrounding us leaves me longing to just be held for a minute.
And here we have this image of a God who cradles us in her arms, as a mother does her child. A God who embraces us, who pulls us close, and wraps us in her own body to offer security and shelter and comfort. A God who, like a mother, rejoices with her children in their joy, and mourns with her children in their pain. When a child falls and scrapes their knee, their first instinct often is to run to mama, who will kiss it better and wipe away tears, who will feel their child’s pain as if in their own body. This is how God loves us.
This is our God – a God who feeds and nourishes, a God who desires the best for us, a God who draws near and comforts us in our pain. A God who loves us more deeply and fully than we can ever truly comprehend. We do not have a God who is far-off and distant. We do not have a God who is unfeeling and cold. We have a God who is incredibly close and intimately caring. We are God’s children, and we are cherished, cradled, and caressed.
But God does not only mourn with her children and offer comfort as a response to pain. The previous verses in this passage describe God as the one who delivers a child into this world. “Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God.” This is not the only instance of God being described as a midwife. In Psalm 22, the psalmist declares that “it was you who took me from the womb.” A midwife’s role is to bring new life into the world. A midwife must be ready at any hour, and must be willing to be present for as long as the labor takes. A midwife is working and striving to bring something new into being.
Walter Brueggemann writes that the birth language present in these verses signifies the “radical and abrupt newness that will be caused only by the power of Yahweh.” And this birth imagery is in contrast with language of barrenness. Throughout the Old Testament, we see barrenness associated with hopelessness, and we see a God who brings children to Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah. Isaiah 54 tells the barren one to burst into song and shout, because God is bringing children and hope. God is overcoming the hopelessness of Israel with new life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again of water and the Spirit. In Second Corinthians, Paul writes that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.
God makes new. This is what God does.
God’s act of creation did not end after the seven days documented in Genesis. God is always at work, renewing and re-creating. The image of former things and new things is found throughout Isaiah. Isaiah 43:18-19 reads, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 65:17 promises that “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” In Isaiah 42, God is actually described as a woman in childbirth – crying out, gasping and panting to bring new life into being. The Bible is full of promises of hope, and restoration, and healing, and re-creation. Our God is in the business of new life.
In the midst of pain and sorrow, I need this reminder that God is at work. God laments alongside me, and God comforts me – and God is also at work. Sometimes I feel helpless, hopeless – sometimes the world seems far too broken.
But God is still creating. God is still making new. God is still working. Just like a midwife, God is constantly at work in the process of creation. God is bringing renewal – to hearts and minds and bodies, day by day by day. And God will not cease this labor.
“Shall I open the womb and not deliver? Shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?”
I am deeply encouraged by these images of God. God who is near, who is comforting, who is nourishing. God who is working, striving, to bring about new life. This passage in Isaiah can be read as referring only to the new heavens and the new earth, at the end of time. But as we ask, every week, in the Lord’s prayer – may your kingdom come; your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.
And I believe that God is at work on earth, remaking the earth to better reflect God’s heavenly kingdom. God is at work with the devotion of a mother and the dedication of a midwife.
And if we are made in the image of God, what does this mean for us? What does this imply for our lives, our actions?
We are to be like God. We are to be the hands and feet of God in the world. We should be mothers. Just as God is not gendered, just as mothering is not necessarily tied to gender or biology – all people of Christ, who are living into their calling to reflect the image and heart of God to the world around us – we should mother as God mothers.
We should mourn with those around us when they are mourning. We should rejoice with the joys of others. We should draw near to all who feel lost, alone, hurt. We should comfort those who are in pain. We should nourish those who are hungry – not only spiritually, but physically as well. We should desire that those around us flourish and thrive. We have the opportunity and the responsibility and the privilege of caring for God’s children with love and tenderness.
And we should be midwives. We should be working ceaselessly to bring about new life. We should constantly be striving to bring reconciliation to broken relationships. We should be laboring to recreate broken and unequal systems that cause harm and damage. We should be seeking to be made new ourselves, every day, in the image of God.
Remember that God is near. Remember that God loves, and comforts, and cherishes. And remember that God is at work, making all things new. Rest in this truth. And then go out, to work alongside God, to love, and comfort, and cherish, and make new.