Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at Holy Trinity, Dickinson. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. I am so honored to be with you this morning – thank you so much for having me – it is really great to be with you.
I’d like to begin this morning by acknowledging something that we all really know, but don’t like to admit. Faith is hard. Staking our lives on the faithfulness of God is really, really hard. You see, there’s an enemy – an enemy that lurks like a lion and is always on the prowl. And that enemy isn’t science. Or consumerism. Or the media. Or “the culture.” No, the greatest threat to our faith is despondency. Despondency is what happens when the brokenness of life breaks us – it’s what happens when we lose hope. And knowing that faith is hard, and that it’s often threatened by this lurking enemy of hopelessness, we need to address this question: When we feel despondent, what assurance do we have that God loves us, that He’s with us, that – as Revelation puts it – He’s at work “making all things new?” What is our assurance as Christians?
You see this is the question the people of Israel are asking in today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah, and in the first five verses, it’s God that does all the talking. He’s responding to the people’s fear and to their real sense of loss that comes with being exiled. You see Israel’s temple had just been destroyed and that temple was their assurance – their assurance that God loved them, that God was with them, and that God would never forsake them. And when the Babylonians demolished their temple, they demolished their assurance. So in the first five verses, God tries to comfort them. “The prisoners,” He says, “are going to be set free one day. The people in darkness will come into the light. My kingdom will be established and people from all over the world will flock to be a part of it.” And in verse 13 God really takes it up a notch. “What I’m about to do,” God says, “is so amazing – so amazing – that even the mountains will break forth into song!” But the people of Israel are too despondent to care and they interrupt God. “The Lord has forsaken me,” they say, “My Lord has forgotten me!” But here’s what they’re really saying. “You say you love us, that everything’s going to work out fine. But we feel forgotten, and for all we know it’s just a bunch of talk. How can we be so sure?”
Now, before we look at God’s response we need to pause. At some point in our life we’ve felt like this. We’ve all had those moments – and if we haven’t yet we will – when the brokenness of life threatens to break us. We get divorced. The prognosis is bad. Someone we love dies. We get depressed. We lose our job. We lose our hair. We lose our confidence. We see the failings within and the pain without. We turn on the news – nothing but war, earthquakes and crooked politicians. We all have those moments, and it’s those moments that make faith hard! Yes, we know the promises of God, but we want assurance! “God says He loves us – that everything’s going to work out fine. But we feel forgotten, and for all we know it’s just a bunch of talk. How can we be so sure?”
Well, God begins answering our question by asking one of His own. “Can a woman forget her nursing child?” Now, this won’t shock anyone but I don’t know a whole lot about nursing a child. But what I do know is that no image more tender can be found. You see in all human relationships a certain level of give and take is required – a friendship, a marriage, a business partner – both parties have to give and take. That’s just how our relationships work, they’re conditional – that is, of course, except for one; the relationship of a nursing mother to her child. This relationship is unconditional – the mother gives everything! But not only that, it’s a relationship where the mother’s physical and emotional comfort is tied to her ability to nurse. Now, I did some research, and I now know about prolactins. When a mother nurses her child, her body releases chemicals that fill her with an overwhelming sense of delight and contentment, and if a mother should forget, or stop nursing, her own body’s going to start to hurt. In other words, both emotionally speaking and physically speaking – it is impossible for a nursing mother to forget her child. What God wants Israel to know – and what God wants us to know – is that His love for us is like that – unconditional. It’s a relationship where God gives everything, where God feels an overwhelming sense of delight and contentment when He can feed us, and where God feels incredible pain when He can’t. As a 17th century Puritan by the name of Matthew Henry put it, “God’s compassions to his people infinitely exceed those of the tenderest parents towards their children.”
Now, I’m not sure if you noticed or not but I still haven’t answered the question. As moving as this image is, at the end of the day, it’s still just an image – more talk – and our God is a God of action. Well, in the final verse, what God says is astounding – “I’ve inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Now, in Isaiah’s day a master would sometimes tattoo his own name of the palms of his servant but never would a master tattoo the name of his servant on his own palms. For one, it would be beneath him, a master would never lower himself in the sight of his servant like that. But second, it would hurt. The English may say inscribe but the Hebrew says engrave. In Hebrew the word literally means to “cut into something with a hammer or a chisel.” Imagine a spike being methodically driven into someone’s hands. Now, think about this. Engraving someone’s name on your palms isn’t just painful, it’s permanent. Laser scar removal technology wasn’t around in Isaiah’s day. If you engraved someone’s name on your palms, that name would be there forever.
Well, centuries after Isaiah was written there was this guy named Thomas, and Thomas was despondent. Thomas had lost his best friend and he had lost his hope. “My Lord has forsaken me,” he said, “My God has forgotten me.” Of course, Thomas’ friends were all saying “he is risen, he is risen, he is risen!” but Thomas was too despondent to care. He felt forgotten, and for all he knew it was just a bunch of talk – how could he be so sure? Well, Jesus appeared to Thomas and what Jesus did next was so significant. He showed him his palms – palms that have been cut into with a hammer and a chisel, palms that recently had been driven into with spikes, palms that had been engraved. “Thomas!” he said, “Here is your assurance. I will never leave you or forsake you. Your name is engraved on my palms.”
What makes Christianity unique isn’t our belief that in the face of human despondency God speaks a grace-filled word – it’s our belief that in the person of Jesus Christ, that Word became flesh, was nailed to a cross, and embraced all the world’s despondency both with us and for us. Our God is not a God of talk! He’s a God of action. Yes, we’re going to have those moments – those moments that threaten to break us. But, our assurance lies in the knowledge that on the cross our Master was broken for us, and that He was broken in a way that allows us to be made new.
“Faith,” says the author of Hebrews “is the assurance of things hoped for.” What, exactly, is that nature of that assurance? It’s that our names are permanently engraved on the palms of God; it’s that it would be more likely for a nursing mother to forget her child than for God to forget about us; it’s that on the cross God gave everything! Let the heavens sing, and the mountains break forth into song. For the Lord has comforted his people.