Staunton Mennonite Church
8Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 10they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.
13Sing 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. 14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” 15Can 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. 16See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
I remember very clearly the day that Sonya and I got engaged. We were students at Ohio State in September of 2002 and I had been planning this day for some time. I had purchased an engagement ring, dropped it off at the restaurant and made plans with the manager as to when to bring it out. We had tickets to a play, and we were going to arrive in style. I had rented a limo for a couple of hours. But while I was spending the big bucks, I realized I was still on a college student’s budget. And you pay for limos by the hour. So I wasn’t about to pay for the limo to sit outside of the theater for two and a half hours while we watched the play.
So being one that plans ahead, I decided I would drive my old pickup truck to downtown Columbus and park it in a garage. That way the limo could drop us off at the play and I wouldn’t have to pay for him to sit around and wait, we could drive my truck back home. A good plan, right?
I did everything I needed to do to set up the evening. Then I drove the truck to the parking garage and waited at a bus stop, looking for a particular bus that would take me back to campus. But I had never ridden the city buses in Columbus before. I didn’t have a clue what bus to get on or how often they came around. So I went to the nearest bus stop, looked at the map to discern what bus to take, and I waited. I waited and I waited. But that bus didn’t come. So I panicked. I still needed to shower and change before the limo arrived to take us out. So I got on the next bus that was coming close to campus and rode it…and got off early. I was dropped about 2 miles away from my home. Good thing I was wearing running shoes, because that was my only option.
I had run approximately half of a mile when things went from bad to worse. I was running across an intersection where a blue car was waiting at a red light. The driver of the car was intending on turning to the right, so he was looking to his left at the oncoming traffic. And as I was running in front of his car, he saw a chance to make a right on red, and he took it. Of course he wasn’t just easing into traffic; he gunned it, stomped on the accelerator. I was directly in front of his car.
Thankfully I had better reflexes back then and I was a bit more agile. I jumped and rolled onto the hood of his car, rolled over backwards, and I was able to get right back up on my feet. The driver pulled off to the side of the road and ask, “Are you alright?” I yelled back, “I’m okay, but I need to keep going!”
So here I am, running late, hit by a car, and now I had another 1.5 miles to run with a bit of a limp. Someone would later ask me, “Why didn’t you ask him for a ride?” I guess he probably did owe me that much, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I needed to keep running.
I didn’t set any records running the rest of the way home, but it wasn’t uneventful either. Someone actually threw a half-filled fountain drink at me as they drove by. So now I was late, injured, and sticky. And you can imagine that I was also a bit ticked off by this point. But I got home, showered, put on the suit I had borrowed from my cousin, picked up my flowers, and walked over to Sonya’s house where the limo was to pick us up.
That date didn’t start out too good, now did it? Some might have thought maybe I should reconsider the whole thing; maybe God didn’t want me to propose that evening. Why would God allow me to get hit by a car after getting lost on the city bus when God knew I was trying to be somewhere at a certain time? Did God not want me to marry Sonya? Or was God punishing me because of sin in my life? Those of us that put our trust in God are quick to question him when things don’t go the way we want them to. But trusting in God doesn’t relieve us of all of our responsibilities. I could have looked up the bus routes and schedules before I left home that day and saved myself a lot of trouble. So maybe I shouldn’t blame God for every bad thing that happens to me. Maybe I need to take some of the responsibility myself. And maybe I need to spend more time thanking God for the good times as well. Because even though that day started poorly, it ended pretty well.
Today I would like to look at Isaiah 49:8-16 and hopefully we can see that even when things don’t go as we would like them to, God still loves us. And putting our trust in God doesn’t relieve us of our responsibilities as human beings and followers of Jesus Christ.
Our scripture for today comes from Isaiah 49. And if we back up a few chapters to chapter 40, we find that the book of Isaiah takes a bit of a turn. In the first 39 books the prophet Isaiah is condemning Israel, warning them of the coming exile period. Then, in chapter 40 the message turns to one of comfort. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” The exile is over and the people will be permitted to return home. And that is the context for our scripture today.
So we jump to chapter 49 and we find that God is promising his chosen people, Israel, that he will provide the way for them to return to Jerusalem. They shall be fed along the way, they will not hunger or thirst (v. 10). The weather will cooperate, and the mountainous terrain will be easy for them to cross (v. 11). God will comfort his people.
But the people hear this oracle from the Lord through the prophet Isaiah and they say, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” They don’t doubt God’s power, or God’s strength, or God’s existence. They remember all that God has done for them in the past, the Exodus out of Egypt, the giving of manna, the giving of the Promised Land. But they think that God has forgotten them and turned his back upon them. They fear God is like a child that gets a new toy and forgets about the old ones. They fear that God has moved on.
But the Israelites have nothing to fear. God asks the question, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” Now I have never had the opportunity to nurse a child, nor do I ever expect to have that experience. But from what I hear, it is an extreme bonding experience. To feed your own flesh and blood from your own body develops a deep connection between mother and child. To carry around a child for nine months and to birth that child is also an extreme bonding experience.
And I love that God compares himself here to a mother and Israel as his child. This helps us to remember that God is not just some old man that sits up in heaven and watches over his children, waiting to punish them. God transcends male/female gender differences. God is not a man, God is not a woman. God is something superior to men and women. God is God, father and mother of us all. I am just a man, women are just women. But God is more than we are.
So God compares himself to a mother and says that a mother cannot forget the children she has bore and nursed. But even if a mother could forget her children, God cannot and will not forget his children. God has inscribed us on the palms of his hands.
The Israelites would have become familiar with this practice of inscribing names on the palms of their hands during the exile in Babylon. The Babylonians would often tattoo the names of the god that they worshiped on their hands as a constant reminder of their god. And the young Babylonian men would often tattoo the names of their loved ones on their hands as well as a constant reminder of their dedication to that person.
I recently started playing softball with the team from Stuarts Draft. It is Mike Sharp and I from this church, and the rest of the guys I have only met a time or two. So I don’t really know them at all. There is one guy on the team that has stuck out to me because he has a large tattoo on the back of his left hand. You can’t miss it.
When you have something on your hand, it is out there for all of the world to see. You can’t cover it up with long sleeves. Everyone can see it and you see it every time you look at your hands.
When God says that he has his loved ones names’ inscribed on his hand, he isn’t saying that he worships us like the Babylonians worshiped their gods. When God says that he has his loved ones names’ inscribed on his hand, he is saying that it is there to remind him of his dedication to his people. He cannot cover it up. It is there for everyone to see, and God sees it every time he looks at his own hands. It is out there, and we must remember that God does not forget us. Like a mother remembers her children, like a person with a name tattooed on their hand, God cannot forget his beloved people.
Now the thing that I don’t like about the stories of the Babylonian Exile is that they can lead the reader to say, “God punishes those who don’t do his will.” I’m not saying that God doesn’t punish people for not doing his will, but sometimes people assume that every bad thing that comes along is God’s punishment for something. It is like assuming God was punishing me when I got hit by the car and had to run home injured, sticky, and already late for one of the biggest days of my life.
On May 3rd, the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma, was devastated by a cyclone that killed over 130,000 people. But not only did this cyclone kill that number of people, it also left 1 million homeless and wiped out large areas that at one time were used to grow rice for food. It is estimated that many more will die from malnutrition, disease, lack of shelter, or life threatening injury (Wikipedia).
Then on May 12, an earthquake caused major devastation in China. Over 55,000 people have been confirmed dead, while another 25,000 are still missing (http://www.cnn.com). Thousands of children have been left orphaned. And in a country where parents are only permitted to have one child, thousands of parents have been left childless.
So let me ask you the same question that the disciples ask Jesus in John chapter 9. Who sinned for this to happen? Who sinned and caused the devastation in Myanmar and China? Who is responsible for the death of around 200,000 people, the destruction of homes, disease, malnutrition, and lack of shelter? Jesus answered his disciples by saying, “Neither”. These people have not been hurt because God is punishing them for sin. But God’s love can been revealed through our response.
We can look at these situations and look at Isaiah 49 and say, “Is the name of the Burmese and the Chinese not written on God’s hand? Has he forgotten them?” But God doesn’t forget his children. Like a mother, God will always love and cherish those to whom he has given life. God has promised again and again that he will not leave nor forsake us.
So if God remembers all of these people in spite of all of the tragedies we have seen, then why has God sat back and done nothing? Either God doesn’t care or God isn’t all powerful! That is what so many people are saying. My mother wouldn’t let me starve to death or die of a disease if she had any say in it. And neither would God.
God has not forgotten those people. Instead, God has equipped his people to bring hope and healing to the Burmese and Chinese, as well as to people all around the world and in our own neighborhood. Many Christians don’t have any problem believing that God chooses to work through people to spread the Gospel. We don’t have a problem thinking that the message of salvation from sins will only be spread through human beings going into the far corners of the earth telling others about the good news. Why would we have more difficulty believing that God expects his people to go into the far corners of the world to bring relief efforts as well?
God has not forgotten the people of this world. We have forgotten the people of this world. Our self-centered culture tells us that it is okay to feel bad about those who have had their lives turned upside down, but we don’t have to do anything about it. Our self-centered culture tells us that it must be someone else’s job to care for these poor people. Our self-centered culture tells us it is okay to complain about high gas prices and how we have to cancel our travel plans because we can’t afford to drive while others have nothing to call their own. So why do we so readily accept that Jesus has put us in charge of spreading the news of salvation from sin, but not believe that he has left us in charge of taking care of God’s other beloved children when disasters strike?
In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus tells us, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
God loves God’s children with a love greater than a bond between a mother and a child. God has our names inscribed on his hand. We are his children, and He is our God. God has chosen humans to be the deliverers of the good news, deliverers of the Gospel. And a part of that Gospel is for God’s people to help those who can’t help themselves.
The day that I got engaged to Sonya didn’t start out too good. I was hit by a car. If I would have said, “God must not want me to marry her” or “God must be punishing me” I would have been reading something into the situation that wasn’t there. Bad things happen, they aren’t always caused by God. We are missing the point when we over analyze everything that happens in our lives and fail to see what God is calling us to do in response. So while we can clearly see that things are much worse for the people of Myanmar and China than getting hit by a car, we do even more damage by sitting back and accusing them of sinning and claiming that this is punishment from God. How we respond to these tragedies can make a difference. When I got hit by that car I got right back up and continued to run. Now it is our brothers and sisters in Asia that have been hit, and hit hard. Are we going to sit back and feel bad for them or are we going to help them get back to their feet? Are we going to claim that this is the wrath of God? Or are we going to be the hands and feet of God and respond with our prayers, our checkbooks, and our labor? Mennonite Central Committee is planning to send $100,000 for relief in China and $500,000 for relief in Myanmar. But this will only scratch the surface. How are we being called to show God’s love to these people in a time of need? God has promised that he will not forget his people. May we not forget God’s people either.