Secure in the Palm of God's Hand

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Anybody tired here today? I’m tired. Anybody discouraged? Anybody been praying a long time and waiting for God to do something? Anybody ever wonder if God is really listening? If God really cares? Today’s scripture is for you. In recent weeks at Peace, we have been hearing some challenging words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about being salt and light, about managing anger and making peace with one another, about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and so forth. In ten days, we will enter the Season of Lent, with an Ash Wednesday service, which calls us to recognize our own mortality and to walk with Jesus in making sacrifices, in resisting temptation. So today’s text is a friendly respite from the hard work we’ve been doing and will do in self-examination in the coming week.

Today our reading today in the middle of what’s called 2nd Isaiah, that is chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, a message of comfort to discouraged and worn down people. These are words written to exiles, people who were forced from their homes to live in a foreign land. It has now been two generations long – this exile. Can you imagine how discouraged you’d be if you had been forced to move to Mexico, or even further away, where you must adopt all the ways of the people there, not live as you were accustomed. Can you imagine your discouragement if your adult children did not even know what your homeland was like because they had never lived there. They had lost hope in life ever improving, but into such despair, comes these words of newness and hope. God has not forgotten you. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Yes, sometimes a mother may forget her nursing child, but God will never, ever forget you. Let us now hear what the Spirit is saying to her church:

NRS Isaiah 49:8 Thus 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; 9 saying 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; 10 they 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. 11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12 Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. 13 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. 14 But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." 15 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. 16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;

Dr. Gardner Taylor, often called the dean of preaching in America, taught at both Harvard and Yale Divinity schools. When Taylor was a young preacher in Louisiana during the Depression, electricity was a relatively new thing in poorer parts of the country. He was preaching in a rural, African American church that had just one light bulb hanging from the ceiling to illumine the whole sanctuary. While preaching, that bulb went out. The building went suddenly dark. Taylor was at a loss for words, stumbling around in the front of the church until one of the elderly deacons said, “Preach on, brother. We can still see the Lord in the dark.”

Sometimes that's the only time we can truly see God — is in the dark. Because in the light, we busy ourselves and forget to look for God. And the good news of the gospel is that whether we can see him in the dark or not, God can see us in the dark. (Timothy George's sermon "Unseen Footprints,") God uses times of darkness to lead us to the light. God promises us that the suffering of this present time is not to be compared with the glory which will one day be revealed to us.

This middle section of Isaiah (2nd Isaiah) uses more feminine imagery for God than any other part of the Bible. One of the more significant references is the one in our text today, which likens God to a nursing mother. Every time I reached the last trimester of pregnancy (and that was often in a the late 80's to mid 90's) I’d start dreaming the same dream. My infant died because I forgot to feed her or him. Fortunately God put this built in timer for feeding babies. The buzzer sounds like this – whaah, whaah, whaah. So I never did forget to feed them. But I did forget them a few times after they started going to preschool and beyond. You see, I’m not very good at clock-watching, and I am easily absorbed in whatever I’m doing, so there were a few times when my poor children waited for their father or for me. Everybody else had left and there they stood. Ouch, the parental guilt of being the last parent to pick up. That’s why our children were not the last among their friends to get cell phones. It was not to call their friends, you see, it was for the purpose of calling their parents. “Mom, Dad, where are you?”

That’s how Israel felt toward God. God, where are you? Are you leaving us at the school house of Babylon’s hard knocks forever? We’ve called your name. We’ve waited. Where are you? They say to one another, “The Lord has forgotten me.” The young soldier in Afghanistan for a second term feeling like little progress has been made and the nation no longer focused on that conflict, says, “The Lord has forgotten me.” The cancer patient, who was wishing for a better prognosis says, “The Lord has forgotten me.” The chronically depressed person, slips into the pit again, saying “The Lord has forgotten me.” The financially unstable person loses another job, after just a few months, and says, “God, have you forgotten me?” The one who has prayed hard over a failing marriage or a broken relationship with a son or daughter or an addiction, to no avail, says, “Lord, when will you remember me?” The grieving spouse, like our friend Glenn, wondering how life will go on, “Lord, where are you in this darkness?”

Scripture says, even though a mother may forget her nursing child, even though she may have no compassion on the child of her womb, yet God will never forget you. You are God’s covenant people. You are the promise for the whole world, people of God, people who can witness to God’s saving work. You are not forgotten. God is more faithful than the most devoted mother you know. God will come and lift you into her arms and carry you to safety, and will nourish you with good things, and will be your salvation.

Sometimes we just don’t see what God is doing. We don’t have the big picture. The great missionary explorer, David Livingstone, served in Africa from 1840 until his death in 1873. On one occasion, he came face-to-face with a tribal chief who insisted that they make an exchange of property in order for Livingstone to pass through his land. Of all the things he had, Livingstone valued his goat the most because the untreated water in Africa upset his stomach and the goat provided milk. To his dismay the chief took his goat and in exchange gave him a walking stick. Livingstone was most disappointed. He began to gripe to God about the stupid walking cane. What could it do for him compared to the goat that kept him well? But then he learned something amazing: It was not a walking cane. It was the king's very own scepter, and with it he could gain entrance into every village in that country." Sometimes, in our disappointment over what we don't have, we fail to appreciate the significance of what God has given us. (John Beukema, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; source: Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro, The Culture Shift)

Other times we don’t realize that what we most need is not removal from a situation but we need the experience of God in the situation. We are like the child who pleads with his or her parents to get up out of the bed at bedtime, saying. “I’m scared. I’m thirsty. I’m hot.” But the parents say, “You must stay there. You need to be where you are. Rest.” But after much pleading, the mother comes in to speak to the anxious child. The child may not leave the dark room, but the child may just be comforted by the presence of a loving parent. Now a rebellious child will kick and scream and be dissatisfied with staying in the room. A rebellious child will run out of the room, insisting on his or her own way.

But a secure child will be comforted by an embrace and a prayer. “Sleep will come. Morning will come. You do not need to get up and play right now. You need to be right where you are trusting that I know what is best for you, my child. You are not forgotten. I am right here, and you are written on the palm of my hand. Trust in me, and do not be afraid.” There is no better security than being in the palm of a loving, providing, comforting God.

As we pray today, I invite you to close your eyes, and visualize yourself sitting in the palm of God’s very large and strong hand. Or nestled in the arms of a soft and nurturing God, who will take care of your every need. Breathe in the security of the knowledge that in God’s hands, you will have everything you truly need. Thank you, God, that we belong to you, and that we can trust you to provide what we need, that you welcome us home, whether we deserve to be there or not. That your love can sustain us through our darkest nights. Fill us with courage and will reassurance that in the palm of your hand and fed by you, we will be secure, no matter what. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.