Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Isaiah 49:15,16 (read this after introduction)

Never forgotten

It happens to all of us at some time – it happens when you go back to a congregation where you once worshipped, or to a school or family reunion, or just walking through the shopping mall and suddenly you meet someone from the past. The face is familiar; the person may be a bit older now or has gained or lost weight but the face is so familiar. You ask yourself, "Where have I known that person before? What is his/her name?" The person clearly knows who you are but the person’s name just doesn’t come to mind.

Time and distance have erased the memory of the details of that person. The link with that person had been broken, not because of any kind of any nastiness, but simply because we have moved on. Our lives have taken different directions; we became occupied with other things and new more recent memories now fill the relationship spots in our minds. It might be a while later even in the middle of the night that we have a "I remember" moment.

At the time we feel bad about not remembering the person’s name but in reality there is nothing to feel bad about. It’s a fact of life. Memories fade. We forget.

Forgetting isn’t just about past relationships. Who hasn’t searched the house for the car keys because you have forgotten where you put them last? Who of us has forgotten an appointment, or maybe a birthday or anniversary? That’s why take to writing things down on stick-it notes, in diaries and on the back of our hand.

Against this background I now turn to the Word from God that we heard from Isaiah. It’s a strong statement of love and devotion from God to his people. 

The people of Jerusalem said, "The Lord has abandoned us! He has forgotten us." So the Lord answers, "Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.  Jerusalem, I can never forget you! I have written your name on the palms of my hands.  "Those who will rebuild you are coming soon, and those who destroyed you will leave".

The nation of Israel had been brought from Egypt, out of slavery, through some excruciatingly difficult years in the Sinai desert, and into Palestine. God had provided for their safe escape from slavery and had guided them through the wilderness and his presence was never-ending even if they were constantly complaining about something. When they arrived in the Promised Land each family group was given a place they could call home. When enemies attacked God led them to victory. It became a secure home, a safe space given to them by God. 

But things changed. Memories faded.
They forgot how God had loved and cared for them in the past.
They forgot how much God's forgiveness for all their past sins had been incredibly generous.
They forgot who it was who gave them this land and the freedom that went with it which was in sharp contrast to their former life as slaves in a foreign country.
They forgot that all they had was far more than they deserved.
They forgot how to be gracious to one another and ignored those in their own community who needed extra care and help.

What a shock it was when God used the Babylonian king and his army to give them a good shake. The Babylonians burnt the villages, destroyed Jerusalem and took the people into captivity into a faraway land. As you might expect the jolt was enormous but it did the trick.

Suddenly the people felt like a boy who has been dumped by his girlfriend. Everything had been going so well, or so he thought. When he heard her say, "I don't think we should see each other anymore" he is shocked. What had he done wrong? Why is she saying this? Our relationship has come to an end. The future is very gray. We had such dreams but there is nothing to look forward to anymore.

And so the people concluded that God had wiped his hands of them. Forget about any hope for the future. We let God down and now he has put us right out of his mind. We had it all in the land of Israel but now we are back where we started – slaves and foreigners in a strange land. God had well and truly forgotten us.

But had he really forgotten them? To these people with heavy hearts and sagging spirits come these amazing words from God – "I will never forget you".

There are lots of images in the Bible that try to grasp the nature of God and what he is like. The Old Testament people belonged largely to an agricultural society, they drew on images of shepherd and sheep, of wine and vineyard, of field and fruit.  They also drew on their intimacy with the natural environment.
In the roll of thunder and the terror of earthquakes, they envisaged the anger of God;
and in the gentle fall of cooling rain, or the soft whisper of an evening breeze, or the relationship of a husband and wife they pictured God’s mercy and love. 
They described God's power and strength as a rock, a fortress, a mountain, an eagle or a lion.

In our reading today God uses an image of a mother to help his people understand how he feels about them. It is true, in our world there is estrangement between mothers and their children. That’s not the kind of relationship that God is talking about here. Even when thousands of kilometres separate a mother from her children or when a child is lost in death, there are few mothers who can erase the picture of their child from their memory. This is the child she carried inside her, gave birth to, nursed, carried on her hip, applied the Band-Aids to sore fingers and knees. Forget her child? Never!

This image of a mother is a powerful one because it talks about a relationship – a relationship that will stand firm against all the odds, even when a child is rebellious and stresses the mother to her utmost limits. The bond between a mother and her child is a good picture of the relationship that God has with his people. It is one we can easily understand even with all the upsets that can happen between a mother and child. The psalm assigned for today is Psalm 131 and it captures the contentment that a child has in the arms of his/her mother.  The psalmist writes, "I am content and at peace. As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me. Israel, trust in the Lord now and forever!"

In Isaiah God goes further in his words to his stressed people. "Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you. Jerusalem, I can never forget you! I have written your name on the palms of my hands". ‘Written’ is a bit weak here because we all know that what is written on our hands can easily be washed off. Something more permanent is meant - like our names are ‘carved’ or ‘engraved’ or ‘tattooed’ on the hand of God.

To have something carved or tattooed on a hand involves pain. This passage from Isaiah gives an indication of the pain which God is prepared to take for the sake of his love. The image of an inscription being carved on to a hand suggests a knife cutting into flesh and tendon. This leads us further – for, when we hear of our names being inscribed in the palm of God’s hand, we immediately think of the nails that punctured Christ’s hands in the crucifixion because of his love for us. 

It is a love that is prepared to enter into suffering and hardship for our sakes so that our names are not lost.  And that’s precisely what happened with Christ; for in Christ, God entered into our suffering, God entered into the lostness of our humanity, and drew us into salvation – salvation won at terrible cost, such is the terrible beauty of God’s love for us.

Can God ever forget the people he made and died for? Not in your life!
Look at his hands and you will see your name written there – carved into his hand with a rusty Roman nail.

Today when Liam and Isaac were baptised, God added two more names to his hand. God made a promise to them that he will never forget them. They will also be dear to him and even in they should stray from God's ways, like a mother his love will not stop. He will wait for them to return.

That has been God's promise to his people through the ages. It is still his promise to us today. It’s a promise that we need to go back to again and again.

If at this moment you feel that God is a long way off, that he doesn’t seem to be real in your life and what is going on, then it’s time to listen again to the promise of God and let him be a powerful influence in your lives.

There are times in our lives when it seems that the whole world is against us. It might in the middle of a flood, a cyclone or an earthquake. It might be in the middle of a personal crisis or series of events in the lives of the members of our family. It seems that we are left alone to sort through it all and every step along the way is hard going. We call out in prayer but no one is listening.

Standing at a graveside, lying in a hospital bed, bored out of our brain in a dead-end job; depressed, anxious, nervous, easily upset; feeling forgotten and alone.

At that moment when we hear God speaking to us as he did to the people of Israel in the Book of Isaiah, or when we remember the baptismal covenant that God has with us, or we receive in our hands at Holy Communion the body and blood of Jesus, we are reminded that we are not alone, that we are not forgotten and that we have a God who loves us dearly and like any parent will do anything to ensure that we are safe.

Sometimes our wilfulness and stubbornness get us into trouble, just as the Israelites ended up in Babylon, but all the time our names are carved on his hand.

"My child - you're right here", God says. "Your name is tattooed on my hand. 
I will never forget you.
When the valleys are dark and the way is hard to follow,
when you are scared of what the future may bring,
when you’re at the end of your wits and don’t know where to turn to next,
be certain, I will be with you always.
 
There is no mountain too high or valley too low – I will walk with you until that day you walk with me through gates of heaven".

A commitment and a promise from God like that challenges us to respond in some way – putting our hand in his hand and to trust him as he leads us through life’s journey and encouraging our family and friends to do the same. Embraced by the love of our God we will be contented and at peace like a child resting in its mother’s arms.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
27th February 2011
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

More sermons

Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
All material written by Vince Gerhardy is copyright, but permission is freely given for limited use.
Please e-mail for permission, or with questions or comments about this web site.