SERMON: Granny is like God. Isaiah 49:14-16 & Luke 15:8-9
My Mother is the handy-woman of the family. Her father (my grandfather) was quite handy. He was a brick-layer by trade and so worked with his hands all the time. Around the house when he was fixing things, as a little girl, my mom would watch and learn from everything he was doing. She was the apprentice who passed all the tools when he needed them. And so when I was growing up, while my Dad was the academic of the family… a bit like a walking encyclopaedia, my Mom was the handy-women of the house. I have memories of her laying down tiles on the kitchen floor, taking the washing machine apart to replace gaskets and fan belts, completely re-upholstering the lounge and dining room furniture, fixing the flushing mechanism in the toilet if it was no longer working, along with other plumbing work, replacing blown fuses, changing electrical plugs and the list could go on and on. Whatever handyman skills I may have, I learned them from my Mom.
Even now into her seventies, her reputation still holds strong, even though back-pain may hinder her ability to do some of the things she would have done when she was younger. My mom’s grandson, my nephew Kristian, has come to believe that my Mom can fix anything. A year or so ago, one of his toys broke, and so my brother said to him, “Don’t worry, we’ll store it in the cupboard. When granny comes to visit again she will help fix it for you.” To which he replied: “Granny is like God, she can fix anything!”
It reminds me of that saying which goes something like this: “God could not be everywhere, so He created mothers”. After quoting this statement, Sabrina Premij writes the following:
“I could not agree more. Moms are truly one of a kind. They have arms that were made for holding, for cradling, for loving. In these past 24 years, my Mom has used those arms to tuck me in every night, to rub my injured back, to wax my legs for the first time, to make her infamous tacos when my friends came over, to comfort me after a bad date, to hold my hand before crossing security at the airport, to squeeze me tight when I needed TLC, to love me unconditionally. And though I have grown over these years (sadly, not by much), there was always more than enough space to fit in my Mom’s arms. She’s like a magician.”
Perhaps it is worth noting that not all people’s experience of their Mother’s has been as positive as Sabrina Premij’s experience. On Mother’s Day, while it is certainly an opportunity to highlight all the best qualities that can be found in a Mother and to celebrate all that our Mother’s have done for us in the past and all they do for us in the present, there is a danger of eulogizing mother’s too much, because ultimately all mother’s have their own struggles and difficulties. All mothers have their strengths as well as their weaknesses and failings. If we eulogise mother’s too much, it can put an enormous amount of pressure on women to feel that they now have to live up to an un-attainable ideal. It can also potentially alienate those whose relationships with their mother’s have not been wholesome or life-affirming.
But it is Mother’s Day and so not completely inappropriate for us to celebrate some of the wonderful qualities that Mother’s bring into the world. And in the context of Sunday worship, it is perhaps also not inappropriate for us to consider how motherhood as a whole does have the potential for revealing something of the character and nature of God.
Within Christianity, we are not accustomed to speaking of God using feminine language. Most Christian talk of God has been to refer to God almost exclusively in masculine language. The result is that many many Christians around the world live with an underlying view that God is actually a man, albeit a very big cosmic man.
But the opening chapter of the book of Genesis reminds us that both men and women were made in the image of God, and if this is the case, then it is ultimately not true to say that God is a male or masculine. If God is Infinite, then everything we say about God using finite human language needs to be regarded as provisional and metaphorical. Under certain circumstances it is therefore possible to say that God the great Mystery of Life is like a man, or like a father. But if God is truly Infinite, and if women too are made in God’s image, then it should be equally possible to say that under certain circumstances God is also like a women, and like a mother.
And the truth is that in the Bible, there are a number of passages where God is indeed described using feminine imagery.
The very first place that this is done is in fact in Genesis chapter 1 where God is described almost as though God is like a mother bird brooding over her eggs, waiting for them to crack open and for life to come forth. The first few verses of Genesis 1 read as follows:
1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The word that is translated as hovering is the Hebrew word rachaph (raw-khaf'). It is a word that can mean to flutter, to hover, to brood. In Deuteronomy 32:11 the same Hebrew word is used to describe God in the imagery of an eagle: God is ..."Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers/broods over its young.”
And so in both Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 32 God is portrayed like a motherly bird, brooding… in Genesis 1, brooding over the act of creation, waiting for life to burst forth, and in Deuteronomy, brooding protectively over her chicks.
This image is used again in Psalm 91:1-4 Where the Psalmist speaks of hiding under the shadow of the Almighty, and then in verse 4 "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge...”
In the book of Job, God is again pictured as a women who gives birth to creation… In Job 10:18, God is described as bringing Job forth from the womb as though God himself (or perhaps one should say God herself) has given birth to Job. And later on in Job 38:29 when the voice of God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, the Divine voice asks: “From whose womb does ice come forth? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens.” What these verses do is remind us that in every act of birthing, women are participating in the Divine act of creation, and that all of creation is this Motherly God’s beloved off-spring and child. From an ecological perspective, if creation is seen as an act of birthing from the womb of God, and as an act of motherly love from God, then we as human beings should show the same respect for creation as we would to any child, as an object of a mother’s love and care.
The image of God as mother is used again by the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 49. The passage was written during the Exile in Babylon, after the Babylonian Empire had invaded the Kingdom of Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, taking many of the people of Judah into exile in Babylon. And there, in exile, to a people who had lost everything, and who were now living in a strange and a foreign land, a prophet speaks of God’s ongoing love and care for his people. Despite appearances, that it seemed God had abandoned them, God is described as a mother who can never abandon or forget her children.
“14But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
the Lord has forgotten me!”
15“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or lack compassion for the son of her womb?
Even if she could forget,
I will not forget you!
16Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands”
The passage speaks of God’s motherly love for her child whom she can never forget or abandon.
And then our last passage for today, in Luke 15, Jesus also describes God in feminine terms as he describes God as a women, perhaps even a mother, searching high and low for a lost coin. She sweeps the house and turns it upside down, looking for this valuable coin that is lost. It is an image that is meant to remind us that all lost and wayward human beings, and there are indeed many of them, are like a valuable coin to God, and God is like a diligent women caring for and managing her home and household searching out for that which is lost. That is quite an unusual image of God. Normally we are used to hearing God being described in the imagery of a great King, sometimes as a warrior. But in this parable, Jesus uses a down to earth, ordinary, homely image of God as a women, bustling around her home, making sure that everything is in order: God, the home executive, as house wives have been described in more recent decades.
On this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the gift of Mothers, may we also know the Motherly love of God who has given birth to us in love, who has promised never to forsake or abandon us in our moments of exile, and who comes searching for her valuable lost treasure, when we find ourselves lost and do not know our truth worth. Amen.
SERMON TEXT: Is this really how God acts? (Luke 13:1-9)
There is a Chinese Wisdom Story that goes something like this…
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbours exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbours shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
It is a thought provoking little story… it certainly reveals the dangers in the natural human tendency to constantly interpret events in life as good and bad, for how quickly events and fortunes can change. And that is perhaps one of the difficulties of living in a world of constant flux: We all strive for an ideal life where all the conditions of life are just right for our happiness, but in a world of change ideal conditions can never be maintained for very long. It is of the nature of this world for things to change and decay.
The parable may also suggest that like the farmer who seems to be rooted in a deeper reality so that he is not as easily swayed by the swinging pendulum of fortune and misfortune, we too are invited to seek a deeper reality in life that remains unaffected by the changes and chances of this fleeting life that enables us to face the challenges of life with courage and constancy.
Getting back to the theme of interpreting the meaning of life’s events, the people of Israel also had a tendency to be interpreting the goodness and badness of events, but in their understanding of the world, it was done through the lense of their religion. Events that they interpreted as good they attributed to the blessing of God. Events that they interpreted as bad and unfavourable were interpreted as the punishment of God. This would have been a natural thing to do for a people who understood God as ‘Almighty’. If God is Almighty, then God must be responsible for pulling the levers of history and thus for the unfolding of events. God in this understanding becomes the great puppet master, the real mover behind all the events of life.
The prophets of Israel combined this view of the world with a deep sense of morality and justice. And so when the great Assyrian Super-power invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel in between 732 and 722 BC, leaving Israel decimated, the prophets of Israel interpreted these tragic events as the hand of God’s punishment upon Israel for their failure to Worship the One True God of Israel and their running after the gods of their neighbours, as well as their failure to follow the laws of God.
Likewise, in 598 BC when the Babylonian Empire besieged Jerusalem and it fell three months later to the Babylonians, the prophets again interpreted these events as the hand of punishment of God for Judah’s failure to remain faithful to Yehovah and their failure to live in accordance with God’s laws.
In both instances the invasion of a super-power was interpreted as the action of God. God was the great puppet master, using the super-powers of the day to meet out punishment and discipline on his people for their unfaithfulness.
Still today, most Christians accept these interpretations of Israel’s history as true, because they are contained in the Bible. But very few Christians seem willing to consider the true implications of these Old Testament interpretations of historical events. And the true implications are these: that if God was using the Assyrian and Babylonian Empire’s as puppets to meet out God’s divine punishment on the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, then God also needs to be held responsible for the terror and devastation of these invasions, the destruction of cities and homes, the terrorising and murder of woman and children. We might well ask the question: What kind of God is this who uses war to punish and correct his unfaithful people? Is this really who God is and how God works in the world?
A further question is worth asking: If the people of Israel and Judah had really been faithful in worshipping God and following all God’s laws, would they really have been protected them from being invaded by the great super-powers of Assyria and Babylon? It is also worth recognizing that a key reason that the people of Israel were subject to repeated invasion by various super-powers of their day was because of the strategic position that the little strip of land called Palestine held. It was a key trading route between Egypt and the Middle East. Conquering and controlling Palestine was of great strategic and economic benefit for the great Empires of the ancient world. When also we recognize that in the course of history, the truth that good people do indeed suffer, I believe it is highly unlikely that the faithfulness and moral behaviour of Israel and Judah would have saved them from these invasions.
But this view of the Almighty God using the events of history to discipline and punish his people is a very enduring view. It was a view held by most Jews of Jesus day, and so in our Gospel passage today, people come to test Jesus’ perspective on these things: They raise two contemporary incidents:
The first was the brutal slaughter of a group of Jewish worshippers by Pontius Pilate who then mixed the blood of his victims with the blood of the animal sacrifices they were making. The second incident was when 18 Jews died when the tower of Siloam collapsed on top of them. Jesus answer to the Jews who were questioning him about these stories clearly indicates that like the prophets of old, they were interpreting these events as God’s punishment on those who had died because of their sin. Jesus’ answer indicates that he didn’t buy into these kinds of interpretations of historical events. Jesus did not agree with them that these events were the hand of God at work, punishing people for their sins. This was clearly not Jesus understanding either of the events of history or his understanding of God?
And so he throws the question back at them: Do you really think that these men were worse sinners than the rest of you? Do you really think that they were more guilty than the many others living in Jerusalem? In questioning the logic of their interpretation of these events, Jesus is rejecting the view that God uses ruthless tyrants like Pontius Pilate to do his dirty work for him. He is also rejecting the view that God uses accidents as a way of punishing people for their sins. In doing so, I believe that Jesus is rejecting a whole history of Old Testament interpretation of many of the key events in their history, and thus rejecting the view that God is the great puppet master pulling the strings and levers behind the scenes, blessing some people with certain favourable events, and punishing other people with certain bad or unfavourable events.
And yet at the same time as Jesus does this, he does not reject the need for people to repent to have a change of heart and mind. He still affirms the need for people to live just and moral lives as he adds these words: But unless you repent, you too will all perish. All of our actions produce effects in life. In all of our actions, we are creating conditions that when they mature will potentially reap good or bad results. The question remains, are our actions and attitudes laying seeds in the world that will give rise to beneficial effects, or are our actions and attitudes laying seeds that will give rise to bad or harmful effects. And so, while Jesus rejects the view that God uses the events of life to bless or punish his people, he does not reject the wisdom of cause and effect. What are the seeds that we are planting in our individual lives and in our collective lives, and what will those seeds grow into in the future? Just one example: If we continue to burn fossil fuels without limit or concern, what seeds of harm are we laying for the future?
I would like to close by asking the question: If God is not the one pulling all the levers behind the scenes of life, then if we are to still affirm a belief in the existence of God, how is God active within the world today? What are the signs of God’s activity amongst us? If God is not directing the course of history, then what is God doing? Where is God active? How is God active?
I believe the Apostle Paul gives us a helpful clue when in his letter to the Galatians he speaks about the fruit of the Spirit. I think they could be referred to also as ‘The signs of God’s activity’…Wherever there are signs of love and genuine and deep care, God is present and active. Wherever there is joy, real and deep joy, God is active. Wherever patience is being displayed it is a sign that God is active. Where ever there are acts of genuine kindness God is at work. Wherever there are acts of goodness, God is at work and active. Wherever people act in ways that are faithful and trustworthy, God is active and at work. Wherever gentleness is shown, God’s presence is being revealed. And wherever self-control is displayed for a greater good, God is at work in the world. These are the signs of God’s activity and God’s presence at work in the world.
There is something quite subtle about all of this. And perhaps this is why Jesus describes God’s Kingdom with the metaphor of tiny mustard seeds. Seeds that grow into sprawling bushes that create cover and protection for little birds. He also describes the work of God like yeast that is worked into dough. The yeast is tiny and when it is worked into the dough becomes invisible. You can’t see it, but it is active behind the scenes making the whole loaf rise. So it is with the activity of God. It is subtle, not always easily seen, but it makes a world of difference.
May we become partners in this subtle activity of God in the world. When super-powers are invading other countries and causing devastation, may we continue in ways small and large, to sow seeds of deep and genuine love and care in the world producing a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That is the way God will be seen to be active and at work in the world, not in using great super-powers to inflict punishment and mayhem upon the sinners of the world. May the love of Jesus save us from such unhelpful and harmful views.
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