God’s Tattoo August 20, 2017 Tandy Gilliland Taylor
This passage from Isaiah comes at a time when the Hebrew people are in exile in Babylon. Years before, the Babylonians invaded Israel. The Babylonians burned the homes of the Hebrew people; they destroyed their Temple; they drove the Hebrew people out of their land into a foreign country, where they remained for several generations in exile. The Hebrew people were devastated; they felt hopeless; they cried out to God in anguish and tears. They felt abandoned by God; they felt forgotten by God.
Into the midst of these circumstances, the prophet Isaiah brings the word of the Lord, with a vision of hope and salvation. Hear now the words of Isaiah 49: 8-16:
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; 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; 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. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.
“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, but I shall not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
This text starts out with amazing good news:
God hears the cries of the people in exile, and answers with powerful words of comfort and hope, and a vision of the promise that God will save them from their despair.
Isaiah writes: Thus says the Lord: I will free the prisoners, and lead all the people back home; I will provide food and drink along the way, I will guide them by springs of water, I will turn the wilderness into highways, clear pathways to get back home. Isaiah tells us that all of creation gets in on this festive homecoming: the mountains and all of heaven and earth will sing for joy. God promises compassion for those who suffer; God promises restoration and tender care for the people; God promises to bring the people home, where they will be safe and loved and at peace.
And how do the people respond to this glorious vision? They say, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” I guess they couldn’t quite believe their ears. Their anguish was so deep, their despair was so overwhelming, their sense of being abandoned by God was so real that they felt stuck and hopeless, unable to function. Here God sends them a message of hope, of good news, of redemption, of a bright future, and the people can’t even hear it… Hmmm, does that sound familiar? Could it be that we are the same way sometimes? We can be so far down in the pit of despair that we can’t even hear God’s good news, much less take it in. Our very real suffering and heartache, our very real reasons for fear and despair, can make it really hard to believe that God loves us, or that God even remembers us. Sometimes we might despair in our personal lives, other times we might despair as a people… I can only imagine how African-Americans or Jews might be feeling now, as racist hatred and violence have erupted yet again with such power. Even Jesus knows this despair: on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So, in the text, what does God say in response to this cry of anguish from the people? God says these powerful words: “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.” It is not in God’s nature to forget us, even though it can feel that way. Not only does God love us, but God says that love is like the love of a mother for her infant. A mother’s love can be tender, warm, and gentle, and yet also fierce, like a mother bear defending her cubs, or a mother bird dive-bombing a predator. And this isn’t the only passage in the Bible that compares God to a mother: Isaiah 66.12-13 says, “Thus says the Lord: as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” And in Matthew 23.37, Jesus says, as he looks out over the city of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” How about that?! Jesus says he feels like a mother hen! What a great image for God, gathering her brood of “chickies”, all her children, under her wings, for protection and comfort and warmth. In times of despair, whether personal or collective, it sure sounds appealing to scurry on over, and get underneath God’s outspread, mother-hen wings, to find shelter, refuge, and protection, to find warmth and love.
But you know, sometimes human mothers do forget; a few even neglect or abuse their children. In our text, God says, “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” God makes this same powerful promise, over and over again in the Bible: in the first chapter of Joshua, God says, “I will not fail you or forsake you”, and in Hebrews 13.5, God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
As if all this is not enough, God says yet one more remarkable thing in this passage. To prove to the people how impossible it is for God to ever forget them, God says: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” How about that?! God has a tattoo!! And not just any tattoo, but one depicting all the children of God, who are so very precious to God. This tattoo can be a sign to us: of God’s promise to lead us all home, to that glorious Kingdom of God where there is no more crying or sorrow, no more death, no more hatred or violence, and where all God’s children are welcomed and loved and cherished. God’s tattoo can be a sign to us that, even in the here and now, God is at work, in mysterious ways, to bring hope and community, healing and joy. Thanks be to God! Amen.