Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Isaiah 49:8-16 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Isaiah talked to people who wondered if anything was stable in the world. Like any number of people in our world at any given moment, so the Israelites of Isaiah’s day found themselves going through hard times in a world where the unexpected had become normal.
Their country had been wiped out by the Babylonians. Everything that had once been familiar had been burned down, tossed out, trampled on, trashed. Now they were slaves and they wondered if a better day would ever come. Some people wondered if there even was a God. A few others said that yes, God was real all right but he was weak and so lacked enough power to make a difference. Still others said that yes, God was real and yes, he did have enough power to save them if he wanted to–the problem is that they were convinced he did not want to! “Maybe God just doesn’t care,” they said to one another.
But starting in Isaiah 40 Isaiah promised that God was going to redeem them. So also in verse 13 of this 49th chapter the prophet dances and sings in front of the people, saying, “Let’s celebrate because God is bringing comfort to us!” But then comes verse 14 in which the people reply, “Yeah, right! Can’t you see our situation, Rev. Isaiah? I mean, Duh! God has forgotten all about us!”
They felt cut off, without roots. Their world had changed too quickly and there didn’t seem to be anything firm to grab hold of or believe in anymore. Nobody can guarantee that bad things won’t happen. That’s basically what the Israelites said back to Isaiah, but God was ready with an answer. Not only was God able to do great things for the people, he desperately wanted to do those great things. So in verse 15 God says, “Can a mother forget about the child she carried around in her womb for nine months and nursed at her very breast?”
Can a mother forget the child at her breast? As God goes on to admit in verse 15, yes, unhappily enough, some mothers can and do. But God our heavenly Father and Mother, our divine Parent, is better than any human being ever could be! Even if a mother were to fail at the most tender relationship in all of life, God will never let us down. He has your name tattooed right on the palm of his hand! Maybe that image doesn’t sound like much. After all, for lots of people the only time we write something on our palms is if we don’t have a piece of paper available and so scribble somebody’s phone number or email address onto our hand. We’ll wash it off later, but for the time being writing it there is, well, handy!
But this image had a very wonderful meaning in Isaiah’s day. Back then servants and slaves would be tattooed with their owner’s name. If you were a slave, the name of the person who owned you would be carved into your palm, kind of like the way cattle are branded with the logo of their ranch. That way you could never forget that you were not your own but were somebody else’s property. Once in a while today you may still encounter a Jew who has a series of numbers tattooed onto his or her arm. When you see that, you realize that this was someone who was once a prisoner at Auschwitz or Buchenwald–the Nazis tattooed i.d. numbers right into their flesh as a reminder that they were owned like a piece of property.
So how stunningly amazing that in Isaiah 49 God turns the tables and says, “I’m going to become your servant! I belong to you and to prove it, your name is tattooed onto my hands! I cannot go anywhere or do anything without remembering you, seeing your name, and so caring for your well-being.”
And this, of course, can lead us to Christ. Because Jesus is indeed the very Son of God who humbly took on the role of a servant. He was born poor. He was treated like a sinner even though he was the only one who never sinned. He was rejected by the very creation he helped to make once upon a universe. He was rubbed out atop a garbage heap, impaled between two lowlifes and seen as a lowlife in his own right.
Jesus has got nail holes and sword holes and thorn pricks and whip marks all over him now because he is absolutely determined to let all of us know that he has our names written into his very flesh. He’ll never forget!
In one of his fine sermons, Frederick Buechner relays a dream he once had. In this dream he was staying at a nice hotel somewhere and he had a room in this hotel that he just loved. He loved being in the room for some unknown reason. It brought him a feeling of contentment and peace and joy just to be in the room. But then the dream meandered a bit, as dreams do, and suddenly he was in another hotel and in a different room that he did not like nearly so well. So he picks his way back to the first hotel and asks the clerk for his old room back. He can’t tell the clerk which room it was but if the man could check his ledger and tell him what room he had had before, he’d like to have that room again. “Certainly I can tell you which room that was, Mr. Buechner,” the dream clerk said, “It was the room called ‘Remember.'”
And that revelation in his dream was so startling that Buechner says he woke up and sat bolt upright in bed. The room he wanted was the room called Remember. Maybe it’s the room we all want, the place to which we wish to journey again and again, the place where we can remember all things even as we are ourselves remembered by the God whose memory means life itself. And maybe among the most important things we each of us could remember–the one thing common to all of us despite our many uncommon stories–is this: when we look back in remembrance, we realize that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone. Not in life’s dungeons, not in life’s sunny times, not ever. We would never have made it this far were it not for Him whose presence is as everlasting as his chesed and whose memory of all things is itself life, hope, and joy. “See, I have engraved you on my palms” God tells the Israelites through Isaiah.
He remembers us.
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