Title: Imaging the invisible God
Texts: Ps 131, Isa 66:10-13, Lk 13:31-35
Date: Nov 6, 2011
Author: Nate Rauh
One of the central beliefs of the Jewish and Christian faiths, is that God is invisible. God is unseen.
This is one of the central beliefs, and it can also be one of the most frustrating beliefs, esp. for we who are have been taught to expect immediacy, accessibility, in so many areas of our lives.
The God we worship may be invisible, but the God we worship is the kind of God who helps us out through images, metaphors. Metaphors use commonly known images to point us toward “something we can imagine but never really see.”
These kind of images are especially powerful in the places and situations where God appears absent, hidden, like we encounter in our reading from Isaiah 66.The prophet-poet Isaiah does metaphor beautifully, and in the very final inches of his scroll, we are briefly invited into an image which resounds for an Israel that’s weary of exile and thirsty for home, an Israel that’s ready for God to do something new in their tired lives.
It’s a basic image of life miraculously giving away life, the passing on of milk from mother to child. Here, Jerusalem is pictured as a mother, a river, a source of comfort and prosperity and abundance and security. In the dark of exile, it has been night for so long. But in Isaiah’s visions, hints of daylight have been poking through the thick veil of night. Fending off despair with the dream of reestablishment, comfort, land, the Temple. Jerusalem stands for home.
Given the situation, Israel’s vision seems quite reasonable. This is the basic response most of us revert to of when life has thoroughly disoriented us, when life has left our hopes and dreams in shambles and reduced us to a heap: we want to go home. And to our mother, if possible. (Maybe that’s just my experience, I don’t know.)
Jerusalem stands for home. In their exile, in mourning, God tells the exiles to replace mourning with rejoicing. To a suffering people in exile, there is no image more welcome; amidst mourning, there is no consolation more fitting.
But the metaphor shifts in v.12: Jerusalem is like a mother, but God is the true mother of Israel, and not only a mother, a nursing mother. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” This is one of the few places in Scripture where God is imaged so clearly in feminine terms; it is an exception.
This picture of a vigorous, lactating mother is not just another fertility god of the Ancient Near East. This is a God of tenacious love, of covenantal relationship. This is the same God who promised “comfort, comfort, o my people” in ch. 40. And a few chapters later, when she hears some lamenting about how ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me,’ she sharply retorts: ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” (49.14-15). In chapter 66, she comes back to the metaphor of the nursing mother to solidify her promise: whether it looks like it or not, God is your home.
Israel has always been dependent on its God as an infant is on its mother. Look back – its whole life has been a series of births and re-births: think of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac, of the exodus, of the wilderness manna. Again and again, God births a people where none was foreseen. Again and again, God again and again consoles and nurses. It seems to be what she enjoys doing. This is the kind of patient God who keeps trying to speak to us through human language, who seeks to translate herself into the creaturely.
So what does this God look like? When I try to see this motherly God, I can’t help but think of my friend Emily. Emily has more or less taken upon herself the role of “foster mom in training.” She works to get underserved single moms the support they need, which means she often finds herself hanging out with young children. She loves her work. She loves it so much that the experienced moms make jokes, but only halfway-jokes, that her back is already a little misaligned from spending so much time with a kid on her left hip.
I hear this and remember Jacob’s famous wrestling match with God and the disjointed hip, the limp, it earned him. That limp makes the identity of the people Israel, a people who wrestle with but can’t shake God. We think less often, though, about the physical toll it takes on God to keep caring for this needy child she has brought into the world. After all, she has been at it for a long time, she has logged a lot of hours nursing and rocking and pacing and dandling (I love that word!).
Israel suckle at God’s consoling breast – this sounds well and good, but every mother here knows that there is more to it than the romantic.
Like sleep deprivation, to give another example. I’m not personally acquainted with the day-in-and-day-out experience of breastfeeding, but I have started to pick up that it means serious loss of sleep. This was confirmed by talking with Martha and Celia this week, and deepened. As Martha told me (and Celia confirmed),
“Young babies nurse 8-10 times a day, around the clock, for about 20 minutes each time, and this continues for months. It’s easy to just say that, but imagine going though the day and every 2-3 hours, stop what you are doing, and sit in one place for 20 minutes. You end up spending hundreds of hours nursing by the time a child weans. This is all to say that it may be nourishment and comfort, but the mother enters into a commitment to sustain that nourishment that is neither flip nor easy.”
So, based on that experience of breastfeeding, God nursing Israel suggests some long, long, nights for God. Long nights of nursing and holding and rocking and walking and dandling. But the prophet wants the people to trust that God will keep getting up with Israel in the middle of the night – in the middle of Israel’s long, long night (and, so, we must also trust, that God stays up in the middle of our nights).
Not only God’s back, but God’s sleep cycle, is thrown a deal off because of this completely dependent, needy people Israel. When I try to envision this God, I can’t quite get my mind around this kind of longsuffering patience: a God with tired back, slanted from the weight of little ones, who has endured long nights, who gives of her excess for the life of others, in order to care for the child she is bound to in a mysterious way. That’s where the metaphor takes me.
Alright. Time out. Because we have been doing this for several weeks now, we’re probably already sensing the dangers of the metaphor of God as a breastfeeding mother. For one, we can project our experiences of our own mothers onto God. Or we can miss the unabashed and celebrated breastfeeding imagery of this passage because of the societal baggage we bring to it: where breasts are over-sexualized. Or we can notice that there is not much feminine imagery of God that is not also maternal imagery, but to be a woman is not only to be either a mother or a potential mother. Isaac pointed this out one of the first weeks. But neither can every mother easily and comfortably breastfeed, and in a world where there are unwanted pregnancies and mastectomies and barrenness and miscarriages, this image of nursing motherhood cannot stand for the essence of femininity.
There are limitations with the gendered metaphor, and we have to remain in the tension on that for at least one more week. But, in good Mennonite fashion, we believe that Jesus is the clearest picture of God we get. And so to we believe that to see this mother-like God in the world and in our lives, we have to look at the life of Jesus.
And so when we hear Jerusalem – the site of the temple, the site of God’s presence on earth – when we hear Jerusalem as the site of comfort, maybe we should think of the one who weeps over a Jerusalem on the edge of destruction, who longs to gather them as a mother hen would gather a brood of chicks under her.
When we hear future comfort promised for the mourning, when we hear comfort spoken over a people oppressed by an Empire, maybe we should think of the one who tells the peasants from the hill “blessed are you who mourn now, for you will be comforted.”
When we think of a God who stands against Empire with weakness…
When we hear of a God who gives God’s people life through the resources of her own body, we think of the one whose life led to the cross.
(Many Christians have described Jesus as our mother, who gives us birth and nurses us, including Julian of Norwich – who said that there are two births: we are made in the triune image at our creating, and remade in the image of god through Jesus Christ, who nurses us at his breast. Besides her, Jesus as mother was supported by a bunch of men who will sound rather familiar, and a few 12th century monks who won’t, with names like Bernard of Clairvaux, Guerric of Igny and Aelred of Rievaulx.)
In Jesus, we see the image of the invisible God (as Colossians puts it)! He is the faithful bearer of the image of the God who communicates, the metaphor-making God, the one who images God as no metaphor can.
In him, God’s people are once again invited into new birth and once again, we are invited to feed on the gifts, the excesses of another’s body.
In him, the Holy Spirit – called the comforter – does the same surprising thing of bringing a new people out of what had been nothing, bringing Gentile believers into the family and nursing the church. New life again comes in unexpected places through this mother-like God.
And in him, we are met in our time and comforted there. We believe that Jesus is present with us in our time – in our joys and in our mourning, in our offending and reconciling, in our work and in our play, and, of course, in our long nights nursing babies. In him, the Holy Spirit “comforts us in all our afflictions,” in our weakness. In him, God makes good the promise to bind up the brokenhearted.
The second Mennonite move is to ask: What does this mean for our discipleship together? We can understand God as mother because in Jesus, God has mothered us. Jesus is who we ought to think about when we read it. Where do we see Jesus in the world?
We must admit we are still awaiting. We realize that it is an image given in the future tense. We still struggle with God’s invisibility, and still cling to the images of God as a mother, because God does not always appear to relate to us with the closeness of a mother to her nursing infant. We realize we await God’s final presence with us in the new Jerusalem (Rev.21-2). We realize that this image is a promise.
But we also believe Christ, the image of the invisible God, is present among us. We believe that we see Christ in our neighbor. We believe that Christ is present in the faces of those most needing a word of comfort. In those in who know what it is like to be wide-awake and hungry in the night of life. In the disinherited and parentless and alienated – in those at risk of being forgotten.
One of the parts of the Anabaptist tradition that I most admire is its conviction that what you do with your body in the everyday reveals to the world the kind of God you serve. We are called in our discipleship to make visible to the world), through what we do with our bodies, the kind of God we claim to follow. We try, imperfectly, to live a faith rooted in the earth, rooted in everyday practices that image God’s love, to nurture practices that give life. We are made in the image of a God who giving herself in patience; We are to live in such a way that God as a patient mother is a little more believable, even a little more seen.
So, we also believe God is present in the gathered community, in one another – in our sister, in our brother. So, when I think of God as a patient mother, I picture my friend Emily. She makes God’s image more tangible to me. When we see the constancy and care of the moms and Dads in this congregation, we see into Christ’s own life for us. In our comforting one another, in our care for one another, in the patience we offer one another – we are practicing being Jesus, our true mother, to one another.
In the end, Isaiah’s imagery asks to respond to the mothering God with rejoicing, with taking delight in the God who is there, who has waited out the night with us and will again, the metaphor-making God, the God who loves human bodies enough to use them as a way of communicating God’s relationship to us. To this we can only say, thanks be to God.
 Margaret Wenig, “God is a Woman and She is Growing Older.” Sermon transcript accessed at: http://csec.org/csec/sermon/Wenig_4025.htm. Well worth reading for an imaginative Jewish look at gendered metaphors in Scripture.
 “It is one of the marks of the Isaianic tradition that the eschatological vision of God’s reign is repeatedly related to the realities of everyday life.” Paul Hanson, Isaiah, 248.
 Martha King, email correspondence, and Celia Mellinger, phone conversation, both used with permission.
 Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language, 147.
 Caroline Walker Bynum, “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother,” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, 110-169.
 “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night” – reads the Book of Common Prayer, p. 134
 I have heard it suggested that men have nipples as a reminder that their lives, too, are meant to be generative, to bring forth life in creative ways. That explanation works for me. Maybe this is what Eugene Rogers is getting at when he writes, “by the goodness of the Spirit [the] potential for giftedness is built right into human bodies.” In After the Spirit, 103-4.
 God is a God who not only loves, but likes bodies. Bodies like ours, which give life to others. Again Rogers, After the Spirit, 103-4.
 Our response time, plus some more thinking, brought forth a big theme in this text that was underemphasized overlooked: trust. Monica talked about how deeply breastfeeding is tied to establishing trust in the infant. A comment Martha made by email really connected with this: “there are times, particularly as babies get a bit older, that they nurse specifically for comfort. Various schools of thought in the endless barrage of parenting styles have opinions about “comfort nursing.” But no matter what a mother chooses to do, it is inevitable that at some point the baby will cry out in pain, as opposed to hunger, and that pain can be quite literally washed away by putting the baby on the breast.” Finally, Bradley offered the helpful reminder that God’s longsuffering patience should not be seen as taken on as a burden, or as drudgery, but as total love. All of these, I think, pushed the word in a more faithful direction: resting into the God who asks for our trust.