Big Idea: It may seem like God has abandoned us, but he is committed to us with the deepest kind of love that we could imagine. And he will move heaven and earth to fulfill his purposes for us.
The question arises in my mind occasionally: What does God think of us? It’s a fair question, too.
I ask this question as I look at the world. When I open the news, I read about terrorism, crime, and injustice. I don’t know the last time I heard a news broadcast that I didn’t feel at least a little worse at the end. If that’s not bad enough, there’s politics. We read the newspapers and watch the debates and wonder, “Is this the best we can do?”
To be honest, though, the question really isn’t about what God thinks about the world. It’s about what God thinks about me. About us.
Years ago I took golf lessons from parks and recreation. We met in a public school gym and listened to lessons about how to hit the ball. They gave us these little plastic golf balls that we could use to practice. The instructor would come down the line, watch each of us, and then give some tips about how we could improve.
I remember the instructor getting to me. I tried my best. I lined up that swing and showed him what I’ve got. But the instructor didn’t give me any instruction. I remember him watching me, and then slowly walking away while he just shook his head. I gave up my golf lessons soon after that.
Do you ever feel like that spiritually? We show God everything we’ve got, and it’s not really that much. As we say sometimes in our confession:
We have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is nothing good in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
What does God think of us, especially when we’re not at our best?
It will sometimes feel like God has abandoned us.
Today I want to look at a passage of Scripture that was written by the prophet Isaiah. Most of the book of Isaiah was written to address a crisis. Israel and Judah believed that God was creator of the universe, and that he had chosen them with an everlasting covenant. They believed that as long as they kept the prescribed rituals and commands, they would be secure. But in 540 BC, Assyria destroyed and exiled Israel. In 586 BC, Babylon destroyed and exiled Judah. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the homes of the most important citizens. Nebuchadnezzar captured the the king’s sons and the officials of Jerusalem, and killed them in front of the king before ripping out his eyes and throwing him in prison for the rest of his life.
You could be forgiven for thinking that God had forgotten about Israel and Judah, that he had gotten so fed up with all of their sins that he’d turned his back on them. This is why we read in Isaiah 49:14:
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”
You can’t really blame them for thinking this. The evidence was all around them. They were supposed to be God’s people. “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Yet there was no evidence of God’s care for them. There was lots of evidence to the contrary. It really did look like God had turned his back on them.
They are saying is this: Skip the theological lectures. Look at the realities of my life. All of God’s promises seem abstract and remote, because my life is so completely broken.
We need to be honest. This is going to be our experience too. Zack Eswine writes:
There comes a time in most of our lives in which we no longer have the strength to lift ourselves out or to pretend ourselves strong. Sometimes our minds want to break because life stomped on us and God didn’t stop it…Questions fill our lungs. We mentally wheeze. We go numb…Even the knees of a Jesus-follower will buckle. (Spurgeon’s Sorrows)
One of my privileges as a pastor has been to walk with people through some of the hardest times of their lives. It goes all the way back to when I was a student, and police arrived one night at church to tell parents of a young adult that their son had been killed in a car accident a couple of miles away. It’s continued over the years as I’ve conducted funerals and walked with them through some other challenges. I’ve experienced this in my own life too. I remember one period when I was feeling completely overwhelmed in my own ministry, while Charlene struggled with postpartum depression. Again, more recently as a parent.
This will be our experience at times. We will look around and see the walls collapsed. We will say, “The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.” The psalms are full of this kind of language. This is the human experience, and it will be our experience too.
How does God respond to this?
God gives us pictures of what he thinks about us.
I find it very encouraging that God doesn’t respond by giving us a lecture or a rebuke in this passage. There are a few responses that he could make. He could tell us that we had it coming. In fact, we deserve a lot worse. Or he could give us a theological lecture that would solve our intellectual questions, but leave our hearts cold.
God does neither of these. Instead, he speaks to our hearts. He gives us an image of his care for us.
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
One of the most understandable images of love, one that we instinctively get, is the love of a mother for a child. Mothers will do incredible things. In 2009, Maureen Lee and her 3-year-old daughter Maya were enjoying a hike on a trail near their home, located 40 miles north of Vancouver, when an 88-pound cougar pounced on Maya. Maureen wedged herself between the animal and her child and hurled it off. She then picked up Maya and ran to a nearby house. You could read story after story like this. Mothers love their children so much that they will do almost anything for them.
What’s surprising about a mother’s love is that it’s so one way at first. Invite anyone into your home, and have them demand your attention around the clock, wake you up all night, and never say thanks, and you would kick them out. A child doesn’t have to earn a mother’s love. It’s just there, and it’s powerful. The baby gives nothing back at first, and makes plenty of demands. The infant does nothing to merit love, and when the baby’s nursing the demands on the mother are exhausting. And yet a mother’s love for her baby is unconditional, indestructible, and sacrificial.
Mitch Albom said, “When you look into your mother’s eyes, you know that is the purest love you can find on this earth.” God says to take a look at this love, and you’ll start to understand his love for his people. It’s fierce. It’s undeserved. It is indestructible. That’s how God loves us.
There’s one important difference, though. A mother’s love may be the purest love that you can find, but it’s still not perfect. While most mothers will never forget or neglect their nursing child, some will. Sadly, Children’s Aid does exist. Some children need protection from the very parents through brought them into the world. A mother’s love is pure, but there are exceptions.
But while some mothers will forget, God does not. His attachment to his people is more than a mother’s. There are no exceptions with God. “Even these may forget,”
God says, “yet I will not forget you.”
By the way, I love that when God speaks of his relationship to us, he speaks in terms of the most intimate relationships that we’ll ever experience. What are the most powerful connections we’ll ever have with another human being? These are the ones that God uses to speak of his relationship with us.
- He speaks of loving us like a mother loves us.
- Jesus teaches that he’s a father, better than the earthly father any of us had. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). Jesus compares God to the father who is so happy that his wayward son has come home that he runs down the driveway to embrace him. This is God’s love for us.
- The Bible uses the image of marriage to describe God’s love for us. “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called” (Isaiah 54:5).
- Then there’s the image of a friend. Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
When God talks about his relationship with us, these are the images he uses: mother, father, husband, friend.
But that’s not the only picture he gives us in this passage. Look at verses 16:
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.
If you came to church today, and I said, “Hey, I got a tattoo this week!” you may be a bit surprised. But then, if I said, “Do you want to see it?” you may be a bit nervous, until I told you that it’s on my palms. But then, if you came over, and I held out my hands, and you saw that I’d tattooed your name on my palms, you would probably be a little freaked out. You may even think of getting a restraining order. I’d explain, “This way I think of you every time I use my hands.” This wouldn’t make you feel any better, unless you were Charlene. Even then, she may be a little freaked out.
God turns to his people, who feel like they’ve been forgotten and abandoned by him, and he says, “Here, take a look.” He shows them his hands, and essentially says, “How could I ever forget you?” Except he hasn’t tattooed them to his hands. He’s engraved them. He goes one better. God couldn’t possibly forget about us. We’re never farther away from God than his hands.
The reference to walls probably may that God has engraved a plan or blueprint for the reconstructed city. The people looked around them and saw ruins. The imagery suggests that God speeds out his hands and says, “Look! Look what I’m building for you.” God couldn’t possibly forget about his people.
When God gave us this picture, it was symbolic. Of course God didn’t literally engrave the plan for Jerusalem on his hands. But with Jesus, it’s no longer symbolic. We are literally engraved on his hands. Jesus died for his people. Today, he still bears the marks of the sacrifice that he made for his people. As Jesus stands in God’s presence and pleads for us, he bears the wounds from the cross. We are literally engraved on his hands.
The British preacher Spurgeon said, “Look at the nail-print, that is His memorial, His forget-me-not, and by it He says to thee ‘Forget thee I will not, I cannot, thy name/ Engraved on my heart doth forever remain/ The palms of My hands whilst I look on I see / The wounds I received when suffering for thee.’”
God loves us so much that it is impossible for him to forget about any of us. He loves us so much that his attachment is greater than a mother’s.
It’s going to seem sometimes like God has forgotten us, but in those moments we can know that he’ll never forget us. He couldn’t possibly forget us. He loves us with the fiercest love, a love that’s even stronger and better than the love that a mother has for her child. He has engraved us on his hands. We don’t deserve it, but he is utterly and irrevocably committed to his people.
It will sometimes feel like God has abandoned us, but he hasn’t. He is committed to us with the deepest kind of love we could imagine. And then he says one more thing:
God is completely committed to fulfilling his purposes for us.
There’s a lot in the rest of the chapter that I wish we could examine. Let me just give you an overview as we close.
Jerusalem was completely destroyed. Yet in the verses that follow, God makes dramatic promises to his people. Look at what he promises:
- He says that builders will come and rebuild (49:17).
- He says that the people will grow to such an extent that they’ll say, “Where did all these people come from?” (49:20-21).
- In verses 22 and 23, God says he will move history for the benefit of his people. The nations that used to oppress them will come as supplicants (49:22-23).
- God will cause the enemies of his people to destroy themselves (49:24-26).
Despite appearances, despite the broken walls, God makes two commitments to his people. First: that he loves them. Second: that he will move heaven and earth to accomplish his purposes for them.
We’re in this six-week series on the heart of God’s story. At the heart of God’s story is God, who loves his people with the deepest kind of love possible, and will move heaven and earth to accomplish his purposes for them. His love is so fierce that his love for you is engraved on Jesus’ hands. Jesus willingly took your place so that you could take his place as God’s beloved son.
It may seem like God has abandoned us, but he is committed to us with the deepest kind of love that we could imagine. And he will move heaven and earth to fulfill his purposes for us. This is the heart of God’s story.