By Pastor Tracey Leslie
A Sermon on the image of God as Mother, inspired by Isaiah 46:3-4, Psalm 131, and Matthew 23:37-39.
Have you ever given someone a nickname or pet name? Names are a very personal thing and the way we choose to address one another often indicates something about our relationship. Throughout this month, our sermon series is looking at some of the different names or images used to address or describe God in our Bible. By the way, be sure and also check out the artwork displayed in the GREAT Room to accompany this sermon series. It is the hope of your pastors that this series will spark your imagination and inspire you to think more deeply about your experience of God, your relationship with God, and the way YOU choose to address God.
Now, one of the things I recognize about this process is that some of the images we’ve selected might not be helpful to all of you. In her sermon last Sunday, Pastor Suzanne mentioned that the image of fire associated with God was not attractive to her in her younger years, that it even repulsed her, partly due to her exposure to a church near her home named Spring Branch Pentecostal Holiness Fire Baptizing Church… there’s a mouthful. I don’t know how they fit that on a sign.
So I recognize that the image I’ve chosen this morning – God as Mother – is not one that all of you will find appealing. Not all of us were blessed with nurturing mothers. Some of you may have even had mothers who were physically or emotionally abusive or neglected you… although I do hope that all of you had some woman in your life during your adolescence that did nurture you and assumed that role. But again, if you had a negative experience with your mother, you may never want to address God as Mother and that’s OK. The point of this sermon series is to reveal that, both within scripture and within our own lives, as human creatures, we draw from personal experience of what we have seen and heard in order to develop a better understanding of our God, whom we cannot see with our eyes or hear with our ears. And that is exactly what happens in this morning’s Psalm, Psalm 131. In a certain way, what this psalm and this sermon series do is a bit like incarnation. Jesus entered into human flesh in a specific time and place in order that we might have a fuller understanding of God. And, as we examine these various images and names for God within scripture, it can lead us to a fuller understanding of God.
I want to begin by calling your attention to the bulletin cover and – as you may have guessed – the picture is of me and my mom. It was taken on my mother’s birthday shortly after my 9th birthday. It is my favorite picture of us together. More than any other, I think that photograph captures the contentedness of my mom and me in each other’s presence. I was a very shy and nervous child. From as early as I can recall, crawling into my mom’s lap was always a place of safety and security and contentedness. It was an oasis of calm and peace. That photo, at least in my opinion, is a perfect visual representation of Psalm 131.
This psalm is attributed to King David. But, in the ancient world, it was very common for individuals to write under the name of someone famous for which they had great respect. In fact, many Bible scholars believe that Psalm 131 may have been written by a woman because it so perfectly describes the maternal experience. Some of you remember Ruth Smith who was our church secretary for a while. Less than a year after she came on staff, Ruth gave birth to Adai. Adai, it turned out, was less than enthusiastic about bottles. And so, for several months, Ruth brought Adai to work with her every day. The crib was set up in the office and I got to watch the way that Ruth and Adai interacted, especially as Ruth would, very discreetly, throw a blanket over her shoulder and chest when it was time to nurse Adai. Watching Ruth and Adai, like the picture of my mom and me, always brought this Psalm to my mind. It is remarkable to consider that a woman could have been the author of this Psalm because, as I’ve mentioned frequently in recent weeks, women weren’t held in much regard in the ancient world. They were more like property. So the fact that maternal imagery like this was included in our holy Bible is really pretty remarkable.
Psalm 131 is part of a collection of Psalms called the Psalms of Ascent. While they may have originally been written for different purposes, contexts, or experiences, the psalms were eventually edited together as part of a collection that became “songs for the journey” when ancient Israelites made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for annual festivals (such as Passover or Pentecost). The Temple was, of course, the place of God’s presence, of God’s holy habitation. Though we can’t know for sure, it is entirely possible that this Psalm was composed by a woman making this pilgrimage with her child as she reflected on what it was like to be in God’s presence.
As I’ve already mentioned, women had little value in the ancient world. In fact, when a woman married, she was not considered fully a part of her husband’s family until she bore a male child; an heir who would grow up and carry on the family name. Fathers had little contact with their children when they were young. Rearing children was the work of the women. It defined them. That’s why we have stories like the one of Hannah in 1st Samuel. Hannah feels worthless and desperate because she is unable to conceive a child. She prays fervently for a son and vows that, if God will bless her with a son, she will dedicate him to the Lord. That is the origin of the story many of us learned as children in Sunday School about the boy Samuel who lives in the Temple and hears God call his name during the night. Samuel is living in the Temple because Hannah made a vow to God that, if God would only bless her to conceive and bear a son, she would return him to the Temple and dedicate him to the Lord.
In the ancient world, a male child was the source of a woman’s identity, security and belonging. So, imagine how strong that bond must have been as the mother nursed and later weaned this child around whom her entire world revolved. There would have been nothing that mother wouldn’t have done to protect and provide for her child. So the Psalmist compares her experience of being in the presence of God with the experience of her child with her. Her child does not need to worry about anything and her child will be protected and provided for.
This Psalm is one of simple trust. It begins with three negatives that tell us what the Psalmist is NOT like. They are not proud or haughty or preoccupied with big things. There is no need since they rest as secure and satisfied in the presence of God as their child does against their bosom. The psalmist writes that her heart is not proud and her eyes are not haughty. Our heart has to do with our inner state and eyes were more symbolic of one’s engagement with the outside world. So, within herself and in relationship to others, the psalmist feels no need to overcompensate, we might say. She is making no effort to be, or to prove herself as, worthy or special. This is an attitude of peaceful confidence and contentment. I imagine all of us have found ourselves, at some time in our lives, in a position where we felt insecure and felt the need to prove ourselves capable or deserving. It is a horrible feeling that prevents us from relaxing and resting; it prevents us from living fully in the moment.
As I already mentioned, this poem is attributed to King David, but may well have been written by an ancient unnamed woman. Consider for a moment the enormous power disparity between those two. It’s a kind of “from A to Z” thing, isn’t it? A male monarch compared to a peasant mother. So this psalm assures us, whether you are a powerful person with great responsibilities and authority or someone viewed as socially insignificant, on the lap of Mother God, in the arms of God, you can be secure and relaxed and at peace knowing you will be protected and provided for.
Further, when the psalmist indicates they are not mentally occupied with great matters or marvelous things, the Hebrew there that translates “great matters” and “marvelous things” is used in other psalms to describe the works of God. It is a way of the psalmist saying that they don’t need to try and take control of things. God’s got it under control. It you were blessed with good and nurturing parents, you might recall those earliest memories, that time during childhood, when you didn’t worry about any big stuff because you trusted your parents to take care of it. You didn’t worry about the mortgage or the rent or food on the table. You didn’t worry about world events and turmoil. You just assumed that anything big and important would be taken care of by your parents.
Finally, the psalmist uses this metaphor of being like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. The word there for weaned has its root in a word that means “complete” or “satisfied.” So, it’s possible that this psalm is referencing an infant who has just nursed to his or her complete satisfaction or it may be referencing a child more like myself in that photo with my mom. At that time in my life I no longer sat on my mom’s lap because I needed to be fed or changed or any of those things we do to attend to an infant. My only reason for being on my mom’s lap at 9 years old was because I felt so loved and safe and secure there. On mom’s lap, I didn’t need to defend myself or justify myself. I didn’t need to worry about anything. And I wasn’t needy because mom had already attended to my needs.
Friends: the message of this morning’s psalm is that it does not matter if you are 9 or 90; you can snuggle into the presence of God and rest and trust. You can set your persona and your worries aside. You can stop ruminating about the stuff you really can’t fix anyway. On the lap of Mother God, in the presence of our nurturing God, you can simply be… which is an immeasurable gift whether you are a CEO, a retiree, a homeless person, a supervisor, or a kindergartener. To be in the presence of God is to be in a place of safety and rest.
All of us need a place where we can simply be, confident that we are loved and safe and cared for. There is a place like that and it has a name: God. So this week, when you have a moment where you are feeling scared or inadequate or vulnerable, take a deep breath and close your eyes and imagine yourself crawling into the lap of God. Imagine God wrapping her arms around you and enfolding you in her care.
A couple additional scriptures using maternal imagery for God: Hosea 11:3-4; Deuteronomy 1:31; Isaiah 49:14-15; Luke 13:34-35
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