17th October 2021
The Bible, as you know, is a whole library of books rolled into one volume. The book of the prophet Isaiah itself is a compilation of three different books by three different writers, centuries apart.
From the second of these, we heard this morning:
Sing, O barren one who did not bear . . . for the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married . . .
And you may well have wondered what it was all about, and why we were reading it in 2021 (See picture, below).
This passage is from the second section of Isaiah and dates from the sixth century BC. Much of the Jewish people had been forced into miserable exile in Babylon for about 60 years. They were longing to go back to Palestine, and this writer is reassuring the people that this will come about – as indeed it eventually did. He writes about an ideal future time back in the homeland when previously barren women will produce lots of children, and God’s temporary anger will be replaced by his customary love and compassion.
Another bit of the passage supports this:
For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.
I hope that makes some sort of sense. And now I’d like us to turn our attention to the second reading from St Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows that death is now inevitable. But he cries out in concern and frustration (See picture, below):
Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . . How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Beneath the tragedy of the situation, what a lovely metaphor: a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. In Jesus’s illustration, the chicks are refusing to come. But Jesus is portraying his own and God’s desperate love for his people.
Here I can’t resist a nonsense story. A hen arrives at the public library, with her chicks around her, the hen clucking, ‘Bouk, bouk, bouk, bouk’. Hearing this plaintive cry, the librarian obligingly issues the hen a book, and some little books for the chicks to carry in their beaks (‘chick lit’, no doubt), and the chickens all go off happily. But next day they are back for more: ‘Bouk, bouk, bouk, bouk’.
The librarian issues some more, but explains they need to return them when they’ve read them. But, somewhat concerned for the Council’s books, he decides to follow the hen and her chicks, only to find them tossing all the books into a pond. But there are some frogs in the pond, and the frogs are busy throwing the previous books, now waterlogged out again, croaking as they do so: ‘Redit, redit, redit, redit’. Very literate frogs!
Back on task . . . from this morning’s readings we’ve got portrayals of God chastising his people, but also of his compassion and care. No-one can positively describe God, but these are human endeavours to get near to the truth. We rely on mental pictures, and what mental pictures of God there have been over the centuries from all sorts of quarters!
I’d like you to see a particular picture (See picture, below). It’s Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal’, which we had the privilege of seeing in the Hermitage in St Petersburg a few years ago. Look at the father’s hands (image below), the father of course representing God in Jesus’s parable.
The hands look different (See picture, below). Some people see God’s right hand, to the left in the picture, as being a female hand, in contrast to the other male hand. Wikipedia, which is usually helpful, says:
His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture’.
It is difficult to imagine such an experienced and gifted artist making a mistake. And there’s no evidence that the feminist Pussy Rioters had a go at the painting! So was Rembrandt deliberately trying to broaden our outlook on God?
The Isaiah reading sounds to be concerned for childless women in their sadness. And, remarkably, Jesus likens himself to a chicken, by definition a female version of the fowl. Luke’s gospel particularly emphasises Jesus’s respect and concern for women. Was Jesus, like Isaiah six hundred years before him and perhaps followed by Rembrandt sixteen hundred years after him, making a statement, as they say? Of course we can’t be sure.
One thing is clear however. There are many metaphors that have been used, and used helpfully over the centuries, to try and capture aspects of God. Of course, we can’t fully describe God. God (he, she, both or neither) is unknowable. That familiar passage at the beginning of St John’s Gospel that starts ‘In the beginning was the Word’ later has: ‘No one has ever seen God’. So we resort to pictures, images, metaphors – call them what you will. ‘Father’, we say, or ‘King’, ‘Shepherd’, but they all have their obvious limitations, and can’t be carried through to their logical conclusions. ‘Father’ doesn’t embrace traditional female qualities; ‘king’ implies unhelpful material aspects; and ‘shepherd’ traditionally implies slaughter as well as care, which it might even perforce do so again, given current conditions.
There’s an obvious risk of extremism in leaving it to individuals to interpret the idea of God. This applies as much to some Christian extremism as it does to Islamic or Hindu extremism. But we need to be flexible in our understanding of God. And then we can find that God can answer our needs.
This is true when we are happy and exultant (See picture, below), but not least when we are in trouble or distress. Someone once said: ‘It’s when you are at your wit’s end that you’ll find that God lives there’!
And for Christians there’s one thing still to be remembered. The opening of St John’s Gospel does indeed say: ‘No one has ever seen God’. But there’s more. What it says is:
No one has ever seen God. It is the Father’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
When all is said and done, it is in the human person of Jesus that we have the best and surest portrayal of God, the source of comfort when we’re at our wit’s end and the source of challenge for living selfless lives.