On Christmas mornings when I was a little girl, my brothers and I would wake up very early, while it was still dark—probably not long after Mom and Dad had dropped into bed after a long night of putting up the tree and assembling toys and filling stockings. We would creep into their dark bedroom and gently but insistently shake Dad’s shoulder until he grudgingly opened one eye. He’d get up and tell us to go sit at the top of the stairs where we couldn’t see into the living room, while he went down to “check to see if Santa had been there.”
The four of us would sit on the very top step like a row of little birds, all anxious anticipation. We were pretty sure Dad would come back with good news, but there was also a little shred of doubt. What if Santa hadn’t come? Since Dad had to go make sure, didn’t that mean there was a possibility that Santa had flown right over the roof of 244 Tuscarawas Avenue? Could Santa have forgotten us?
Santa always came, of course, because we were fortunate to have parents who were able to see that we had everything we needed and much of what we wanted. We never went to bed hungry, never wore clothing discarded by others as not nice enough, never wondered where we would sleep or worried that Mom or Dad might up and disappear some night. Even that little bit of fear that Santa hadn’t stopped by was more like the thrill of a good horror movie—fear that just heightens the anticipation of a happy ending. Mom and Dad devoted themselves to caring for us, and we never questioned their love for us.
There are too many children in the world who don’t wait in the comfort and security that my brothers and I did. Maybe you were one of them yourself. Too many parents struggle to meet even their children’s basic needs for food and clothing and a safe place to live, for reasons entirely beyond their control. Others make bad choices that result in tragic consequences for their children. I’m grateful for all those who work to help provide for children in need and their families. My prayer is that through them, these families will have a sense of trust that they are loved and cared for, by their neighbors and by God.
The Jewish exiles in Babylon didn’t have that sense of trust in God. After decades of exile, far from their ruined homes in Jerusalem, they had begun to question God’s love for them. How could a people cherished by God—a people God had entered into covenant with—find themselves in exile for generations? They seem not to recall the sinfulness and faithlessness that had landed them in trouble in the first place. But even if they had remembered and learned their lesson, why was God taking so long to act? Could it be that God had stopped caring about them? Could it be that God had forgotten them?
Isaiah’s report that the exiles thought God had “forgotten” them breaks my heart. It hurts to be forgotten. It’s bad enough when someone ignores us or is mean to us or puts us down. But, to treat us that way, they at least have to acknowledge our presence. To be forgotten is worse. It means that we aren’t even on someone’s radar anymore. It’s as though we don’t exist at all. I think that’s why we react with such outrage when we hear news stories of children or even pets that have been left in cars by parents who “forgot” about them. This is what the exiles thought had happened to them—that God had forgotten them.
I’ll bet that most of us have had the experience of being forgotten by someone who once was a part of our lives—maybe even an important part. But have you ever felt “forgotten” by God? Ever had times when you felt like you were just leaving your prayers on some divine voicemail, and God was deleting them without even listening to them first?
Maybe you’ve felt what the 16th century poet St. John of the Cross described in what has become known as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” To paraphrase: “Just when you believed that the sun of Divine favor was shining most brightly upon you, God turned all this light into darkness, and shut against you the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which you had been tasting in God, who left you so completely in the dark that you didn’t know where to go in your thoughts or your prayers.”
Mother Teresa knew what that feels like. Some of her letters were published after her death, and they revealed that she went nearly fifty years feeling without feeling God’s presence. She spoke of the darkness and loneliness she felt for all but five weeks in 1959, when she found God again. I imagine she would have understood all too well why the exiles felt forgotten by God.
But, God never forgot Mother Teresa, and God has never forgotten you. In spite of how the exiles felt, God never forgot about them. God never stopped caring about them, never stopped wanting to restore the relationship with them. God sent the messenger of Second Isaiah to assure them that God was the loving parent God had always been and always will be.
God called them out of the darkness that had imprisoned them. They would have all that they needed—nourishing food, fresh springs of water, and a safe place to rest. God would provide a way back into God’s arms, and their compassionate God would comfort them in their suffering. All they have to do is wait for God to fulfill these glorious promises. To their worries about being forgotten, God gives such a beautiful response: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
God’s constant concern is their well-being, and not just in the present. God is also committed to their future. “See?” God says. “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” At that time in history, there were no walls in Jerusalem. They had been reduced to rubble. The temple had been destroyed. But, God sees beyond the present reality of desolation to the time when all will be restored. God has their future, not just in mind, but literally in God’s hands.
God’s promises are for the future, which means they’ll have to wait. But, with these words, God gives them reason to wait like cherished children. They don’t have to worry about whether they’ll have enough to eat and drink. They don’t have to wonder if they’ll have a roof over their heads or walls that will secure them from danger. They don’t have to wonder if God has forgotten them. They can wait as children of a mothering God who loves them so much that their very names are inscribed on the palms of God’s hands.
We can trust that God has never forgotten us, either, and never will. We know this to be true because, just as the exiles were written in the palms of God’s hands, we are written on the palms of Jesus’ hands. Each one of us is inscribed on the hands that Mary and Joseph inspected for ten tiny fingers—on hands that healed and broke bread and held little children, on hands that were affixed to a cross. Our past, present, and future were inscribed by nails with indelible red ink on the palms of Jesus’ hands, and Jesus will never forget us.
We, too, have some waiting to do. We wait with excitement to celebrate the gift that has already been given—the gift of the Savior. We wait with joyful anticipation of the gift to come—the gift of his return. Because of God’s steadfast love for us we can wait as beloved children whose deepest needs for love and security are met by our mothering God. We wait as children whose lives are held in God’s hands, confident that we will never be forgotten. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young