You Are Loved

Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.”—Isaiah 49:13-15

This week is Mother’s Day here in North America, and we extend a huge thank-you to all mothers, as we celebrate their role in our lives. Having said that, in the midst of all our Mother’s Day celebrations we should remember that the outward trappings of Mother’s Day often overwhelm the spiritual elements. Phone calls and greeting cards and flowers and lunches and gifts have come to be an expected part of observing this special time.

But sometimes grown children, free from the prompting of teachers at school or reminders from their fathers, can forget to call or send a card. Sometimes grown children resent their mothers, for one reason or another, and refuse to acknowledge her on Mother’s Day. During this time, some mothers who don’t receive the kind of appreciation from their children that they once did, or that some of their friends who are also mothers do, can become depressed. Then there are women who have never been able to become mothers, for one reason or another, and who find this celebration to be a reminder of what they perceive to be their own failures and inadequacies.

So Mother’s Day, as with many other celebrations, can have unintended consequences on us as physical, limited and imperfect mortals. For that reason, it’s helpful to place our focus on this day beyond the physical, as we focus on God’s unconditional love.

Mothers are perhaps most celebrated when we, their children, can see how they, in some way, enabled us to see and experience something of God’s unconditional love. In that light, remember:

• The biological act of childbirth does not deliver all attributes to a woman that enable her to be the mother her children need. There’s more to motherhood than biology.

• Women who truly grow and mature into motherhood often sacrifice themselves for the good of their family. When, for example, there are only three pieces of pie left, but four people at the dinner table, mothers will often announce that they don’t really care for this type of pie.

• From Julian of Norwich, written over 600 years ago —”As we know, our own mother bore us only into pain and dying. But our true mother, Jesus, who is all love, bears us into joy and endless living.”

In our keynote passage God describes his love for us as similar to that of a physical mother’s love, but of course God’s love is absolutely unconditional and without any blemish or imperfection. In Christ, and in his cross, we see the ultimate expression of the sacrificial love of our Divine Parent.

There are many biblical definitions and descriptions of God’s love. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, a father sees his son returning home and is filled with compassion for him, running toward him and kissing him. However, in Isaiah, the love of God is not illustrated as a father’s love, but as a mother’s love. In Isaiah, God speaks of his love as surpassing the love of a physical mother—a physical mother who has compassion for the baby at her breast—the child she has borne:

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).

While it is not probable, but nonetheless possible for a mother to forget her baby, it is impossible for God to forget his spiritual children. The Hebrew word for “compassion” in Isaiah 49:15 is rakham. When the first “a” in this word is replaced by an “e” the word become rekham—the Hebrew word for “womb.”

Julian of Norwich said that “our true mother, Jesus, who is all love, bears us into joy and endless living.” How is Julian of Norwich (who was a woman) speaking of Jesus being our true mother? In Ephesians 5 Paul speaks of the physical relationship between a husband and wife, while also speaking of the spiritual relationship between Christ, and his body, the universal church.

Paul says, in Ephesians 5:25:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…

Later, in this same chapter, in verses 28-30 he says:
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.

Let’s stop at this point and think about that word “church”—and how Paul used a Greek word now translated as church and what it meant then—and for that matter, what the English word “church” means now.

Ekklesia is a Greek word that refers to an assembly of people who share a common perspective, purpose or goal. But the word “church” in our vocabulary has come to mean a visible gathering of people who gather together in one religiously sanctified location, in a building regarded as holy, or at least holier, than other buildings. Ekklesia, the Greek word used in the New Testament translated as “church” in our Bibles, has no such meaning.

The idea that a church primarily means what happens in a building is foreign to the New Testament. The church in the New Testament is a spiritual assembly of people who are all, by God’s grace, in Christ—they may or may not be physically located next to or with each other. The ekklesia of God is, first and foremost, united spiritually, in Christ—according to the New Testament, the church, headed by Christ, is a spiritual assembly.

The ekklesia of God is, according to the New Testament, the body of Christ. The body of Christ is primarily defined by its individual members, you and me (rather than an incorporated legal entity, whose members meet in a particular building at a particular time).

Those who are in the body of Christ are in Christ—a very part of him—as we human beings are part of the mother who gave birth to us. As part of the body of Christ we are one in Christ. Our identity in Christ is not defined by the church building we attend, or even if we don’t attend a brick-and-mortar church at all. Being one in Christ means that we are not spiritually superior or inferior to others if we have children, or if, for some reason, we do not. Being one in Christ means that we are all recipients of his love, by his grace.

God, through Isaiah, tells us that even though we may feel unloved by our physical mothers at times—or, to use the words of our passage, they may seem to “forget” us—or even if we are actually unloved by our physical mothers—he will never forget us.

Physical mothers have a truly unique kind of love—often called “mother love”—but for all of their love they are still imperfect and fallible. The perfect, unconditional love of God is absolutely perfect—he will never forget us. He will never forsake us.

God draws a spiritual lesson from the intimate physical relationship between compassion and the maternal instincts of a mother when he assures us, in Isaiah 66:13:

As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.

When God, in the person of Jesus, came into our world, bringing us a new covenant, he likened our new relationship with God to human birth. When we are spiritually reborn, we enter into the kingdom of God, we come into God’s presence and we are given his rest and his peace.

Giving birth is the biological role and privilege of women who become mothers. God re-births us, we are told in the first chapter of John, not of flesh and blood, not because of human will or desire, but out of his divine love and mercy.

For Christians, one of the great lessons of Mother’s Day is not gender-specific. We celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but the real spiritual lesson is that when we are spiritually re-born, from the womb of God, the love that God gives us and that he causes to grow within us transcends differences and limitations of human gender. For that matter, God’s love transcends and conquers anything else that might bring us into conflict or divide us.

In Christ we are one—in Christ, Paul says in Galatians 3:28, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ. We are one in Christ because of the love of God. We are loved of God in spite of our flaws and foibles, our imperfections and shortcomings.

We do not earn or deserve the love of God—we are loved because God has determined, out of his love, that we have immeasurable value to him. The most powerful gift that any mother can give is unconditional love. When we are on the receiving end of a mother’s love—a love that refuses to give up, a love that will never die, a love that is relentless—we are able to have a glimpse of God’s own love for us. Truly we are loved of God in a similar way that many of us have been blessed to experience physically, by our mothers.

In my own case, my memories of my own mother, who was killed in a car accident 30 years ago, are overwhelmingly positive. I was her firstborn, and perhaps because my father was killed in an accident shortly after my first birthday, she focused much of her time and energies on me. When my wife first met my mother she realized that in the eyes of my mother I was the son who could do no wrong! While there were obviously negative implications of the “blind” love my mother had for me, I can say that my experience of no-matter-what love from my earthly mother was a blessing for me as I have come to understand the eternal, limitless dimensions of God’s love for me.

I’ve learned so much more about a mother’s love as I have lived with my wife Karen for over 45 years. When I became a father, I marveled at how Karen bonded with our two babies to whom she gave birth. I saw an incredible transformation in her life as she grew and matured into motherhood, as she focused her love and energies on her children.

]It was almost as if, when Karen gave birth to our daughter and then our son, that she herself was born again—as billions of other women have, she was transformed from a young woman into a mother. I’ve also watched Karen endure the challenges and changes that mothers experience—as her children grew she had to let go, she had to realize with her mind at least, if not her heart, that letting go of them is why she gave birth to them and why she had nourished and loved and trained them.

I’ve also had the incredible opportunity of witnessing, up close and personally, a different kind of human love—that of a grandmother—or Nana as Karen is known to our five grandchildren. After our grandchildren arrived, when my wife was able to be with them for any length of time, when she returned home it seemed as if she was floating in mid-air, levitating somewhere between earth and heaven. It’s been yet another way in which God has provided physical illustrations, limited though they may be, of his unlimited love.

Give some thought to these verses written by British author and poet Rudyard Kipling. May these words help us realize realize that we are loved, and that God’s mother love is truly unconditional:

“If I were hanged on the highest hill,
I know whose love would follow me still.
Mother of mine. Mother of mine.
If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
I know whose tears would come down to me.
Mother of mine. Mother of mine.
If I were damned by body and soul,
I know whose prayer would make me whole.
Mother of mine. Mother of mine.”

We conclude with a prayer written some 800 years ago, by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you;
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
You weep over our sins and our pride,
Tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds,
In sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
By your dying, we are born to new life;
By your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;
Through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead,
Your touch makes us holy.
In your mercy, heal us;
In your compassion, bring us grace and forgiveness,
For the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.