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Isaiah 66.10-14

With the July 4th holiday upon us, it could be easy to mistake Isaiah’s message as a patriotic declaration of his nation’s prosperity. But to confuse his words as nationalistic rhetoric would be a grave mistake. Indeed, the decades worth of story covered by First, Second and Third Isaiah details the devastation brought upon God’s people when they, among other things, mistook pride of nation for relationship with God. In order that we do not make the same mistake, it’s important that we read this text within in its full context, recognizing the proper parallel is not between the nation of Israel and the nation of America (or any other nation), but the people of God called Israel, and the people of God called the Church.

As is true for most of Isaiah and other prophetic texts, the stanza given to us here is in the form of lyrical poetry. Many scholars have recognized these verses as an epilogue to Isaiah 56-66, tying together again the themes of new creation and restoration for Zion/ Jerusalem. While the surface meaning of the similes are quite clear, Ben Witherington III reminds us that this type of poetry is “to a certain degree open-ended, like an incomplete drawing which has a definite shape with a degree of detail but which can be added to later to make it useful and applicable to a later situation and time. It cannot mean just anything, but it can mean more than what the poetic prophet may have understood it to mean.” This, he says, allows for a “trajectory of meaning that can be added to later, so long as it is moving in the same direction.”[1] With this understanding, the New Testament authors (particularly John the Revelator) followed this trajectory to Jesus, and saw the promises of new creation and restoration continuing even further into the future.

The author(s) of Third Isaiah were writing to an audience that had endured significant trauma. They were survivors or born to survivors. But they had watched or heard stories of many others who succumbed to the violence and starvation brought on by the collapse of their nation. And what image could relay the promise of restoration, well-being and belonging to these broken, traumatized people? The comfort of a mother. It is an image used four different times to describe YHWH in Isaiah 40-66.

First we are invited to imagine Jerusalem as a mother who has all she needs to easily and lovingly care for her many children. While verses 7-9 do not appear in the lectionary reading, must not overlook the profound eschatological symbolism in the description of a birth without pain. In Christl Maier’s words, “the painless and swift birth of many children has a deep, symbolic meaning since it redeems the imposition on Eve, the primeval mother (Gen 3.16). Thus, this future time for Zion will remind people of the paradisiacal situation of Eden.”[2] This imagery again reaffirms the refrain of God re-creating, making a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65.17, 66.22).

After the reality of malnourishment that led mothers’ milk to dry up early and brought mothers across the land into the deep grief of watching her child starve and being able to do nothing about it – Jerusalem is promised as a mother who has more than enough for all her children. This is a restoration almost too good to be true, and struck at the core of the trauma experienced by many. The point is made clear: “no longer will babies die when only a few days old” (Isa. 65.20, NLT).

But it is not only Jerusalem that does the work of mothering. In fact, the prophet says that the mothering care of Jerusalemn for her inhabitants is an extension of the mothering care of none other than YHWH. It is YHWH who comforts YHWH’s people in but also through the city of Jerusalem. Maier notes that Isaiah 66.13b provides a double meaning of birusalaim, because the Hebrew preposition can be translated as localization (in) as well as instrumental (by). Thus, “the comfort will be mediated by or through the personified Mother Zion [and] Jerusalem becomes the mediator of divine blessing and salvation. The personified city not only provides a space for communication with God by hosting the temple, but also provides sentiment and atmosphere by her female gender and motherly role.”[3]

It is important to note who receives this mothering care of YHWH by and through the mothering care of Jerusalem. It is revealed in the final lines of today’s pericope – “YHWH’s servants” – but these people have been in the forefront of Isaiah’s message throughout this final portion of writing. “Several passages in Third Isaiah describe this group as pious and God-fearing people that separate themselves from people who oppress others and engage in strange cultic rites (Isa. 57.20-21; 66.3-6).”[4] For those following the story closely, these are familiar descriptions. YHWH has been inviting Israel into this place for centuries through the voices of many prophets. This is not a reward for good behavior, or merely the condolences for those who have suffered enough. This is simply what it means for a people to live within the promise echoed throughout the Torah and the prophets: “you will be my people, and I will be your God” (for example, Exodus 6.7; Leviticus 26.12; Jeremiah 30.22; Ezekiel 36.28).

What do we make of these words for our own congregations today, in 2022? While the particulars will be nuanced from one context to another, I’d like to suggest a few possibilities.

First, for those who have experienced great suffering and devastation, there is a beautiful message of hope and restoration. But let us be clear – this kind of restoration is a gift – a Good Mother sharing and empowering a community to give the good gifts of motherhood to one another. It is not something to be demanded, manufactured, or carefully curated by human-led initiatives. The only prerequisite for receiving this gift is acknowledging our need of it. Or in other words – repentance. The nation of Israel’s long period of suffering and devastation was a result of stiff-arming God’s guidance and care, preferring to seek out promises of wealth and power rather than a commitment to God’s provision and God’s justice. But for any and all who are ready to receive the fullness of relationship with YHWH, nothing will be withheld.

This text brings to mind the picture of Jesus himself weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 13.34-35). It was the place which was supposed to mediate the mothering care of YHWH, but had instead made a name for itself by killing the prophets. Jesus laments that their destruction was born from their refusal to be gathered to him as a mother hen gathers chicks. As it was for Jerusalem, so it is also for us, the Church. For those who long to receive new creation and restoration, we can begin by opening ourselves to the fullness of receiving the care our divine mother offers us. What does it look like to receive God’s love like this? How are we in danger of pushing it away? Why do we as communities or individuals refuse the care, leadership and love of God?

Secondly, as Isaiah does throughout, this text offers us a piece of new creation vision. This new creation restoration is a place where mothers have what they need to mother well, and they are celebrated for it. It’s a place where motherhood is connected with God’s own work - an extension of God’s Mothering care to God’s people. It’s a place where the children – whether the infants nursing at their human mothers’ breasts, or the grown men and women being comforted and strengthened by God – recognize their need for their mothers, and take great joy in receiving what their mothers have to offer. In the restoration of Zion, God is creating God’s good and perfect creation (again), complete with a river to supply the people with Shalom</