On this mothering Sunday I wanted to talk about the nurturing God of the Christian faith … what does the concept of nurturing mean to you I wonder?
It is not just mothers who nurture of course. You might have had experience of nurturing from other people or even in other environments to human relationships. A good mother will have nurtured us but so will a good teacher or instructor. We might even have experience nurturing animals (perhaps that have been rescued or were unwell), nurturing of plants in allotments or greenhouses. Where there is life and growth there is nurture … but the concept of nurture is certainly personified in good motherhood
To nurture is defined in the dictionary as: to care for and protect (someone or something) while they are growing. To bring up, care for, provide for, take care of, attend to and look after.
It is the opposite of nature in that it is about upbringing, education, and environment, contrasted with inborn characteristics or personality.
We consider that an ideal mother is the greatest personification of such nurture … but this morning we ask whether God might be the greatest Mother of them all … that when it comes to nurture .. to care and protection and provision … it is God who offers the blueprint of such motherly tendencies.
How would it change our view of God if the Bible had been written in a culture where women were the first to be able to read and write and record the Bible stories I wonder. What if our Lord’s prayer had begun Our Mother, who art in Heaven?? How would it have changed the way in which we relate to God? After all the descriptions we use for God are mere human ones, attempting to contain something beyond definition through cultural and limited language.
Our Mother who art in heaven might be a useful prayer to pray sometimes .. because what the Bible tells us is that what is most important in life is not what we know about God .. but the fact that God knows us. In verses like that of the prophet Isaiah we are told we are written on the palm of God’s hands .. loved and cherished and remembered always. As the Psalmist says God was there when we were being knit together even before our mother knew us.
What this means is that what we know of God we know because God first knew us. Our lives depend upon the sustained initiative of God knowing us first and continuing to know us.
There is unspeakable comfort in knowing God is constantly taking care of us in love, watching over us for the good .. and that such love is like a mothers love, utterly realistic and based on knowing exactly who we are, how problematic and rebellious we can be. Divine love is motherly love and cannot become disillusioned because it is based on who we really are.
I wonder how our rather difficult passages this morning fit into such a message. To start with we face the possibility that God sent snakes into the Israelite camp to bite them .. which does not seem like a very nurturing thing to do.
I think I am on reasonably solid ground to suggest that this has never been a very useful way of understanding how we relate to God in our world … that we do something bad and God punishes us. I say it is solid ground because it is what Jesus himself said in the Gospels .. that when a disaster happens it is not because someone or other has sinned .. the Gospel of Luke says when a tower fell on a crowd Jesus stated .. it was not because they had been particularly bad, after all we will all perish one way or another!!
So God did not send snakes to bite the Israelites in my opinion .. however the experience of a plague of snakes made them turn to God because they knew, or hoped, that God loved them and wanted to save them. The story is one which tells us in bad times, in difficult situations, we can turn to a God who loves us and knows us and cares for us like a mother would in the same situation.
It is the great theme of the Bible and is revived in direction relation to the story of the snakes in our Gospel reading. Jesus is like the bronze snake that became a symbol of God’s willingness to gaze back at the people looking to their caring creator for healing and forgiveness and restoration.
In Numbers we read .. Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
In John’s gospel we read .. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
It is a message of comfort and not punishment. The gaze we recall in these moments of looking to God through the means God has provided are like the gaze between a new born baby and it’s mother.
There are no words .. no sense of communication other than a loving gaze .. a gaze between child and mother .. between child and God .. in which all the pain and the distress subsides.
This is what we are being called to in the message of Moses bronze snake and of Jesus death on the cross .. if we look to God we will find a loving gaze that is fixed on us knowing what we need and offering salvation from all that assails us .. even death itself.