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"I am With You" - the Mothering Gift
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Lent III - 03/27/11 Is. 45:14-25; Ps. 119:105-120; Eph: 5:1-14; Lk. 11:14-28
I was intending to preach today on "Why Jesus Had to Die", but discovered that there are background issues, which, if clarified, will make why Jesus had to die much more understandable. So, we begin today with our being made in the Image of God, male and female, that is, fathering and mothering. We humans are reflections, images of, those qualities in God.
I have on occasion made reference to the fact that in the order of creation, mothering comes first before fathering. That is true in the Genesis creation story, and in our natural birth process. The reason is obvious: I have to be here, born and alive, before I can be given a purpose, a law, a direction for my life.
But in the order of redemption, we have just the opposite: fathering comes before mothering. I have often wondered about that -- why is it so?
The Fall creates an unnatural situation because the moral order of the cosmos has been all but destroyed, leading to a chaotic and thus undependable personal stability. Our moral rejection of God, our disobedience, creates an ontological instability as well. Because we are no longer listening to the Voice of God, we wander off the Hand of God, with the illusion that we can handle life on our own. We seek to be independent, autonomous decision-makers. We reject our ontological dependency on God as well as our moral dependency. We want to be totally without the need of God. So we imagine that we can establish our personhood by our own doing. We do not then need the Hand of God as the Ground of our Being, we will provide our own sense of personal stability by our own actions. Or, so we think. But we have catapulted ourselves into self-destruction.
The problem with being "on our own" like that is that without God, resources for our stability are now limited to what the world itself can supply. That supply is finite and limited, and every other creature in the world is competing for control of that supply -- so as to shore up their personhood. We no longer have an endless supply of love, or of the material goods needed for our survival.
We all "know" that it is better to be at the top of the pyramid of power than at the bottom, and that those at the top have it "made in the shade". Or so it looks.
But with that kind of built-in competition and moral chaos, there is no possibility of providing enough for everyone, so the competition gets self-serving and vicious. Life is a power struggle with no end in sight. Those at the bottom are continually struggling up the steps of the pyramid to conquer the one at the top and control all the rest down below.
That is the condition into which America is rapidly descending as we trash our Biblical heritage. That can be reversed only if we are able and willing to restore our Biblical worship of the true God and thus can have a united moral consensus.
That picture of today is a replica of what God faced in the Fall -- moral chaos descending further and further into communal and personal chaos and instability. How, then, does one restore peace and order? How does one get love and kindness to replace power struggle and vicious competition? Such a restoration requires first that the masculine moral order be restored. Love and kindness, the mothering gifts, cannot survive in moral chaos. Those mothering gifts are not, by themselves, capable of restoring the original goodness of the created order. Without a protecting moral order, the mothering gifts will be trampled and misused.
And that means that the fathering gift of moral order must be enforced before there can be any stability in the mothering gifts of creation. In the order of redemption, we cannot begin with the natural order of mothering coming before fathering.
So, with a mighty outstretched arm, God showed both Pharaoh and the Hebrews who was Boss. There is one and only one "I AM" in the cosmos, one and only one Creator and Sovereign, God Himself. There is no other. That is the theme of the prophets, as in Isaiah 45 this morning. We read how the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Sabeans, those "men of stature", will say to the Hebrews, "God is with you only, and there is no other, no god besides Him."
For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God), who formed the earth and made it (He established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): "I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, 'Seek me in chaos.' I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right. "
The earth was formed to be inhabited, an orderly, mutually loving civilization. The chaos into which the human race has descended, God is saying, is our creation, not His. God speaks plain, understandable truth. If we do not understand Him, that is because of our separation from Him, not because He is trying to be mysterious.
So, God gives the Hebrews a clear and precise law, the Decalogue, to restore moral order. They are 10 easily understandable and reasonable requests, which, if followed, will lead to a just and livable society.
But.... there is a problem.
The Hebrews keep finding themselves backsliding. Even at their best, they find it very difficult to obey God. They experience that struggle to which St. Paul points in Romans 7, that they do what they do not want to do, and fail to do that which they want. There is a built-in inner contradiction within their own souls. They are at war within themselves.
Both Christians and Jews have wrestled with this problem. What are we to make of our inability to keep the law of God? Various explanations have been offered. There are two extremes:
First, the so-called "conservative" branch of Christendom has offered the explanation of "original sin", that we are so badly corrupted and sinful that we are incapable of obedience. We have become supremely wicked. The answer is severe discipline of one sort or another. The Moral Mode. There is some truth in that view. There is indeed a deep sin problem.
Second, the so-called "liberal" branch offers the opposite explanation, that it is precisely the overweening father image with his "shoulds" and "oughts" that crushes the spirit of the growing child and turns him or her into a fractious rebel. The solution is to let the child grow on his own, to let nature take its path. A child set free from moral constraints will come out right on his own. There is truth here also, in the Healing Mode. An oppressive father-figure has damaged many a child who needs healing.
But neither of these have a truly workable answer. We must back up to look at the Image of God in which we are made. Genesis 1:26-8, tells us that we are made in the Image of God, male and female, indicating that the Image in God, of which we are a likeness, has a masculine and feminine aspect. God is commonly called our Father. He is also our Mother. God both mothers and fathers us. Eve was given to Adam because Adam could not adequately reflect the feminine, mothering side of God. That was to be her role, and of all women following.
To create a living being, God begins breathing His Holy Spirit into the clay Adam. In the Creeds we talk of the Holy Spirit as the "giver of life". And there are many other references to God mothering us throughout the Bible. When we humans are born, we receive the gift of life through our mothers. Our mothers give us our first sense of ontological stability, stability of our personhood, our being.
Some Christians will reply that God is "above" gender, that God is neither masculine nor feminine. It is true that God is neither male nor female because those are created physical sexual qualities. But masculine and feminine, fathering and mothering, are qualities original in God Himself. The denial of gender in God makes good Greek philosophy, but it does not make good Hebrew theology (however, that is another long story).
In creation, God first mothers us, that is, gives us our being. And then He gives the law, the commandment to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But in redemption, God gives first the law, and then much, much later, gives the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power of being.
Why such a long, long and terribly difficult time between the giving of the law and the coming of the Holy Spirit? Why did God not pour out His Holy Spirit early in the process of redemption? Why did He not give us that power of being so that we could indeed obey His laws -- which were so difficult for the human race? Yes, we need to repent of our sins, but we also need to be healed of our brokenness -- both/and, not either/or.
A primary reason is that while the masculine sense of moral order could be communicated verbally or in writing, the mothering gift of personal stability had to be communicated personally, in close relationship. The mothering gift comes to the infant from knowing that mother is near and able to minister to one's needs. "I am with you..." That is the message which the infant longs to hear from mother. Without that message, the infant believes that it is "on its own". The infant might drift toward autism, schizoid personality, or just give up, role over and die. Healthy dependency comes from an extended history of close relationship. Just talking or writing about it does not convey it. The infant must feel it, sensing the presence of another person.
Biblical theology and psychology took a leap forward in their common concerns when it was first noted among secular psychologists that infants have an ontological relationship with their mothers, continuing on for several years. They get their sense of being, their personal stability, first through their mothers, which makes mothering absolutely crucial to the survival, health, and wholeness of the human race.
That is partly true of fathering also, but the father's role is by design a more distant one. Mother's role is inherently close and personal. We soak up her self-confidence into our very being. That cannot happen, like fathering, at a distance. We can successfully do that distance thing with our fathers only if we have already been adequately mothered so that we are already secure in our being. Then we can relate to the requirements of moral discipline out of our inner personal strength rather than in a position of doubting who we are.
It was not that the feminine grace of God was lacking early on, but rather that we could not identify with it because the process was necessarily going backwards from the creation order of mothering first and then fathering.
There were certain individuals who did indeed receive this power of being early in Hebrew history, the ability to stand in front of others and be themselves even under great stress -- they were the prophets, those who spoke for God.
We read of how they received this power of being. Moses quivered at the thought of confronting Pharaoh: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" a case of severe self-doubt. God replies, "I will be with you." "Being with" is the mothering gift to strengthen Moses' sense of identity.
God told Joshua the same thing: "...be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."
Isaiah met the Lord in the temple, and responds, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips...." Then one of the seraphim came to touch Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal from the altar so that he could respond to God's request for a prophet, "Here am I! Send me!" Six times in the book, God promises to be with Isaiah, and that Isaiah should have no fear.
God says in Isaiah 43, "But now says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." That is the gift of a powerful personal stability.
The Lord comes also to Jeremiah to appoint him a prophet, to which Jeremiah responds, "Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth...," to which the Lord responds, "Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you." Again that personal presence of the Lord which gives our sense of being, stability, and courage in the face of overwhelming force and opposition.
But these prophets were few and far between, and their gift of the Spirit, so far as we know, did not communicate to their followers, other than in the case of Elisha inheriting a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. Those who gathered around the prophets, often writing down their prophecies and propagating them among the people, did not appear to have the same powerful effect as the original prophets.
God drew each of these men into a mother-child relationship to stabilize them.
But the promise kept coming, as in Joel, "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions...."
And then, there was 400 years, empty, with no prophet at all -- until the time of John the Baptist -- and Jesus. The people were in high expectation that the promised Messiah was coming. There was ferment among the Jews, some proclaiming themselves the Messiah, some fomenting military rebellion against Rome.
But they were all missing the point, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the power of being, along with the other gifts of the Spirit, would have to come by incarnation, by God Himself in the flesh visiting His people to draw them to Himself. God would be with His people in a radically new way, mothering as well as fathering.
John the Baptist speaks of Jesus: "I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire...." God is fulfilling His promise to bless His people with the power of the Holy Spirit.
At the end of John 6, Jesus said to the twelve,
"Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."
Jesus had successfully drawn those 11 disciples into a deep dependency upon Himself. Judas alone did not submit. Jesus, in whom the fathering and mothering gifts were perfectly expressed, was mothering the disciples (as well as fathering them), showing them that He had the power of life, the power of the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Jesus would baptize them, wash them, in that power of the Holy Spirit, giving them the ability to be themselves, anywhere, any time, with anyone. The world could not do that.
But for God, who alone can do that, it was necessary for the salvation of our souls and of our community. The disciples of Jesus will be healed of their inner brokenness, and so now able to obey, as well as be forgiven.
Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew at the Great Commission: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." That "I am with you...." echoes, a powerful refrain, all through Scripture. It is that being of God with us which communicates the gift of the Holy Spirit, just as our mothers being with us in infancy communicates to us their stability of being.
Our assurance of salvation, our assurance that we are safe and secure, rests on that perception that God is with us. Emmanuel. There is no salvation apart from that. That deep inner sense is what St. Paul three times calls our "guarantee" of the coming completion of salvation -- the Second Coming and Day of Judgement. When the fathering gift of law and commandment is wedded within us to the mothering gift of security of being, then we become able to obey the commandments, then we become assured of who we are, and that we can do what we are commanded to do. We can become obedient and faithful sons and daughters.
That gift of freedom to be and to do is what the disciples experienced on Pentecost, which set them on their journey out to convert the world to Christ. They had a stability which no force on earth could conquer.
We can have it too. Pray fervently for the increasing gift of the Holy Spirit.
So, next week: "Why Jesus Had to Die" --- picking up where Jesus is mothering His disciples, drawing them into a deep spiritual dependency upon Himself.
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