Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sermon on Isaiah 55:1-11: Thirst, junk food, and why in the world God wants all of us

(To get the full effect, participate in the children's sermon... I handed out crackers, grapes, and gummy bears, and we talked about good food, junk food, and what kinds of food God wants to feed us.  So it's best if you're snacking on some Triscuits, seedless grapes, and gummy bears while you read.)

Isaiah 55:1-11 (The Message)

“All who are thirsty, come to the water!
Are you penniless?  Come anyway—buy and eat!
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
    Buy without money—everything’s free!
Why do you spend your money on junk food,
    your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?
Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,
    fill yourself with only the finest.
Pay attention, come close now,
    listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.
I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you,
    the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.
I set him up as a witness to the nations,
    made him a prince and leader of the nations,
And now I’m doing it to you:
    You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of,
and nations who’ve never heard of you
    will come running to you
Because of me, your God,
    because The Holy of Israel has honored you.”
Seek God while he’s here to be found,
    pray to him while he’s close at hand.
Let the wicked abandon their way of life
    and the evil their way of thinking.
Let them come back to God, who is merciful,
    come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness.
“I don’t think the way you think.
    The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
        God’s Decree.
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
    so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
    and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
    and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
    producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
    not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
    they’ll complete the assignment I gave them."

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We’re getting used to trilogies, aren’t we?  They’re how we write books and make movies now.  Star Wars.  The Godfather.  The Lord of the Rings.  The Hunger Games.  Even stories that weren’t originally trilogies are being written and made as them now:  Christopher Nolan made Batman Begins, then The Dark Knight, then The Dark Knight Rises.  Iron Man 3 will come out this year.  Both reboots of Spiderman, the one with Tobey Maguire and the new one with Andrew Garfield, are trilogies.  The Bond movies with Daniel Craig?  Three of them.  We’re telling stories in sets of three.

This isn’t new for us, as humans.  We’ve had trilogies as far back as we’ve had written literature.  Remember your high school English and the three Theban plays of Sophocles:  Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.  There’s something about the structure of three that we like, the way things loop back, how certain themes get repeated, how the first part leans into the second and the second into the third, and the third wraps it up and solves questions from the first.

The book of Isaiah is a trilogy, set in Israel and Babylon.  This is the three-part story of a people in exile.  The Jewish people have lost the promised land; they forgot to trust God and to care for their neighbor.  They lose the protection of God.  They’re taken into Babylon in chains, away from their homes and the land they believed God gave them.  And they turn to the prophet Isaiah to try to understand what’s happened to them and what’s coming next.

The first part of Isaiah, chapters 1-39, are the words of judgment -- the long list of how Israel has wandered away from God and from their promises.  And then suddenly, in the first verse in chapter 40, everything changes.  God tells Isaiah:  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  This is what we sing at Christmas:  “Comfort, comfort now my people.”  Suddenly there are words of comfort and peace.  There are promises of a coming servant.  God speaks over and over again of a radical, abundant, merciful love for Israel.  “Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name. You’re mine.”  Remember?  “Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I have called you each by name.”  In the second part of Isaiah God says “No matter what has happened, I still love you.  I still want you.  I still know you and call you and hope for you.  I will bring you back from captivity in Babylon.  I will save you.  I will free you.  The promises of God are still true.”

And chapter 56 is where Isaiah will move from words of comfort to words of hope.  God will reveal that this salvation and freedom and promise isn’t just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.  The third part of Isaiah is where God will declare, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

So today’s passage, chapter fifty-five, is leaning into that.  When God says, “Pay attention, come close now,” we’re in the last three minutes of the second movie.  We’re with Luke and Leia on the observation deck, planning to find and free Han Solo.  We’re with Frodo and Sam, on their own as they start their journey toward Mordor.  We’re with Katniss when she wakes up for the first time in District 13.  The end of the second part of a trilogy is always leaning forward, pulling us into the third.  There’s this feeling of incompleteness, this question of “But now what?”, this scrambled grab for the third book.

So when God speaks through Isaiah and says, “All who are thirsty, come!” we need to remember that it’s the last sentence of the second part of a trilogy.  It is less of a lovely offer and more of a wake-up call.  It’s that leaning in, that waiting, that not-quite-yet that pulls you into the final chapter.

* See what God says through Isaiah, in the middle of the first paragraph:  “Listen to me, listen well:  Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest.”  The beautiful thing is that in the original Hebrew, Isaiah says:  Fill your soul with rich things.  This cotton candy is not about what you’re feeding your stomach but about what you’re feeding your heart.  God looks at Israel’s life and says:  This is junk food.  You’re feeding yourself on jealousy, and anger, and blame, and fear.  You’re stuffing your soul with cheap carbohydrates.  You’re spending your money on air.

* And instead, see what God wants to feed us with:  the covenant with David.  “I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you, the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.”  It was a covenant of peace, and a promise that a son of David would always be king over Israel.  It sounds so lovely.  But remember that the people first hearing this have seen David’s sons and grandsons and great-grandsons tear the kingdom apart.  They were lousy leaders who forgot God and failed to take care of the people.  The Israelites are being reminded, right here, of a promise that looks broken.  This “sure, solid, enduring love” feels bitter, now, because it seems like that covenant is over.  They’ve been dragged off to Babylon in chains.  Everything around them suggests that God’s love is anything but sure.

* But God knows this.  So then God says:  “You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of, and nations who’ve never heard of you will come running to you.”  God says:  You know that covenant?  The one that looks broken?  It’s still true.  And now it’s going to be even bigger.  I’m not just making promises to the people of Israel anymore.  Yes, Israel will be restored.  The Holy One will honor you.  But you’re going to be restored to be a light to the world.  Nations who’ve never heard of you, nations that you think are outside of God’s people, will come running.  The wicked and evil will get a second chance.  Because God is merciful.  Because God is lavish with forgiveness.

* Because God doesn’t think the way we think, with vengeance and grudges and who’s in or who’s out.  The covenant God made with Israel is being turned into this blessing for all nations because of the very nature of who God is.  “For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work.”  God’s way is far beyond and above our way.  God’s way is about mercy, and forgiveness, and second and third and fiftieth chances.  God has sent words, like rain and snow falling on dry earth, and those words are going to do the work they were sent to do.

And what are the words that God has sent?  “All who are thirsty, come.”  This isn’t a friendly invitation.  This is a radical change.  Last week we heard about Abraham and the covenant with God, that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars.  Now those stars are finding out they’re not the only lights in God’s galaxy.  God’s got an eye not just on the nation of Israel but on the whole world.  It no longer matters if you’re a descendant of Abraham.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Israel or Babylon or anywhere in between.  It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, or young or old, or even holy or wicked.  When God says “All who are thirsty” that means the only thing required to come to God is thirst.  Is hunger.  Is your soul longing for something more.  All that’s required is for you to say “What I’ve been feeding my heart is junk food and cotton candy.  I need something more.”

And here’s what I kept coming back to this week:  why?  Why everyone?  Why me and you and us?  And why the other nations, and why the evil and the wicked?

Surely the Israelites asked this too.  After all, they heard thirty-nine chapters of judgment in Isaiah before they got to the comfort and hope.  The whole point up until now is that we aren’t worthy of this.  We sin.  We make mistakes.  We hurt each other.  We forget to trust God.  We have nothing to offer; we’re penniless.  And the moment when we know that is the moment when God says “Come and buy without money -- everything’s free.”  What is that about?  Why is God so interested in bringing everyone to the table?  It’s not just bringing everyone to God -- it’s getting us all in one place.  We’re all drinking this milk and wine together.  It’s not an individual call.  God is hollering for every person, every family, every community to show up and eat, like a cosmic dinner bell.  Even though we know through thousands of years of human history that wherever two or three are gathered there’s bound to be a mess.

And God is willing to take that risk.  God wants everyone at the same table.

So here’s what I think:

God doesn’t just want us.  God wants us for each other.

God knows that we need each other.  That we need each other to laugh, and to hold on to, and to cry with.  That we need each other to keep each other honest, and hopeful, and kind.  We need each other so that every time we come together we remember that we’re a mess, that none of us are perfect, and every week we say, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Every week we say, “Peace be with you.”  Not just any peace but the kind that comes with knowing the end of the story.  Knowing that no matter where you are in the trilogy, the end is full of promise -- the promise that you are a beloved child of God.

And we come back for that promise over and over again.  We come to the table, penniless and without money, and find so much more than we could ever need.  We take wine and bread from each other to remember that God wants to feed us with so much more than junk food.  God wants to feed our souls.

Because God knows we are hungry.  But God knows that my thirst might be your thirst, and that if we both ask, we might find some living water.  God knows that maybe what I’m hungry for is what you’re hungry for, and if we come together we might build a table and a room and a community and a church that feeds each other.

And then all who are thirsty might come, and find something to feed their soul.

Amen.

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