“What do you mean, Biblical?” The Mayor of New York City is struggling to take in what he’s being told by the group of disheveled people standing intently before him. It’s a pivotal scene in the classic movie Ghostbusters, which I watched on Halloween this past week for the first time in a while.
If you don’t know or remember, the film centers on a group of disgraced scientists who turn their fascination with the spiritual realm into a lucrative business of “ghostbusting,” by which they essentially mean being exterminators for ghosts. I remembered all the classic lines and scenes, but I had forgotten the multiple conversations between the characters delving into some fairly deep theological territory as they try to make sense of the sharp increase in ghostly activity that they’ve been experiencing.
As the film moves towards the climactic final act, the Ghostbusters have been doing some impressive detective work and realized that an apartment building on the west side of Manhattan was secretly built as a sort of antenna for paranormal activity, all with the goal of causing so much spiritual disturbance that it will open a portal for an ancient demonic being to return and wreak havoc on the city.
Having discovered all of this, the Ghostbusters have the unenviable task of trying to persuade the Mayor of New York City to believe them and help them do something about it. As they argue with the mayor’s staff and an ornery federal official, the leader, played by Bill Murray, turns to the Mayor and tells him that he needs to accept the fact that this city is headed for “a disaster of Biblical proportions.”
“What do you mean, Biblical?” the mayor asks incredulously. Another Ghostbuster jumps in: “What he means is…real wrath of God type stuff: fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, rivers and seas boiling!” “Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes!” another one adds. “The dead rising from the grave!” a third one pronounces. “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” Bill Murray concludes.
First, I love that “dogs and cats living together” is the apex of the apocalypse in their telling. But dogs and cats aside, that’s a pretty solid summary of how we tend to think about Judgement Day, the Last Day, the end of the world. And fire and brimstone raining down, rivers and seas boiling, etc. are among the depictions of that day in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. But they are not the only Biblical views of it, and certainly not the only definition of what is “Biblical.”
This passage from Isaiah that we heard today is also a depiction of how the world will end, but you’ll notice that even that phrase doesn’t sound quite right when applied to this passage. Listen to Isaiah’s vision: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” The only fire here is cooking this deliciously rich food; the only thing being judged is the vintage of the wine, which is excellent; the only thing being purified is the well-aged wine so the sediment at the bottom of the barrel is strained clear and the wine can be truly appreciated for how good it is.
I mean, I don’t know about you, but if that’s Judgment Day, sign me up! This is the end of the world, but not in the sense of its termination. This is the end of the world in the sense of its completion, of it fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, of its coming to wholeness. All peoples coming together in the presence of God to share in full community with each other and with God, symbolized by this luxurious communal feast that Isaiah describes.
The communal aspect here is important to notice. The cultural understanding of Judgement Day that we have is not a communal experience. It happens to everyone, sure, but it’s not a communal experience; it’s more like the world of individuals are all experiencing the fear and danger at the same time, but everyone is experiencing it on their own, individually. In a weird way, it’s sort of like how toddlers engage in “parallel play,” where they may be playing the same game or activity and even imitating each other, but never directly engaging the other in play. Everyone stands there, watching the world collapse around them, waiting to be judged. That’s a long way from what Isaiah is describing, though.
With apologies to any vegetarians present, who I hope can appreciate this metaphor even while abstaining from its reality, when I read this passage, I can’t help but think that what Isaiah is really envisioning is nothing less than a divine barbecue. As I’ve mentioned before, a couple of years ago I got a backyard smoker for myself. I’ve always really enjoyed barbecue, but have always been frustrated at the inability to find good barbecue in the Northeast (that’s not a dig, just a reality; you can’t find good cheesesteaks or hoagies or pretzels in the South, either).
So I decided I needed to start making my own barbecue. Pulled pork is what I do best, though I’m getting better at beef brisket. But in the process of really learning how to make barbecue, I’ve learned several interesting things about barbecue that I think help us understand this passage. First, the key to barbecue is cooking “low and slow,” as they call it. It’s why barbecue people get riled up when people call grilling meat “a barbecue,” because if you’re grilling hamburgers or steaks you’re doing the opposite of “low and slow”: you sear them over high heat for just a few minutes so the outside has a nice crust but the inside is still juicy.
Barbecue is the opposite. You make barbecue by cooking at a low temperature for a long time. A pork shoulder will take 5-8 hours, depending on the size; a full beef brisket is more like 10-12 hours. It takes a long time, a lot of patience, and the challenge is maintaining a steady temperature over time, to keep things cooking “low and slow.”
Which brings us to the second point: barbecue uses the toughest cuts of meat. Barbecue originated among poor people, who couldn’t afford or simply didn’t even have access to the choice cuts of meat. Those tough meats have to be cooked for a long time at a low temperature so they will break down and become tender and juicy. So barbecue, at its core, is the art of turning something tough and ordinary into something succulent and extraordinary, if you have the patience, persistence, and wisdom to see it through.
And finally, barbecue is inherently communal. A pork shoulder is usually 5-10 pounds; a beef brisket is 10-20 pounds. If you’re going to barbecue either of those, you almost have to have a group to help eat it when its done. Which makes sense, because again, barbecue was developed as a way of feeding a community, usually on special occasions or holidays.
The barbecue chef would invite their neighbors, their family, their friends, whatever community was at the center of the celebration, and the people attending the barbecue would bring something to contribute to the meal when the barbecue itself was finished: mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, collard greens, potato salad, cornbread, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, something; and if you were asked to just bring napkins and paper plates, just focus on the fact that you’re getting invited instead of the implication that nobody trusts your cooking. The point is that everyone gets invited, everyone gets to share in the feast, and everyone makes a contribution to it (seriously, what are you going to do with all that food if someone doesn’t bring napkins and paper plates?!?).
“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” That is Isaiah’s vision of the communion of saints: an outdoor feast for all peoples, outdoors because the Temple on that mountain could have never contained them, outdoors because there is no need to even have a Temple anymore, for God is in direct community with the people: hosting the feast, serving the food, pouring the wine.
It is a feast for all peoples, not just those who are elite or special or set apart. It is a feast that has been cooking for a long time, low and slow throughout the ages until the time was right to gather everyone, everyone. Some of those gathered have endured long and tough trials, others have simply persevered in faith in whatever circumstance they found themselves, but all are called together now in this place. And all receive the great gift of the feast, which is not only delighting together in the delicious food and drink but in the God who swallows up death itself forever.
You see, Isaiah’s Biblical vision for the “End of Days” is not Judgement Day, but Salvation Day; it is a gathering together, not a tearing apart; it is building the ultimate community, symbolized in a delectable, shared feast, not a sorting of individuals. It is a family reunion of all the saints who have gone before us, all who are with us now, all who will come after us, delighting in one another’s company and in God’s. And it is in that promise, in that vision, that we too can join those in Isaiah’s vision in saying, “This is the God for whom we have waited,” who has been preparing for us low and slow; “let us be glad, and rejoice in God’s salvation.”