By the Rev. Dr. Steve Simmons
Based on Isaiah 55: 1-5
In many churches, including this one, preachers ordinarily follow a three-year cycle of assigned Bible readings called a lectionary. Now, the lectionary has some real advantages over choosing your own passages to preach on; one big one is that it’s designed to take you and the congregation through the whole of scripture, so that you don’t keep returning to your personal catalogue of favorite passages – what for you are the Bible’s “greatest hits.”
Now, for the preacher this can feel a bit like potluck. Sometimes an assigned passage seems to line up perfectly with what’s happening in the world and in your own life of faith; it feels like a gift, everything clicks, and the sermon seems to write itself. Other times, the connection seems a little fuzzy, and you have to dig to see what this ancient text wants to tell us here and now. And sometimes, well, it just hits you crosswise, and you simply don’t want to go there. Which is to say, sometimes your response when you read the text is, “Perfect!” Sometimes it’s, “Huh?” And sometimes it’s “Uh-oh!”
For me, frankly, this is an “Uh-oh” kind of Sunday, because on this ninth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A of the lectionary, I drew Isaiah 55. Now, Isaiah 55 is a challenging text to preach at any time, and this week, when the US economy has shrunk by a third from last quarter to this quarter, and when millions of Americans are finding their finances and futures stretched to the breaking point with no end in sight, and when we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, the prophet’s words can almost come across as mockery:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Every time I read this, I must admit, I hear the voice of a snake oil salesman or carnival barker. “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up, folks…” It sounds like the latest come on, the scam of the day, recalling the old adage that “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The claim it makes is extravagant; it’s outlandish. Try quoting this passage at the Giant or Wegmans, and see what kind of reception you get. “Bible talk. Right. Go peddle it somewhere else. We’ve got a business to run here.” Even in the privacy of our own homes and hearts, we may well be asking ourselves the question, when we say, “The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God,” is the word of the Lord still good?
When these words were first spoken, I’m sure it was to an audience that was at least as skeptical as we and our people are. The prophet and his fellow Israelites had been languishing in exile in Babylon for at least half a century, with Jerusalem, which had been the center of their world, a dim, if painful, memory. The prophet Jeremiah, as JC pointed out last week, had even urged them to make themselves at home there, and we can imagine that many of them felt that the God of Israel had simply parked and abandoned them in this foreign land. And now here came Isaiah saying, “Happy days! God is going to let us go home, even though there is no home to go to. The Babylonians completely wrecked the place, and it’s all ours!” I’m not sure that I would have wanted to be in Isaiah’s shoes when he brought these words of…what, comfort?
Isaiah is asking his people to imagine what, for them, must have been unimaginable. More than a generation had come and gone, and many of them had surely adopted Babylonian ways of doing and being; and Isaiah was coming to them with words of restoration and redemption and renewal, of springs of water gushing forth in the desert, of a new Jerusalem that would not only be a garden spot, but a magnet that would draw the nations of the earth to it in peace. Was this a bold and hopeful vision, or was it only a mirage? Was his message something that was, as we would say, “actionable,” or was it a wild goose chase in the wilderness? There was, really, only one way to find out. With Isaiah, they had to imagine their way into a new reality, and then go there.
This and the surrounding chapters from Isaiah, which we call Second Isaiah because they seem to have been written by a variety of authors over a number of years in his name, can make for exhausting reading. At one moment, God, through the prophet, is chastising the people for their indifference and disobedience; in the next, he offers them reassurance. In Isaiah 43: 18, he declares, “Don’t remember prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I am doing a new thing…” and then in chapter 46:9-10 he turns right around and says, “Remember the prior things – from long ago; I am God, there is no other. I am God. There is none like me, who tells the end at the beginning, from ancient times, things not yet done.”
He promises, “You who have no money, come, buy and eat” and almost immediately follows with, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” It’s dizzying. But God isn’t just doing a bait and switch here. He is reorienting the people of Israel after a time of profound dislocation, calling them to remember his promises and their commitments as a covenant people. The foundations of Israel having been shaken, quite literally, God is shaking them out of their lethargy and despair, telling them to think seriously about what has been sifted out in the process, and what remains, and to fashion a future drawing on the best of their past. They need to look back to their history to trace God’s footprints, not to get stuck there, but to move forward in hope and anticipation.
Here, I think, is the key. The promises of God are enormous, they’re breathtaking, but they don’t just hover out there in space. They demand both imagination and action, and they come with a word of hope and a word of critique. God will act, but the people need to get their act together. When the prophet asks the Israelites, “Why do you spend your labor for that which does not satisfy?”, he’s obviously not talking about junk food or computer games, but he’s challenging them to take both God’s promises and their own responsibility seriously.
“Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” He’s not just talking about food here, but about what really gives life substance and sustenance and meaning. This is not a time for trivialities and diversions, but for getting down to the serious business of pursuing God’s future, for all of God’s people.
This only makes sense if we understand that the living God is in a real relationship with his people, that God and Israel are joined at the hip, and that, as in every intimate relationship, this one has its ups and downs, and that on a grand scale. Again and again in these chapters from Isaiah, God says, “Remember who I am; remember who you are. I am God, and you are the people of God. Let us work with one another.” And if the word of the Lord is not always a smooth and easy word, God’s bedrock devotion to his people is never in question. As biblical scholar Katie Heffelfinger puts it,
“The divine voice in Second Isaiah, with its overwhelming tone of confidence whether speaking comfort or indictment, is appropriately large and magnanimous. Without sacrificing its integrity the voice embraces competing perspectives and thus responds to the audience’s potential resistance to its message of comfort in multiple and compelling ways.” (Katie Heffelfinger, I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes: Lyric Cohesion and Conflict in Second Isaiah, p. 283)
In other words, if God can’t get to them in one way, he’ll do it in another, and yet another, and he does; but, no matter what, in every circumstance, God will never let them go. That’s why this word from Isaiah to them, and to us, is more than a fond hope or a wish dream. It’s an irritant, it’s a provocation, it’s an invitation to see what God can do with us and through us. As we say when we read Isaiah’s words during Advent and Christmas, it’s the promise of Emmanuel – God, with us!
This past week, we have honored the life of a man who responded to God’s provocation and promise with a life of courage and dedication to a vision that was almost unimaginable on that day in 1965 when he was beaten almost to death by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and that was still celebrated in hope as his body was carried in a funeral cortege across that same bridge last Thursday. And who could have imagined, in 1965, that he would ever be so honored?
John Lewis’s last editorial, written shortly before his death on July 18, was addressed to those he called “ordinary people with extraordinary vision,” and it read in part:
You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.
That these words are true is something I think few of us would care to deny. Whether they come true, whether they are fulfilled, is the task that is set before us now.
The word must become flesh in every generation, as it did once and for all in the most concrete possible way in Jesus Christ. And that’s why we gather at his table, whether physically in this sanctuary or virtually in our own homes around our own tables. We make the amazing claim that in this sacrament the Word becomes flesh once more, and we commit ourselves again to Emmanuel, God with us, joined at the hip in Jesus Christ and dedicated to his ongoing work of reconciliation in the world.
When we say that, in the Lord’s Supper, we are spiritually nourished and made one with Christ, we have crossed the line into what’s been called the “biblical imagination” – an imagination that doesn’t entail flights of fancy, but one that requires boots on the ground. One thing that becomes startlingly clear if you read through the prophets, or reflect on the cross of Jesus, is that God does not bring about the New Creation over tea. He does it by putting his body on the line, and by spilling his own precious life’s blood, and by asking his disciples what they are willing to lay on the line in his name and in his service. Failing that, all those fine “Bible words” are a check without a signature. We come here to imagine the deepest truth we know, and then to give it legs in the world.
Communion is not a child’s tea party. It is a prototype, an enactment in miniature, of the Kingdom of God. When we say, in the name of Jesus Christ, “This is my body, which is given for you; this is the blood of a new covenant, which is shed for you,” we should be shocked, and comforted, and provoked, all over again, every time, and the God who comes at us every which way will claim us as his own.
And that’s why we keep returning to the words of Isaiah, and the words of Jesus, year after year, generation after generation – because we believe that they are enduringly true, in season and out of season, whether they speak a word of comfort or challenge or hope. We come to this table, not for some kind of nouvelle cuisine that is long on presentation and short on nourishment. Nor do we come for mere distraction and amusement – for that which is not bread. We come to encounter and receive Jesus Christ, who is the bread of life.
It’s good to remember here that it’s Jesus who is the host at this table, and we are his guests. And he doesn’t ask us to bring him a hospitality present when we come; he merely asks us to bring ourselves. So come, everyone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, and justice, and peace. For all has been made ready.