Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 5, 2015
Isaiah 25:6-9 Commentary
C.S. Lewis famously claimed that the deepest longings of the human heart are hints and echoes of the same things God desires for us. Just as a fish washed up on a beach longs to be back in the water (because that is its natural element), so also if we find ourselves pining for something, it is because we, too, have been thrown out of our natural element. Our longings are often reflections of what also God as Creator desires for us. Our desires reveal what we were made for.
If so, then might it not be the case that the near-universal hunger for good food and drink indicates that these are the very gifts that also God himself wants us to enjoy? Because across the range of human experience, in nearly every culture and society, again and again you encounter dreams of feasting and delight. If ever a better day would arrive for people in difficult circumstances, one of the first places they’d expect to see evidence of their improved lot in life would be on the kitchen table. You know you’ve moved up in life when you go from having nothing to eat (or only bad things to eat) to having delicious food to eat.
In stories like the novel The Grapes of Wrath or in the Little House on the Prairie books, you see repeatedly that especially for children who live in poverty or other economically strapped circumstances, what those kids dream about as much as anything is getting the rare treat of a bag of licorice or an ice cream cone or fresh strawberries or a juicy hamburger with ketchup and mustard. And not just kids. In The Grapes of Wrath the grandfather of the Joad family never makes it to California but dies along the way on the journey from Oklahoma. But up until his death grandpa would talk over and over about how great it would be to arrive in California and when they did, the first thing he was going to do was go find himself a bunch of grapes in one of those fabled California vineyards and just tuck into that juicy fruit with abandon. He dreamed of how delightful it would be just to let that grape juice dribble down his chin and all over the place and he wouldn’t care because, Oh!, having access to such great fresh food would be the best indicator of them all that their days of struggle were over.
So when Isaiah repeatedly invites us to envision the shalom of God’s coming kingdom as a feast, a glorious banquet, how do we understand this?
Among other things, as an Easter morning Old Testament reading—or as the preaching text for Easter evening—Isaiah 25 reminds us of several key features to the resurrection of Christ—features that we might otherwise miss seeing.
After all, the gospels are stories very much tied to a particular time and place. Indeed, a key truth of the incarnation of Jesus is that his being truly human meant that he was tied to one place at a time the same way every other human person is. Jesus could never be exactly nowhere and neither was he just everywhere. He was always here or there. He was in Galilee OR he was in Jericho, he was in a boat OR he was praying on a mountaintop. And so even in the resurrection—although Jesus was able to get around a lot faster and more mysteriously than before his death—the stories in the gospels tend to be local, not global. Jesus is in Galilee. Jesus is in a hotel room in Emmaus. Jesus is by the side of a lake cooking breakfast.
It’s all very specific and very local, with each post-Easter gospel story pinpointed to a particular spot on the map. And so that may make us forget sometimes that the meaning and the salvific scope of Easter is universal. It involves not just those few people who saw Jesus after he rose again from the dead but it involved all people from the ends of the earth. It involved a renewal not just of Jesus’ own body but of the entire creation and its every creature and feature.
Shalom, as Neal Plantinga well reminded us in his fine book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, involves the webbing together and the mutual enhancement of every creature to and with every other creature. In fact, in describing the vision for shalom as proffered again and again by the Old Testament prophets, Plantinga reminds us of this lyric quote from one of the earliest writers in the Christian tradition, Iranaeus:
“The days will come in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty meteres of wine. And when any of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.’”
The vision is of a creation that teems with life, that abounds with fruitfulness, that cannot be exhausted. But, as Plantinga himself goes on to write, “Above all . . . God would preside in the unspeakable beauty for which human beings long, and in the mystery of holiness that draws human worship like a magnet. In turn, each human being would reflect and color the light of God’s presence out of the inimitable resources of his or her own character and essence. Human communities would present their ethnic and regional specialties to other communities in the name of God, in glad recognition that God, too, is a radiant and hospitable community of three persons. In their own accents, communities would express praise, courtesies, and deferences that, when massed together, would keep building like waves of a passion that is never spent” (Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, p. 12).
That’s the vision we get in Isaiah 25, and that is the vision we must see as we look beyond the vision of the resurrected Christ that we celebrate each Easter Sunday. All peoples from all nations—in fulfillment of what had long ago been promised to Abraham when God assured him he would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth—will come together, drawn together by the aroma of good food and the promise of good wine. And when they gather on God’s holy mountain and around that holy banquet table, they will discover that the veils and the shrouds that had all along kept us from really seeing one another as co-imagebearers of God are gone. Now we can look each other in the eye and recognize our common humanity and take joy in one another. Now we can see the differences in skin color and speech accents and socio-economic backgrounds—all those things that in times past we had used as demarcations of discrimination—and with new eyes we will see those things as causes of celebration and wonder.
But what we will really see is that this is all a result of God’s great salvation—a work of creation and then of redemption and then of re-creation so grand that only a really big and great God could have pulled it off.
Sort of like the resurrection of Jesus . . . which pretty well brings us full circle.
Mark Salzman’s novel, Lying Awake, is set in a Carmelite monastery just outside of Los Angeles. The book details the lives of the nuns who live there and ultimately ponders the meaning of what constitutes a genuine religious experience of God’s presence. The nuns devote themselves to prayer and contemplation, allowing the rhythm of liturgy to set the cadence of their lives. All their thoughts are bent toward the Holy and the Divine and so they eschew anything that could distract them.
One of the perceived threats to a spiritual life is food and drink. And so when, three times a day, the nuns gather in the monastery’s refectory for meals, they are not allowed to speak a single word. The only one who does speak is that day’s appointed reader, who reads from Scripture and classic works of Christian devotions while the other nuns silently take in their sustenance.
The goal at mealtime was to do anything-but pay attention to the food. At the head table where the Mother Superior sits, there is a calvarium, a human skull sitting in the center of the table, serving as a reminder to the nuns that everyone will die one day anyway and so food and drink are of only marginal significance. And so the nuns made as little noise as possible during the meal in the firm belief that maintaining a proper spiritual focus was never more threatened than when taking food into the body. It was, therefore, every bit as important to observe proper decorum in the dining hall as in church.
A monastery such as this one reflects a strain of asceticism and austerity that runs fairly deep in the Christian tradition. Yet it is striking how frequently Scripture yokes the image of a feast with God’s salvation. Isaiah 25 is a shining example of how themes of creation and redemption weave in and out of one another so much that finally you’re not completely sure what is what. In the end, though, you have the distinct impression that not only is God’s salvation a whole lot like a table laden with whipped cream, fresh-baked bread, and chalices filled with pinot noir, it even looks like salvation includes exactly such a feast. In other words, it’s hard to see where simile and metaphor leave off and literal description begins. Is the experience of God’s forgiving grace like a banquet or is it a banquet? The witness of Scripture indicates that although the shalom of God’s kingdom will mean much more than a well-set banquet table, it may not mean less.
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