Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 1, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9 Commentary
Easter Sunday may not seem like an ideal time to compare God’s kingdom to Isaiah 25’s lavish feast. After all, many of those who proclaim and hear the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday will spend at least some of Easter preparing, eating and cleaning up food.
Yet nearly every culture and society dreams of feasting and delight. Those who dream of better circumstances sometimes dream nearly first of all of more food on their table. Stories like the novel The Grapes of Wrath and the Little House on the Prairie books vividly portray children who live in poverty or at least temporary deprivation. The Joad and Wilder children dream of sumptuous snacks like bags of licorice or fresh strawberries.
Yet it isn’t just hungry children who dream of more and better food. The Grapes of Wrath’s Grandpa Joad in dies on his trip from Oklahoma to California. Yet right until he dies he repeatedly talks about how great it will be to live in California.
As soon as he gets there, Grandpa Joad says, he’s going to find a big bunch of grapes in a famous California vineyard. He vows to eat those grapes with such enthusiasm that their juice just trickles down his chin. But Grandpa says he won’t care because it will show their hard times are finally over.
This may help us understand why Isaiah invites God’s Israelite adopted sons and daughters to think of God’s coming kingdom as a glorious banquet. It reminds all those who now suffer deprivation that some day God’s people’s own hard times will finally be over.
However, in the light of the New Testament, the prophet’s picture of God’s kingdom as a banquet also reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t a purely spiritual matter that only affects our souls. Christians profess that the first Easter also has a definite and dramatic impact on every part of us.
Of course, the risen Jesus lived at a very specific time and in specific places. As Scott Hoezee notes in his fine March 30, 2015 Sermon Commentary on Isaiah 25, the risen Jesus was never either exactly nowhere, nor was he everywhere. He was in Galilee or he was in Jericho. He was in a boat or praying on a mountain.
So though Jesus was somehow able to get around far faster and more mysteriously after his resurrection than before it, the stories of his resurrection life are still usually confined to a specific time and place. He’s still in Galilee, or in a dining room in Emmaus, or on the beach cooking breakfast.
In fact, as Hoezee also notes, each story of the risen Jesus is so specific and local that we easily forget that his resurrection has universal implications. It didn’t just affect the relatively few people who actually saw him after he rose from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection also involved all people at all times and places. In fact, it somehow affected not only his Body that is the Church, but also the whole creation, as well as every one of its creatures.
So while even after the first Easter we live in a creation that sin scars, someday, as the church father Iranaeus, wrote, God will change that: “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 of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give ten and twenty meters of wine. And when any of the saints shall lay hold of another cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.”
Iranaeus’s vision of God’s peace is of a creation that almost overflows with life, that’s filled with abundance that never runs down or out. Yet there’s even more to the glory of Isaiah 25’s peaceable kingdom. As former Calvin Seminary President Neal Plantinga has written (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Eerdmans), “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 … 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 passion that is never spent.”
That’s the kind of vision of God’s peaceable kingdom that Isaiah 25 offers. It describes a time and place where people will know the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to make him a blessing to all the nations of the earth. In God’s glorious kingdom the smell of delicious food and taste of fine wine will draw together all of those now-divided nations.
There will be no room for bellies that hunger bloats. In God’s peaceable kingdom mother and fathers won’t have to resort to desperate measures to feed their children. That kingdom will be, in other words, a place of abundant life where people live together in the peace for which God created us.
And in that lively place, there will also be no room for death. We’ll no longer need the kind of “shroud” in which people wrapped the dead Jesus and his contemporaries. In that peaceable kingdom there will be no more need for the sheets we now drape over the faces of dead people.
In fact, in Isaiah 25’s peaceable kingdom Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated, hospitals or nursing homes will go out of business. Morticians and gravediggers will have to find new jobs. Land now used for cemeteries will be converted into parks, playgrounds and soccer fields. Even those who make the tissue paper with which we dry our eyes will have to find some other line of work.
Yet Isaiah’s picture of God’s peaceable kingdom that’s full of good food and empty of death may not offer much comfort to some of the people who proclaim and hear Isaiah 25. After all, its power came in part because its first hearers were so often hungry and threatened.
So maybe the thought of a big banquet like Easter dinner mostly makes those who proclaim Isaiah 25 a little queasy. Perhaps the threat of death or dying seems very far away. Maybe those who hear our Old Testament lesson are more worried about their job or immigration status. God’s people’s loneliness, fear or doubt may plague them more than their awareness of their mortality.
The prospect of a heavenly banquet might intrigue a starving North Korean child or Sudanese mother. The prospect of the final death of death may attract people who are suffering, sick or dying. But what about that American child or young adult who must worry about dodging bullets on her way to (or even at) school? What does Isaiah 25 have to say to that Indian teenager whose society has locked her into an untouchable caste? What about that Iranian family that must worship the Lord in secret?
Perhaps the Spirit gives those who proclaim Isaiah 25 the freedom to expand its meaning for such vulnerable people. We might say that the Lord Almighty will also turn handguns into plowshares. That the Lord Almighty will shred the veil that segregates races from each other. That people will worship the Lord Almighty without fear of reprisal.
Of course, the peaceable kingdom about which Isaiah writes is both a present reality that Jesus inaugurated through his death and resurrection as well as a future blessing. That means that, among other things, Easter provides the rhythm by which we live right now.
So already Christians are learning to share our “banquets” with the hungry. Some of God’s adopted children are doing the kingdom work of feeding malnourished people. Some missionaries are teaching hungry people to feed themselves. What’s more, Jesus’ resurrection has already taken away the worst sting of death. While people still die, God’s children know that death for us is only a passage from life to Life.
But, of course, Isaiah 25 will find its full fulfillment in the glory of the new earth and heaven. In it there will be no room there for even hunger pains, to say nothing of starvation. Because of Christ’s resurrection, people won’t just live eighty or ninety years as some do now, but will live forever in the glory of God’s presence. Quite simply, someday God’s adopted sons and daughters will fully know that, in Isaiah’s words, God saves those who trusted in the Lord.
Some mealtimes less resemble that of Isaiah 25 than that of the monastery in which Mark Salzman sets his novel, Lying Awake. Its nuns dedicate their whole lives praying and meditating. The rhythm of worship dictates the schedule for their lives. Those nuns spend so much time thinking about the Lord that they reject anything that would distract them from God.
They view food and drink as one of those potential distractions. So when the nuns gather to eat three times a day, they say absolutely nothing. The only person who speaks is the one who reads their mealtime devotions. The nuns even put a human skull on a table in front of them to remind them that food and drink are only minimally important since they’ll all die one day anyway.
I don’t think either the prophet or many of us who proclaim and hear Isaiah would have lasted very long in such a grim setting. C.S. Lewis even once said that our deepest longings are at least faint echoes of what God longs for us.
He noted that a fish that washes up on a beach longs to return to the water because that’s its natural element. In a similar way, Lewis suggests, if people long for something, it’s because we long to return to the abundance for which God created us in the first place.
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