Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9 Commentary
An old farmer once told me that there are two ways to break an egg—you can smash it with a hammer in a second or you can put it under a warm mother hen for a few days. An old preacher once told me that there two ways to call a sinner to repentance and faith—you can smash that sinner with a sermon that says, “Turn or Burn,” or you can beckon her with a sermon that says, “Turn and Live.”
In the Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus preaches the first kind of sermon. When people pointed at a couple of recent disasters in the news and implied that the victims might have been punished for committing some egregious sins, Jesus turned on them with what sounds like a snarl. “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.”
In our reading from Isaiah 55, God preaches the second kind of sermon, calling the exiles in Babylon to repent and live. Perhaps the difference between the two sermons is that Jesus’ audience seems to speak from a position of moral superiority about “those people” who’ve just been punished for their sins, while Isaiah writes to an audience that has been smashed by God’s punishment for their many sins. They are now poor and destitute, far from home and dying for a sip of God’s grace or a crumb of divine kindness, but pretty sure that God has forsaken them once and for all.
Which text you pick for this Third Sunday of Advent will depend on where you think your congregation is in their Lenten journey. Are they hardened in sin and thus need to be smashed with a “Turn or Burn” sermon from the lips of Jesus? Or are they struggling along, barely hanging on to God’s grace? Then they need a “Turn and Live” sermon from Isaiah 55. Ironic, isn’t it?
Isaiah is definitely a call to repent of sin. Verses 6 and 7 are unmistakable. “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.” That has always been part of the dark side of Lent. Turn away from your sin. But there’s another side to Lent, and to repentance. Not just the negative turn from sin, but the positive turn to God. That’s what Isaiah focuses on: “Seek the Lord…, call on him…. Let him turn to the Lord….” That’s an important distinction. Where you focus today will determine whether Lent is a dark time of moral introspection or a bright time of spiritual re-direction.
A God-ward focus doesn’t make this call to repentance any less urgent or serious. It is still a life and death matter. Verse 6 underlines the importance of this turn with those mysterious words, “while he may found” and “while he is near.” Does that imply that there may be a time (soon?) when the Lord will not be available, when he withdraws his offer of grace, when it is too late to repent? Some commentators and preachers certainly talk that way, in an effort to press their congregations to repent here and now. But is there ever a time when God moves away from a sinner and it is too late to repent? Traditional Christianity has maintained that such a moment comes only when a person dies in unbelief, though more progressive preachers say that even in death there is still a chance to be saved.
Rather than wander into such eschatological speculations, it is probably best to think in terms of Isaiah’s exilic audience. For years they have languished in bondage, far from home and temple and God. God is saying, “Salvation is here, now. Don’t delay.” For our congregations the message is, don’t wait for another time, another chapter in your life, another church, another preacher. God is here now in this place, so come to God here and now.
“Come” is the dominant word in this call to repent—not turn away, but come, five times. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, come buy and eat, come, buy wine and milk, come to me.” The opening 3 verses are peppered with imperatives, but they don’t sound like commands so much as invitations.
Fascinatingly, this sermon on repentance uses vivid images for God, drawing on the most basic of human needs, the need for food and drink. God is like that, your most basic human need. So, come, you who are thirsty for God, come to the waters; think of Jesus speaking of himself as the living water (John 4:14, 6:51, 7:37). Come, you are hungry, come buy and eat; think of Jesus speaking of himself as the Bread from Heaven.
But God is not your basic subsistence diet, just bread and water. God is a rich banquet of flowing wine and milk, “the richest of fare.” God is what you need, all you need, to live a rich, full, abundant life. The call to repent is not a call to avoid hell; it is a call to enjoy heaven by coming to the God who is here right now. This preacher calls us to repent not by painting lurid pictures of hell, but by painting lovely pictures of a banquet (the messianic banquet of which Jesus spoke?).
The prophet here is doing what we preachers struggle to do—make God and his grace so much more appetizing and attractive than worldly delights that anyone with any sense will choose God. Isaiah’s questions in verse 2 arrest us in our infatuation with the world. “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Why indeed? Because the “not bread… that does not satisfy” looks better than God. But it’s a waste of money and labor.
That’s even more the case, when we are told that the blessings we receive when we turn back to God are free. Even if you have no money, nothing to offer God for his blessings, you can come, buy, and eat. In fact, don’t even try to bring your money, even if you have pockets full of it, because this food and drink have no cost. Don’t think there is anything you have to do to get; in fact, trying to buy it with the currency of your life is an insult to the God who wants to give it away free of charge. New life with God is not only rich; it is free. All you have to do to get it is turn, turn back to God.
When you do that, the nations will turn to you. When you turn back to me, O Israel, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David…. [and you will be] a witness to the peoples… and nations you do not know will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”
This is a stunning promise to the exiles in Babylon and to us today. Not only will God give you a new life, a life richer than you can imagine, but he will also restore you to the mission he gave to David (and Abraham long before David), namely, the mission of being a light to the nations. It’s the same mission Jesus gives all of us, of course.
Which means that turning to God makes life not only good again, but also meaningful. As we languish in our Babylonian captivity, we might think that life will never matter again, that we will never be able to do anything that will make a difference. But even exiles, even former rebels, even the worst sinners, can turn and live and shine for God.
How is this all possible? It sounds too good to be true, especially if you are Israel in Exile. For 70 years you have received double for all your sins (Isaiah 40), suffering the loss of everything because of your sin. How can we believe that such an angry, hard God would do the things promised here in Isaiah 55? It doesn’t make sense. How can we understand such a God?
Well, here’s the bottom line with God, says Isaiah in verse 7. With God, there is mercy, even when God’s justice hammers hard. There is mercy even in exile, because “he will abundantly pardon.” That’s the last word with God. Sin does not get the last word; God does. Punishment is not the last word; pardon is. Exile is not the last word; home is. The Devil does not get the last word; Jesus does, “for he will abundantly pardon.”
You must end your sermon with Jesus, because he is the servant who has been the focus of what critical scholars call Deutero-Isaiah (40-55). The Suffering Servant of Yahweh is the One through whom Yahweh keeps the covenant made with David. In the work of the Servant, the mercies promised to David are brought to fulfillment. Or to put it in terms of the famous Servant Song of Isaiah 53, the servant paid the price for the new life God freely offers to sinners; “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We don’t have to pay for life, because Jesus did with his death. Or as Romans 6:23 summarizes, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This Gospel does not make sense if we cannot accept the work of Christ. It is foolishness to its cultured despisers and a stumbling block to those who try to earn their salvation with their life’s works. That’s why our text ends as it does. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my way, declares the Lord. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We can’t think our way to new life, rich life, meaningful life. Grace will never make sense. All we can do is humbly turn, turn back to the God who took the Way of the Cross to give us life. Humbly accept the invitation to “come.” Turn and live.
In Luke 14:15-24, Jesus told a story about a rich man who prepared a rich banquet for many guests, but all of them begged off with a flurry of “really good” excuses. Not one would come as invited. So the host turned to the least, the last, and the lost. So strongly did he feel about having them share in his rich feast that he told his servants to “”make them come in, so that my house will be full.” That is a word for preachers. When you invite people to the great banquet that is God’s grace, preach with urgency, with passion, with love. “Turn and live.” Only those too involved with their own lives to answer the invitation will not “get a taste of my banquet.”
It has been years since the last Master Card “Priceless” commercials were all the rage on TV. You remember them. They were all like jokes with three lines followed by a punch line. After three scenes featuring some hapless individuals, the punch line would be “priceless. For everything else there’s Master Card.” Those ads ran so long that they lost their appeal and became the subject of wicked parodies. The whole idea of “priceless” became a joke. In our text, God’s offer of life for free is not a joke. It has no price and it is beyond price. It is priceless, because the price has been paid by Christ.
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