Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 4, 2021
Isaiah 25:6-9 Commentary
What a delightful, even delicious alternative reading for Easter Sunday! The regular (Old Testament?) reading is from Acts 10:34-43, Peter’s proclamation of the Easter message to the Roman centurion, Cornelius. I wrote on that text last Easter, so I thought I’d give you an alternative way to proclaim the familiar message of Christ’s resurrection—not a narrative sermon on what happened or a doctrinal message on what it all means, but an artistic message on the emotional effect of that event.
Here we have two images—a majestic feast and a mysterious victory—followed by a faith-filled call to rejoice in the God who has revealed himself in those two images. This call to rejoice is a strong counterpoint to the gloom and doom of Isaiah 24. There God devastates the whole earth so thoroughly that the sound of joyous parties with their wine and beer disappears from the earth (cf. Isaiah 24:7-9). Now, here in Isaiah 25 we have the exact opposite, sort of like Easter following Good Friday. Isaiah 24 ends with Yahweh firmly in charge, reigning on Mt. Zion, and Isaiah 25 opens with the joyful confession of faith. “O Yahweh, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name….”
Two images show why joy should follow gloom and doom, why we should rejoice on Easter after the sorrow and darkness of Good Friday. First, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples….” The reference is to Mt. Zion, as 24:23 shows, the place where God chose to dwell symbolically in the Temple. Mt. Zion continues to function even into New Testament times as the place of God’s salvific activity and reign. But with Jesus’ claim that he is the new Temple (cf. Matt. 12:6, John 2:19, and Matt. 26:61) where God is among us in a saving way, the locus of God’s saving work shifts from a place to a person. Thus, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food.
Human beings love a good feast, whether it’s a wedding banquet or a family barbeque on the Fourth of July, a Thanksgiving table sagging with turkey and all the fixings or a funeral wake to which all the mourners have contributed their own food offering, a weekly family dinner after church or a community celebration of some military victory.
The feast in Isaiah 25 is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, it is prepared by Yahweh himself. How typical of God! The Bible is full of God providing food and drink to his people, sometimes as simple sustenance, other times as sacramental sign, and still other times as a celebration of his victory over the enemies of his people. God meets us in food and drink, even as we meet each other over meals.
Second, God isn’t content with a simple meal here. No, what God has done calls for a “feast of rich food.” And the prophet is specific—the best of meats and the finest aged wines. Now, that may offend the vegans and the abstainers in your church, but the point is that God will go all out to celebrate with his people.
Third, “his people” include “all peoples” and “all nations.” This is not a feast reserved only for God’s chosen nation of Israel. It is for everyone, of whatever national or ethnic group. We may quibble over the exact referent of that universal “all.” Does it mean all people without exception or all people without distinction? Will this feast be for every single human being or for every single kind of human? But the point is that God’s table is open to all who will come to it.
Fourth, the reason for this feast is a victory so monumental that it is nearly incomprehensible. Humans have celebrated victories over enemies since time immemorial. Each time there is hope that this victory will mark the end of battles. Think of WWI, the war to end all wars. But each time, hostility rears its ugly head and death marches over the earth again. But not this time, because in Isaiah 25, and in the Christ to whom it points, God will win the victory over the last enemy, namely, death itself. No wonder God prepares this rich feast.
This victory is pictured in the stunning second image in this text. “On this mountain (that is, through God’s saving activity in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), Yahweh Almighty will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations.” While some scholars think that “the shroud” refers to a veil worn by mourners at a funeral, it is much more likely that it refers to the large cloth laid over the body of the deceased. Think of the linen cloth (Mt. 28:59) or the strips of linen (John 20:5-7) used at Jesus entombment.
That shroud was laid aside in the tomb of Jesus, as a symbol that Isaiah 25 has been fulfilled. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, that shroud has been destroyed. And in case we don’t understand the artistic language, God is forthright. “God will swallow up death forever,” which Paul quotes in his definitive chapter on the Resurrection, “Death has been swallowed up in victory (I Cor. 15:54).” The great enemy of human life that swallows up both princes and peasants has been swallowed up by God through Christ.
By getting rid of death once and for all, God will wipe away tears from all faces. Never again will there be grief over death, because death will be no more. And, adds verse 8b, “he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” I must confess that I don’t know what that means. Is it a reference to the defeat of God’s people by their enemies, as happened to Israel in the Exile, which caused huge embarrassment and disgrace as “the chosen ones” were dragged off to Exile? Or is it the disgrace that comes to God’s people when, in spite of their claims about salvation through Jesus, we die like everyone else? Or does it refer to the general disgrace that death brings to all of us, as we are diminished and wounded and sunken and corrupted by death?
Whatever it means, the prophet assures us that God’s victory over death on Mt. Zion, through Jesus, will remove disgrace from our lives. And that will lead to joy unbounded, because, at last, God is vindicated, God shows up, God wins. After millenia of prophecies and promises, during which God’s people had to wait (“How long, O Lord?”) and trust in spite of ongoing suffering and death, God will do what he said he would do. As verse 1 of this chapter says, “for in perfect faithfulness you have done marvelous things, things planned long ago.”
And so, God’s people will shout for joy. “In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God…. This is the Lord.’” “We trusted in him and he saved us.” It’s all true. This invisible God whose ways were so often incomprehensible has finally come through completely. Our trust is vindicated because he is faithful. “Let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
That is our Easter testimony. As Thomas put it, “My Lord and my God!” God has done it. Oh yes, that feast of rich food still awaits the end of time, but we have a foretaste in the Lord’s Supper. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has prepared a table before us in the presence of our Last Enemy. Of course, death still takes every one of us, but it has lost its sting, so we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Because of God’s victory in Jesus, we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death with no fear because he is with us.
“In that day,” says the prophet, “let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” That day came on Easter, and it is coming when the Risen One returns. In the meantime, let us cling to these pictures of the story that changed everything.
Isaiah’s picture of a feast reminded me of Thanksgiving Dinners at my late mother-in-law’s house. She cooked for days in preparation. The house was filled with mouth-watering aromas. The tables (three of them to accommodate all the kids and grandkids) sagged with a bewildering variety of meat and vegetables and breads and salads and appetizers and desserts. It didn’t get any better than that. Except that one thing was missing. The thing God promises at his great feast—wine, aged wines, fine wines. Those who struggle with alcohol will not appreciate this feature, but the idea is that wine enhances the best food. We’re not talking about guzzling a bottle of Tickle Pink to get drunk. We’re talking about sipping glasses of Montrachet with dear friends and family to celebrate what God has done. It doesn’t get any better than that.
My grandson asked his grandma to find him a book for school, which she did. She got a copy for me too, so that I could talk with him about it. It was a YA book entitled Thunderhead. It is a dystopian novel in which an immense computer, called Thunderhead, housed in the Cloud now rules over human existence, sort of. I say, sort of, because there are many things Thunderhead cannot do. One of them is control death. Death has been defeated by human science, but people can’t live forever. So, the task of deciding who will die and when has been turned over to the Scythes (think Grim Reaper). The Scythes are humans who have the skill and intelligence and morality to harvest human life in a just and compassionate way. Except that they don’t, always. In fact, they increasingly become selfish and cruel and wicked. Thus, man’s victory over death turns into a nightmare. Which just goes to show that only God can defeat the Last Enemy.
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