Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 20, 2022
Isaiah 55:1-9 Commentary
The Year C Revised Common Lectionary would have us stop reading and thinking about Isaiah 55 at the 9th verse. But to me that’s rather like singing just the first two stanzas of “By the Sea of Crystal” but being told you can’t sing stanza 3. But since stanza 2 ends with “Hark the heavenly chorus shouts triumphantly:” and stanza 3 then gives us the content of that shout, you can’t stop at stanza 2. You have to go on.
So also with Isaiah 55. Ceasing at verse 9 just won’t do. So we need to consider the whole chapter (and come on, it’s only 4 more verses!).
It is striking how frequently Scripture yokes the image of a feast with God’s salvation. Isaiah 55 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? Is salvation something that involves our souls only in ways that remove us from all things physical, or is salvation so all-encompassing that when Isaiah talks about bread, wine, milk, trees clapping their hands, and mountains leaping for joy, he means it all literally?!
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 we have what Lewis called Sehnsucht, then this needs a real target at which this longing is aimed.
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 issues his open-ended invitation to come to the waters, to come and get bread and milk and wine for free, how do we understand this? Indeed, when he cuts loose with this promise of a never-ending, cost-free feast and then aims this at precisely the poor who have no money, is he inviting them to a buffet table or to a Sunday school class? Well, clearly the spiritual food of God’s Word is a significant part of Isaiah 55.
That’s why verse 2 can say, “Listen to me and eat what is good.” What goes in through our ears when the Lord God speaks is “soul food” that is every bit as nourishing as a real piece of bread. Similarly in verses 10-11 God uses rain and the production of wheat as an analogy for the effectiveness of his Word, but it is obviously that very Word that is the key to understanding what Isaiah is talking about there.
Still, there can be no denying that the promise of salvation is connected with a rich and full celebration of all creation in ways that go beyond metaphor.
It’s curious that this exuberant text occurs on the Third Sunday in Lent in the Year C Lectionary. But maybe it’s a reminder that a major part of the work of Christ that we celebrate in Lent aims precisely at salvaging a creation gone bad, a creation where scarcity and pollution are the orders of the day far more often than abundance and beauty. Lent focuses us on sin and on mortality. Neither belong in God’s good creation. But the good news of the gospel is that neither will these things have the final word. The final word comes from the Word of God, and it always accomplishes what it sets out to do! Thanks be to God!
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 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 were 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.
As some of you know, a monastery such as this one reflects a strain of asceticism and austerity that runs fairly deep in the Christian tradition. But that is not the only focus the Christian tradition has had. Many Christians view the physical creation and all its bounties as profound gifts of God. Whereas the nuns in Salzman’s novel are convinced that pondering food would distract them from God, another main line of the Christian tradition is more apt to think that not celebrating food is a sign of ingratitude toward God. And Isaiah 55 may surely point us in that same direction.
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