by David Baer, December 17, 2017
Text: Isaiah 55:1-11
There was this one Thanksgiving, a few years back, when we weren’t going to be traveling, and we weren’t hosting either. It was going to be just the three of us. And so we thought about trying to scale back our Thanksgiving dinner to be appropriate for our small family. But the more we thought about it, the more it seemed that it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without, not just turkey, but lots of turkey leftovers. And stuffing. And mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. By the time we were done, we had enough food to feed eight. It’s funny, though, how particular foods don’t just touch our tastebuds and stomachs. They evoke memories of childhood gatherings. They ground our identities, helping us remember who we are. We weren’t hungry for the food of Thanksgiving dinner so much as the history and continuity with Thanksgivings past and Thanksgivings yet to be.
Food is powerful like that. It’s one of the first needs we feel. It’s how we bond with our mothers (and fathers too!). One time my wife was out when our daughter was very small, and she started crying for food, but all the milk was still frozen, and the ten minutes it took to warm up felt like an eternity. The howls of despair and frustration still ring in my ears when I think about it. For that matter, my daughter made a lot of noise too! For infants, before they’ve learned how to smile, before they’ve learned to play, before they respond to touch with something more complicated than animal reflex, food is love and love is food. We come into the world needing care and acceptance and love, and we find it at the breast or the bottle.
And it’s a hunger that’s always with us, isn’t it? We need to be valued. We need to matter to someone. We need to be loved. We never stop hungering for those things. We may confuse that hunger for other kinds of hunger. We may try to satisfy it with food, with sex, with possessions. But it doesn’t go away.
All this fall we’ve been hearing the story about God and God’s people in the order that the Bible tells it. And now we’ve come into the period of exile. God’s people are in captivity, far from the homeland that was promised to their ancestors. Their temple and their city, Jerusalem, are in ruins. What’s more, they have come to understand that it was their own neglect of God’s teaching that has brought them to this place. For some weeks we heard the prophets warning the people that if they continued to honor and give their trust to false idols, and if they continued to trample on the poor and vulnerable, their nation would be consumed. And that’s exactly what happened. So now they are broken and grieving and guilty. They’re wondering whether God is through with them. It’s for this devastated, despairing community that the words from the book of Isaiah are spoken. It’s to these people that God promises a new beginning.
The prophet paints a picture of a rich feast, inviting the people to sit down, to eat and drink. We are poor, they protest, we have no money. How can we afford such a lavish banquet? But this food is offered free of charge. It costs nothing. And it’s better than everything they struggle to purchase for themselves. The banquet is the covenant, the special love of God for God’s people. It’s a love that is rich and generous and lifegiving, but that can’t be bought at any price. Again and again in the scriptures, God’s love is depicted as a feast of rich food. It’s the surprise waiting for the prodigal son when he comes home. It’s the wedding feast of the Lamb that comes when God’s love finally wins once and for all (Revelation 19:5-10). It’s the bread and wine that we share when we gather around the Communion Table. God feeds us with love we do not deserve and could never earn. And the absolute joy and sufficiency of that food makes a mockery of everything we try to substitute in its place: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
It turns out that the banquet is an invitation. And it’s an invitation delivered with urgency. This is not something you want to put off. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” says the prophet. Return to the Lord, he says, not so that you can somehow rewrite the past—that would be impossible. Return to the Lord, not so that you can earn your way back into God’s good graces. No, he says, return to the Lord so that God can have mercy on you and forgive you. Beginning afresh in our relationship with God is an occasion for grace, for experiencing God’s love freely poured out. Come back to God expecting to be fed lavishly and generously.
God’s response to being let down, to seeing God’s people make a mess of their blessing, is even more generosity and love. Even in ancient times this must have cut against the grain. You just don’t expect this kind of treatment. That’s why the next words say: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” What matters to God is not keeping score over wrongs and exacting justice. What matters to God is that God’s promises are fulfilled. God made a promise to bless this special people, to give them abundant life in their homeland. And just as the rain and snow fall down with a purpose, in order to give nourishment and growth to the earth and its creatures, so it is with God’s Word. God will not let that Word, that promise, return empty.
This is a counter-cultural message, particularly during the Christmas season. In our culture, Christmas is something that we make happen. We put up the decorations, and we buy the presents, and we cook the food. The feast that God sets out for us in this passage, though, is something completely different. What if Christmas is like this? What if it’s something we can’t make happen? What if it’s something totally beyond what we have a right to expect? Christmas is a radical, lavish promise from God, a promise to be with us and for us in our lives as human creatures. God is setting a feast for us.
As God’s people in our time and place, we are not just guests but stewards of God’s feast. We don’t just sit down to dine, but we invite others to the table. “You shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that you do not know shall run to you,” God says to the people of Israel. Their blessing is intended to bless others, and so is ours. And there is hunger all around us, isn’t there? Some people are hungry for food, and we respond by sharing what we have with the Center for Food Action and the guests of the Family Promise Shelter. We don’t share this food with any expectation other than that it will nourish and bless someone who needs it. But there are other hungers too. Some hunger for a friend to accompany them through a difficult time. Some hunger for purpose and value in a vast, impersonal world, looking to lead a life that makes a difference. Some hunger for justice, for the hurts that they have suffered to mean something. And sometimes when we meet with these hungers it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. What can we do? How can we provide for all these hungry people? We need to remember that God is the one who feeds us, and we need to remember where we’ve had our hungers satisfied, so that we can invite others to the rich feast that God sets for everyone.
Today is the day we’ll be dedicating our pledges of support for the church for the coming year, and so I want to encourage you to think about the last bit we read from Isaiah. God talks about rain and snow coming down from the sky for a purpose. The water that falls on the earth gives nourishment to the plants and animals and people that live here. My word is like this, God says. When I send it out, it produces fruit, it yields a blessing. God’s goodness has fallen on each one of us. Maybe there are material blessings in your life to share. Maybe you have time, or special skills. Maybe you can name the ways God’s promises have come true for you in this past year. Where has God met your hunger with an unexpected feast? “[My word] shall not return to me empty,” God says. What harvest is God expecting to grow in you? What are the opportunities for you to yield up blessings appropriate to the way you yourself have been blessed by God?
Grace is falling on the earth like rain, and it won’t return empty. God wants for us life, love, and purpose, and God’s blessing is poured out on a hungry and thirsty world for us, for all, now and forever after. Amen.