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It's All Free!!!

This is the sermon I preached last Sunday, 3/24/19 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Isaiah 55:1-9. 
This reading from Isaiah is especially meaningful to me. It emanates God’s care and promise of provision. I shared in the e-ministry this week how I was effected one Sunday morning as I read the lesson for the congregation in Rochester when I was the scheduled lector. At that time, I was divorced and the kids were living with me. I didn’t have two cents to rub together as the saying goes. Some weeks I was working 80 or more hours. What came in went out to pay bills and buy food. I was always concerned about how I would make ends meet. Then along comes this scripture which blew me away, letting me know I really didn’t have to worry so much about money and food. I had the sense of God’s loving care for me. That is the overarching theme of this text: the extraordinary nature and dependability of God’s promises.

Though we apply these promises to us, who was Isaiah writing to? His was a mid-sixth century BC community who saw themselves as an exilic minority who were unable to convince others that God wanted to escort them in their return to their homeland. These people had been in exile in Babylon. Some prospered materially while in exile, while others suffered. 

First of all, God provides for physical needs. Isaiah’s writing of God’s call to drink and food was like the call of those in the ancient market square. It was busy with commerce, with people rushing to buy, struggling to sell, and some, standing at the margins, with no money, perhaps begging for a handout so that they too might have some daily bread. 

Some of you may be familiar with Maslow's theory that suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.
The hierarchy of needs is like a pyramid, with the most basic, physical needs on the bottom. Then the next layer of the pyramid is safety, then love/belonging and finally at the top is self-actualization. None of the upper needs matter if the person isn’t alive because of the physical needs not being met. 

God is very concerned about his people’s physical needs, so much so that God freely provides to all in need, whether or not they have the money to pay for their food. It is like a grocery store where everything is free. In the supermarket, all the people who stand by the road with cardboard signs saying, “Will work for food,” are pushing carts full of groceries through the checkout lines, paying with only a smile and wave. 

But then, Isaiah presents us with a contrast. God says the people were paying for things they didn’t really need—spending money on what isn’t bread and working for that which doesn’t satisfy. They needed a new diet of good and rich food, one that was capable of sustaining life and hope. 

God does not provide only for the body but provides for spiritual needs. As important as food for our body is, God knows there’s more to life than simply our physical needs. The people of Israel and we need God. Yet, we still run around after things that never fully satisfy us. God calls the exiles and us into continually deeper fellowship. God’s wine, milk, bread and richest fare are the very best. But God’s ancient people rushed past God, seeking to pay for that which was freely given by God. It is only in fellowship with God that they would find true fulfillment.

God calls his people to listen hard and to come to God so that all may live. We don’t hear so much about how the new covenant will be different, but how it is the attitude of the people that will change (v. 3).  A relationship with God based on God’s character of steadfast love for his people is their greatest need, as well as ours. 

Isaiah reminds the people of what was done for their ancestor, David, making him a witness and a commander. But then comes the promise of the restoration of this glory being transferred to the listeners themselves. The promise has been renewed and connected to the continuation and glorification of the nation as a whole—so much so that Isaiah wrote, “you shall call nations…and nations…shall run to you.” This is a promise whose scope expands to include all the peoples of the earth. Israel has not done anything to earn this new covenant. It is a free act of God’s grace. 

God calls his people to repentance. The imperatives of “seek the Lord” and to “call upon him” are addressed to the human heart, and yet they are so concrete. “To seek” and to “call upon” the Lord do not refer simply to feelings or attitudes, but to acts of prayer and worship. For the wicked to “forsake his way” is to change his behavior. 

It sounds a bit odd when Isaiah writes about God not easily being found or summoned. Scholar Claus Westermann translates the verse, “Seek the Lord SINCE he may be found, call on him SINCE he is near.” Looking in other places for those things that can only be found in God is sin. It’s called idolatry in scripture. In the midst of the false promises for health and wealth, the good life, the exciting life pervade today’s culture, God calls his people to seek God, to repent. And that’s because God wants to bless them! The second half of the verse that calls the people to seek the Lord and call on God gives this reason, “that he may have mercy on them…for he will abundantly pardon” (v. 7).  

What is the basis of God doing all this calling? It is God’s nature of love and faithfulness. God’s ways are not our ways. The Holy Spirit’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s will is forgiveness and peace. Human plans get in the way of that. This is why we are called to seek God, to seek the Holy Spirit since it’s near. Our faithful God is always near and willing to fellowship with us. But God’s ancient people and we too often wander from God. 

Here we also discover a divine paradox. Although our thoughts and God’s are vastly different, although God’s righteousness is so far above our sinfulness like heaven is above the earth—God is still near! God is faithful and loves us and desires to bless us. 

God calls us just as he called his ancient people. We work and struggle all week long. We have done what we had to buy what we need and to do the work demanded of us. We try to please our bosses to get what we need and the recognition that satisfies us. But today, in fact, many Sundays, we find ourselves spent, drained, exhausted and still thirsting for more. There has to be more to life than this, doesn’t there?

The never-ending mass media, Madison Avenue siren cry of the world tells us we deserve more in life. That more, of course, is stuff and lots of it. Even if we don’t really need anything, it is easy to be convinced that we really want a new car, a new computer, a better career, a bigger house or a youthful appearance. But such offers don’t really satisfy. Any way of life that turns us away from God is a way of life that leads to starvation and death. 

God calls us to eat and drink. Whether or not we are thirsty, whether or not we are hungry, we need what God has to give. God calls us to a feast that satisfies. God calls us into a covenant that is fulfilled and completely satisfied by God. We are called to be the people of God. Only by abiding in God do we find true happiness, even when life is hard. Money cannot satisfy us. God’s nourishment and blessing are freely given. 

God calls us to repent. God’s call to repentance is like an altar call in some other Christian traditions. Coming to God’s feast encompasses repentance and commitment in response to God’s mercy and grace. God’s call and covenant originally made with the people of Israel now applies to all nations. God, in his incredible mercy, welcomes everyone who repents to enjoy a feast of forgiveness. 

Do you ever feel like you’re really not THAT bad a person? You think about the 10 Commandments and you haven’t killed anyone lately or committed adultery or done any of the other things enumerated in the Commandments. But the thing is, our hearts are the issue. 

Martin Luther cuts to the quick with his explanation of the 10 Commandments. The fifth commandment is “You shall not murder.” Here is Luther’s explanation, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs” (Martin Luther, The Small Catechism). That certainly sheds a different light on things, doesn’t it? I do not always treat my neighbor in this way, especially if he or she is very annoying. 

All of Martin Luther’s explanations go to the heart of our motivation in life. I know that I need to repent daily of my thoughts and motives. I suspect all of us need to. 

God calls us to feed the world physically and spiritually. Our mission is not one of toil and struggle, but one of joy. Yes, we must be in the world and participate in its problems. We have to work and pay taxes, but that’s not all there is to our lives. When we reject God’s call and strive to serve riches, we settle for scraps when we could be feasting. 

One of the ways we feed people physically is through the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish Ministry. We have a challenge that’s been issued to us. The challenge is to fill 50 bins by the time Kristie and Kathy return on April 2. That means next Sunday is our last one before their return. We have four bins to go to get to that number. Let’s do our part to help fight “childhood hunger in our community one child at a time” (5and2ministry.com).

God calls us to witness to a hurting world, which is feeding them spiritually. It is out of the abundance of God’s gracious blessings that we can share with the world. You remember last week I mentioned that we have the Islamic Society and Mosque in Jamestown. Well…I gave them a call and left a message. The next morning my call was returned by Sami, their community coordinator. He was thrilled that we want to be supportive and has invited all of us to join them during Ramadan, on a Friday evening, when they break the fast with a meal called an Iftar. When I told him I had lived in Palestine in the 1980s, it was serendipitous to discover that he is originally from Nablus, where Jacob’s well is, as in Samaria, part of the Holy Land. He is Palestinian. He also told me he knew our church because he had been here when Jordan was the pastor. Sami did a presentation about Islam. We were both very encouraged and excited about the possibilities of cooperation between the Muslim and Christian communities.

The world’s notions about punishment and mercy are so different from God’s invitation to pardon and free food. Though this was not the intent when first written, Christians throughout the centuries have interpreted this passage as a call to the sacraments of baptism and communion. Lent gives us the opportunity for seeking the God who wishes to be found. 

In this season of Lent, let our focus be on spending time with God, drinking the milk and wine he freely gives us and eating the bread of life. Let us praise God with our whole hearts and lives so all will be drawn to the joy and glory of God. 

Amen.

Resources

Steven L. McKenzie, Covenant 
Gale Ramshaw, Sundaysandseasons.com 
Darryl M. Trimiew, Richard A. Puckett, Kenyatta R. Gilbert, Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 2 
Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year C

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