~ Isaiah 55:1-12 ~
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, for Yahweh has glorified you.
“Incline your ear,” says the prophet. Reminds me of a skit we used to do at summer camp.
Its ancient Rome. Two guys meet on the road.
One says: “I just got done giving a speech in the city. I said, ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.’”
The other guy says: “Oh, yeah. What do you have in the bag?”
“Incline your ear…listen, so that you may live,” says the prophet. Who is he speaking to? And who is ‘he’? Well, ‘he’ is not the actual prophet Isaiah. That Isaiah did his work about 150 years before this Isaiah. We might call this Isaiah, Second Isaiah. He (or they) are writing these words about 540 B.C.E. They are addressed to elite Israelites who had been forcibly deported to Babylon when Jerusalem had been destroyed King Nebuchadnezzar’s army back in 600 B.C.E. He took back to Babylon those Israelites he thought might be able to contribute to his empire – in other words, the ‘elites’ of Judea. Many more were left behind to fend for themselves.
These Babylonian captives had been living in the city for 60+ years now. They had settled in, making the most of their situation. Indeed, it appears they had done quite well for themselves, participating in the economy, becoming part of the culture. Oh, they may have had some vague desire to go back home to Jerusalem. But Jerusalem didn’t exist anymore and, besides, most, if not all, of them had always lived in Babylon.
But changes are afoot. The Persians are on the horizon and the once vaunted Babylonian empire appears ready for a downfall; indeed, to be crushed. Anxious times, indeed.
So, here is this Isaiah writing to his fellow countrymen that God is about to do a new work. Will they be ready for it? Will they embrace it? That’s not a given because they were, as I said, quite settled into their Babylonian lifestyle. Hence, Isaiah II has his work cut out for him. Will they listen? Will they lend God their ears – I mean, ‘incline their ears’?
Well, to get their attention the prophet utilizes what Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann (His analysis of this text is the basis for my sermon today), calls “the language of amazement.” We might call it hyperbole. “How are you being nourished?” asks the prophet. Are you getting your fill from the bakeries of Babylon? You’ve paid a steep price for that Babylonian bread. But it’s not really very satisfying, is it?
Instead, you should come back to what God provides. Come to the waters, you who are truly thirsty. Come, buy and eat, you who desire real sustenance. You don’t even need any money. In the course of a sentence the prophet speaks to the promise made long ago with King David. God has not forgotten the covenant made with Israel.
Yes, for a time it seemed God had forgotten them, but now is the time for a renewal of the promise. In the previous chapter he says, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (54:7-8).
What is the moment to which the prophet speaks? Well, it’s the prospect of going home, going back to Jerusalem. The Israelites of Babylon find themselves in the midst of geo-political happenings. The end of Babylon seems pretty sure. The Persians are too powerful; Babylon can no longer keep them at bay. Indeed, by 537 B.C.E. the empire is overrun. Anybody who is paying attention can see what is about to happen. History says that the new Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Israelites to return to Judea.
However, the listeners, those who have lent their ears, have a choice to make. They must choose against the quid-pro-quo economy of Babylon. Whether they truly realized it or not they had been putting their efforts into an imperial economy that resulted in production of “labor for that which does not satisfy” and consumption of “that which is not bread.” It is in fact a dead-end enterprise that only results in fatigue, disappointment, and despair.
The prophet’s message is that there is an alternative way. God is faithful. The covenant that God made with David will be kept. The restoration of Israel is forthcoming. You just need to believe it; to trust God’s providence. Can you make that choice, asks the prophet?
The prophet continues his riff on what God is doing. So it is, we hear the rest of the prophet’s language of amazement.
Seek God while God may be found, call upon God while God is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to God, that God may have mercy on them, and to our God, who will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says God. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
The prophet zeros in. Seek God who is currently close by. Seek God you “wicked” and “unrighteous,” return to God. Who are these ‘wicked’ and ‘unrighteous’? They are those Israelites who compromised with Babylonian practices, values, and methods of production and consumption, those who had compromised with the quid-pro-quo setup there in Babylon, those who had sold out their covenantal values for their own individual benefits.
The prophet sets up a vivid and elemental contrast between the ways of the empire and the ways of covenant: “your ways and thoughts” and God’s “ways and thoughts.” Here is how Brueggemann puts it:
“Your ways,” you who have colluded with the empire of quid-pro-quo, is a way of fear, scarcity, and anxiety that requires labor that does not satisfy and purchases that are not bread. God’s way, by contrast, is a way of generous, reliable fidelity that makes such fearful collusion both inappropriate and unnecessary.
The message is clear to the prophet’s listeners who live amidst the anxiety driven reality of their world: Embrace God’s way, God’s thinking, and God’s future. There they will find satisfaction and nourishment. There they will “eat what is good, and delight…in rich food.”
The choice is not just about which kingdom will they choose; it isn’t about loyalty to Babylon or loyalty to Jerusalem. No, the choice is about how they will live together. Will they live only unto themselves, which is what the Babylonian economy championed and to which they were fully involved? Or will they live into what Brueggeman calls “neighborly justice.” Or as I’d like to put it, will they live into a “generous justice.” Their ways and thoughts? Or God’s ways and thoughts? God’s way is one that extends generous hospitality to each other, to our neighbors. God’s way says that healthy relationships depend on a generous justice towards one another. God’s way says that there needs to be plenty of room for forgiveness, even large acts of forgiveness. Instead of judgmental scorekeeping, maybe we cancel the debts of the poor, individually and nationally. Maybe we need to practice “generous justice.”
Did you notice I went from “them” to “we?” I don’t think the prophet’s message was just for those compromising Israelites living in Babylon. While being careful not to apply his words too directly, maybe there is a message for us compromising American Christians that we should heed.
In this season of Lent, maybe Second Isaiah’s words are a sobering call for us as well. In a time of harsh “us vs them” rhetoric, maybe we, the collective ‘we’ of America, need to listen to God’s call and find a way to include the ‘other’ in more deliberate ways. In these times of economic insecurity, maybe we, all the more, need to look out for each other and particularly those who are the most insecure. In a time of an ever-widening gap in wealth between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, we need to fight harder for those ‘have-nots’. In this season of Lent, maybe we have real choices to be made, just as those comfortable Israelites in Babylon were confronted with real choices of the most elemental kind.
Maybe it’s time to ask the difficult questions as to how our economic system seems to keep rewarding the rich and punishing the poor. It seems to me that our individualistic market economy does serious harm to the encouragement of generosity. Maybe our meritocracy-based system is too broken to ever be fair and just. Maybe we are teaching our kids a seriously wrong lesson about how to make it in this world. The recent college admissions scandal is a case in point.
I want to thank Bill Jackson for alerting me to a poignant opinion piece in the New York Times last week. The writer, Frank Bruni, asks “Just what is all this scheming and obsession with status teaching our children?” For many teens, who have spent their entire pre-college education putting together a resume that will get them in the right university, if they don’t make it, they consider the whole effort a complete waste of time. He writes,
For these kids, education isn’t an opportunity to wring more meaning from life and make a more constructive impact on the world. It’s transactional. It’s a performance. If the right audience doesn’t clap, there was no point in even taking the stage.
Or to put it another way, a quid-pro-quo view of life. I put into the system, I expect something in return. Bruni quotes from a Harvard report entitled “Making Caring Common Project” which says that this practice
corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity.
As a result, “many young people become cynical both about a system that seems unfair and divorced from their interests, and about the adults who created it.” Are we complicit in the cynical, selfish system of quid-pro-quo?
Another aspect of our complicity, another example of a “my ways and thoughts” kind of practice, is our reliance, unwittingly or not, on the American national security apparatus that keeps us safe at the expense of ‘others’. A corollary belief to this national security apparatus is US exceptionalism, which arrogantly asserts the theological assurance that we are the chosen of God. “If America does it, it’s not wrong,” to quote a former vice president.
Now, I know that these are not ‘ways and thoughts’ that we, here, endorse. Indeed, we despise such ‘ways and thoughts’. Yet, I believe we can become complacent, maybe thinking that we can’t really change things so why try. Maybe we should just hunker down and hope we can get through this despairing mess somehow.
God does not call us to such a choice. God calls us to a ‘generous justice’ of making room for our neighbors whomever they may be. For inviting our neighbors to the feast – and they don’t need to bring any money! We are called to live by God’s ways and thoughts, which the prophet says are higher than our ways and thoughts. In doing so, God says that, just as the seed sprouts, “giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,” so shall God’s word go out and not return empty, but it shall accomplish its purpose, and succeed in the thing for which it is sent.
With such a collaboration with God, we finally get to the incredible promise we so love to sing, the amazing rhetoric of God’s promise of Isaiah 55:12, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Amen.