A Lenten Promise
Text: Isaiah 55:1-12
I can picture the prophet Isaiah decked out in full carnival attire, megaphone in hand and barking out: “Step right up ladies and gentlemen. Get your heart’s desire – and it’s free; it’s all free!” If I were at that carnival and heard that nonsense, I would have headed for the car. Whenever I hear a “it’s all free,” there are “no strings attached,” kind of promise, I look even harder for the strings.
Isaiah, though, is no con man. He is a convicted man. He has something to say and no matter how hard it is for his audience to believe, he is going to say it. He is no traveling carnival barker making an absurd promise to a bunch of strangers; he is a prophet from God addressing his own kin living in exile, daring them to trust in a promise that may sound absurd, and yet is anything but.
Isaiah urges his exiled kin not to get too comfortable in Babylon, not to settle for their increasingly settled life there. He urges them to stop listening to the carnival barkers in Babylon making promises that they have no power or intention to keep. He urges them to hold tight to God’s promise of a new life for them in Jerusalem.
Kinfolk or not, Isaiah has a tough task at hand. Why trust any promise the from the God who let Jerusalem burn, who left them bereft, leaving them abandoned to learn a new language? Why trust in God’s promise of abundant life when living in Babylon beats living in a torched-earth Jerusalem?
After all, many in Isaiah’s audience knew only stories about Jerusalem; they had never lived there. They had been born in Babylon and knew no other place as home. They found jobs there, married lovely Babylonian boys and girls, built homes, and did far more with their lives than simply make do. Many had no longing to return home; they were home! To them, Isaiah must have sounded like a lame and loud carnival barker.
I’ll give it to Isaiah, though. He is tenacious. He does not back down, even before an audience that doubts every promise he makes. Standing at the center square of Babylon, Isaiah tries to convince people who are holding Babylonian water bottles filled to the brim that they are actually thirsty.
Isaiah must have been speaking to those from the great southwest of Babylon. My wife, Jennell, did her doctoral research in Tucson and as someone who is a lifelong Southerner, well acquainted with humidity and thirst, she was taken aback by signs at the entrance to every State Park that read: “Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.” That is precisely how Isaiah begins his sermon: “My kin in Babylon, you are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.” So, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.”
And the intrepid prophet does not stop with the promise to quench their deepest thirst. He asks his kin: “Why spend money on food that doesn’t end your hunger?” In other words, Isaiah says: “You are hungry, whether you realize it or not.” But how do you convince people with grocery carts spilling over with products or with Babylonian Uber Eats delivering to their doors that they are hungry? How do you convince those you love who are well-supplied with water and have ample food that they are actually thirsty and hungry?
You and I are in the middle of a season that is as easy to ignore as all of Isaiah’s shouting, a season that is left behind in most of secular America. Most people begin the day by listening to the latest bombing of innocents in Ukraine or bemoaning the crippling rate of inflation or lamenting soaring gas prices. If there is any talk of Lent, it sounds more like late season New Year’s resolutions. “I’m giving up TV for Lent,” I hear from some. “I’m giving up chocolate or wine or desserts for Lent,” I hear from others. Each resolution sounds as if it could have made by any member of Isaiah’s congregation living in the comfortable settled environs of Babylon, ready to set aside a little bit of privilege, a little bit of affluence for a little bit of seasonal, spiritual edification.
The promise that Isaiah announces is nothing so mundane and meaningless, nothing so inconsequential and small. Isaiah invites us to live Lent by living into God’s abundant promise, to give up not desserts but give up a life that begins and ends with what “I” need and what “I” want. Isaiah invites us to thirst and hunger for God’s promise of an abundant life in which our mysterious and gracious God knows what you need, what I need, and what the world needs, a God about whom Isaiah reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah knew nothing of the season of Lent, but his sermon in chapter 55 is as good a Lenten sermon as I have ever heard and better than any I have ever preached. Isaiah will not stop preaching until he convinces his own overfed kin that even though they may not yet realize it, they are hungry and they are thirsty. He will not stop preaching until he convinces his kin to trust in the sure provisions of God, a promise that when we do trust in God’s free, no strings attached, promise we will thirst and hunger no more.
[move from pulpit to baptismal font] “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” If I could devise a way to write these words on every baptismal font, I would. It was not until the pandemic hit our world and not until my life was assaulted did I realize how thirsty I was, thirsty for God’s sure promise of justice and forgiveness. It was not until then that I was ready to stop drinking from the fountain of self-reliance and to return to this font, to rejoice that Isaiah’s promise is announced again and again whenever the baptismal waters wash over us. These waters not only remind us of our thirst for meaning and purpose in our lives, they quench that thirst with absolutely no strings attached.
[move from font to table] “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Every time I come to this table of plenty, I realize how often I sate my hunger with the fast food of privilege that I stuff into my mouth without even thinking. Every time I come to this table, I realize that no matter how big a breakfast I ate, how hungry I am. At this table, I realize how hungry I am for the bread of life that is given to me, given you, as a free gift from our God of abundance. No matter how many years of education I have or how much money I have socked away, when I come to this table I realize that I can never accumulate enough education or money or prestige to buy this food, and I do not need to, because it is given away by God with no strings attached.
At this table, God not only satisfies our greatest needs and soothes our most disturbed souls, but invites us to live into God’s promise until no child goes hungry in Kiev or in Covesville, no aging adult thirsts for someone to love them and care for them, no one of whatever their skin color or who they love is denied the promise of God’s love and abundant life poured out in bread and cup. At this table, even when we do not realize how broken we are, God sutures all that is broken within us, and does so at no other cost than our trust.
Isaiah reserves the most outrageous promise for last. I wonder how refugees from Lviv now living in a Polish camp or an inmate wrongly convicted and living in a Virginia jail or a shattered soul living in the land of constant nightmares would hear this seemingly absurd promise when Isaiah sings: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace, the mountains and hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
“Step right up ladies and gentlemen. Get your heart’s desire – and it’s free; it’s all free!” “Step right up and go out in joy.” “Step right up and be led back in peace.” Step right up and listen to creation burst out in song.”
Now, that is a Lenten promise I am ready drink and eat for the rest of my life.