If the abundant life is on your Christmas list, you have come to the right place! And the even better news is that it doesn’t cost anything and there is plenty in stock!
The heartbreaking thing about it is that you are probably putting up a barrier right now to keep yourself from being swept up into this offer before you find out what the catch is. There’s always a catch, right? Maybe you get two free nights at a resort, but you are going to have to go to a three hour high pressure sales pitch to buy a time share unit. Maybe you get two free months of service, but what are the next three years going to cost? When John and I went to Egypt, the khaffiyas from the boy were a free gift, but getting the camera back after he took our picture on the camel was rather expensive. We are conditioned to know that there is no free lunch, there is always a catch.
So when today’s passage begins and it sounds like a street vendor trying to get us to nibble at the bait and reel us in, we are immediately on guard. “Hey! You thirsty? Come on over! I have plenty of water. I have milk. I have wine. No cost! Come on!” I am almost certainly going to keep walking on the other side of the road studying whatever is in the other direction.
But the voice continues to pursue me. “Why are you spending your time, your money, your energy on things that aren’t really important and don’t bring satisfaction? I am able to give you everything you need to be truly happy and fulfilled and it won’t cost you anything! Get your abundant life right here!”
The busy and expensive season of Advent is a wonderful time to be reminded that the gift to which this season points is a free gift which has the power to make all the difference in our lives. The danger is that we will walk right past it and miss it or will assume there is an expensive catch and reject it.
Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in the second section of Isaiah. This section, chapters 40-55, dates from the time when the Babylonian exile was ending and the Jewish people were given the opportunity to go back home. At first glance you would think that decision was a no brainer – of course they would want to go back to Jerusalem. But it was clearly not a simple decision for everyone. Let me give some reasons why.
After 60-70 years of exile, the majority of the Jews living in Babylon had never set foot in Jerusalem or Israel proper. Babylon was all they knew. They had heard stories from the older generations who had such fond memories, but all they had ever known was Babylon. They knew what life was like there, and while there were some restrictions on their religious observance it is not like they were slaves in Egypt. They also knew that the Temple and city of Jerusalem had been destroyed, so they had no idea what it would be like to go there and start from scratch. Enough Jews decided to remain in Babylon that there was a substantial and influential Jewish community there until very recent years. During Jesus’ life some 500 years later one of the most respected Jewish scholars was from Babylon.
So Isaiah was tasked with encouraging Jews to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild their community and their nation in a place where they could faithfully practice their religion the way they were called to do, including Temple worship and sacrifices. One of the obstacles besides fear of the unknown was the fact that things hadn’t ended well last time in Jerusalem. There were questions about whether God had rejected his people for good, whether God was still angry and holding a grudge, whether God had recovered from his defeat at the hands of the Babylonian gods.
So Isaiah speaks in these 16 chapters of how God never rejected his people, never turned his back on them, never broke the covenant. The covenant is still fully in effect. God was never vanquished by Babylonian gods; Israel and Jerusalem brought this on themselves. God is about to do a new thing by leading them home, going before them and preparing the way and providing everything they need.
So it is to Jews in Babylon that Isaiah addresses these words as they hustle along to work, to the market, to the kids’ soccer game, to the Tigris River for a swim. “Hey! Can’t you feel it that there is something important missing in your life? You’re always on the go, always busy, always spending money, but you are never truly fulfilled by any of it? Come to the water of life and receive from its abundance.”
The next section, I suppose, contains the hook, the call to be part of the return. It speaks of returning to God, but I think in a deeper sense it is a call to return to the fold, the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people together in their land. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
Seek the Lord while he may be found… I don’t think we should understand this as God hiding from us. It’s more like my first example where we are passing by oblivious to the street vendor who is trying his best to give us the good stuff that we really need while we are absorbed with trinkets and glamour in the store display windows on the other side. Later in Isaiah (65) God says, “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.”
There is no question in Isaiah’s mind about the consequences of returning to God. He will have mercy on them. He will abundantly pardon. To people who are concerned about whether God is angry and holding a grudge about the people’s failures which led to the exile, Isaiah assures them that God doesn’t think or act in the same way humans do. If you are trying to sort out the reasons the exile happened and what God’s role in it was, you will not succeed. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and God’s thoughts than our thoughts.
And if you are scared to leave Babylon and head back to Jerusalem because you doubt whether God will keep his word, Isaiah has an analogy for you. He says, “You know how when it rains and snows it doesn’t just disappear when it hits the earth? It goes down into the earth and waters it and causes things to grow and life to be sustained. God’s word is the same way. When God makes a promise it never disappears, it always accomplishes what it is intended to do. God says, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.”
This promise is a perfect segue from today’s reading, which is the last from this year’s Old Testament section, to next Sunday’s reading, which is the first in our journey through the Gospel of John. Here’s where it begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The ultimate Word of God is his Son, Jesus Christ, who certainly did not return to God empty without having accomplished his purpose.
“Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters!” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) He also promises, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The last verses of the Bible echo this invitation and promise from Isaiah and from Jesus, in Revelation 22: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (22:17)
If you are feeling parched as you strain for the finish line next week; if you are starved for something substantial and meaningful and significant; if it feels as though God is missing in action from your life – consider the possibility that God is trying to get your attention (Here I am, here I am), wanting to give you the gifts which can only be given by God and which cannot be bought anywhere for any price.
Isaiah’s final encouragement to the exiles to have courage and return goes like this: “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.”
How can we make this last lap to Christmas one in which we go out in joy and are led back in peace? Spend your time, money, and energy on things that satisfy. There are a lot of things about our Christmas traditions and practices that are good and bring joy. Some gift giving brings delight. The way we receive gifts from others can influence whether giving those gifts brings delight to them. Kind words, patience, inclusiveness, thoughtfulness. Togetherness with family and friends, the radiant joy of the Christmas Eve service. It will all come naturally if we center Christmas around an awareness of that gift at the center which makes sense of it all. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. From him we have all received grace upon grace, the water of life welling up to eternal life, the abundant life which God’s presence offers freely. Anybody thirsty? Come.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 17, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church