A Sermon Preached Sunday, 28 February, 2016 at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario.
Texts for this week, the Third Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63: 1-8, 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13, Luke 13: 1-9
<Loud Noise of Ship’s Horn, then recorded voice> “Congratulations, you’ve won a free cruise! To collect your cruise …..”
I always hang up at this point. These sorts of calls annoy me because I know, at the most visceral level, that these are lies. There is no free cruise, no free timeshare condo or Florida. No nun in Africa or Saudi prince is waiting to deposit three million dollars into my bank account. I have lived enough in the world to know that dishoest people are out there, hoping to prey on the naive, the unworldly, or the elderly.
At some point in our lives, the voice of experience teaches us, as a rule of life, that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”.
But is there? Today we hear a voice, urgent to get our attention, full of promises.
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.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isa 55:1-2)
What the NRSV translates, rather stiltedly, as “Ho”, might be translated as “Hey!” or “Hey! You! Come over here! Free food and drink! All you can eat! Hey, you!”
We have to decide how to respond to this invitation. Either our usual, self-protective cynicism (there’s no such thing as a free lunch) kicks in, and we ignore it, or, we listen, we turn around, and we go to the free feast.
Our Old Testament reading today comes from a part of the book of Isaiah that was probably written at the end of Israel’s exile in Babylon, when the Jews were free to return to their homeland. The passage has the great themes of promise and renewal that make Isaiah so inspiring, and which, hopefully, challenge any negative impressions we may have of the Old Testament.
Here Isaiah seems to be promising a new life of hope and abundance to a tired, beaten and sad people. And today, as we hear this passage read in church, the same invitation is given to us. Come on! Free feast! Come eat and drink! The opening lines, the invitation to the free feast, are a metaphor for this new life that God wants to offer us. We find this metaphor in the New Testament as well, in places like the parable of the king who sends his servants out with invitations to the wedding banquet (Matthew 22). As in that parable, the question here is simple. How will we respond to this invitation?
As we consider God’s invitation to the free banquet, the next thing we have to get over is the idea that there may be a catch somewhere. So let’s take a moment to examine the invitation, to read the fine print, if you will. As you know from a lifetime’s exposure to advertising, many tempting offers are followed by a phrase like “Act now! Offer is only good for a limited time!”
Something like that appears to be working here as well. Isaiah says “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isa 55:6). Does that mean that God will only be found for a limited team, and then he will go away, far from us?
This may seem kind of manipulative, but notice some of the other language. God actually sounds very patient here. Isaiah is saying that God is offering an “everlasting covenant”. God is “steadfast”, his love for David is “sure”. This sounds to me like a God who is in it for the long haul. A God who sets out such a feast, who wants to “abundantly pardon”, sounds like a God who has gone to a lot of trouble. Surely he isn’t going to lock the door and clear away the food if we don’t respond right away.
And then here’s what seems to be a another catch.
“Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them”.
So maybe this free meal isn’t that free after all? Here’s a free meal, but first here’s a sermon, saying that you are wicked and God is only in the neighbourhood for a little while, so you better repent. Then you get to eat. It’s kind of like the scene in Guys and Dolls, where you have to sit through a sermon at the Save a Soul Mission before you get the free meal. But really, is this a limited time offer? Do we have to repent to get the reward?
Well, maybe, but before we walk away, let’s think about what the call to repentance in verse 6-7 are about. We can think about repentance as a demand to say we’re sorry, straighten out our lives and fly right, in which case, if we’re honest, it doesn’t sound all that attractive. Or, we can think about repentance as an invitation to a new and better life. As Rolf Jacobsen of Luther Seminary put it, repentance about urgency, it’s about a present reality that’s waiting, ready to grasped.
Think of a special meal at your house. The food is ready, piping hot. You call people to come to the table. Why do you want them to come quickly? Because the food’s there, hot, ready to be eaten. You want people to enjoy it as much as possible. If the kids don’t come right away, will you punish them? Will you turn them away, will you throw out the food if they aren’t there to eat when the food’s ready?
I doubt that you would, and I doubt that God would, either. I don’t think God’s like that. I think God calls us to a better life, one that is full and rich, where we know that we are loved and forgiven and that we can be better than we are. I think God’s offer is there, and he is sorry if we don’t take it. But we have to be willing to go to the table. We have to hear the invitation to the better life. “Listen, so that you may live” says Isaiah. “Listen carefully to me” and “incline your ear to me”.
Isaiah’s invitation to the feast, to the better life, is the same invitation that we as God’s church offer to the world. We have the same job as Isaiah. Our job is to call people to God’s banquet. That’s one way to think of evangelism, if you like.
Isaiah suggests that this kind of evangelism brings results. “See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you (Isa 55:5). The idea here is that God wants to share his blessings, not just with Israel, his chosen people, but with all nations. Other people will see what Israel enjoys with God, and will want to share in that relationship. This is a promise Isaiah makes in his next chapter, when God promises to gather the nations, so that his house will be “a house or prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7).
So how would this work for Trinity Anglican Church? If God’s invitation to the banquet is so attractive, how can we get hungry people coming to us? How do we invite people to God’s banquet?
Often we think about evangelism in terms of what we have to do to make the church more attractive to people. Maybe it’s new music, or a different style of worship, or better signs, or so on. But this passage makes me wonder, what would it be like to find a group of people who are genuinely happy? People who don’t think of their lives as a burden, who don’t feel trapped in materialism or status or a sense that they are missing out on life? People who truly liked, even loved, one another? People who were welcoming, who wanted to share what they had? Wouldn’t that be awesome?
I think a lot of people out there today would find that awesome. On Friday I read a Globe and Mail piece called the “Ten Troubling Habits of Unhappy People”. These habits included spending too much on things that they thought might make them happy, but which only end up disappointing, or comparing themselves and their status with others. The article quoted researchers from the University of Illinois who found that 50% of happiness (outside of life circumstances and genetics) depends on the choices we make and the priorities we set.
All the evidence I read suggests that so many people out there are miserably unhappy. I think of an interview I heard last week about two 30-something filmmakers, the Duplass brothers. They do a show for HBO called Togetherness, which is about - you guessed it - 30 somethings in Los Angeles who are struggling with a sense of emptiness in their lives and who go around feeling dead inside. The Duplass brothers said that:
"We're hearing lots of conversations about people who are either in their late 30s and married, and they're just an inch from drowning in the sea of their children and their jobs and make everything work. Or they haven't found that person yet. Or haven't even found that traction in their work life.
Research suggests that younger people find Christians judgemental, angry and hypocritical. But what do you think these unhappy, dead inside people might feel if they found people who had accepted Isaiah’s banquet invitation, and who had saved them seats at the table? What if they found us, people who accepted God because we knew that we couldn’t do it all by ourselves, because we figured out there was more to life than money and power and status? What if they found people who were truly, genuinely joyful because they knew a real, loving, and present God?
I think that’s the real challenge for us as church. There’s no secret to bringing people through the door. It’s about being a people who know God. If we really want that abundant life that God offers, if we really feel that he’s made a difference in our lives, fed us when we were hungry, rescued us when we were lost, forgiven us and turned our lives around, and if we aren’t afraid about saying this things in real, simple, honest ways, then the stories we tell will be attractive, even infections, to others. People will come because they want to share in the banquet that we have found, and that we enjoy.
Today we heard about a feast, I’ve talked about a feast, and in a few minutes we will celebrate a feast. As you go to the altar, I invite you to think about what the eucharist represents for you. It may be just a disc of flour and a sip of wine, but what abundance does it represent for you? How does the eucharist make you think about your own experience of forgiveness, love, God’s presence, and hope? If you’re still looking for those things, then maybe you would like to speak with Canon Donald, or Rev. Janet or myself. But, if you’ve found these things, then perhaps you could think about what your experience at God’s banquet table is like. And then, later today, I invite you to put those things into words, simple, everyday words, that you might share with someone who is still lost, still hungry, still looking.