Tuesday, March 01, 2016


Isaiah 55:1-11[1]
Have you noticed that we live in a culture that actually creates dissatisfaction? For example, if you pay attention to the music in certain stores, you may notice they’re playing sad songs. They do that because they know if they can make you feel bad you’ll buy something. I find it interesting that every few years, car makers “update” their models. I don’t think they’re primary concern is making sure their product meets the latest quality standards. They want to make those of us driving the older models buy a new car. I won’t even try to dive into the world of clothing. Wearing last year’s fashions may be acceptable, but if you go back too far, well you just have to go shopping.
It seems to me that we believe that if we can only have that house we’ve dreamed of, or the job we’ve always wanted, or reach the goal we’ve worked so hard for, we’ll be satisfied with our lives. But unfortunately, reality usually leaves us feeling disappointed. I experienced something of that on the day I finally finished all my education. After spending 13 years working toward my Ph. D., the day I graduated was probably one of the biggest let-downs in my life! I had worked all those years, and when I graduated, they put my doctoral hood on me, gave me a diploma, and that was it. I felt like after all those countless hours of work, there should have been a band playing and fireworks going off!
The people to whom our lesson from Isaiah was addressed were a people who had learned to live with disappointment. Most of them had been born in exile, far away from the homeland that their parents and grandparents may have told them about. They had learned to settle for circumstances that were far less than satisfying because they had no control over them. Their people had been conquered by the Babylonian armies, and they had no choice but to live out their lives in a place that was far away from “home.” I would say they were thoroughly acquainted with dissatisfaction.
Into their disappointment and despair, however, came a prophet who promised them in the name of the Lord that they would be set free. They would return to their homeland and God would give them a whole new life there where they would live in peace and enjoy all the blessings they could hope for.[2] In fact, this prophet promised them that it would be such a great act of deliverance that it would make the Exodus from Egypt pale in comparison (Isa. 43:18-20). What God would do for them would be something totally new, something that they would never have been able to imagine.
I don’t know about you, but I wonder how I would have responded to such a surprising message. There they were, just doing their best to make it through each day, and this prophet offers them a hope that went far beyond their wildest dreams: God was going to act decisively to set them free from exile and return them home. I think I may have had a hard time believing it. I think they had a hard time believing it. When life leaves our hopes and dreams shattered in pieces, it can be easy to give up looking for anything better. When disappointment becomes our normal experience, we tend to have a way of just getting used to it.
I think the prophet knew that the people had some huge obstacles to overcome. So in our lesson for today, he warns them to stop putting their hopes in things that don’t have the power to satisfy.[3] By contrast, God was offering them a fresh start in life, another chance to find true happiness.[4] And all they had to do was to accept! Hear the words of the prophet again: “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” (Isa. 55:1). God promised to give them all they could ever want, and the only price of admission was to be hungry for something more.[5]
If you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true, I’m sure, like me, you would have had lots of company among the people of that day.[6] Unfortunately, those of us who have been around the block a few times may have experienced enough disappointment that we’ve given in to cynicism or even despair. But the prophet knew that too, and his answer is that when we think God’s promises are too good to be true, we’re vastly underestimating God. He says, “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” (Isa. 55:8-9). When we think that God’s promises are more than we can believe in, the prophet reminds us that God’s words of promise aren’t empty, campaign-speech promises. Rather, God actually does what he promises (Isa. 55:10-11).[7]
In a very real sense, the lesson the Scripture has for us today is that we find true satisfaction in life in the places we typically don’t look. Who would really believe that we could find true and lasting happiness only in the life and the love that God offers us. Surely we have to go out and get it ourselves! But the fact is that just trying harder to get what we want out of life usually leaves us even more disappointed. The way to be truly happy, to be truly satisfied with our lives, is to let go of our expectations, and the illusion that we somehow control our own destiny. The way to be truly happy is to accept God’s free gift of a new way of living that provides all that we’ve been looking for.[8] It’s been there all along—in the life and the love that God offers us all.[9] All we have to do is accept it. And when we accept that incredibly generous gift, that’s when we find that we can be truly satisfied in life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/28/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Isa. 40:1-11; 42:14-16; 43:5-7; 49:8-13.
[3] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 180: “Second Isaiah has already made a strong case for God’s power and God’s abiding love for Israel. Now he turns in verses 6-9 to the essential point: He calls out to the people to ‘seek the Lord.’ The plight in which they find themselves traces not to weakness or inattention on God’s part. The blessing of the covenant of peace awaits them like an open door. Instead, they have chosen death, that is to say, they are preoccupied with wicked ways and selfish thoughts that cut them off from communion with the source of life. The prophet therefore urges them to ‘return to the Lord, that he may have mercy …, for [God] will abundantly pardon’ (55:7).”
[4] Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreters Bible VI: 482, “Chapter 55 capitalizes on the word of God from Isaiah’s day and sees it accomplishing what God intends in the present day. The waters that were once rejected—those connected with Zion’s secure status (Psalm 46)—are once again a source of strength (55:1). Wine and milk can be bought without money, for the expensive vines that became briers and thorns (7:23) are again there to be had (free wine) because they have been changed into mytle and cypress (55:13). Abundant milk had been promised in Isaiah’s day for “everyone left in the land”; that word has now come to fruition.” Contrast Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A commentary on Isaiah 40–55, 468, where he insists that the invitation does not come from God, but from Zion/Jerusalem, who is “inviting the people to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” He carries this theme throughout his interpretation of this passage. For example, Balzer (p. 476), sees the invitation to “seek the Lord” also as an invitation to pilgrimage.
[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 177: “an unusual invitation is extended. The list of those to be included is not limited to people of social standing, not even to people of sufficient means to come properly attired. The only requirement is hunger and thirst.”
[6] Cf. Balzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 479: “what human beings find especially incomprehensible is God’s will for salvation, his ‘compassion.’”
[7] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” NIB VI:483, “It is striking what sort of flexibility God is prepared to show with the word once delivered. Clear reversals of judgment, promised beforehand, are executed. Waters once rejected are offered again. Promises of an everlasting covenant with David are enlarged to include God’s people. The former word has gone forth and has not returned empty. In other cases, it has gone forth and undergone surprising adaptations, which no one could have imagined. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, the prophet reminds us; and yet God’s word, once delivered, maintains a sure continuity through time, accomplishing what God had planned originally.”
[8] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 177-78: ““The most precious gift of all, the gift of life in God’s presence, is free. All that can exclude you is your insisting that there are places you would rather be.”
[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: Three Movements in the Spiritual Life, 125: “In Jesus Christ, God has entered our lives in the most intimate way, so that we could enter into his life through the Spirit. … By giving us his Spirit, his breath, he became closer to us than we are to ourselves. … Praying in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, therefore, means participating in the intimate life of God himself. … We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself.” Cf. similarly, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 178, where she recounts how she learned that “prayer is more than saying set prayers at set times. Prayer, …, is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it is not necessarily something I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in The Midst.” Cf. also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 25: “The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.” Cf. further Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, 66-67, where he says that living the life where “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” is a matter of living “connected to the Source, or to be ‘on the Vine,’ as Jesus says.” He continues by emphasizing that “this is something you can only fall into and receive—and nothing that you can achieve, which utterly humiliates the ego, the willful, and all overachievers.”

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