Our text from Isaiah is uncommonly cheery for Lent. Yet it is at the heart of Lent’s meaning. “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. Why 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.” Two thousand five hundred years before the Atkins diet, the Jews knew that rich food is the stuff of divine favor. Milk, honey, wine, oil, fresh water, bread, and fatted calves advertised fulfillment in the Promised Land.
These viands were cited metaphorically, of course, to give content to God’s promise. But they worked as metaphors because they also were literally among the blessings of a prosperous and happy people. Knowing what we do today about alcohol, cholesterol and the carcinogenic effects of too much fat, we might officially prefer the metaphoric to the literal meaning. But if we can imagine Heaven as filled with pleasures that have no bad consequences, deep in our hearts we would want to dine on richly marbled hotel-cut roast beef with Bearnaise sauce, followed by Crème Brule, then chocolate truffles and baklava; cigars would be nice for the gentlemen. How I regret that this Victorian appetite was so unhealthy, sexist, and funded by the labors of others, usually conquered peoples! People in the ancient world did not have these hygienic and moral concerns about the good life.
Our text from Isaiah concludes a section that began with chapter 40 and that was written probably in the second half of the 6th century bce while the Jewish elite was exiled in Babylon. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah, which scholars call First Isaiah, were written in the second half of the 8th century bce, by someone who really was named Isaiah, the son of Amoz. The Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the time of First Isaiah, and the Babylonians had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah a few decades before the writing of our text. Chapters 56 to 66, Third Isaiah, were written toward the end of the 6th century after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. Our text is the culmination of Second Isaiah, celebrating the exiles’ anticipation that Cyrus of Persia, who had conquered the Babylonians, would send the exiles home. Cyrus did send them home and for that was called a messiah. The Jews in the 6th century were overjoyed to be going home, returning to the Promised Land, a second Exodus from a second exile. Chapter 55 concludes after our reading by saying “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. Instead of a thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah was one of the most important sources of images for early Christian self-understanding. Our passage resonated with Jesus’ claim, recorded in John’s gospel, to be the water of life to which the thirsty should come, the bread of life for those who are hungry. Part of the very deep resonances in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine is that, while they symbolize the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus, they also are the biblical signs of prosperity and happiness. Although part of the assertion of the early Christians that Jesus was the messiah came from tracing his genealogy through his father, Joseph, back to King David (the second messiah, after King Saul), another part came from analogy with Cyrus, the messiah who set the Jewish people free.
The early Christians, however, transformed the meanings of these symbols as they applied them to Jesus. They had to do so. Our text from Isaiah makes reference to God’s promise to establish the House of David on the throne of Israel forever, and that simply did not happen. The Isaiah text speaks as if the whole nation of Israel has a messianic role, when in fact it became fragmented. Whereas most of the other Jewish sects at the time of the Second Temple waited for a new messiah like David, or perhaps a Roman Cyrus, the Christians, who were then one more Jewish sect, changed the whole meaning of messiahship and many other Jewish symbols. The other Jews sought a messiah who would establish Israel in the land and perhaps make Jerusalem the world’s capital. The Christians came to believe that the religious problem has little to do with settling in the land. It has to do rather with settling in God. We are estranged from God, like Israelites who have broken the covenant. The messiah is the one who overcomes our estrangement. The question for us in our day is how to understand this God and our estrangement.
The Isaiah text contains this wonderful, but spooky line: “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.” This is a highly anthropomorphic representation of God speaking. Astonishingly, what God says is that the anthropomorphic representations do not apply. God is not just a smarter, deeper thinker. God does not think in the sense that we do. God is as different as the heaven is higher than the earth. This theme runs throughout Second Isaiah, which is one of the earliest biblical books to say that God is the creator of absolutely everything, not just the heavenly king and defender of Israel, but creator of everything and Lord of all nations.
In our time, the conception of God as creator must accommodate a vastly enriched conception of the “everything” created. The universe is 15 to 20 billion years old and vaster in extent than we can imagine; it is not the small, earth-centered cosmos imagined in the first century. We understand the peoples of the world to be not only those of the Mediterranean basin, nor even those of all the Earth; God is creator of whatever rational desirous beings there are throughout the billions of galaxies, each with its own history, perhaps of sin and redemption. We understand the differences between subjective mind and objective reality, between inner personality and outer social roles, between temporal endurance and spatial location, all to be created differences. The fundamental physical and metaphysical characteristics of the world are themselves created. The Creator, then, cannot be a mind over against a world to be known, not a person interacting with individuals or peoples, not a temporal entity lasting throughout all time, or located in one place or all places: those are all creaturely traits, and can be ascribed to God only metaphorically. Because we now know something of the immensity of creation, we know that God the creator is immense. We are humbled by the difficulty of grasping the immense God in concepts derived from creation. We know that to ascribe to God characteristics that would make God a creature is idolatry. So we keep perfecting our symbols of God and then break them to keep them from idolatry.
One thing we do know, however, is that, as creatures, we are the actualized completion, the conclusions, the finish, the termini, of the divine creative act. God does not create us and then let us go: because space and time are as much creatures as we, no spatio-temporal medium exists apart from God into which we could be put. Nothing is outside of God. God’s creative act is the constituting of space-time and everything in it, in all their interwoven connections. What we are, God
creates. That we are is God’s living creative act itself, with us as the completion of the act, the breaking of the wave whose surge has crossed an infinite sea. We are the dance of the divine dancer, the song of the divine singer. God is the creating of the cosmos and we are God’s creative act as it is realized. At whatever time we are, that is God making us then. Wherever we are, that is God making us there. In all our connections to the environment, with each other, with the histories of our peoples, of the Earth, with the stars of heaven—that is God creating this network of creatures playing out their lives in space and time. No creature can be separate from God, for to be at all is to be a local part of the immense act of divine creation.
Because we are so local, however, we easily forget both our connections with others throughout this cosmos and our roots in God’s creativity. We become selfish. And then we notice that the cosmos fills our life with griefs as well as joys, suffering as well as rich food, persecutions as well as support, and with lives always short according to the cosmic calendar. So perversely we organize ourselves in rejection of the divine ground of our being. Instead of gratitude we feel anger, instead of bright attention we cultivate anaesthesia, instead of joyous humility we define ourselves by pride. We think we deserve bounty. We sell our souls to the promise of power to control our lives. We imagine the immense God to be a mere supernatural person whose good will we test, and usually find wanting. In sum, we are estranged, despite the fact our very existence is the shining forth of God’s creative act. This is quite different from literally being exiled outside of the Promised Land.
Or is it? The Promised Land for Christians is life in God’s creative act from which we cannot be removed even when we think we are. To be estranged is to be in denial about our own very existence, which we can see now to be the work of love in divine creativity. To be reconciled is not to be moved from outside God into the divine heart. It is to be turned to recognize where we already are, beloved with one another by the Creator giving us being, steadied in the divine promises that give us life however ambiguous. The messiah who turns us to accept our Creator, and ourselves as creatures is not a military king who wins land for us. It is the one who shows us how to live in gratitude for our lives within the divine life. It is the one who leads us to endure the sufferings of life so as to be at one with the fullness of life in God. It is the one who creates for us communities of shared love in which we can mature as lovers of one another and of our creator. Christians proclaim that Jesus is this messiah.
Let us then read Isaiah with a Christian revision of his symbols. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Our creator is always here, within us and our fellows, in our mountains, rivers, seas, plains, forests, fields, highways, houses, buildings, schools, factories, hospitals, ghettos, battlefields, starvation, poverty, depression, hate, war, sickness, and death. God is never absent. Jesus says to turn and seek God in all these things. Nothing in life is beyond bearing if we bear it resting on the divine pulse of creativity. Life is ambiguous and fragmentary. Its complexities are nuanced beyond imagination and we grasp but its surface. Nevertheless, when Jesus turns us to God our gratitude and love can embrace the whole of God’s gift.
We know in this life that it is better to be full than hungry, satisfied than thirsty, rich than poor, healthy than sick, alive than dead. All these good things are worth pursuing. Nevertheless Jesus taught that there is a different kind of hunger and thirst, wealth and health, indeed life itself, than these relative things. When we are estranged, it’s hard to recognize the hunger and thirst for God; it’s hard to distinguish true wealth from mere riches, true health from a gym body, true life from more ordinary life. When we see the God in Jesus, however, our true hunger and thirst are made plain. The gospel for Lent is that the hunger and thirst for God can be satisfied by God our intimate creator. The abundance of the entire creation is our wealth, the wholeness of the cosmos is our health, the life of the Creator is our life. God’s everlasting covenant with us is that if we but turn to our Creator, God, who as Augustine said has always been nearer to us than we are to yourselves, will be accessible to satisfy our hunger and thirst.
Let us now use our Lenten discipline to put down our relative hungers and thirsts, and desires for wealth, health, and longevity. Instead let us stoke to fever pitch our hunger and thirst for God, our longing for God’s abundance and vibrancy and true life. We long for these too little and need more passion for them, an infinite passion. For the good news is that God says: “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. Why 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. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” Amen.