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.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 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.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
It’s a cold Thursday evening in March and it’s raining. I’m driving home from work and trying to make good time because I’m meeting friends. I’m stopped at a red light, right at the stop line, with cars lining up behind me, and I’m listening to a podcast. The light turns green and I take my foot off the brake and move it to the gas pedal, and press. There’s a horrible sound like something snapping and the car won’t go. Foot back on break, then on gas, still no go. Still a horrible sound. I put my four-way flashers on and turn the ignition off in the car. I turn the car over and it starts, great, foot off break, on gas, and then horrible sound and no-go.
I’m wracking my brain as to what is going on. I know nothing about cars. I turn the car off. I call my husband and I get out of the car to look underneath because it sure sounds like the bottom has fallen out onto the road. Nothing. Everything looks fine. Cars are honking as they pull out and around me, and I notice there is a car still behind me. The light cycles and the person behind me gets out of their car, they ask me if I’m ok, I say yes but my car won’t go. They politely ask if they can try, I say yes, they do, no different results than me, just “whoa, that sounds bad”.
I call a tow truck and the person says they are going to pull into a nearby gas station but they will come back to help. I wonder what they could possibly do to help, but minutes later they come back with a gas station employee and a plan to roll the car around the corner into the gas station. I direct traffic as best I can while they back the car up, swing it around, and roll it into the station. The stranger checks again to see if I’m ok, I say yes and that a tow truck will be there shortly. I thank them and head towards my car to stay out of the rain. The stranger pauses to check one more time if I’m ok, and then they head off.
Earlier that day I’d been reading yet another commentary on today’s scripture from Isaiah. I’d been through my usual scripture study resources and had come up short, no one seemed to have the insight I was looking for, that I knew was there. I love Isaiah, I think of him as the poet-prophet we need most for our time, one who can speak to us still today, and yet I couldn’t quite unlock this passage and what wisdom might be there for us. It was Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann whose writing nudged me in the most helpful direction.
In Isaiah 55 we begin with a generous but perhaps confusing invitation: “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.” How can I buy if I have no money? How can I buy something that has no price? I worked many years in a retail sales floor environment, and have heard the same awkward joke plenty of times from customers when they can’t find the price tag: “Oh, no price? I guess it’s free!” And while in that work context I’d usually feign a smile and give a friendly, “oh, I wish I could just give it to you!” here in Isaiah, that’s exactly what the prophet is saying:
There is no price.
It really is free.
And later on, we are again invited: “Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
Not only is the food free, but it is good, and it is rich. Satisfying and tasty, food so delicious the poet says we will be delighted by it. This is not the “free” pizza your boss orders to entice you to stay and work late. This is not the “free” sample you get at Costco to entice you to buy more. This is satisfying free food given with no expectation of anything in return. Perhaps at this point you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Gospels draw heavily on Isaiah to provide insight about the story of Jesus.
In some ways, this idea is so foreign to us in our consumer world, that it’s not quite understandable. What would it look like to expect no reciprocity at all? No quid-pro-quo? Provisions with no expectation of payment or return?
The idea is so foreign that many of the commentaries I read trying to prepare for today, got a bit stuck in these first few lines about food, talking about how a preacher should preach the importance of eating “healthy” food. But I am not a nutritionist nor dietician and I suspect you aren’t here to receive unsolicited advice about what you should or should not eat. So let’s dig a bit deeper together, and try to use our imaginations to understand what this prophet is calling the Israelites to, and then maybe us as well. I’ll give you a hint, I had my ah-ha moment, when that stranger, who rolled my car into the gas station, drove off.
The context for this scripture is debatable – it might be part of the section we call “deutero-Isaiah” (most scholars divide Isaiah into two or three parts). So it could be part of what comes before it and addresses the Israelites who are in exile in Babylon. They are away from their homeland, feeling betrayed by God and wrapped up in a system very unlike their own, that they have nonetheless had to find ways to live within. Or it could belong with the section right after it that we surmise is from right after the Israelites’ return from Exile to their promised land. That’s the land where, many generations prior, in the story of Moses leading them out of Egypt, God had promised they would not have to worry about food.
Either way, whether it’s folks still in exile, or those freshly returned, we have an audience of traumatized people who have had to navigate how to live inside of a culture whose values and ideals don’t align with their own. People who went from a mode of living that involved things like leaving enough food behind when you harvest so that those who are less fortunate can glean it. A cycle of jubilee where all debts are forgiven, so no one ever ends up carrying multi-generational financial burdens. And a day of sabbath rest each week where no one has to work.
But during their exile in Babylon they had to participate in their oppressors’ economy, one of a different kind than their own, and nothing was done without quid-pro-quo – you do this for me and I’ll do something for you. It was an uneasy balance of trying to conform to the culture of the place they found themselves in, and still try to maintain their unique identity. Perhaps we may understand these feelings of living inside of a culture whose values don’t always align with our own.
A week or so ago I was taking a walk through a mall on my lunch break and was overcome with a feeling of wondering why we were all there in that temple of consumerism trying to fill the holes in our lives by buying more things… a practice I am guilty of participating in too. I told myself that lunch time on a Tuesday wasn’t a convenient moment for an existential crisis about consumerism, so I paused to take a few deep breaths, and I kept walking. But I suspect I’m not the only person who experiences uneasiness sometimes about what we are participating in, and hyper awareness when our choices don’t reflect what we believe about the sacredness of creation or the worth of all persons.
Enter the poetry of Isaiah – into the lives of the Babylonian exiles, and into our lives as well. There is a measure both of comfort and of calling to accountability. Isaiah brings a reminder that God’s economy is different, there’s no money in it, and there’s a generous invitation back to God’s way. The Jews are invited back to their covenant with God, back to the values of neighbourliness. Back to sharing without expectation of payment or return. There is an invitation to repentance not as a confession or guilty feelings, but repentance as making a turn back to God’s path. It is a reminder that no matter what has happened, God’s table remains spread, and the invitation to return to God’s covenant remains in place no matter what. This is what Jesus preached as well, a call to return to covenant with God.
Isaiah says “call upon God while God is near” – reminding the Israelites and us that in spite of being in the thick of a culture that seems to try to isolate us, force us to compete, and encourage us to hoard goods out of fear, God is still continually near. A God whose presence can be felt when we remember we are part of a community.
And the last comforting part of the poem is a reminder that we are part of God’s much larger creation. Isaiah says God’s word is like the rain and the snow that come down, sprout seeds, and ultimately give us bread to eat. The poet returns to the feast at the beginning and reminds us that none of it is possible without the rest of the natural world, on which we depend for our survival.
If we were to read a little further past where today’s passage ends, we’d hear an assurance that the even mountains will break forth in song and the trees will clap their hands when we return to covenant with God. Right relationship with God brings us into right relationship with the whole of creation.
So here we sit in the third week of Lent. Perhaps for Lent you have embraced a practice of letting go of something that interferes with your relationship with God, or perhaps you have taken on a practice that helps you grow closer to God, or maybe you have decided that this is a Lent where you just need to stay the course through overwhelmingly challenging world events, and not add or take away anything. Regardless, I have invitation for you.
I invite you to wonder where in your life you might return to covenant with God in God’s economy of no quid-pro-quo, an economy of richness and plenty instead of scarcity. I started with a story about the stranger who helped me out when my car stopped working last week. As with many stressful moments I remained cool and collected until I was safe, and as I went over in my mind what just had happened, the part that brought a tear to my eye was the helpfulness of that stranger who expected nothing in return for their kindness. And yes, my car is ok now, it’s been repaired. But the part of this story I keep telling to anyone who will hear is the part about the stranger. I think many of us think that strangers like that no longer exist – maybe it’s because of our own reluctance to offer assistance, maybe it’s because there have been times we have found ourselves in difficult situations all alone, seemingly without help. My ah-ha for today was realizing that God’s economy of generosity is alive and well. Evidenced by that roadside stranger.
A good sermon, I’ve heard it said, should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But friends I invite you to both of these today. First, to allow your comfort to be afflicted by the stranger in need, be they Ukrainian refugee, transgender child, or difficult colleague, and take the risk of offering generous, lavish care. And second, I invite you to be open to the stranger who may come to your aid. I myself was reluctant to accept the assistance of the stranger who helped me, I thought it would be easier for them to drive away and leave me to figure it out for myself.
But by accepting the kindness, it not only helped me and other cars on the road to stay safe that day, but also accepting that kindness let me testify to you that the world is teeming with kindness right under the surface. There are strangers abundant, who know another way is possible, and God’s covenantal call to loving community is present, all the time, just waiting for you to say yes.