February 28, 2016 Psalm 63: 1-8 Isaiah 55: 1-9
Rev. Catherine Purves
If you walk down the narrow, often cobbled streets of the old city in Jerusalem, as I did when I was in Israel several years ago, you will be flanked on either side by boisterous vendors who are eager for you to buy their wares. In the little makeshift stalls and shops of these enthusiastic entrepreneurs, you will see silk scarves, loaves of bread and dainty pastries, brass lamps and other ornaments, carved olivewood figurines, and colorful carpets. It’s a tourist’s paradise, but you can’t walk down those quaint shopping streets without being accosted by aggressive shopkeepers who are all vying for your business. Beautiful silks will be floated in front of your eyes. Tempting baked goods will be held under your nose. Tourist trinkets will be thrust into your hands. Ho, everyone! Come and buy! Look at this! Here, have a taste! You there, come into my shop!
The opening verses of the 55th chapter of Isaiah seem decidedly strange, unless we read them while envisioning what it’s like to walk down a busy market street in old Jerusalem, which looks just about the same now as it did several thousand years ago. “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.” But wait a minute. Because there is something surprising about this vender’s cry. You that have no money? The shopkeepers in Old Jerusalem were quite willing to haggle over the price, and you could sometimes get a bargain, but none of them were giving away their goods for free.
So these opening verses, which are meant to be words of urgent invitation spoken by God, are simultaneously familiar and surprising. How can we buy without money? How can valuable merchandise be offered without price? These are good questions, but remember that this is meant to be the Lord speaking. Let’s look at what God said next to those religious shoppers in the marketplace where many faiths were for sale. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
One of the entertaining things about shopping in Old Jerusalem is watching the vendors compete with one another for your business. Not all tourist trinkets are created equal. Some of the tiny shops carry quality goods made by craftsmen and the sellers of that merchandise are quick to disparage the shoddy mass-produced items in the stalls across the street. “Don’t waste your money on that junk,” they might say (or words to that effect). “Come in, come in, and let me show you what I have in the back room here.” The prophet Isaiah is imagining the Lord God vying for our business, and offering us something that is truly precious, yet without price. It is free! That is both shocking and amazing. That is grace.
But what is this precious gift that gives the sustenance that we need in our lives? Both Isaiah and the Psalms often use the metaphors of food and water (in this case, wine) to depict that which the Lord wants to give us. And, at the same time, our need for God is often described as a hunger or a thirst. In Psalm 63 we read, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Then, later, the psalmist exclaims, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.”
So, we truly need what the Lord is freely offering to us. It is food and drink for us, and God is eager for us to have it, so that we can live. Isaiah is saying that, as we walk through the religious marketplace of this world, sampling the goods that are being thrust into our hands, the Lord God is reaching out for us too, tugging on our sleeves and our hearts, and calling out urgently to us, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Which stall are you going to enter? What religious vendor will get your business? The warning here is clear. Don’t spend your money for that which is not bread, and don’t accept shoddy religious goods that do not bring life and health and peace.
There is only one God, but the world is full of idols, and the vendors of those idols do try to reach out and grab you with their extravagant claims. They make impossible promises and they use our own fears and insecurities to lure us into their shops. You need a shiny new car, or a vacation, or some fancy Easter clothes; go ahead and treat yourself; it will make your life worth living. Or, here is the job you’ve been yearning for, a higher salary, the opportunity for promotion, but you’ll be working 60 hours a week and never see your family. Oh, and, no Sunday’s off. Or, look, I have some good deeds that you can do so that you can make yourself a better person, just add the occasional prayer, and you’re all set. No need to be in a challenging and grace-filled relationship with the living God, just call this number, and make out your checks to…
Who knew that there were so many idols out there, so many things to set your hopes on, so many ways to be distracted from the free grace that God offers to us in Jesus Christ. We have to be on our guard. It is easy to be lured into those shops by vendors who promise everything, but who are peddling worthless religious trinkets, “that which is not bread…that which does not satisfy.”
Ho, everyone! Listen to this word from the one true God! “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.” This is the life-saving bread that is “sold” without price. This restored, life-giving relationship with the God who willingly forgives us – this is the precious gift that God wants to give us, “for he will abundantly pardon.” And that is a promise. That is a covenant, an everlasting covenant. Ho, everyone! Listen! This is what you need to live.
In ancient Israel the idols were easier to identify. There were the Ba’als and the fertility goddesses. All of the peoples around Israel had their own particular idols. And, of course, the Hebrews even created an idol for themselves when they fashioned a golden calf. Idols abounded then, but they are no less prominent today, just a little harder to recognize, perhaps. Anything that tries to take the place of God in your life can easily become an idol. Don’t think that the only thing we need to avoid in today’s religious marketplace are little statuettes with multiple arms. Those who are vying for your attention, and who have idols for sale, are not going to admit that they are in the phony religion business. They are going to pretend that they are legitimate and that they are simply selling the American dream, or an easy way to ease your fears, or a faith that makes you feel good. Ho, everyone! Don’t be taken in.
Listen for the word of the one true God. “Incline your ear, and come to me;” God says, “listen, so that you may live.” This faith business is a full-time job. Not only do we need to be constantly on our guard to avoid idols, but we must actively seek that word of the Lord, the genuine article, that gives life. The psalmist makes a commitment to God, saying, “I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.” Obviously, that’s not just on a Sunday morning, because he goes on to say, “I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night…My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” This is an active, personal relationship that demands our attention all day, every day. Don’t let idols get in the way of it. Keep listening for the word of the living God, because that word is our nourishment. That word gives life and hope and an eternal security that no money can buy and no religious vender can deliver.
Ho, everyone! This is the good news of the gospel. Believe it and live it every day, and your life will abound in grace. That is the free gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.