The love of God with no strings attached:
Mercy to the thirsty
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
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This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.”
“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has 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 diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares 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.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
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 shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
“For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah 54:17b to 55:13 (ESV)
During lockdown one, a new term was coined, the new normal. Would it ever be the same post-COVID? Would it ever look like people could go into the pub, share a hug, or even go to the church in the same way ever again? How would we become used to doing the things that had become second nature? What would become of civil society if people were going into lockdowns every now and again?
This week has seen a number of global events, not least the hope of a vaccine for COVID-19 from many, but what about the countries and people in the countries that can’t afford it? What about the ethical issues surrounding the creation of the vaccine of which there are apparently a good number, and in particular, the hurry in which it has been made. Who’s going to make billions from this, and who will remain destitute and still open to the possibility of having to live with a killer virus? What is normal about the fact that tens of thousands of people still worry about debt and joblessness, and a host of new normal things that they never envisaged just a few short months ago? What about their peace of mind?
As we come towards the end of this series of selected chapters from the prophet Isaiah that helps us look for a more positive new normal, Isaiah chapter 55 is a very helpful way to consider our own present global situation. We perhaps want to learn from these dark days how this new normal can encapsulate loving one another, looking out for those in need, and getting local, national, and global priorities into a different, righter perspective. For Isaiah and the Jewish world, all this is melted down into one word, shalom. Whilst in the English world, we know the translation for this word to be peace. It is deeper than a calm that we can hanker after in these days.
It’s the backdrop to all of the riches that Isaiah 55 has to offer. Shalom’s depth transcends everything, and is a blessing that priests would use in the name of God. It’s a greeting used even today, and far from merely peace as the absence of strife. Shalom stands for complete wholeness, as well as the sum total of a covenant blessing, the full enjoyment of all that God has promised. What an amazing new normal that could be.
Barry Webb, in his commentary on Isaiah, explains that before the shalom can take place, the relationship between God and His people had to be put right. Sin had entered the world, and God’s restorative justice was putting things back together, which included sin being dealt with to God’s satisfaction.
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the importance of Isaiah chapter 53 and the suffering servant, in what the servant achieves. God’s servant offering to take the sin of the world upon his shoulders, allows God and people to restore that relationship that was originally established in the Garden of Eden because of the work of the servant in Isaiah 53. As we come to now look at Isaiah 54 and 55, the blockage has been removed.
I’ve got some difficult drainage issues in my house, sometimes. I won’t go into graphic detail, but the toilets don’t always manage to flush what they need to flush. Sometimes the use of a mop head needs to build up some pressure to remove whatever is the problem. Then the situation resolves itself. In a way that’s what happens here. There’s a blockage between God and people, which only the suffering servant can remove. With the guilt offering made, intercession has been made for transgressors.
In other words, the flood gates of divine blessing have been flung open, and peace begins to flow like a river. Israel is now assured that the peace that has so long eluded it because of its failure to obey God will now be available because of what the suffering servant achieves. In chapters 54 and 55 of Isaiah, the promises of God, what is known in the Old Testament as covenants, agreements made between the people and God, are reviewed. The people of God are in exile, no longer condemned.
In Isaiah 14:1-2, we read that God brings comfort, guaranteed by the work of His suffering servant. There’s a new covenant of peace, which fulfils all previous agreements; Abraham, Moses, Noah, agreements that God had made with individuals that had ramifications for the whole human race. That chosen people might be a blessing to the whole world.
Towards the end of Isaiah 54, we find the renewal of the universe. The city of God becomes the point where heaven and earth meet, and God is present with His people forever. Covenants are fulfilled. Everything is in order and re-balanced. This is pure shalom. This is the background to Isaiah 55 and God’s invitation to all to come, to eat and drink without costs. Everyone can share in the inheritance of the servants of the Lord. Everything is free and available because it’s already been paid in full by the suffering of the servant in Isaiah 53.
That’s one of the problems with only looking at specific bits of the Bible. We missed the background that helps us understand the stuff that we read before us. So what can this chapter tell us now about a new normal? A seismic shift in bringing shalom to a world without peace. Firstly, as we have already seen, God’s favour is for everyone, and it’s free.
There are no loopholes. Of course, rightly, we need to choose. Isaiah later says that people have to seek the Lord whilst He may be found.
I get the sense that God is not a God who hides. This God wants to be found and enjoy a relationship with a fully restored creation. It’s not a God who wants to bribe folk to come just because it’s free. There has been a price for wrongdoing and brokenness, but this price has been paid. The pronouncement is to live in the freedom of right relationship and the joy that it brings. There’s no catch, no bribery. Because of what the suffering servant has done, there is permission to live life to the full.
As humans, we don’t always believe our luck. There is truth behind the free stuff that comes from being reunited with God. As the Bible study group read through Psalm 103 last week. We were drawn to the amazing truth that as far as the east is from the west, so far, has God removed our sins, our transgressions from us.
This is good news. The banquet is spread. The covenant is complete. God’s people, all those who choose, can enjoy wine and milk. Why on earth would anybody want to purchase anything that doesn’t quench or satisfy? Yet, we know that there are things and opportunities that take us away from the way we know we must live for God. Part of the difficulty of being human, perhaps even difficulty of being a Christian, is that we know all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
To use Psalm 103, again, we forget that God remembers we are dust. Not in the sense that God knows we mess up, because He does, but rather God takes into account that we are human, and yet chooses to want to restore full and eternal life to His creation, in spite of and because we are dust. God goes the extra mile, and still has everlasting love for the whole of creation.
By listening and living, we have a whole new world, a new normal, if you like, where good things reign, where God in this shalom fullness reigns. It’s like the Old Testament version of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught here. That’s why people can’t believe their luck. This is the way God has the world as it was planned to be. This, to use Christmas Journey language, is God’s rescue plan. It was always about Jesus, the suffering servant, and now the people listening to Isaiah, and now you and I, hundreds of years later down the line, can take advantage of this free gift of God, coming back to Him. That’s what repentance means. Turning again, returning, coming back to the way it was always meant to be.
Even because of this rescue plan, other countries seem naturally drawn to God’s own people. It’s a universal rescue plan. That’s the kind of magnetic personality Jesus has on people. If you think back to how you decided to follow Jesus, perhaps it was because you wanted to follow a load of rules, but probably not. I guess it was something attractive about someone who loved and followed Jesus, and that’s our job now, to be attractive as well as to be a significant challenge to those around us in how we live, how we love, who we love, and in turn, make shalom the new normal, wholeness in its widest form.
Can you imagine, people running towards you saying how much they want to be like you because they see the image of God deeply ingrained in everything you are. Even if you don’t know, because let’s face it, we have no idea what impact our lives have upon others. God does. He wants to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Come and share my joy.” All this positivity must have been so hard for Isaiah’s ears as to grasp. I think they were still in the midst of being in exile still, and so any good news from a prophet whose job it was to speak truth to power could well have been heard with a certain sense of bewilderment and of apprehension.
Good news after all this bad stuff, of 70 years being stuck in a foreign land. Now God comes with forgiveness and mercy where other lands will worship, too, for free and for everyone. Gosh, that’s something new. It seems that Isaiah 53, that the theme of the suffering servant unlocks our understanding to the riches of Isaiah chapter 55, returning again to the Bible study of Psalm 103 recently. This Psalm starts, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits.” The benefits of sins forgiven, healing of disease, redeemed life crowned with love and compassion, and satisfied desire so that things are renewed.
To me, there are certain parallels between the poetry of King David in the Psalms and the prophecy of Isaiah, and the good plans that God has for His people. His ways are higher. His thoughts are better. This is a God people can trust. Their job is to seek Him. There is a sense of urgency tucked within this chapter, however. Although, it’s full of great blessing and benefit, there’s a sense that people need to accept this free offer. Let the wicked forsake their ways. Let them turn to the Lord.
God’s plans, His higher thoughts, shoot blessings like rain on a desert, enabling crops to grow, returning to the original theme of food, sustenance, as well as shalom, full well-being in its total capacity. For this is what it was always going to be about, what Jesus called the kingdom of God; eternal, restored, and full whole joy.
You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you. This will be the renown of the Lord for an everlasting sign that would endure forever. Peace, shalom, freedom, forgiveness, healing, nobody left out. These are the benefits of God and His kingdom. Why should these things not be part of our new normal as we go forward? How is it that I can live in peace and at peace in all sorts of ways? What kinds of freedoms am I holding back upon, and therefore not receiving full freedom and healing? How am I at forgiving others as well as receiving full forgiveness myself? How am I doing by including everyone I meet within these benefits that I have received as one of God’s chosen people?
Because folks, this can be our new normal, for this is the kingdom of God. It is ours for the taking, if only we will choose to live this way.
Webb, Barry. The Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings. Edited by J. A. Motyer and Derek Tidball. The Bible Speaks Today. England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.
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Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.