This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long, including the reading of Isaiah 55:1-9.
Play in browser
MP3 (10.2 MB) (64kb/s constant rate)
[Reader:] The reading is from Isaiah 55.
“Is anyone thirsty?
Come and drink–
even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk– it’s all free!
Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food.
“Come to me with your ears wide open.
Listen, and you will find life.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you.
I will give you all the unfailing love I promised to David.
See how I used him to display my power among the peoples.
I made him a leader among the nations.
You also will command nations you do not know,
and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey,
because I, the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, have made you glorious.”
Seek the Lord while you can find him.
Call on him now while he is near.
Let the wicked change their ways
and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
[Paul:] There is so much in that passage that we really couldn’t do justice to just those nine verses this morning so I’m perhaps going to be a little bit picky this morning.
I hope you’ll indulge that pickiness. Last Monday, I met with a Christian minister friend of mine, and we went for a walk up to Dutton Lock. Dan, I think I may have mentioned him to you before, he rides motorbikes. He’s one of those characters who just dives in with questions. He’s a very quick spiritual kind of a character. He looks like a biker. He’s short and dumpy. He’s got a beard.
When you hear him speak, you think he’s going to have this really deep voice, and he doesn’t. When he opens his mouth, he’s not quite like that, when he opens his mouth, it’s not like that at all. When he does open his mouth, he asks really deep, helpful, thoughtful questions. Anyway, we took this walk to Dutton Locks. As we stopped on the bridge to look at the water, he asked if I thought that people could do God’s work even if they didn’t know God. I thought, and I explained that I knew someone who was the most Christ-like non-Christian that I’d ever met. She was Christ-like.
Whether Christ-likeness was the key to Dan’s question, I asked him, and if Christ-likeness was part of the response, then I was prepared to say that perhaps, well, yes, people perhaps could do God’s work without naming God. After all, Paul in Acts 17, preached to the people about the unknown God, and then said, “This is the unknown God. His name is Jesus.” As the conversation went on, we agreed that part of Dan’s question depended upon whether there was transformation in a person. We agreed that we’re all on journeys in our life, journeys of faith.
Getting closer to finding God for the first time. Getting closer to knowing God more deeply. Sadly, for some, walking away from God. Isaiah 55 is a famous passage of Hebrew scripture, which I chose to speak on today because it’s one of the lectionary scriptures for the third Sunday in Lent. At its heart, I do wonder whether it’s about transformation. When we think about its original context, God’s speaking to His people about who He really wants them to be. Whether it’s about how we link in some New Testament scriptures that have a similar theme, or whether it’s about how we consider the challenges for ourselves today.
I think there’s something about God’s challenge about how we as part of creation live as transformed beings today. Let me try to unpack that a little bit rather than sounding a bit theoretical and gobbledygook. “Come to me if you are thirsty, come to the waters. You who have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money, and without costs.” At first blush, it seems to be a bit of a paradox, one thing talking about something totally different. How can you buy milk and wine without money? I wonder if we find the key in verse eight where it says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, neither are My ways your ways.”
Because God thinks and acts differently to you and I. In God’s kingdom, buying without money is certainly a possibility. If our ways are different to God’s ways, then maybe we need to be thinking our ways. In other words, we perhaps need a mindset change and a life change to understand what the prophet is actually talking about. Life changes can be in all sorts of areas of our lives. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a couple of years ago, wrote a book called Re-imagining Britain. Andrew and Andrew here often speak about the need to make changes in our lives.
When it comes to using in our world, especially and perhaps more recently, I know Andrew Faraday has wondered out loud whether the crisis in Ukraine should make us think more about how we depend on individual countries for our gas and our oil. Maybe this is the time for us to look holistically as a whole nation to invest in green structures. Similarly, as the government asks people to give up their spare rooms for refugees, isn’t now a good time for countries to be looking at their benefit systems which keep those who have little perhaps in their place?
Whilst we talk about levelling up, all we really see is perhaps old money being given to areas where small changes are already occurring. I’ll get off my soapbox now. The point is that here in Isaiah, we have God who wants to remind His people of the structural changes that He wants them to make in their lives, and that He wants to make in their lives. Not the fiddly religious bits that make perhaps little difference, but the big stuff like buying without money. Let’s think about what God is saying through Isaiah to God’s people in 800-ish BC.
God invites them to come. They already know God, but there’s much more of Himself that He wants to reveal to them. I guess it might be like becoming a Christian for the first time, and then thinking, “That’s me done. I don’t need anything else. I don’t need to learn anything else. I’m already serving. I’m already doing this stuff. This religious stuff is enough for me, thanks very much. That’s all.” There’s an element of spiritual hunger that maybe the people aren’t somehow understanding God’s ways. There’s a need that must be met in individuals and communities.
God’s opening His treasure chest of goodness and says, “Come on then, you’re My people. You’re my people. Come and buy this stuff. Not just the cheap stuff, but the wine and the milk, and all the really, really good stuff.” The people perhaps understand God’s invitation because they’re already God’s people. They know God wants to give them good things. He’d already promised them years and years and years before that they’d have a land flowing with milk and honey, and so the people know God and His goodness. Now perhaps they’ve relaxed and they’re happy with their lot.
Are the people expecting something more of God now? Are they missing His invitation to enjoy this richest affair in favour of the status quo? Isaiah goes on to speak about King David. It seems to me that David is a wonderful example of seeking the Lord while He may be found. In the words of the scholar, John Goldingay, “David had special experiences of God’s trustworthiness and God’s commitments. As a result of these, … he was a witness to these peoples to the reality of the God who worked through him.” [John Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone, WJX, 2015] Now, the people, if this will apply to the whole people, they will be God’s witnesses. They will summon other nations.
We often forget that the purpose of the nation of Israel was not that there should be one geographic nation and one people group that God focused upon, but that this God-chosen group should reflect the goodness and love of God to the surrounding nations, and in doing so, those nations then get to follow God’s ways too. I think that was the original purpose of Israel, but this often happens: rules about about God needed to be kept. More rules were around those rules, and God’s people then kept their God to themselves, instead of sharing Him with others.
In the end, it becomes less about sharing and more about keeping the importance of the nation God had made them to be, forgetting that even the neighbouring empires were meant to be drawn to how people of God lived. How can God’s people have special experiences if they don’t show their God to others? How is it that they will be able to summon other nations if they’re sitting back on their haunches, quite happy with the status quo, with the now? The people of God had a job to show the world how good and loving was their God, and how a nation can work where God is in charge and the people defer to God and to one another, just as King David’s kingdom was built on earth on the man who was after God’s own heart, so it was that people of God build God’s kingdom on earth in God’s way. That’s why God invites people to come and eat and drink such good things, and that’s why it’s free. That’s why God’s ways are higher than humanity’s way because God does know, and God does know what is best. As God’s people, we know that it’s best to defer to God and to one another. It’s a huge turnabout to what other people, other nations know.
That’s the point, it’s different. It’s challenging, it’s transforming. It transforms the way that people look at themselves and their community. Together, when we are transformed, we are transformed when we defer to God’s best and to seek the best for one another. When God invites His people to come and eat, and drink with no money to buy, it’s as if God is saying to them, “Look, I know you’re unsatisfied with your lot, but the best is already here. Why not come and enjoy it? Why bother spending your money on what’s not good for you and doesn’t fill you up?”
The Jesus version of this might be when He says in Matthew 11, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I’ll give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I’m humble and gentle in heart, and you’ll find rest for yourselves.” The good news was never about being good enough, or about learning the rules, or to be a community of people whose God sucks the joy out of life. It was always for our best. It was always for, according to John chapter 10, it was always for abundant life. The good news of Jesus and following His ways has always been one of transformation.
Indeed, the leaders of the Jews had Jesus crucified because He preached this gospel of change, and He touched what was for them. The holy cow, if you like. It went to the fabric of their society, the unchangeability of their faith and their religion. One of the great changes that Jesus heralded, was that God’s chosen people included most of us, all of us. Gentiles, non-Jews. Jews believe that they alone were God’s chosen people. For them, Gentiles, like perhaps most of us, were beyond the pale. Religious Jews like Saul of Tarsus who became St Paul, he went on to become the most amazing person to the Gentiles. Horror of horror to the Jewish people.
God has a sense of humour to get stuff accomplished. When we come to Jesus, we have to radically change in two ways. We change the way we think, and we change the way we live. No one likes change really, do we? If we’re honest about it. The last couple of years has involved huge change, and we’re still here. The cost of what we might call Christian discipleship means that we have to leave our comfort zones and go to where Jesus leads us. I find it ironic and interesting when people say to me, “I’m not against change, but ...” Then they give reasons why they’re against change.
Let’s rather face the fact that we are often against change. It’s in our nature. Mine too. While I’m not naturally ideas-y kind of person, I can put ideas into practice, but it takes me some time to process and put it into action, those new things. Often, I have to get used to something new. Let’s be honest with God too and tell Him when we pray that we want to develop His holy habits during this Lent season. We want to change to be more like Him, becoming more like Him. In the words of Richard Foster who wrote a book called Finding the Heart’s True Home, he talks about a prayer of relinquishment.
We give up our will to take God’s will in our lives. Jesus himself struggled with relinquishment. We read in the garden of Gethsemane just before the crucifixion. In Luke 22, He said, “Father, if you’re willing, take this cup from Me. Yet not my will, but Yours be done.” If it was hard for Jesus, no doubt appreciating God’s ways will be hard for us too. It’s all about obedience to Father God, and often that means change. We live in a tough old world right now, as we’ve said, and we’ve prayed this morning. The words from Isaiah were originally for a group of people who knew God, but weren’t happy with what they knew perhaps.
Their God invites them to come and to seek Him whilst He may be found, and to become an even stronger, more positive kingdom-builder than even King David’s, which meant a mindset of change. They had been told, in no uncertain terms, that God’s ways were higher than theirs, and God’s thoughts were higher than theirs. After lunch a couple of weeks ago here, I was invited to a game of hide and seek with Bethia. It was such fun. I dare the rest of the congregation to play hide and seek in this building.
The reason I remember it now is that we have a duty to do more one than the other. To seek God, and then to obey. It’s not always easy, but it’s in the seeking that we find. It’s in the finding that we learn. It’s in the learning that we grow in faith and fellowship, which is what I wonder is part of the secret of Isaiah 55 here. Out-workings of this growth might be loving a family member until they’re well, or to serve the local church here by making the coffee at the end of the service.
It could be stepping out even further to allow that spare room to be used by somebody fleeing war-torn Ukraine, or to do something just as outrageous or to do something that’s unseen but blesses God’s kingdom in some way. I guess the point of all this comes back to musing that question that Dan asked me on the bridge. Ultimately, it comes down to how is my Christ-likeness coming along? How is my trust in God, and my obedience to the faith that I signed up to? If I’m needing to find God afresh and to enable that life to transform me, then all the better for the world, for me, for God’s kingdom.
Keeping in step with the Spirit of God, it allows us to know God’s heart. We know that God is in the business of transformation. The only way the kingdom life totally transforms life is when it begins with me. As we reflect upon these thoughts from Isaiah, I was reminded of a beautiful hymn that I learned in infant school. As you take a moment to think about whether there’s something that God wants to do in terms of transformation with our fellowship, with you, with our world, we’re going to listen to Let There Be Peace on Earth. May it be whatever you need it to be for you in this moment before Moira comes back to close our time together. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
References and sources
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) on this page and in the talk are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.