1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
2 Why spend money for what isn’t food,
and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
enjoy the richest of feasts.
3 Listen and come to me;
listen, and you will live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful loyalty to David.
4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a prince and commander of peoples.
5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know,
a nation you don’t know will run to you
because of the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you.
6 Seek the Lord when he can still be found;
call him while he is yet near.
7 Let the wicked abandon their ways
and the sinful their schemes.
Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them,
to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.
8 My plans aren’t your plans,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my plans than your plans.
Isaiah 55: 1-9
What happens when a homecoming is less than spectacular, more a nightmare than a dream come true? Isaiah writes to people living amid such a nightmare. After more than 50 years of captivity, Cyrus the Persian has sent them home, but not to the home of the fairy tales told them by their elders. Food is scarce. Water is scarce and all the God-talk they have heard in captivity seems lame and even cruel. Over 2500 years later, we can only overhear Isaiah and imagine the reaction of the congregation to such an audacious sermon.
I am now in the fourth decade of preaching in an embattled church, a church that often feels like it is living in a perpetual season of Lent. I serve a church that is told it is no longer relevant, its numbers are in decline, its denominational life is in shambles, and its future destined for the grave.
Frankly, I cannot think of a more pressing time for the church to attend to God’s voice in Isaiah: “Listen carefully to me . . . incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
A danger of growing old is viewing the world and especially the church through a glass half empty, if not nearly depleted. In this season of Lent, I find myself leaning toward Easter as I listen to Isaiah’s sermon and as I share these thoughts with Melissa Goodson, a current student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, but long before that, a friend whose children I baptized and whose family I loved while serving as pastor of the Hilton Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia. Listen now to her Lenten thoughts.
I gather around tables with students whose eyes reflect hope. We laugh shakily when asked to explain why we are called to prepare for a church that might not have the resources to hire us, and for work that will certainly be exhausting and emotionally demanding. But there is little hesitation when we are asked what brought us to this place. We are not called by the church; we are from the church, called by God to “a nation that we do not know”. Our hope is not in what we see around us, our hope and excitement is in the unimaginable opportunity that God eternally orchestrates, to help deliver a message of grace for a yearning people.
The world, the nation, and the church we thought we knew are no longer. Our culture expresses little grace, and less mercy. Our nation is partisan, violent, frightened by extremism, and overwhelmed by the changes of new technologies. In the mainstream churches, we are unsettled by forces that are making our divisions wider and our charity thinner. To the returning Israelites and to us, God announces that, “A nation that did not know you shall run to you.” Run to us? But we are on empty!
God knows many of our churches are out of money, out of energy, and short on time. To those in the pew and those at home on Sunday morning, God sounds like a huckster to cynical ears, “Hey you! Hungry? Worried? No cash? No problem! Come, buy and eat … for nothing!” God, with ways higher than ours and thoughts so beyond our comprehension, offers both the disillusioned and the ignorant the deal of the century. Come and eat with me for free. The catch? The food tastes different, and the dinner conversation is pretty startling. If you listen while you eat, you discover that this food comes with compassion, abundant pardon, and resurrection.
When it comes to church transformation, or even the transformation of our own hearts, it seems we are not so comfortable with actual resurrection. We prefer the idea of renewal, of change that does not require death or endings. As we journey through Lent, we join the Israelites faced with rebuilding a dead city. We join the disciples who discovered that the ending was beyond their control, as was the Resurrection that would so amaze them. To both the message was the same. Come and sit down at the table together. Hear God speak. Spend time with Christ. Don’t worry. God will give us the future and the strength for it.
In that spirit, let us pray together…
You put flesh on our dry bones, and breathe new life into us.
You take dusty desert rock, and give a wandering, thirsty community a spring of fresh water.
You spread a table before us, and ask us to sit down and eat with you.
Lord, give us awareness of our hunger so that we would be eager to eat at your table.
Make us thirsty for your voice so that we would listen to your conversation.
And in response to this new hope and life, give us love of every passerby,
So that we would call out for them to join us at this table,
and be resurrected with us.
Melissa Goodson is a first-year M. Div. student. She serves as a Ruling Elder at Hilton Presbyterian Church in Newport News, VA. Melissa is particularly interested in how the Church is organizationally responding to the changes in our culture.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Charles (D. Min. 1980) is the Pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.