Reflections on Isaiah 55

With the Wesleyan Quadrangle (scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) in my mind I turned my attention to Isaiah 55.

My first impression just reading through Scripture:

This beautiful passage stirs my heart.  I love the broad invitation at the beginning of the chapter.  The Old Testament doesn’t mention money nearly as often as the New, so I found myself a little curious about the phrase “And he who has no money, come buy and eat.”  I love the suggestion that the things that satisfy our deepest longings can’t be bought with money.  Food for our soul comes to us when we draw close to God and listen.  God then draws the listener in with a reminder of the covenant he made with Abraham and his steadfast, sure love for David.  God shares his plan that Israel’s restoration will have a broad impact on a nation not yet known.

After grabbing reader’s attention, Isaiah call us to repentance:

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.

Since the words “My thoughts are higher” come shortly after the call to repentance, my thinking is that they may refer to the way in which God forgives.

Then comes my favorite part of the passage where we learn that God sent the Word to us, just as he sends water to the earth, to accomplish God’s purpose, to help us sprout and in turn nourish others.  When God’s purpose is accomplished, there is joy and peace.  All creation celebrates.  God’s name is known.

Tradition:

This is a marvelous passage to illustrate how tradition shapes what we read.  When I do my best to put myself in the place of an Israelite being held in captivity in Babylon, I read it quite differently.  I hear the prophet reminding me not to get too comfortable in Babylon and with their mercantile ways, to remember that God has something better in store for me when Israel is restored.  I feel reminded that I still need to turn to God while I can, which means while I am alive.  I may not have my homeland, but I have the Word of God, and I know it will accomplish its purpose, if not in my lifetime, then in the lifetime of my descendants.  And I have the promise that Israel will be restored and glorified.

Reading this passage within my own tradition, as a Christian, I am awed by the broad and open invitation.  I hear the Words spoken to the whole world and also to me.  The phrase “everyone who thirsts” immediately brings to mind the words of Jesus to the Samaritan lady he meets at a well:  “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14).  The phrase:  “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” provokes a sensation of urgency to spread the Gospel message.  As I read about God sending the Word to earth like rain, I think of how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  It reminds me how God stops at nothing to draw close to us.  And the passage about mountains singing and trees clapping brings to my mind the triumphant and peaceful entry of Jesus, riding on a donkey, into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  For me, it also recalls memories of Palm Sunday at church with children running down the aisle of the sanctuary wildly waving Palms and the glorious sound of the pipe organ.  (Is that strange?)  The whole passage evokes this longing for a time of restoration when everything is set right and God’s name will be known and loved by all.  (This reading of the text can only be explained by knowing something about my own faith tradition.  Tradition absolutely shapes how we read text!)

Reason:

As a Presbyterian, perhaps, these are odd questions (I should probably redirect my thoughts to the five points of Calvinism starting with total depravity!), but…

I know and believe that each one of us is created in the image of God.  When I think of the distance of the furthest heavens back to earth, that seems like an insurmountable distance.  So I find myself wondering:  Why are our thoughts so far from God’s?  Why are our ways so different?  Every day I pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  How would the earth be different if this finally comes to be?  How can more of heaven be brought to earth?

As I reflected on these questions, I thought of the image from the Sistine chapel.  How God reaches out to Adam with great confidence, but Adam’s hand seems totally limp.  And my mind starts wondering again:  What if we are closer to God than we know?  What if really and truly we just need to put a bit more effort into reaching out to God?  What if what holds so many back from the experience of God’s goodness isn’t sin, but just laziness?  But, of course, as I think of people who don’t seem to have time for God, they are hardworking and busy, so lazy doesn’t seem like the right word.  Maybe spiritually lazy?  But that’s “sloth” (and one of the seven deadly sins according to the Catholic tradition), so I’ve worked myself right back into my Calvinist conviction:  mankind is totally unable to do anything for ourselves to free us from the stranglehold of sin.  Mmm…

What’s the answer?  What is it that could turn hearts and cause humans to thirst just a little for the divine?  I will take comfort in knowing:  while humans may be stubborn, heaven bends freely to earth, picking us up when necessary like a mother cat carries her kittens.

Experience:

My experience tells me that often when something is offered freely, it’s not valued.  How many times have I been offered a free class via e-mail and not followed through, but the few times I’ve paid for an online class, I’ve done my best to get the most out of it.  In Christianity, salvation is free and easy:  acknowledge your sins and accept Jesus.  There’s no requirement to spend years in training, hours in meditation, endure any kind of physical challenge, fast or make changes to your diet, or pay a great sum of money.  It’s enough to say:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I read the beginning of Isaiah 55, most of me rejoices in the free promise of God’s mercy, but another voice somewhere in the back of my brain pops up wondering:  Maybe the reason people ignore God’s generous offer is that God made salvation almost too free and easy?  It’s then I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

It’s hard to write anything after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful reminder.

It’s been a good experience for me to consider Scripture as John Wesley taught:  To pay attention to first impressions of the text and also how tradition shapes how we read; to address and reason through any questions and also to consider any observations from life experience.  I’ll do my best to continue to be aware of these various threads running through my brain as I read!  Below is what found its way into my margins….

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