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Listening to God

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland on Sunday August 6, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.  All credit is given and belongs to scholars Walter Brueggemann and Stephen Riley for their expert analyses and exegesis which appears in this sermon.

Listening to God

Text: Isaiah 55:1-5 (6-10)

 

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.

2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food.

3 Incline your ear, and come to me;

listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

my steadfast, sure love for David.

4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander for the peoples.

5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,

and nations that do not know you shall run to you,

because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,

for he has glorified you.

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near;

7 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.

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.
I have said this here before, but it’s one of my pet peeves with God that God doesn’t “speak” the same way as everyone else in life. Or if God does, I haven’t yet learned how to hear God speak to me that way.  Instead too often I catch myself reading God into situations and messes, many of my own making, as if God uses a covert system of communicating with me.  For example if something negative happens, I’ll catch myself thinking “Oh I must have done something wrong in God’s eyes.”  Now that’s not faith, that’s superstition.  Intellectually I admit this—as I would guess we all do. But life tends to catch us at times when we’re living non-intellectually or non-theologically, right?  And so I often catch myself doing this superstitious nonsense almost automatically.  Now the worst thing about that kind of superstition is that it takes the consequences of my own (or others’) actions and substitutes these natural consequences as some sort of “message” or “answer” from God.  But I’ve learned that, whenever I violate any of those Ten Commandments, it isn’t God who’s “talking” to me, it isn’t God who is “punishing” me, it’s the consequences that come from breaking that commandment.

Now if I can get all turned around like that sometimes, it’s easy to imagine how the people of Israel interpreted a certain negative situation that happened in the year 586 (BCE).  That’s when Babylon invaded Israel, reduced it to rubble–including the sacred temple where it was believed God actually lived–and took away the best and brightest minds of Israel captive to live in Babylon.

This incident convinced a good number of Israelites that God had “spoken”.  And while there may have been some truth to that, it’s not the whole story. My summary is that God’s people were not living the way God showed them how to live. Rather than trusting God, Israel started to trust worldly wealth and power, making military and financial agreements with untrustworthy nations.  And rather than “caring for the widow, the orphan and the alien,” it became socially, politically and theologically acceptable to take advantage of them.  In short, God’s people stopped listening to God; God’s people were living as if they didn’t remember God or know God.  By their actions and choices God’s people abandoned God long, long before 586 BCE.

So when Babylon invaded Israel and took it over, some could look at that as a sort of natural consequence of God’s people abandoning God in big and small ways.  Others equate what I call “natural consequence” as God’s vengeance.  Regardless, the good news is that God did NOT abandon Israel even though it certainly looked and felt that way.

Isaiah 55 is what I like to call a love poem from God.  It’s written to the people taken captive to Babylon and to the people of Israel who were convinced that God abandoned them. This love poem begins by reminding everyone of God’s original and everlasting vision for life:

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.

Buying without money—that sounds goofy to us, but there it is, a reminder that our economy and God’s economy are opposing forces at times.  God’s gracious abundance and generosity is the lead.  Then the poem asks why God’s people do the foolish stuff we do. So right away the attempt is being made to break through all of the barriers that have come between the people and God.  Twice in the first three verses the word “listen” appears. And just so you know that this is no ordinary use of the word, the form of the Hebrew term for “listen” is called the tautological infinitive absolute  (thank you Stephen Riley – citation below)

That’s right! You heard me J

What that means is, grammatically the sentence structure is jumping up and down and frantically waving – again grammatically – drawing attention to this verb, emphasizing its critical importance. And that verb in the Hebrew (root word) is shema, “hear”. All of this grammatical pyrotechnics is in order to make it redundantly clear that the most important action in this text is to listen or, more precisely, to HEAR (God).

About that word shema: in Hebrew and Old Testament culture the concept of listening to God or hearing God is an activity every Israelite was expected to do and which is revealed by the manner in which one lives. It’s far more active than our English understanding of listening/hearing.  We distinguish hearing from doing, but the Hebrew does NOT.  Shema is a word familiar to every Jew in those days because it appears in the foundational text of Deuteronomy 6:4 (which by the way is known as “The Shema” ):

“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … (life and strength). “ Deut 6:4-5

Jesus himself recites the shema in response to experts of the religious law trying to trap him with the question about which of the (ten) commandments is the most important (Mt. 22:34ff).  Jesus identifies this as the “first and greatest commandment”.  And so, to “hear” … to “shema” God (if you will) is to show by the way you live everyday life that you love the Lord (and your neighbor) with all your heart, mind, etc, .

And so it seems to me a very clear allusion to Deuteronomy 6 that this same root-word for shema pops up here in this love poem from God (aka Isaiah 55).  Once again, at a very critical time in their history, Israel is called to shema, to hear.  If I may paraphrase: “Listen up” God says, “I’m still here.  I have not abandoned you.  The covenant I made with David back in the “good old days” is still on!” Here in Isaiah 55, God reminds them that God never breaks promises. In fact, God’s faithfulness is still being fulfilled, specifically God’s covenant promise of “hesed” (another Hebrew word without an adequate English counterpart) often translated as “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness”.

My favorite Old Testament/Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann sums up the situation by noting that Isaiah 55:1-5 gently but firmly puts before the people a critical choice

He offers them an option of choosing the generous self-giving of (The Lord) YHWH, the God of covenant. This God has in times past given Israel manna-bread and water in the wilderness, and will now generously give all that is needed for life … free water, free milk, and free wine, all gifts of God. … The reception of these free gifts requires his listeners to choose against [participating in] the … economy of Babylon. In that imperial economy of demand-production, these deported Jews had to do work that was not satisfying; they had to buy consumer goods that had no sustaining value.  ‘Laboring for that which does not satisfy’ and needing ‘that which is not bread’ … only results in fatigue, disappointment, and despair. The summons of the poem is that because of the living God, an alternative way is possible (one that is) the result of God’s fidelity to the covenant God made with David.

(Walter Brueggemann,  “A Covenant of Neighborly Justice: Break the Chains of Quid Pro Quo”, ON Scripture www.onscripture.com , 2016.  Parentheses mine.)

Isaiah 55 appeals to its listeners to “return to God while God may be found” by realizing that “God’s ways are higher than human ways,” which strikes me as a poetic answer to an implied skepticism, for the people had to be protesting, “How can we return to God? Where is God now that the Babylon has crushed the Temple and kidnapped our leaders?”  Stephen Riley notes that the ways of God that are higher than human ways refers specifically to God’s mercy and restoration.

As he further explains the choice being offered to Israel, Walter Brueggemann might as well be speaking to us in our context today. Indeed Brueggemann points out that it takes “no imagination to see that this powerful summons applies” to our current political and social reality:

our ways refers to collusion with the ways of the empire and its rhetoric of fear, scarcity, and anxiety which reduces people to desperate labor that does not satisfy and to purchases that are not bread. God’s way, by contrast, is a way of generous, reliable fidelity that makes collusion both inappropriate and unnecessary. Isaiah’s listeners are summoned to deal with the reality of God, God’s way, God’s thought, and God’s future … : as a tangible alternative to the ways of Babylon.

(Brueggemann, op cit)

In Brueggemann’s analysis, our current political rhetoric plays up fear or anger or confidence in the system, all of which (political rhetoric) elevates “market ideology and a National Security State” to a level of theological assurance.  The standard assumption of this rhetoric is “that there is no ‘way’ but the ‘way’ of the way of the US market-driven system, no ‘thought’ except the thought that the United States is God’s most surely chosen people.  All of which, whether in despair or in pride, bets everything on the imperial wonder of the United States, and thus is not very different from that of ancient Babylon.”  (Brueggemann, op cit)

The rhetoric of scarcity conflicts with God’s gift of abundance, Brueggeman says. Countering that rhetoric, Isaiah 55 “summons us to an alternative grounded in a holy claim, but one that has real-life political implications. That is, God’s (eternal) covenant promise of hesed (loving-kindness, mercy, faithfulness) breaks the harsh demands of an economy of scarcity. It knows that healthy social relationships depend on generous hospitality and so instead of score-keeping, large acts of forgiveness are in order, large acts such as the forgiveness of debt for the poor” or universal health care or affordable college education.

Stephen Riley reminds us that our Christian faith compels us to face our brokenness and our mortality and to practice repentance. Isaiah 55 invites us, as it did the Israelites living in exile and defeat long ago, to engage our faith in order to “live into a world in which the normal order of things is overturned.”  It challenges us to live God’s higher ways of life: forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation before we self-destruct, trusting in God’s economy where the outcast, the broken, and the downtrodden are included in a new reality of generosity and hospitality which creates and sustains life while human-centered “market forces” create chaos and fear and anxiety which divide us from one another and from God (remember Deut. 6!).  Perhaps, Riley suggests, “we might also hear the good news that God is calling us to a deep mercy which brings new life where none could be previously found. We might think about places in our own life or relationships where we have come to believe that God’s ways could not be higher than our ways, that we must accept the way things are right now. We might want to reevaluate our assumptions about our contexts and carefully reflect on what “ways” we have accepted as the controlling narrative of our life. Do we live into the narrative this world often offers us, one that is full of “food” that does not satisfy, and filled with things “ways” which ultimately inflate our egos while deflating our spirit and lead to death?

(Stephen P. Riley, A Plain Account, http://www.aplainaccount.org)

 

The eternal and ongoing summons of our gracious God is to come, drink and eat together here at God’s table, a rare, visible touch-stone of God’s kingdom and vision, a safe harbor in the storm, a place where all are welcomed and where there’s always enough.  Let God’s kingdom come as we come to the table for the divine sustenance we need to keep on striving for God’s kingdom and to keep on listening to God!