Sunday, March 24, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 63: Isaiah 55:1-11
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Isaiah 55 and Psalm 63 return us to a theme that we work with regularly in this space, a theme that recurs over and over throughout the Bible, which is that the community of faith is an alternative community in the world. The faith community is to be a distinctive people, embodying a distinctive way of living in the world, a path of forgiveness, justice, newness, and joy in our world of violence, despair, cruelty, and resentment. At the heart of the church’s life of evangelism is our conviction that we have been given a way to live that is life giving, and we want to invite our friends and neighbors to join us on this way. Evangelism is never about, “Hey, come and be a part of our church because we are awesome.” Evangelism is always about, “Hey, come and join us as we’re trying to follow Jesus on his path of freedom, mercy, and joy.”
Isaiah 55 is generally understood to be the last chapter in what is called “2nd Isaiah,” chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. The sequence is important. Chapters 1-39, which come first, and are called … 1st Isaiah, are addressed to Israel before the Babylonian exile. 1st Isaiah addresses words of warning to Israel that their ways of living have become corrupt and self-indulgent and unjust, and that the present path is unsustainable. The Babylonian exile is presented as the outcome of that sorry path. 2nd Isaiah, in contrast, is a later document, addressed to the people who were in exile. It is addressed to the people who had been deported from Judah, taken into exile into Babylon, and were living in forms of captivity.
What this means is that, in the chapters of 2nd Isaiah, there are three key players. The first party is Judah – the deported exiles who had been dislocated and deported. Now, not all of the exiles had the same experience in Babylon. Some of them were taken to rural areas where they were put to work on the farms, while others were taken to the cities to work in the administrative machinery of the empire. But all of them were dislocated and far from home. One party in 2nd Isaiah is Judah.
A 2nd player in these texts is Babylon. The mighty empire, who had destroyed and brutalized the city of Jerusalem, burned its temple to the ground, and then had their way with the people of Judah. The Babylonians were dominant and coercive, and they understood themselves to be all-powerful.
In any contest between those two parties – between little Judah and mighty Babylon – there was no contest. Judah was no match for the empire.
Except that there is a third party, who is God. And God intends a life for vulnerable Judah that is beyond the control of the empire.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why are you spending your money on that Babylonian junk food that will never actually satisfy you? Listen to me, follow me, and I will show you a better way.”
Isaiah 55 intends to break the stranglehold that the Babylonian empire has on the imaginations and the lives of the exiles. This little poem comes into the Babylonian economy of scarcity, where you’ve got to obey the empire and do the empire’s bidding, where there’s no time to rest, no room for sharing your stuff with your neighbors, where there’s so much fear and intimidation running around that there’s no time to breathe. Isaiah 55 says, “You don’t have to live that way. You don’t need to live like that because the Babylonian kingdom is not the only kingdom around. The kingdom of God is at hand, and you can live according to its abundance, and its freedom, and its mercy and steadfast love.”
In our own context, we may reflect on who Babylon is for us, who intimidates us, who keeps our imagination and our hearts under lock and key. Who’s our Babylon? The Bible uses Babylon as something of a code word for any system that is coercive or abusive or totalizing, any system that wants you to think that it’s the only game in town. The book of Revelation, for example, refers to the Roman empire as Babylon. “Babylon” could be a suffocating social system in a school that wants to determine who’s cool and who’s not, and wants you to think that there is no life at school outside of its prescriptions. But that’s just not true. Babylon could be the consumer economy that wants us to believe that we need a lot of new stuff to be happy, and that we need to gather as much wealth as we can and keep as much of it as we can for ourselves if we’re going to be safe, and that there is no life outside of its buying and selling. But that’s just not true. Babylon could be systemic racism that sees certain skin colors as being inherently more valuable and more important than others, and that it should be that way forever. But that’s just not true. “Babylon” has many faces.
During this Lenten season, God is inviting us to imagine that Babylon does not hold as many cards as it thinks it does. There is an abundance and a freedom that can be found outside of the reach of Babylon, in the neighborly economy of the kingdom of God, an abundance and a freedom that are without end. We are being invited to step out of Babylon’s rat race, where we’re forever running to catch up, chasing a life of security and control and approval that is always just out of reach. Instead, we are invited into the generous provisions of the kingdom of God, where there is enough for everyone, and where we can breathe and share and rejoice. “Your steadfast love,” says Psalm 63, “is better than life.” With you, O God, “my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast.”
Friends, we are being invited to walk the alternative path of Jesus. In our world of violence and fear, it is a path of generosity and freedom and neighborly compassion and justice. The systems of the world, the Babylons of our lives and our world, want to tell us that there’s just not enough to go around, they’re the only game in town, and so you better just do what they say. But the Babylons of the world cannot satisfy our deepest longings. And the promise of the kingdom of God is that in walking together, listening for God’s leading, staying attentive to the hurt and the pain of the world, there is more than enough for everyone. To God and to God alone be all the glory. Amen.