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.
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.
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.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
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.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Isaiah agrees. Why do you spend money on that which isn’t bread? Why do you labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Why would you go on making mud pies when you could be spending your holiday by the sea?
This is actually one of the main arguments people make against Lent, ironically enough. Why would you deny yourself chocolate as some sort of spiritual ritual? What do you think that gets you, giving up meat on Fridays? And if this were, in fact, what Lent was about, I’d be in agreement with the argument.
Of course, they’re wrong. We’re all wrong, if we think Lent is about some sort of medieval mortification process. It’s stuck around as a Christian practice this long because there’s something to this. Something, if Isaiah is to be heard, that has to do not with masochistic self-denial but with joy. With pleasure. With rich food and banqueting and realizing that we’ve been far too easily pleased. Lent isn’t about denying ourselves. It’s about realizing how half-hearted our pleasures really are, how we have been fooling about with petty little things when infinite joy has been offered to us free of charge.
Dennis Tucker Jr. says that “In the ancient world, when a new king would assume the throne he would often issue a mišarum edict, declaring a release from all debts. As part of this edict, the king would also call for a great banquet to be enjoyed by the people of that kingdom. Both events, the edict and the banquet, signaled a new day under a new king.”
Certainly Isaiah knows that his hearers will think of this edict and this banquet when they hear the words of chapter 55. And how much more so to this particular crowd, who have been settled in exile so long that it’s not exile any longer, but home, and who have just been told that they are now allowed- in fact, commanded- to return home. But home isn’t what it used to be. Home, compared to this comfortable life they’ve built for themselves, is less than ideal. Home is war-torn and in desperate need of rebuilding. Home is a big renovation project that will be costly in every kind of way.
How do they hear this declaration of a release from all debt and also juggle this strange and difficult situation of returning to a home that doesn’t much feel like one anymore? Is this good, or is this not good? Are they moving toward greener pastures, or just different pastures?
What is this new day that Isaiah is declaring? Well, it’s meant to be a day of joy for one thing. That’s clear, by the imagery of a market where all is provided and nothing is charged. But it’s also important just because it’s new. There’s something about the newness here that matters. It’s why changing up our routine in Lent also matters. Something routine and old becomes different and new. It seems like such a trivial kind of thing, but I wonder if it’s not actually the thing entirely. I wonder if this isn’t what formation is, at the heart. Change, movement, shifting pieces around so they don’t get immobile. Staying flexible. Bending and lengthening. We’re made to be a people on the move. I don’t think that’s an arbitrary thing or even a secondary thing. I think that may be the thing itself.
Poet Mary Oliver said,
And now I understand
something so frightening, and wonderful–
how the mind clings to the road it knows, rushing through crossroads, sticking
like lint to the familiar.
The mind clings to the road it knows. And before you know it, we become like cadavers, like mausoleums of human potential. We stick to the familiar, or more specifically, the easy, and before we know it we’re like children making mud pies instead of going on holiday by the sea. We stay put, and we become half-hearted creatures, far too easily pleased.
There’s something here about the need to move…and, I should add, sometimes the need to stay. Either way it’s to do what we’re not inclined to do, what’s less easy, so that something new can really come forward, rather than just what we expect. Go to Babylon and settle down, God said. And that was new. Not begrudge your time there or stay locked up in your house and endure it quietly but plant crops and meet your neighbors and do the hard work of making a life for yourselves out there in exile. And then God said, Leave exile and return home…and home isn’t at all what it used to be. And well, that is new too.
Either way the question posed to us is not one of location or situation. It’s what we’re doing with these movements that make up our lives. it’s what we are doing with this one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver calls it. It’s what food we are eating, and what work we’re engaging. It’s whether we are aware that there is a banquet set before us with everything we could need, for pete’s sake, and it’s free, for the love of all things good and holy, and we just keep walking by it because we are so enamored with the familiar.
I honestly have no idea why God kept moving these poor people back and forth, over the river and through the woods, so to speak. I mean, I have a little bit of an idea. They were faithful, or not faithful, and there were wars. Whatever–life happened to them like it happens to us- in fits and spurts of good and bad, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, expected and unexpected. But in the text it is not only about life happening. It is also about God moving them places, and so we have to wonder whatever for. What does all this moving about accomplish anyway? You are now more faithful so you get to go back home…to a war-torn land that’s a hot mess of a disaster? It’s not really a gold medal kind of prize.
Maybe the stuff that lasts- that really lasts- isn’t the thing that you’ve had for a long time. Maybe it’s not the thing that has become your routine. Maybe it’s not the thing you’re good at because you’ve done it over and over and over again, and it no longer requires any effort. Maybe the best or most important thing isn’t that you have your work environment all nicely managed and your house all situated just so and your relationships nicely aligned.
Maybe the stuff that lasts isn’t the thing that you’ve had for the longest, or have kept the most steady. Maybe it’s the thing that’s portable. The thing that has learned to go with you in whatever circumstance and wherever you are. My yoga instructor always says that the yoga postures just help us practice holding onto our peace in difficult situations. Can you breathe when you’re about to fall over? Can you find peace when you’re on one leg? Can you be cool with it when you lift up onto your fingertips and your muscles start to shake? Can you find imbalance, and can you breathe through it? The peace is what you practice, because the peace is portable. It’s what goes with you long after you’ve left the yoga studio.
And maybe we don’t know what those things are until we have to move. Until all the little creature comforts we’ve banked our lives on have to be reshuffled and packed and unpacked and put in storage. Maybe we don’t know what lasts until we move around enough to start recognizing the forest for the trees…the mud pies for the beach. Until our minds have no choice but to stop clinging to the familiar so that something new can come about- and not just something new for newness sake, I’m not talking about novelty here-but something better. Something that will bring us joy. And not just any joy but the kind that is portable, the kind that can be found regardless of location or circumstance. Regardless of exile or homeland. The kind that knows that there is a banquet waiting for us filled with rich food, and that it is so much better than the silly bit of bread we’ve been munching on day after day for God only knows how long. Just because we have had it before. Just because we know what it tastes like. Just because we know where to find it on the grocery aisle.
I heard this story once about an experiment done with this mouse who was first given a big bunch of room in his cage, and he moved all over the place and loved it. And then one day they added a glass door that kept him confined to this one small corner of the cage, and at first he tried to walk through the glass door, jamming his nose this way and that way trying to figure out how to get through it. But after a while he gave up and spent his days sitting in the same spot. And then after some times passed they took the glass door away. And the mouse just stayed there. He never figured out the door was gone. He had given up his explorations. He had resigned himself to his little space, and he had become a half-hearted creature.
God bless us. God have mercy on our small little corners. God save us from our contentment with cramped misery.
These portable things, these lasting things–they have to be bigger than us, but they have to be rooted in us, too. We have to know them deeply for them to be able to become portable. These things are free, but we have to receive them. And these things God wants to give us are by their very nature bigger than what we usually hold. Because we are sadly all too often half-hearted creatures, and we are fooling about with things that actually can fit into our hands or be seen from our caged corners.
Listen carefully to me, God says in Isaiah 55. Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
Not listen so that you may be deprived. Not listen so that you can deny yourself. Listen so that you may finally for once eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. For God’s sake, pack your bags and head to the beach already.
Why do we spend money on that which isn’t bread? Why do we labor for that which doesn’t satisfy?
Have we become people who are far too easily pleased? Lent asks us this question, day after day as we attempt to shake up our usual routines in small and big ways. Are we people who need to be moved out of our corners, by forceful nudge, if necessary, so that something new and joyful may become ours? Perhaps Lent is helping us move toward something that lasts. Something that is portable to wherever this life happens to take us.
Listen carefully, God says. Leave your little tokens at home. The really important things can’t be lost. And if you feel they are lost, the only way to find them is to move around so that they make make themselves known to you once again.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ This Lent, as we shift and move and bend and lengthen, may his words take root in our hearts wherever we may go. Amen.