Our text begins with an exclamation – HO!
It’s an attention getter. It’s placed here at the start of this passage to ensure the hearer and the reader are paying attention. It’s offered here by the prophet to ensure the Church is listening.
Our text is set in the days of exile. The people, once ruled by the mighty King David, thought they were untouchable as God’s chosen people. They believed that God had this secret pact with them that no other person or nation would ever reach their level of prestige.
The people believed all things had been perfected under the great leadership of the chosen king. They were well fed and they never went thirsty. They had a land to call their own. They felt protected in a promised and delivered land.
But things went awry – they were captured and sent into exile. Now, they find themselves thirsty and hungry. They find themselves living among those who look, think, and believe nothing like them. They long to return to their homes; they want to reclaim their homeland; they want to return to a sense of praised normalcy. They want autonomy; they want to live under their own rules and to have a sense of ownership of their own land; they want to feel free.
Keep in mind, it is Israel we are talking about.
In the midst of a deteriorating identity and a proclaimed misery, the prophet calls back our attention – HO!
The people to whom the prophet is speaking had been so assured of God’s election for them and their nation. They found themselves at a loss for how such misery could have fallen upon them. No doubt, they have started to wonder if God had deserted them and backtracked on his assurance to always be there and care for them. Perhaps God is not as omnipresent as we once thought? Perhaps God has turned his attention to another nation elsewhere? Perhaps we are no longer the chosen people of God?
In the midst of a failing faith and a lack of assurance, the people sought hope and faith in other entities. In the midst of the monarchy, they had begun to put their hope and faith in the King more-so than in God. In the failure of the monarchy, in the midst of exile, they found themselves enthralled in the luxuries of materialism and wealth. They become fiercely isolated as individuals, turning away from the needs of the community and focusing on self-worth and self-growth.
The people, in exile, found themselves wandering further and further from the truth of God’s promise and covenant. They found themselves not even knowing that the false claims that promised them new life were false. They found themselves giving into those who promised sustenance, but who only drove them further from God’s truth. They offered praise to entities that were not of God, in search of a new hope.
Again, to be clear, we’re still talking about the people of Israel.
In the midst of a loss of assurance in God, in the midst of squandering the capital of God, the prophet calls back our attention – HO!
In the midst of our searching, the prophet calls us back to refocus on God’s promise. Isaiah 55 is found in the middle of the the second and third sections of Isaiah, spanning chapters 40-66. In this chapter, chapter 55, in this third verse, is found the only mention of the name of King David in these 26 chapters. In the midst of exile, the people had nearly forgotten about the great king, who’s failure led to their exilic demise.
But in the midst of the prophet’s call, the prophet connects God’s promise with the promise made in and through forgotten king. The prophet speaks, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” The mention of the name, of King David, once hailed as the greatest, is there to reconnect the people with the hope of God that was known in the most powerful and magnificent time of their history.[i]
Yet in this naming of David, there is no promise of a future King, there is just a promise that God will be God, and that the people should be the people God had created them to be. The prophet says, “Nations will run to you – even ones you don’t know will run to you – because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel.”
Once more, the prophet speaks out against their self-gratuitous claims. The world will not be re-ordered because of their own work or that of a great king. The greatness to return will be because of the work of God and the faithfulness of those God has called into service. The people – all people – all who thirst – all who are hungry … together, the fullness of those God has called will rework creation into the image of God. And all this will be possible, not because of our willingness to work or our capability to work, but simply because of the Lord your God.
From our own self-interests and from our self-doubt – from a vision for creation that is not in line with the vision of God – the prophet calls us back – HO!
The prophet names that those who are called are those who have a hunger and thirst. In the midst of their wandering for a new hope, the prophet begs the question, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
Let us be clear to whom the prophet is speaking. I can look around the room this morning and name that I don’t think many of us have every felt a true hunger pain, or felt real dehydration. So how is one, who has a refrigerator full of good eats, and a seemingly limitless supply of fresh water, to hear this message as a call for you to repent and turn toward God?
We must fully understand the call of the prophet. For those of us who hear these words and say, I have no hunger, I have no thirst – it may be wise to rethink our own lives in light of the text that is offered this morning.
Dr. Paul Hanson, who taught Old Testament at Harvard Divinity for 40 years, says that this text is calling us to ask the question, do we want to be in a place that God has created for all of God’s created humanity to gather? Do we want to drink from the same fountain as those who do not come from a place of privilege? Do we want to share food across the table from a person who did not sleep indoors last night?
He goes on to say, those who can not answer in the affirmative to these questions, “[they] belong to those who ‘spend [their] money for that which is not bread, and [their] labor for that which does not satisfy.’”[ii]
In other words, yes, God’s gift of love and life is offered to us all – it is a free gift, given us in the love of God as witnessed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But as free as it may be, we can find ourselves excluded. Again, Dr. Hanson names, “[The only thing] that can exclude you [from God’s love and the gift of life] is your insisting there are places you’d rather be.”[iii]
If you insist on separating yourself from God’s creation – if you insist on setting yourself on a pedestal – if you insist on rejecting God’s call to share, serve, and love the entirety of God’s created beings, then you have chosen to exclude yourself from God’s love by choosing to exclude others from God’s love.
And the prophet calls us to hear the word, to acknowledge our humanity, and to embrace God’s call to be part of this created order – HO!
The problem with the people of Israel, and the issues that the prophet is so desperately trying to call them to acknowledge, is that they’ve been seeking to quench their thirst in all the wrong places.
In the 1980s, Sprite came out with a marketing campaign. Their catch phrase was simply, ‘Obey your thirst.’
In the 1990s, they added to the phrase. It became, ‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.’
The problem for the people Israel was they seeking to obey their thirst in all the wrong ways. Like Sprite, the world has many false hopes that beckon and promise to quench our thirst.
Because of a lacking and failing faith in God to quench that thirst, the people sought to spend their money on that which was not bread, and to labor for that which did not satisfy.
That is, they sought to indulge themselves in things that were not necessities for life. Bread was a staple in the diet of the time – as if it’s not today (I mean, have you had the rolls at Bertuccis). To live without out bread was to wither and die. But to indulge in more than bread was to waste money on things unneeded for the basic requirements of life. To indulge and to waste is to show a lack of care and concern for the community, for which God has called you to be a part of and to offer care.
And to labor on that which did not satisfy is to believe that one can be whole apart from that which God has created in and for you. To labor in such a wasteful way is to say that you are working for the wrong reasons. To work in a way that satisfies, is to work as God has created you, for only God can truly satisfy. To work in any other way, in a way that is not satisfying, is to say you are working for personal prestige and gain.
The problem is, as created people of faith, when we believe God has turned a back on us, we seek to obey our thirst by indulging in all the wrong things.
And thanks be to God the prophet offers us a more faithful way forward. Hear these words beginning in verse 7:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 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.”
The prophet exclaims and seeks to grab your attention – HO!
The scary thing for me in reading this text is the close similarities I see between the people of Israel to whom the text was written and our own nation today.
When the national body of Christians begins to make claims that the nation has rejected God, or that the foundation of believers has started to crack and weaken, then, like the Israelites, we tend to stop looking to God for help, and start to rely on ourselves. Instead of spending more time in prayer, and more time humbling ourselves before God, we try to double down on ourselves and we become even that much more insular. When we bemoan the failures of the nation to allow prayer in school and reading and teaching of biblical principals in the schools, and when we believe that as Christians we’re being persecuted because of our beliefs, or held accountable for ‘speaking our minds’ in tension filled situations … when the conglomerate of people who call themselves Christians tries to claim that they have been segregated because of their faith, they tend to rally around themselves instead of allowing themselves to be used in the public sphere by God in more faithful ways than their minds have ever conceived possible.
The thoughts of God are not our thoughts, the ways of God are not our ways. When we use our ways to try to get things done, we often fail, because we have turned from God’s ways.
And when we turn from God, when we turn to ourselves, when we turn to find other offers of hope and life, we tend to start investing and engaging in practices that promise that fill our fledgling hope and quench our drying thirst, but who do not provide true life.
And that which promises to quench our thirst may wear all kinds of masks – it may appear as a soda drink; it may appear as consumerism or materialism that promises a better life than even God can provide; it may show up as fascism or totalitarianism that begs for your allegiance to something other than God; it may dawn as hate groups like the KKK or the NOI, who promise they have the god-divined solution for humanity.
But the reality is, none of these will ever quench your lingering thirst.
None of the alternatives will leave you satisfied.
How long, O Lord, will we seek for life, liberty, and justice outside the realm of the Divine? How long will we seek to obey our thirst from wells that dry up and leave us withered in the wake.
In this season of Lent, you are invited to once more repent of having ever thought that true life could be found apart from the living and loving nature of God. And I invite you to remember, no sprite can quench this thirst, nothing by the love of Jesus.