For those who want a change from the Gospel
All Saints Sunday – Isaiah 25:6-9
As you may have heard me say before, I’m not a great fan of Saints (in the way that the Church uses the word, not the way the Bible uses it). In my experience too much emphasis on the Saints, and lots of sermons about how they should inspire us to higher things, actually deskill Christians and encourage a hierarchical view of the Christian life. In the NT, of course, all believers are saints, and there is nothing to suggest the elevation of some to a more holy and special status. So in my ministry I have tended to ignore Saints’ Days and carry on with preaching through Habakkuk of whatever my current series happened to be.
I am, though, a great fan of all-you-can-eat buffets, and I love the way that this image is used in the Bible to depict heaven. My expectation is that unlike earthly ones, heavenly banquets will mean that you never put on any excess weight. Can’t wait! In fact there are lots of different pictures of what heaven will be like. It might be Buddhism’s merging with the cosmos as a drop of water in the ocean, or Islam’s slightly more exciting 72 virgins. For many Christians there is the expectation of an everlasting church service where we will sing Vineyard songs 24/7 for ever. But in his picture of the future Isaiah is going somewhere else entirely. It is a feast, but it’s a particular kind of feast, which a bit of digging into the text will reveal.
As always the context is important. Most scholars agree that the period concerned is the rise of Assyria, who would eventually, in around 700 BC, besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Northern Kingdom. So the picture of a banquet stood in stark contrast to the starvation rations which made up real life. Other Ancient Near Eastern texts speak of cannibalism in such situations, and Ezekiel 24 perhaps alludes to this when Jerusalem is described as a big cooking pot full of flesh and bones. The image of a great banquet wasn’t just something nice to look forward to: it held out the hope of life itself.
Then in contrast in v.8 there is a mention of Death. Another local myth personified Death as the one who tried to swallow up Baal, the god of life and fertility. In the story Baal is rescued by his sister Anat, who hacks Death to bits with a scythe, perhaps one origin of our ‘Grim Reaper’. But Yahweh goes even further as he swallows up Death. The swallower gets swallowed himself. Are we getting the picture? This isn’t just a buffet: it’s a feast of victory. Those who try to starve the people will fail, and tears, misery and disgrace will be banished. Just as victory in warfare was celebrated with a banquet, this feast marks the ultimate victory of God to a starving and grieving nation.
So with whom will we join in this banquet? The saints, depicted in the NT as those who have fought and won; those who have run the race and finished it; those who have stood unwaveringly firm for all that is of God. I’m reminded of the image from Hebrews 11 and 12 of the last stadium lap of a marathon, when all those who have finished their course are waiting for those of us still running, or in many cases limping, towards the finish line. This great cloud of witnesses are not there to impress us with their at times extravagant holiness: they are literally egging us on so that together we can all get to the table and dig in. Isaiah’s victory feast is one we shall share with the saints of every age, and my expectation is that rather than finding them to be somewhat forbidding and severe we shall be welcomed like the long lost brothers and sisters we are. I’m particularly looking forward to meeting J S Bach, and I’m sure he’s looking forward to meeting me too, as one of his star fans.
But maybe in austere Britain all that seems a long way away. I would imagine, never having done one, that about 12 miles in to the marathon you must begin to wonder if the finishing line even exists. Well the good news is that we can have the starters now. The eucharist is our weekly reminder of the victory feast to come. In comparison to the nosh-up to come it may feel like siege rations, especially now we can’t even have wine with it, but it is designed to raise our minds, hearts and spirits to that time when we will drink new wine in the Kingdom of Heaven. We remember Jesus’ death until he comes.
We used to sing a great song many years ago, in the days when worship songs and liturgy could fit together, which went like this:
This is the feast of victory for our God
For the lamb who was slain has begun his reign
As we enjoy the starters, let’s continue to long and pray for the main course.