For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 3 – Isaiah 55:1-9
This chapter comes right at the end of Deutero-Isaiah’s call to the exiles in Babylon to prepare to return to Jerusalem, to their home and their rightful place in the home which God had first promised and then given to them. Their own sin and rebellion had cost them this land, but now that has been paid for (40:2) and they are free, hopefully sadder and wiser, to come home. In later Judaism this whole unfortunate episode became more than mere history: it was a powerful symbol of the individual believer’s journey to find rest in God, and of what that final homecoming would be like.
I have recently been teaching a module which contained some comparative religion, taking on the belief of pluralism that it’s all the same God really, and we’re each free to choose our own path and customise our own ‘truth’. In particular we were considering what the idea of ‘heaven’ looked like in different faiths, from merging with the cosmos as a drop of water loses itself in the ocean, to the slightly more basic promise of 72 virgins. Between those two extremes lies Christianity, where heaven is often described as an eternal church service, with endless worship-songs. I must confess on a really bad day I sometimes wonder which I would really choose, given the option! But in fact there is another picture of the afterlife which is very prevalent in the Bible, and which is featured in our passage today – that of the banquet. In fact food and spiritual nourishment are very often to be found together.
The land to which Israel is invited to journey is portrayed in terms of its culinary riches, including milk and honey. When the spies first set foot in the Land they can’t but be overwhelmed by its riches, symbolised in the massive bunch of grapes gathered from Eshcol. In Proverbs 9 two symbolic women, Wisdom and Folly are contrasted, and Lady Wisdom is described as having laid out a huge banquet. She invites anyone who desires her wisdom to come and eat freely. By contrast Folly is portrayed as a slut who invites people to sin and shame. And several times in the book of Isaiah there is a picture of God setting out his buffet and inviting all the nations to come and learn at his table. This imagery continues into the NT, where several of Jesus’ Kingdom parables concern feasting, and where the Eucharist provides an appetiser for the feasting in the Kingdom which is to come at the end of history.
So what exactly is the deal with this food/wisdom/homecoming imagery? What is it about good food which seems to provide such a rich symbol of all the good things which God has for us? How about these suggestion?
Food is essential
That goes without saying, of course. When people are really down on their luck, it can be because they lack the basic fuel for living, as we are seeing daily on our TVs as people in Ukraine continue to be besieged. It has long been a successful military strategy to cut off from people the basic food and drink which we all need. By contrast God has been portrayed as the host at a great all-you-can-eat buffet, whose generosity provides all we need for thriving, including wisdom.
Food is fun
Yes, we need to eat to live, but there is a whole nother level where food becomes a great leisure activity because eating, and often trying new things, can be a lovely experience. Fellow curry fiends might have been through that stage in your life when you set out to discover how far up the heat order you could get. That feeling of my first Phall was truly something I’ll never forget, on several levels! Wisdom it may not have been, but there is something about good food which keeps calling us back for more. Truly wise people how little they really understand, and how much more there is stretching above them.
Food is corporate
Have you ever done this, or is it just us? Friends come to stay. They arrive, unpack, have a cup of tea; you chat, and then finally the evening meal is ready. You sit down, raise your glasses and say ‘Welcome!’ They’ve been here a couple of hours now, but it’s when you sit down to eat together that the stay really starts. That’s a picture of meals as homecomings. Our Eucharists are meant in one sense to be frustratingly small nibbles, because we join in to remember Jesus but also to look forward to the banquet when we shall finally be welcomed fully and completely into the presence of God.
… but be careful!
Whilst this picture of the heavenly banquet is a rich and tempting one, the NT reminds us that this kind of food needs to be consumed carefully. There are a couple of references in 1 Corinthians to the wrong kind of knowledge which merely ‘puffs up’ or bloats us. Jim Packer, in his classic book Knowing God warns us about this wrong kind of feasting, which becomes nothing more than an excuse for sticking in our thumbs and declaring ‘Look what a good boy am I!’ Those of us with teaching gifts constantly need to watch this: ultimately all we receive at God’s bountiful table needs to be geared, as is Is 55, towards inviting others to the feast.
revjohnleachblog will be taking a break for a week or two as I recover from Covid, take a holiday, and have my PhD viva. But in Arnie’s famous words, ‘I’ll be back!’ Keep your eye on social media!