For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter Sunday – Isaiah 25:6-9
There are many different pictures of eternal bliss, not just in different faith, but even within the biblical tradition, whether it’s eternity with 72 virgins, merging like a drop into the cosmic ocean, or an everlasting Vineyard song-slot. If you haven’t already heard it, you can get a glimpse of my vision of heaven here. But another one which really appeals is the one set out in this passage – an all-you-can-eat buffet at which, miraculously, you won’t put on any weight.
The passage is part of a larger unit known as the Isaianic Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27), which speaks into Israel’s desperate situation by proclaiming a vision of the future beyond their present sufferings, which, of course, would have included food shortages, as they were ravaged by one conquering empire after another. It’s natural to think of a better life in the form of a banquet. It’s ab great picture, particularly when we realise that food is not just about eating: it’s for being together, celebrating, marking special occasions, and even for mourning. I took my first funeral for over two years last week, and it was really strange not to be able to go on somewhere for a wake afterwards. We too live in a time when we have been conquered, not by a Babylonian army but by a tiny virus, and many in our country are going hungry, while all of us long for the kind of human togetherness we have been denied for over a year now. That’s our OT passage as we celebrated Easter Day, so what can it say to us today? As is so often the case, we can get at the meaning of a passage so much better when we look at it in its wider context.
First of all, the cross speaks into turbulent times. Verses 2-5 describe the devastation going on all around in a time of conflict, poor people needing a refuge, homeless people needing shelter, uproar and ruthlessness, and that’s just in the UK! God knows what is going on, and the cross of Jesus speaks into our situation, not around it. This passage is unashamedly about pie in the sky when you die, and I don’t have a problem with that. Reward is constantly used in the Bible as a motivator to good living (that’s a whole nother blog, but think about it: from the Beatitudes to Revelation, promises of reward are constantly held out to those who have lived faithfully.) The real point of application of this passages for Easter Day lies in v.8: God will swallow up death for ever. That happened at the empty tomb, it’s our reward too, with Jesus as firstfruits of those who have died.
Secondly, the cross tries to be inclusive. In the actual verses of our passage, the word ‘all’ is used five times: all peoples, all nations, all faces, all the earth. This is not just a narrow, nationalistic vision for Israel, but rather a welcome to the banquet for all who want and need to be there. The cross welcomes all who will stand under its shadow, all who want to partake of the richness of the spread.
But then there’s suddenly a jarring note, edited out, of course, by our lectionary compilers. Verses 10-12 show us that not everybody did want to come to the feast: the nation of Moab is singled out as one which Israel came to hate strongly after the Exile. They had consistently been hostile towards Israel, and their doom is declared in Is 15. How do we hold this in tension with the ‘all’s of v.6-9? Is God’s love not as unconditional as our verses suggest?
The cross, and the empty tomb, demand a verdict, and nowhere does the Bible pretend that there will not be those who decide the wrong way, and bear the consequences. Jesus told stories of people who had been invited to banquets but who chose not to turn up. This Sunday, of all the year, asks us what we believe, and this passage sets out the alternatives: banqueting hall, or muckheap?