Toorak Uniting Church

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The economy of grace

Isaiah 55: 1 – 11     Luke 13: 1 – 9
Rev. Ian Brown
11 March 2007

I wonder how many of us can remember the last time we were either really hungry or thirsty ???
Like in the Psalm;

"my soul thirsts,…
my flesh faints,…
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water."

It’s not the sort of experience that, thankfully, many of us have to endure.
For about two thirds of the our world’s population though, this degree of hunger and thirst are very real and regular experiences.

And in the time of Isaiah’s writing when he people of Israel were captive slaves in Babylon, hunger and thirst would have been a common and life threatening reality. Slaves by definition work hard and are given little in return.

So when the Prophet Isaiah writes; "Hey, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price."
His words just may have had some impact and relevance!

The thirsty and the poor are invited to drink.
Neither ones need, nor ones ability to pay will stifle this gift. Far more than water is on offer. Wine and milk, delightful things are for the taking and at no cost. Imagine the sort of crowd these words could attract. In Isaiah’s time, access to these was the preserve of landowners, those with vineyards and herds or flocks, for those who have money to purchase them. Not so here. Nothing is required of the purchaser in this deal and nothing is demanded by the giver.
What matters is listening and responding!

Now it’s abundantly clear that Isaiah was no economist!!
To buy without paying is not part of the world’s system.
But then, neither is the God he worshiped much of an economist. When you consider the concept of jubilee that God gave Israel - the canceling of all debts every 50 years, the principle of people’s good and of ensuring basic living needs are clearly placed first.
Did Isaiah have any comprehension of what such a declaration could mean to those whose lives depended on the smooth running of the Babylonian economy ? He is not really speaking against the shopkeepers and traders.
      No, these words are written to awaken the yearning for God’s freedom and grace that the numbed captives in Babylon have lost touch with. To people who have forgotten what to hunger for, who have lost hope.

Of course the words of Isaiah weren’t just about the physical.
He had the attention of his audience, then he goes on; "Listen carefully, and eat what is good, Incline your ear so that you may live."

No, he wasn’t a nutritionist before his time either.
Here is the truth that Jesus later quotes, that people cannot live by bread alone. God promises plenty, God promises life abundant, ....
      - and the key to that life of true richness - is to be found in the spiritual nourishment found in a restored relationship with God. Jesus often spoke of heaven and the kingdom of God in terms of a great banquet to which we all are invited in the abundance of God’s grace. An abundance of true nourishment, couched in terms of the greatest of dinner parties.

Isaiah expresses the need for a response by the people; seeking the Lord; calling on him while he is near, forsaking the wicked way or unrighteous thoughts, and returning to the Lord. God’s reply is mercy and abundant pardon.
The mystery of this wondrous offer is expressed in terms of God’s ways being different to ours, our thoughts not like God’s.
What can we do about this gap, how can we approach God?
It is the otherness of God’s thoughts and ways, of offering rich food without price which achieves this. This is the astonishing point. God’s ways and thoughts are thoroughly focused on letting us seek God, and having our ways become like God’s. The invitation is made, the door is open, the cost is nothing!

"Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near."

The invitation to the party, to receive God’s abundance is open to all.
To those who are thirsty and open to receive, God’s invitation is like the best wine - or milk, or fruit smoothie if that’s your preference!
Material wealth, health, family, career - none have the answers to our deepest thirst and hunger; "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy ?" says the prophet.
And even for us, who are not slaves in foreign captivity and mostly well satisfied already, there is a word that strikes home. What are we really getting for what we spend our lives on?

We are in need of God, says the psalmist, like a dry and weary land where there is no water. The further this drought goes on, the more we understand this image and relate to the feeling of tangible need that it expresses.
We need and long for the divine like a drought ravaged land longs for water and we know the need most sharply when other fulfillments are absent.

Our needs, this psalm reminds us, are much more than for self fulfillment, satisfaction and self discovery. Our needs are more than for food and drink. We have a need for the divine, for meaning beyond ourselves, a need for connection with the transcendent, a need for God.

"O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you."

And the voice of God, through Isaiah, whispers to you and to me:

"Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live."

God’s economy, the style of management and operations policy God consistently shows is one of giving - giving what
is best - giving at great cost - but giving freely - it’s a matter of grace.
"Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, you that have no money, come buy and eat ! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Then, in Isaiah, there are the beautiful and much needed images of rain and snow falling from heaven, not to return to heaven, but to cover the earth with their life giving substance, refreshing it, and bringing forth the seed that is necessary to sustain life.
Again, it’s a picture of an abundant supply of food for the people. We started with thirst and necessary drink, now we finish with hunger and necessary bread. We might think of this in relation to the elements of the communion the wine and bread for our pilgrimage or to reaffirm our faith in the systems of nature that God has given to provide for our physical needs.

But this is also the season of Lent, and we think of the wilderness, of sacrifice and serious preparation with life and death consequences. So in the wisdom of the lectionary there is paired with this gracious offer and compelling invitation for spiritual refreshment, a sharper note of requirement for response as well.

In Jesus parable of the fig tree, the gardener gives the old fruitless fig another chance. It’s to be tended another season, fertilized, dug around and then if there’s no fruit next year, out it will come! This is an act of love and of patience, as an illustration of God’s grace, love and patience, but there is clearly an expectation.

Trees in an orchard have a purpose. We have purpose, the church has reasons for its existence. The invitation is not just to come to God’s feast and gorge ourselves silly.

If we, like the fig are taking up space and giving nothing back, now is a good time for some self examination.

We might ask ourselves, what am I consuming in my faith, and what am I giving back, what is the fruit?

We might ask what of the rain and snow of God’s word am I soaking in and what do I produce with it?

We might ask what rain and resources of the earth we are using and what care we take and what do we put back?

It is a serious and necessary reflection – but one done in the context of God’s gracious invitation and the grace of another chance.

"Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live."

Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2007


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