The Second Sunday in Advent
Come to the Feast
Isaiah 55, Psalm 25, Romans 15:4-13, St. Luke 21:25-33
Harken now to the call of the street vendor, for he bids you come. Is that not his call?
Come and look.
Come and see.
Come and sit.
Come and smell.
Come and taste.
Come and drink.
Come and eat.
Come and buy.
I have met them myself, on my forays into the East. Even now, I hear the urchins:
Come, mister; come and see mosque. I show you.
Come, mister; come and see fine watch. You like it.
Even now, I hear their fathers:
You come, sir, see my camel; go for ride, take picture.
You come, sir, drink tea, see carpets; very beautiful, very cheap.
Isaiah hears them, too, and he echoes them. But the prophet inhabits a marketplace like none I have ever known.n “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat.”
“You who have no money” – and so the food is free. The prophet envisions a celestial soup kitchen . . . the aromas mingle and entice . . . and bid the hungry eat their fill, free of charge.
Yet . . . he does not. For he urges them, “buy and eat.” This is commerce, not charity.
“Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
The table sags under the weight of its savories. Water to slake the thirst, but so much more. The richness of wine and milk as well, offered for sale at no price.
Has Isaiah tumbled through the looking glass? Will the Mad Hatter next appear as maitre d’ of this asylum’s feast?
But of course the prophet is a poet, and a poet paints with pretty puffs of speech. I wonder if mingled in Isaiah’s mind with the street vendors’ voices is that of his colleague Amos: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (8:11).
So it is the words of the Lord that nourish them . . . and us? Yes, I think so. For he chides his hearers next for frittering away their wages on what is not bread, for what does not satisfy.
“Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live.”
The voice has changed. It is now the Lord who speaks. He has slipped into the prophet’s draft and taken up the patter of the vendors: “come to Me.” But what must they do to live? Neither drink nor eat . . . but hear.
And what of them is it that shall live? Not body but soul. The words of the Lord provide spiritual sustenance. Bread . . . milk . . . wine, they will nourish your flesh, but they will starve your soul. It will waste away to nothing . . . if not fed with the words of the Lord.
Well, a poet will have his way with his words, but we have not yet untangled that knot that arrested us at the outset. How may we buy without money?
To settle that question, we must locate our position within Isaiah’s prophecy. He has revealed to us, two chapters back, the Suffering Servant, the One who will pay the pound of flesh God is owed for the sins of His creatures: “But He” – the Suffering Servant – “was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. . . By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities” (53:5,11b).
How can a holy God – one who will tolerate no sin in His presence – contend with sin? How will He restore sanctity to His sin-stained world and co-inhabit it with His creatures?
The answer of the Servant Song in chapters 52 and 53 is that He Himself will pay the price. The next two chapters show us the new order following that transaction, and they reveal it in terms of the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant Yahweh made with His people.
They are still in exile, but as Sarah’s barrenness proved no obstacle after God sent her to a faraway land, neither will Israel’s barrenness in exile stop her multiplying in numbers like the grains of sand on the seashore.
In the Sinai covenant Moses mediated, Yahweh took Israel to Himself as His bride. She had suffered slavery in Egypt, she lived now in bondage in Babylon, but God would once again be her Husband . . . for He had cleansed her of her sin.
In an apparent step backward, Isaiah invokes the covenant with Noah. It preceded the other two – indeed, the nation of Israel -- but the prophet uses it to show God’s faithfulness to all mankind. As Noah’s children had fanned out across the earth after the flood, so would Israel’s children spread out after the exodus as a blessing to all the nations.
And at the center of this restored world is the City of God, arrayed on spiritual Mount Zion. The “servants of the Lord” who have remained faithful and shared in the sufferings of the “Servant of the Lord” will share in His glory there.
In chapter 55, we see in this purified world the fulfillment of the covenant with David. The sign of Noah’s covenant was the rainbow, Abraham’s was circumcision, Moses’ was sprinkled blood. The sign of this one is royal David’s worldwide kingdom with the New Jerusalem as its capital and David’s greater Son upon its throne.
None of man’s rebellion and idolatry has frustrated God’s perfect plan. He has made all things new. But pay heed that you do not miss one salient fact: Yahweh is not a sorcerer.
He has purged the pollution of sin from the creation that His subjects may dwell with Him and He has laid the feast that they may dine with Him. Upon His throne, He sups with His subjects in His restored kingdom . . . but His subjects must do one thing.
They must come. Come and see, come and taste, come and drink, come and eat, come and buy. Yes, they must buy. They have no money, you say? They do not; nothing they have earned that will purchase their pardon. So they must come and buy their freedom with the capital the Suffering Servant has provided.
And what is it they will buy? What will sustain them? Had not Israel heard: “So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Here is the Eucharist of which we will partake momentarily, the Word which is bread: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
Gaze long enough into this lovely poem and you may see a reflection of John 3:16. God gave His Son that all may have eternal life . . . all who believe on Him. Simply come to His table in the belief that He has provided payment for you, and take your seat at the feast.
But you must come, and when you do you must see the great chasm that separates you from God. When Isaiah entered the presence of his Lord he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (6:5).
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His thoughts higher than your thoughts.
In the end, for those who come, prosperity will frolic with joy and joy and peace shall kiss. And the creation shall join in their revelry, for the Lord is restoring all that He has made. The mountains and the fields shall break forth into singing, the trees of the fields shall clap their hands. Because of what the Servant has done.
Has not the prophet said of Him: “And the government will be upon His shoulder” (9:6)? It is He who will rule forever upon royal David’s throne.
Well, that’s one story, anyway.
But what if there is no Servant? A week ago, we considered the effect of the church – and notably the leaders of the church – scoffing at its chief cornerstone. This is a devastating prospect for the church . . . but today we consider the nation. Surely the demise of the church will not injure the nation.
They are separate, after all; surely the nation can prosper even though the church should fail. Unless, of course, the nation was designed around the church and the church’s beams are the nation’s supports. In such a case, well, then, what a pretty pickle we would find ourselves in.
Our second president, John Adams, wrote: “. . . we have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, and gallantry” -- by this last he seems to have meant sexual license – “would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The Founding Fathers were endeavoring to construct a system that accommodated all possible freedom for the people. At the same time, they understood that freedom is volatile as nitroglycerine and does not guarantee virtue. Freedom can be used for ill as well as for good, and in the hands of those who are not “a moral and religious people” it could go nuclear.
And so freedom does not mandate virtue but if it exists in an environment void of virtue it will surely be lost, for freedom turned into license will bring about virtue turned into vice.
And vice we will have where morality and religion are mocked, as when an ever-expanding class of the enlightened deem themselves too high-falutin’ to be bothered with mossy anachronisms like honor and principle and – yes, moldiest of all – faith.
But is there no virtue without religion? Do we not all know principled secularists, even some who appear to hold to a higher standard than many in the churches?
Of course we do. But Adams had a predecessor and he warned against the notion that morality unhinged from religion could provide the foundation for the nation.
“Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” George Washington wrote. “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
If religious principle is not the undergirding for public virtue, surely it can be found in reason. Men will do what is in the best interest of themselves, their families and their country. They will act sensibly because to do otherwise would be self-destructive.
Washington and Adams, however, both looked askance on this idea – for a reason that admittedly would occur to few today: man’s fallen nature. With no religious injunction against indulging the flesh, man may very well find his reason leading him out of the warm glow of liberty and into the frigid hell of license.
The Princeton law professor Robert P. George makes the point that both Washington and Adams were men of the Enlightenment and believers in reason. They differed from many of our day, however, in that they found no conflict between faith and reason.
They saw them, in fact, in harmony. And so, wrote George, “dare we suppose that liberty-sustaining virtues can survive if the great mass of people over a great expanse of time lose or abandon a sense of the transcendent, the spiritual, the more-than-merely-human source of meaning and value? That is a proposition that we should, as Washington warned, ‘indulge with caution.’”
What’s more, our Constitution enshrines the principle of natural rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and insists that these come from God. If God be not true, as our growing legion of secularists insist, what value is there in rights derived from Him?
If man is not created in God’s image, if we are no more than lumps of tissue evolved from some ancient blob, how we might be invested with natural rights is an elusive proposition indeed.
“Given the sometimes extreme stresses and strains that inevitably come into the lives of nations as well as individuals,” George concludes, “can we confidently say that the conditions of constitutional freedom—and thus freedom itself—would survive where the great mass of citizens had settled into believing that human beings, supposed subjects of inalienable rights, are merely material beings inhabiting a universe of purely material and efficient causality?That, it seems to me, is a proposition that should be indulged only with the very greatest caution.”
If our Constitution was constructed for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate for the government of any other – if our first two presidents and many of their colleagues understood the nation they were creating – it seems we have arrived at a crossroads.
We can come to the feast and, bringing no money, offer the payment the Suffering Servant has made. We can await that great day when He takes the government upon His shoulder.
Or we can prepare for the next exile. Our Lord is faithful. He called Israel home from Babylon and He restored the throne of David in Jerusalem. And so, if such is our demand, He will do again. In the interim, God help us all. Amen.