“An Abundant Lent”
On Friday evening, we cooked up a great feast at our house. We already had most of the ingredients that we needed in the kitchen, but I stopped by the grocery store and picked up a few things that we were missing. Nick selected the recipes, and I assisted him by chopping various things and stirring pots when needed. We made chicken curry, spinach paneer, chana masala, and basmati rice. Enjoyed along with a nice glass of wine for me and a beer for him, we had a wonderful meal with plenty of leftovers to feed us a couple more times this week.
It made me think of a similar menu that we enjoyed three years ago at First Church’s Indian Dinner Fundraiser for Canada Youth. That event came up in my Facebook memories recently, reminding me of what a fun and successful fundraiser it was, and making me think that we should do it again some time!
Although I do love Indian food, it was not the menu that really made it a great dinner three years ago. It was all the people who decided to attend, whether they loved Indian food too, or they were just willing to give it a try for a good cause. It was the community of First Church folk and friends and family gathered, the laughter, and the sharing of culture, tradition, and identity across our diversities. I actually don’t remember exactly what I ate that evening, but I do remember that it was an evening that truly satisfied.
In this morning’s text from the Prophet Isaiah, the people of God are likewise being invited to enjoy a wonderful meal that truly satisfies. In this case, it’s not a fundraising dinner, but it’s actually a free meal. The people are urged to “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Those who have no money are invited to “come and eat” – not cheap food or scraps that are leftover from the rich – but good, rich food – bread that satisfies.
I found it really interesting to learn that one element in the context of this passage was the challenge of the rising prices of necessities. The people of God who were receiving this invitation were the Exiles in Babylon. It’s towards the end of the several generations that they’ve spent outside of Jerusalem and Judah, living in exile.
You may remember that Babylon was a tough place to be for God’s people. They felt far from God, cut off, and homesick – at least for a while. But eventually many of them started to feel more settled in Babylon. They found ways to make a living, started businesses, planted crops, figured out how to live with their neighbours there, and even began inter-marrying with the locals.
When they were finally able to return to Jerusalem, not everyone would have actually wanted to go. They could see some benefits, certainly, but there were also difficulties associated with uprooting their lives once again.
One of the things that happened to be a problem in Babylon was the high cost of necessities. Very much like today where we live, the cost of living was rising and rising. Everything is costing more than it used to, and for some among us, just buying groceries and other basics is becoming a huge challenge.
So, the Prophet is suggesting that things will be better back home. There will be good food available there at no cost. So “come home” instead of spending your money on food that is more expensive and not nearly as good in Babylon.
If he’s being realistic, Isaiah will have to admit that going back to Jerusalem will have its challenges too. There will be the massive task of rebuilding the community and the temple. Just think of returning to the war-ravaged cities of Ukraine that we are seeing on the news today. It won’t be easy to return later and make a life there again.
But Isaiah isn’t just advertising free food, and hoping that the people will decide it’s the best deal and the most affordable place to live. He’s talking about something deeper than physical food or economic options for where to live. He’s reminding God’s people that Judah was the Promised Land to which God led them, where God said they would experience a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
Even then, it wasn’t the menu options that were important. It was God’s promise of an abundant life, a place that is secure, a community that can thrive because God will be with them and provide for their needs.
The Prophet goes further in explaining God’s invitation to the people: God will “make with [them] an everlasting covenant” with the same kind of steadfast love and faithfulness of God’s covenant with David. And if they come back to Jerusalem and to this covenant relationship with God, their community will become a blessing to others as well, with other nations running to them because of their relationship with the One God.
The message here is not really about low-price, good quality groceries, and it’s not really about a free meal. What is being offered freely by God is a return to community – a return to that special covenant relationship with God, and a return to being the people of God together in the land that God has given them.
It’s free in the sense that they don’t have to make up for their past mistakes and sins. They don’t have to account for the ways that they turned away from God and found themselves exiled in Babylon. They don’t have to come up with excuses for why they eventually started to ignore and forget about God in that place.
God is giving them another chance, like the gardener in our Gospel text who is determined to dig around that fruitless fig tree, to fertilize it, and water it, and give it another year to start bearing fruit.
God’s invitation through the Prophet Isaiah was spoken first to the Exiles in Babylon, but it’s a message for us too.
Early in the Pandemic, some of us compared our experience of sheltering at home as kind of like an exile. Perhaps in most cases that was a bit of an exaggeration, given the privileges we enjoyed of living in safe homes with heat, and food, and various ways to connect with others by phone or online.
But we did feel rather alone at times. And we were more or less cut off from family and friends, from our faith communities, and perhaps even from God when our practices of faith were undermined.
Very much like the people of God in Babylon, the Pandemic went on a lot longer than any of us expected. My Facebook memories the last week are filled with Pandemic firsts from two years ago – livestreaming the sermon for the first time, asking people to stay home from church, and video messages of encouragement as we all adjusted to the new reality that we assumed would affect our lives for a few weeks.
Early on, most of us suffered from the broken connections. We missed being together in our church community. We longed to see, and touch, and share food and fellowship together in community.
But like the people in Babylon, most of us eventually did get used to the new normal: Zoom meetings, online worship, working from home, connecting with friends online or not at all. And it was okay. It is okay.
And yes, we’ll hang on to some of the new ways we can do things digitally so that people can stay home when they’re sick and not miss worship, so we can avoid driving in dangerous winter conditions, and so that we can reach out further to folks who might otherwise not be able to participate in our community.
But I wonder if some of us got so used to the new normal that we actually started to wander away from the community – not yet attending in person, and not really engaging online anymore either. Without the regular patterns of worship, service, and fellowship in community, I wonder how many of us are beginning to forget about the importance God had in our lives before all this happened.
Today’s invitation to us is to return. Return to the covenant relationship with God and the community that promises to feed and satisfy your spiritual thirst for belonging, for meaning, and for purpose in life. It is available to us without price, freely by God’s grace.
For some of us, it will be a physical journey back to this building, or a determination to reconnect in other ways with the community of faith.
Some of us will respond to that invitation from God to come to the waters by meeting God once again in prayer, and delighting in the rich food of the Scriptures.
Many of us will need to make a decision to put our energy into bearing fruit instead of just trying to survive the storm, as we have been doing for some time. That may involve giving generously for those who are struggling more than us, or using our time and talent to be a blessing to others who are hungry, thirsty, hurting, or alone.
I wonder what you will do in response to the invitation. Remember that God intends for you to enjoy an abundant life, even an abundant Lent. I look forward to meeting you at the table of plenty again soon, where we will eat what is good, delight in rich food, and live joyfully together in God’s presence.