Sermon Text: Isaiah 55: 1-13
I think it may have been my first day of seminary when this horribly embarrassing thing happened to me. I was sitting in my Introduction to the Old Testament Class and our professor was going on and on about some kind of exile. Now, I knew what the word exile meant, but it sounded to me like he was referring to The Exile – you know, with a capital T and a capital E. It became clear that I really needed to know what he was talking about, so I raised my hand and asked, “What exile you’re talking about?” I honestly didn’t even know it was an embarrassing question until I saw the expressions on my peers’ faces.
Somehow, in all my years sitting in the pew and Sunday School at my childhood church, I had missed this key part of Biblical history. I didn’t know that the people of Israel had been exiled from Judah for about 60 years in the 6th century BCE. I had no idea that they were deported from their homeland and sent to live in Babylonia. I did not know that prophet upon prophet surmised about the reasons for their exile. I did not know that great works of beauty were written celebrating their return to their homeland. I just didn’t know.
Marcus Borg writes about the different needs that we have as humans and how there is no one-size-fits-all answer for what ails us. We Christians have historically tried to offer “salvation” as some kind of blanket potion, but we’ve had a nasty habit of narrowing salvation to a specific vision of the afterlife. But throughout the Church’s history, there have always been those who see salvation as a multifaceted gift. Salvation is about what saves us, sure, but it doesn’t always look the same from person to person. I know that, in my own life, salvation has been different at different points, depending on what ailed me.
As Borg says, if you are held captive, salvation looks like freedom. If you are sick, salvation comes through healing. If you are blind, salvation is the gift of sight. And if you are in exile, salvation is found through return.
The Exile (and, yes, I am now speaking of it with a capital T and a capital E) was such a formative faith event for our ancestors. Just as the people of Israel learned to trust God through hearing the stories of Moses and Passover and the Red Sea, they also experienced God through this story of Exile and Return.
The prophets believed that the people had been sent into exile because of their disobedience. They put other things before God and God failed to protect them when the big bag wolves of Assyria and Babylonia came knocking. They found their way back to their homeland in 538 BCE due to the words of Cyrus of Persia who issued a decree allowing them back in. Their thanksgiving for this act was so great that Cyrus is the only Gentile to be named the Anointed One – the Messiah – in our scriptures. Cyrus was seen as an instrument of God – one who offered the deepest desire of their hearts: a return to their homes.
Now I am guessing here that most of us in the Sanctuary today have not lived in exile from our homelands. And yet, you don’t have to go any further than the news of the day to see pictures of people living in exile. I spent some time earlier this week weeping over photos I found online of children living in refugee camps near Jordan, fleeing their homes in Syria. The article I read said that it is estimated that almost one million Syrians have been displaced due to the conflict in their homeland.
And then there are exiles of other kinds. Earlier this week, I read a blog entry by a friend of a colleague on her blog, From Daddy to Mommy: The Ramblings of a Transexual Parent. The author, Jenn, tells the heartbreaking story of finding her way to the funeral of her beloved grandmother.[i] Jenn’s mom called her out of the blue after a two-year estrangement to tell her that her grandmother had just passed away. Jenn’s mother told her that she could only come to the funeral if she would “dress and act like a man.” Jenn spent days agonizing over whether she could attend the funeral. She knew she could not dress and act like a man. Through a friend’s help, she found her way to the conclusion that it was not her problem that her parents refused to accept her for who she was. With the support of several cousins, she went to the funeral. Upon arriving, her brother promptly told her that if she did not leave immediately they would have the funeral home staff kick her out.
Exiled from her own family. Exiled from the funeral of her own kin. And we know that Jenn’s story is simply one of many – most of which are untold.
To live in exile is to be separated from that which you love. To live in loneliness, fear, uncertainty. It can be a time of confusion. It can also be a time of great growth and creativity. It’s no coincidence that some of the best-loved passages from the Hebrew Bible were written from a place of exile.
Today’s reading from Isaiah 55 is the end of what Biblical scholars refer to as Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. We believe the book of Isaiah in at least three distinct time periods. Second Isaiah, which begins with those words “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” in Chapter 40, was written during the Babylonian Exile. It contains some of the most profoundly hopeful words in all of Scripture and it ends here, just as the Israelites are about to return to their ancestral home.
Chapter 55 begins simply with these words, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters….”
The only prerequisite for the rich promises that follow is a thirst. And so I would like to invite all of us into a time of getting in touch with our thirst. We are going to have a time of silent reflection and I hope you will ponder when, in your own life, you have been in exile. When have you felt separated or cut off from a sense of home? And I hope that you will ponder, too, what it felt like to return from that exile, if you were fortunate enough to do so. Perhaps you won’t be able to think of a time in your own life where you felt estranged from those people or places or things that you love. That’s okay. I invite you to think about what it might feel like to live in exile and leave your familiar world behind.
I am going to ask that we take a full minute to ponder this. When the two minute is up, I’m going to ask Eric to read today’s passage for a second time so you can hear the promises given to those who live in exile.
There is really so little to add to the simple beauty of this passage. The Good News is so eloquently and powerfully stated.
I am struck by the oddness of a passage urging us to “delight ourselves in rich food” while we are smack in the middle of Lent. Perhaps the Lectionary Committee is just trying to make it harder on those of us who have given up some kind of food for Lent? I doubt that is the case. Instead, I think it’s important to notice that Isaiah is asking us to consider which things in our lives truly give satisfaction. Lenten practices of personal sacrifice help us to that, too. When you give up something that you really thought you couldn’t live without, you usually discover that, although it is difficult, you can live quite fully without caffeine, sweets, meat, or second breakfast. The Lenten journey of sacrifice, like a time of exile, can be quite clarifying for those pilgrims who devote themselves to its path.
The beauty of this passage, though, is that it does not dwell in the world of exile. It pulls us in to the joy and peace that we find when we return from exile. God does not long for us to be hungry, thirsty, and deprived. God sets a feast for us. God showers us with water. God pours wine freely. God desires for us to be full and satisfied. We are invited not only to remember the everlasting covenant with David, but to respond to God’s invitation to live into that covenant by enlarging it and sharing the Good News of our Gracious God with the entire world.
Our God knows no other way but to nourish. Just as certainly as the rain and the snow provide sustenance to the fields, God nourishes us. I like to imagine God as the Grandma who always cooks way too much for the family at Sunday dinner and is constantly sending leftovers home in every container imaginable. She doesn’t know how to cook less. She doesn’t know how to make a reasonably-sized meal. There is too much goodness to go around. The very essence of this Grandma God is to nourish those she loves.
Who are the people living in exile in our midst? What are our own powerful stories of exile and return that need to be shared? The only thing required of us is to come with our thirst. The promise is that we will go out in joy and be led back in peace. The mountains and hills before us will burst into song and the trees of the field will clap their hands.
And so we rest here – Lenten People – we come to the table bringing nothing but our thirst. And we hear those ancient words, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” and we drink and we drink and we drink the promises of freedom, healing, clear vision, return from exile. We drink the promises of our Easter God who is known to us through every type of salvation imaginable. And maybe even some we haven’t yet dreamed.