Isaiah 55:1-9 - "Bodies, Bread, and Beds"

The second reading for today comes Isaiah 55:1-9. The text is found at the of what scholars refer to as “Second Isaiah” because the book of Isaiah was written in three different centuries before, during, and after the exile of the kingdom of Judah to Babylon. Isaiah 40-55 are written during the exile and this is the last word from God to the people during the dark and difficult time. 

Hear now, the Word of the Lord to us from the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 55:1-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you. 

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Can you imagine what these words must have sounded like to the exiles in Babylon? They had lived through an unimaginable catastrophe. They were God’s chosen people—the descendants of David, a man of God’s own heart—and yet saw their city of Jerusalem besieged by their sworn enemies, the precious temple destroyed, and the line of David seemingly broken. These calamitous events seemed to discredit the covenant between God and the Davidic line. What happened to the God who promised to establish the house of David forever? Where was that God? Did Yahweh forget about them? How else could they have ended up in a strange land, far from their home, where their god was just one of many gods? 

Yet it is in the midst of this crisis that the prophet announced that God’s plan has not been defeated. Israel’s story was not over. Instead, like a king’s invitation to a royal banquet, God invites them to a feast. But these are no ordinary guests. These are refugees. These are religious minorities in a land that does not feel like home. Perhaps today this invitation would be to those on food stamps, to those with mountains of credit card debt, to those who stay in overnight shelters, to those migrants crossing dry and barren deserts in hope of a better life, to those who work 70 hours a week and their work is never done. I can only imagine it was this text that Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples the parable of the wedding feast.

For the Israelites in exile, the temptation to give up on Yahweh must have been strong. They were surrounded by idol worshippers, so why not pray as they do? Surely it couldn’t turn out any worse than being taken captive by your enemies. But Isaiah powerfully reminds them that those who worship idols can never find satisfaction. There is no substitute for God’s truth.  It’s like eating ashes instead of real food. Yahweh is inviting them back to a feast that will satisfy the deep longings of their hearts for truth and meaning. It’s not just any feast, it’s a covenant meal. In ancient times, people celebrated making a covenant by eating a meal together, as the Israelites did on Mount Sinai in Exodus. By inviting the exiles to a covenant meal, Yahweh is reminding the people that God is still making good on their covenant, no matter what it might look like. God has not forgotten about the promises to David.

No, God’s steadfast, sure love for David was still there. God made David a witness, a leader, and a commander to the peoples. In fact, the everlasting covenant God made with David was now to be expanded beyond the privileged elite of Judah to embrace the entire all those obedient to God’s word. People and nations that Israel could have never imagined will be part of God’s Kingdom. God’s ways have never been our ways. Even in exile, in confusion and disarray, God was reminding the people that God has a plan. All they must do is seek the Lord in their minds and hearts, in their devotion and prayers. 

But what if that’s not what this text means? What if it’s not just a metaphor for the satisfaction of the longings of our hearts for truth and meaning? What if it’s actually about thirsty people? Hungry people? Hungry for food. Thirsty for water. What if this text is really about our bodies?

After all, it is the season of Lent when some of us are fasting from sugar or dessert, or perhaps from meat or alcohol. Whatever practice you might have chosen, in this season, our bodies are front and center in our spiritual lives. Through the prophet Isaiah, God invites us to an abundant life filled with bread, wine, and milk.

I used to think my faith was something that existed more or less in my head. It’s not that I felt like it was imaginary, but I thought that being a good Christian was about what I thought and believed. Of course, my faith had many practical implications—particularly service and morality, but I understood them as outcomes of a faith that existed in my mind and soul. I was taught to have a daily “quiet time” filled with reading my bible and praying diligently but when I tried to pray, I often found my mind wandering. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

When our spiritual lives exist only in our heads, it is easy to feel like a failure. Get distracted? Must not be trying hard enough. Not sure exactly what to pray? That’s because you don’t read your Bible enough. Don’t understand what you’re reading when you do open your Bible? Must not be a good enough Christian. These lies are easy to believe because they sound so true. 

But I think they only sound true because we have forgotten that spiritual lives involve our bodies—our mouths, our hands, our eyes, our voices, and even our stomachs. When God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, God did not tell them to just pray harder, believe better, or follow all the rules perfectly. God invited them to delight themselves in rich food. I believe that is the invitation to you too.

The best meal of my life was on New Year’s Day this year. I was traveling by myself in Scandinavia and I was eating the cheapest, fewest meals I could to make my money stretch as far as possible. For Christmas, my parents gave me a bit of money for my trip and for a while I couldn’t I decide what to spend it on because I was worried about “wasting” it. But after a long day of walking around the well-below-freezing city of Copenhagen, I was so hungry so I decided to spend the gift on a fancy meal I could have never otherwise afford. That evening, I sat by myself in a quiet restaurant and ate the best meal I’ve ever had. Or at least, it felt like it at the time. As I sat, finishing my second course and slowly drinking a great glass of wine, I felt so deeply loved. What an incredible joy it is to eat good food! It is more than nourishing to the body. Good food is nourishing to the soul. It wasn’t a church or a “holy place” but at that moment, all I could say was “thank you God for making lobsters taste so good!” When my mind wasn’t sure what to pray, my stomach took the lead.

I believe it is that kind of experience that God is calling us to- delight ourselves in rich food! In a time when at least 30 million Americans of all ages and genders suffer from eating disorders or unhealthy relationships with food, we desperately need food that satisfies. In a country where 13 million children live in “food insecure homes,” our very neighbors are longing to delight in good food. 

We cannot separate the “spiritual” from the “physical.” There are times when our bodies know how to respond to God’s glory when our mind cannot. When we drink water after being thirsty, there is a sense of refreshment that we can then recognize in our souls. Come to the waters, everyone who thirsts. 

This is why we fast during Lent—not because it’s a handy time to re-start those new year’s resolutions of dieting. We do not give up sugar or alcohol or meat because we want to get skinnier. We give them up because they taste delicious. We give them up because when we long for the food and drink that we delight in, we also remember the hunger for the God who calls us by name to life abundant. It’s why David in the wilderness said to God “soul thirsts for you.” The thirst of his body gave him words to understand the holy longings of his soul. It’s a psalm that is so intimate I practically blush. David speaks of his flesh, his lips, mouth, his bed in the middle of the night. Am I allowed to read this in church? The answer, apparently, is yes. Yes, our bodies matter. I do not think it would be so intimate if David’s body was not so profoundly connected to his soul.

No, these are not just metaphors. It is no mistake that God calls us to a table with wine and bread. That God calls to font filled with water. In the sacraments, however briefly, our bodies are nourished so that our souls may be too. When we cannot focus long enough to pray, our hungry stomach reminds us of our hunger for the nourishment we receive at the Table. 

In this Lenten season, may your body be your guide. In the midst of weary, ashen times, listen carefully to me—eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food. And when you do, remember the God that created your body—taste buds and all so that you may taste and see that the Lord is good.