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Sunday Worship 20 March | Come all you who are thirsty

Updated: Jun 20

Psalm 63:1-8
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.

Isaiah 55:1-9 
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a ruler and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendour.” Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We’re taking a slightly different approach to the lectionary this week, setting aside the gospel reading for the moment to instead listen to one of the prophets. The psalm and the verses from Isaiah sit really well together, as we hear the psalmist say they thirst for God and then hear God invite all who are thirsty to come and drink, but it is that second passage that I want to focus on. It is a really rich text, so I’ve picked out three verses to concentrate our thoughts on.

 

“Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” Most scholars now agree that the book of Isaiah was written over a span of decades by more than one author, although there is some disagreement over which chapters were written when and by who. One established theory is that Proto-Isaiah comprises chapters 1-39 and was written before the Israelites were taken into exile in Babylon, Deutero-Isaiah comprises chapters 40-55 and was written during the exile, and Trito-Isaiah comprises chapters 56-66 and was written once the Israelites had returned from exile. But why should any of this be of interest? Well if this theory is correct, the passage we heard earlier comes at the end of Deutero-Isaiah, meaning that it signals the end of exile and also marks the end of the section which began with the voice crying for a path through the desert in chapter 40. I think that makes it a great text for Lent, as we remember Jesus in the wilderness and reflect on our own wilderness times. It assures us that whatever desert paths we are walking and however far we feel from home, there is a promise of water to satisfy and sustain us.

 

We know there were times in the history of the Israelites when they really did wander desert paths, and the promise of water may have been intended very literally. The evidence we have seems to suggest that the Israelites lived fairly well in exile, and so they were perhaps not so much in need of such basic provisions when these words were first spoken, suggesting this verse may have a more figurative sense. Even if their water jars overflowed, we might imagine that the exiles thirsted for many things. For true freedom, for their homeland, for the temple. I wonder what it is we thirst for, what will satisfy and sustain us. Whatever it is, God invites us to take that thirst to the waters and drink. That doesn’t mean we will always get exactly what we asked or hoped for - as verse two suggests, we often spend ourselves on that which does not satisfy, which may lead us into all sorts of questions about our theology of money and work - but it does mean that we will be satisfied and sustained by the water God provides.

 

“Surely you will summon nations you know not” I have pointed out many times before that the Hebrew Bible is full of texts which imagine people from all nations being drawn to God, because God has always loved all people and it has always been the heart of God to gather all people in. What is slightly different about this verse is that the nations are not drawn directly to God, but instead are drawn to God’s people. It took me a few readings for that to really land, but I think it is really significant. Evangelists will speak about bringing people to God, but I think the truth is that most people find God in community, and so perhaps we do best by bringing people to us so that we can seek God together. And I love the way God says the people will summon nations they do not know, as if they will be surprised by those who arrive. I wonder who we might summon that we do not know, who might surprise us by their arrival. Being surprised doesn’t necessarily mean being unprepared though. There is something active about summoning, and so it’s not that we just wait for folk to show up, but rather that we call out even though we do not know who will answer.

 

I have never seen the film ‘Field of Dreams’ but I have heard it used as a sermon illustration enough times that I feel sufficiently qualified to use it myself. Kevin Costner plays a farmer who has a vision of a baseball field in his cornfield, with a long dead baseball player standing in the middle, and hears a voice whisper “if you build it he will come”. So he builds a baseball field in his cornfield, and the ghost of the baseball player appears, later bringing others and finally the ghost of the farmer’s father. The point is that the ghosts only showed up because the farmer first made a field for them, and that may be a challenge and an encouragement to us that others will join us if we first make a place for them. I’ve been developing the space and the resources we have for children, partly for the benefit of those who are already here, but also so we are ready for more to come. I wonder what other things we might need to do to make ready a place for those we do not (yet!) know.

 

“My thoughts are not your thoughts” All that we have read up to this point is proof of this. With its offer of wine and milk for all and its desire to see the wicked repent and find mercy, this passage is the antithesis of a culture which honours wealth and seeks vengeance. And that is a culture we find within the church as well as without, in preaching which centres the prosperity gospel and hellfire damnation. In God’s economy the richest fare is given out for free, so it cannot be used as a measure of worth or success, and there is pardon without condition, so the wicked do not get their comeuppance. It’s not fair, but then God’s not fair. God is generous and God is loving and God is compassionate, and isn’t that even better? We may think that fairness is the best we can aim for, but God thinks it is just the start.

 

I think it is really important that we say out loud that our thoughts are not like God’s thoughts, because too often we act as if we know exactly what God thinks. And I say that very much to myself, because it is an occupational hazard of preachers. We want to speak with conviction, but we forget that our understanding is incomplete, and so we need to hold that conviction lightly and with humility. It is good to believe in something with an earnest faith, and to speak confidently about it, but we need to be prepared to listen to other beliefs too, and to give our own room to grow and even to change. I said last week that there is an old joke that if you have five Baptists then you have six opinions. That can be as frustrating as anything at times, but it’s also really healthy. In a few weeks time we will be discussing same sex marriage and church membership, and I am sure we will have a variety of views on both of those topics, and so it will be really important that we are honest in expressing our own thoughts and open to hearing the thoughts of others. And together we will need to seek God’s thoughts for us as a congregation, as clearly as we are able.

 

It’s a shame the lectionary doesn’t include the rest of Isaiah 55, because verses ten to thirteen are as wonderful as the first nine verses. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.” What beautiful words of promise. God’s word will be fulfilled, we will know joy and peace, the whole of creation will celebrate with us, and nature will bloom with fresh beauty. Yes please and amen to that.

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