The Invitation

(Isaiah 55:1-5John 4:7-14John 6:32-40)

Salvation has come. The Servant of the Lord has come to be God’s covenant with his people and the light of his salvation to all the world, and he has accomplished his purpose; he has submitted to death in order to win his victory over it by his resurrection, and there is no enemy that can overcome him or undo what he has done. He has won his victory, bringing reconciliation for those estranged from God, and now he extends that victory to all who will accept it and follow him. What remains to be done?

What remains is for Israel and the nations to respond; and so from proclamation of God’s great victory and its blessings, the prophet turns to invitation. He doesn’t actually begin there, though; that first “come” is something of a mistranslation. The best translation I can think of—Caroline, would you do the honors?—Thanks, that’s it. Of course, you can’t put Caroline’s whistle on the printed page, but something like “Hey, you!” would also work decently well. Isaiah doesn’t actually start with the invitation, because he has to get people’s attention first, and as we’ve seen, the people of Israel were past masters at missing the point. If there were such a thing as a Ph.D. in being oblivious, if you could get a doctorate in ignoring the obvious, these folks would have earned it with honors. After all this time, they still didn’t pay enough attention or listen carefully enough to God to understand their true situation and what was really missing in their lives, or what God was doing about it; they’re like people walking through a street market so focused on the guy down the way selling fake Rolexes cheap that they miss the person who’s selling what they really, actually need.

And so Isaiah begins by tapping his people on the shoulder and shouting in their collective ear: “Listen to me! Look up, and pay attention! Each and every one of you who thirsts—yes, that means you—come to the waters. You don’t have any money, but that’s all right—come, buy and eat.” It’s an extraordinary appeal. Some of those to whom the prophet called knew their need; more, no doubt, did not—but Isaiah doesn’t trim his message to suit them. That’s a mistake a lot of churches make—as deliberate strategy, not by accident; it’s a very popular way to build a church—of tailoring the message of the church to what people think they need, and what they’ve been trained by the culture to want and to expect. That way, you may give people good ideas, but you won’t give them good news; you might bring a lot of people in, but you’ll send them right back out unchanged. The true gospel message, as Jesus himself noted, winnows its audience, because it’s for those who have ears to hear—which is to say, for those who recognize their true need: their thirst for his living water, and their hunger for the bread of life. Those who aren’t willing to admit their thirst, whether to others or even to themselves, hear the prophet’s call and walk on by. That’s well enough with him; those who are willing to listen will stay, and they are his proper audience.

What he offers them is remarkable. In the first place, you’ll note, he doesn’t say “Come take,” as if all this were simply being given away; that might stir suspicion that they aren’t worth the price, or else that they come with significant strings attached, but that isn’t the case. Indeed, this food and drink must be purchased, for they come at a very real price—it’s just that that price has already been paid by someone else. What remains is for people to complete the purchase by accepting the price paid, and to receive in return everything that’s necessary for life: not even just water to drink—significant as that was by itself in the arid Near East—but also wine and milk, and though this doesn’t come through in our English translations, that word “buy” was in fact a specific word for the purchase of grain or bread, so food is included here as well.

Now, that’s quite an offer—everything you need has already been purchased for you; you just need to pick it up at the checkout!—so why would you turn it down? In particular, why would you reject such an offer in order to go spend real money, which you’ve earned by your own hard work, on something that isn’t real and won’t satisfy? That’s Isaiah’s question, and it doesn’t have a good answer. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any answer; there are reasons why we do that, they just aren’t good ones. A lot of it, I think, is that we want what we want, and we don’t want to believe that what we want isn’t what’s best for us. It takes both trust and humility to accept that what we want really isn’t bread, that it really won’t nourish our lives, and that we need to learn to want what God gives us instead; and both trust and humility come hard for us. But they are, I think, the two keys to the Christian life, to living a life that pleases God; they’re the two first lessons we have to learn.

Thus Isaiah says, “Give ear”—literally, “incline your ear”; we might say, “dig the wax out of your ears and listen”—“and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.” That word “soul” is the Hebrew nefesh—oddly enough, the most basic meaning of it is the neck—and it doesn’t mean “soul” in the sense that we use that word; rather, it denotes the whole person, body and spirit both. The idea here is that what the world gives us is essentially junk food, and hurts us both spiritually and physically, while if we go to God, he becomes our food, and he gives us what we need and what is good for us—physically as well as spiritually. As you can see, Isaiah’s drawing a bright line here: the only way to find real life is in God, which requires listening carefully to his prophet and doing what you hear. Anything else is “not bread,” it’s false food, and ultimately will not satisfy because it cannot give real life.

For those who will listen and come, God promises an eternal covenant, “my faithful love promised to David.” Now, “faithful love” is again the word hesed, which we’ve talked about a number of times, including last week; of particular significance in this case is the fact that hesed is a covenant word. God is saying, in essence, I made a covenant of love with David, I made a commitment to love him and to bless him and his descendants, and if you’ll answer my invitation, I’ll include you in that.

How? Well, here we have the fusion—it’s the first time this is made explicit—of the Servant of the Lord with the Messiah, the Son of David. You see, in verse 4, there’s the reference back to David himself, the declaration, “I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples”; but how has that happened? The key to understanding this is that in verse 5, the “you” is singular—this verse isn’t addressed to the same people as verses 1-3, it’s addressed to one person. Specifically, it’s addressed to the Messiah, the Son of David—who is, in this context, the Servant of the Lord. It’s to the Servant that God says, “Surely you will summon nations you don’t know, and peoples who don’t know you will run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” It’s in the Servant, the heir and fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to David, that we are brought into God’s covenant with David, that the covenant relationship God had with him and the promises that go along with that become available to all of us.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that this invitation and this promise are offered to people who were already outwardly members of the people of God. The nations aren’t excluded here, to be sure—the invitation is given to all who are thirsty—but there’s no explicit summons to them, either, and the invitation is framed in terms of what God did in and for David. The point, one which Isaiah’s been making all along, is clear: though Israel has heard the law, and has heard the prophets, and they have all kinds of head knowledge about God, that hasn’t translated for them into any kind of real relationship with God. They consider him their God because they’re Israelites and he’s the God of Israel, and doesn’t everybody in this country worship God?—but many of them haven’t answered his invitation, and maybe haven’t even really heard it before. They haven’t learned that there’s more to their faith than just being a faithful templegoer.

Indeed, there’s far more. The challenge to us of Isaiah’s expansive invitation is—do we still need to hear it? Have we really accepted it, or are we no different than the Israelites? I’m not coming to this as a Baptist who thinks you need an altar call every week so that the saved stay saved; you only need to accept the invitation once, and then get along about living it out. But in this country, it’s very easy to be a Christian, and that means there are a lot of folks who are outwardly Christian for all the wrong reasons, with no inward reality, no real faith in Christ. The church has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that, of course, because there are a lot of churches in this country that don’t give people God’s invitation, that don’t challenge people with the call of the gospel; it’s easier not to, after all, easier just to give people what they already know they want to hear. Even for the church, it’s easier to serve junk food. But underneath and through it all, God’s invitation still goes out: “Come, all of you who hunger and thirst; come to me, that you may live.” And we need to ask ourselves: have we really done that, are we really living in God? Or do we still need to accept it?

Posted in Sermons and tagged .

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Let all the thirsty come | Wholly Living

Leave a Reply