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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Heavenly Invitation - an invitation to live in Mutuality

 Isaiah 55:1-13
Sunday, February 1, 2015

          A boy is given a football as a gift.  It has a new, right-out-of-the-box smell.  He holds it, imagining himself to be Tom Brady. [i]  It is slightly underinflated, just perfect.  In the yard, he sees how far he can throw it.  Then he runs and picks it up.  He sees how high he can kick it.  Again, he fetches his new football.  About this time, his friend walks.
          “Hey, what are you doing there?”
          “I got this new football.”
          “Can I throw with you?  We can run some pass patterns.”
          “No.  It’s mine.  I am going to play with my football.”
          “But you’re just fetching it.  A football isn’t for just one person.”
          “It’s my football.  Now, get out of my yard.”[ii]

          Jesus tells a story about a king who gives a great banquet.  You can read about it in Matthew 22 and Luke 14.  How great would it be to be invited to a king’s feast?  Politics aside, I think most Americans would count in an honor to dine at the White House.  It would be a once-in-a-lifetime type thing.  We would cancel other commitments for this.  Who would reject an invitation to such a thing as a king’s feast?
          In the story Jesus tells, a lot of people send regrets.  “Apologies, but I have too much work and cannot get away.”  “So sorry, your majesty, but farm chores call.”  “I’ve just been married.  What’s that?  Bring my wife too?  No thank you.  Maybe next time.”  In Matthew, Jesus says this is the Kingdom of Heaven.  God is obviously the king, and the guests can’t seem to find time to eat at God’s table.  For them the things of earth take precedence over the heavenly invitation.
          This will not do, so, says Jesus, the king goes out to find others who might actually come.  The chosen ones rejected his invitation.  Now he sends his servants to invite everyone they can find, the good and the bad, Matthew tells us.  Luke reports that they go to the highways and the back roads where they find the lame, the crippled, the poor, and the blind and these are the honored guests at God’s table because these are the ones who recognize how much they need what only God can give. 
          What’s a selfish boy playing with his football alone got to do with a king’s banquet where the guests refuse to come?  In both stories, the main action cannot happen unless people are together, sharing time, giving and receiving. 
Think about a pass in a football game.  The biggest, meanest guys on defense, the d-linemen, are coming to flatten the quarterback.  The only way he has time to throw is if his linemen keep the defense away for a few seconds.  The fastest guys on the defense are going to cover his receivers.  He can only complete his pass if his 3 or 4 receivers their routes properly.  Then, he has to do his job and throw to the one who is separated enough from the defender.  Then, he has to make a good throw.  He has to hit a moving target.  Great.  But we’re not there yet.  His receiver has to catch that ball.  Maybe it’s raining.  Maybe the receiver is trying to catch the ball but is near the sideline and has to sort of watch his feet and the ball the same time.  Maybe the defense and right at the moment the ball hits the receiver’s hands, the defender spears the receiver in the small of the back.  Just completing a pass requires several people doing things correctly.  It cannot be just one or even just two.  It is a concert in which every participants needs to be on time.
The banquet is a different picture, slower paced, less tense, more relaxed.  However, the presence of people who all come with the same purpose in mind is necessary.  The king’s feast is a celebration.  Everyone first of all must come.  Second, we must come hungry.  Third, we must come with hearts ready to be with the other guests and share dinner-table conversation.  Fourth, we must come with the knowledge that this is special.  From time to time, I buy fast food and eat while listening to the radio in my car.  I enjoy those little moments, but this is not that.  This is the king’s feast.  In Matthew, the king comes across a guest not wearing a wedding robe and that one is kicked out.  The wedding robe comes to all who are baptized in the name of Jesus.  The church is the bride of Christ.  For this feast to be what God intends, we must come ready to receive the blessings God gives and dressed in our faith in Jesus. 

The football story and the banquet story are analogies that point to this. In the kingdom of God, our cup overflows with blessing, but none of these blessings can be enjoyed alone.  As God reaches to us, God does so expecting us to embrace one another and to come to Him arm-in-arm. 
Today we reach the pinnacle of Second Isaiah, the incredible invitation in chapter 55.  “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”  The blessings from God cannot be purchased, only received with gratitude.  Second Isaiah proclaimed extended this invitation from God.
Then the people of Israel returned to their home and found it in ruins.  The walls around Jerusalem were gone.  The temple was gone.  The great city of David was rubble.  Where were the great things the prophet promised when we were in Babylon? In his initial comments on the third portion of Isaiah, 56-66, Paul Hansen poses these questions.  “What happened to the brilliant promise of light proclaimed … by Second Isaiah?  Are we dealing with failed prophecy?”  In answer to his own query, Hansen writes, “The message of Second Isaiah does not constitute a scientific prediction of future events; rather it is a visionary description of God’s plan for creation and of the part that [God’s faithful people] was to play in that plan.”[iii]
Does this relegate prophecy to a vague kind of background sound that informs how things ought to be but doesn’t say much about how things are?  Is Isaiah 55 a beautiful picture but not much more than wishful thinking when held up alongside reality? 
The prophecy becomes real life progressively.  Yes, things were rough when the exiles returned to Israel, a broken country.  But they did return.  In the stories of their return told in Nehemiah, Ezra, Haggai, Malachi, and Isaiah 56-66, we see signs pointing to the future of God’s kingdom.  We get hints of it what it will be.  Those stories show the Isaiah 55 vision just a bit. 
The picture comes in sharper images and bolder colors in the gospel.  “Come … you that have no money, come, but and eat.”  And we read of Jesus feeding 4000 with a few loaves.  We see Jesus multiply one young boy’s lunch, loaves and fish, to feed 5000 and produce 12 baskets of leftovers.  Isaiah sings, “Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  We sit with Jesus the night before his crucifixion at his table, the Lord’s Supper.  We eat the bread, his broken body.  We drink the wine, his blood, the new covenant, everlasting life. 
We hear Isaiah’s poetry; “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” (55:5).  And we hear Jesus tell the first disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 
The prophecy of Isaiah 55 is exactly what Dr. Hanson said – a vision and the vision will come to its full reality when Jesus returns, judges, the world, and calls all who his disciples to live with Him for eternity in the Kingdom which is the join together of Earth made new and Heaven made new.  In our bodies, resurrected and made whole, we will live with God and each forever.
Until that day, the prophecy is in the process of fulfillment.  When we hear the word of God and respond in obedience, seeking God, worshiping God, and loving our neighbor, we live into God’s reality and we start to sense the higher ways of God.  God says, “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  We learn some God’s higher thoughts as we follow God’s lead in the way live our everyday life. 
Do we want to, with our own eyes, see the dream of Isaiah 55 come to life?  I suggest that three choices, which each require receiving and giving, lead into us into Kingdom life where humans flourish.  This life animates the picture painted in Isaiah 55.
First, we choose to practice hospitality.  I have known Christ-followers in different churches who opened their home at Thanksgiving time to all adult who for any variety of reason would otherwise spend the holiday alone.  I think of Thanksgiving as a family holiday.  But these wonderful saints, and I know several do this, decide that any person is welcome into their family.  Of course for it to work, some have to accept that invitation.  The guests put away any sadness that comes with spending Thanksgiving alone.  The sadness is real, but a feeling of welcome also moves into the heart.  The sadness has to make room for something new; an invitation.  You are wanted.
Another example of hospitality: take someone to lunch.  A member here takes me out to eat at least a couple of times a year.  In those meals, we share our hearts for the Lord, for people, and our conversation go in many directions and are always blessed.  He gives the invitation, I accept, and we go and God is present.  We could come up with numerous other forms.  Find how you best give hospitality.  Extend an invitation.  When you are invited, with gratitude, accept and receive the love given to you.
Second, we choose to give grace and live in grace.  Grace is unearned favor.  We come to Jesus knowing we are sinners, but in his shed blood, our sins are washed away.  We receive his forgiveness and grace, and the stand as righteous children of God.   Give grace to someone who has failed.  Give grace to someone who hurts you.  This does not mean we are doormats or we take abuse as masochists.  It means we don’t let the injury destroy any hope of relationship with the offending party.  We give grace to the enemy in hopes that he and we could be transformed and go from enmity to brotherhood.  And, when someone reaches out to us in all our failure, we receive the grace they offer.  We repent of whatever harm we’ve done and live in joy and grace.
Third, we choose to see time as a context for relationship-building instead of a commodity we have to hoard or spend.  Relationships don’t happen quickly.  Be prepared to invest time in another person.  Hospitality works best when it comes at a leisurely pace.  It doesn’t have to be drawn out.  A lunch date is not that long.  But it cannot be hurried.  Give all of yourself in the time you have with the other.  Grace assures that festering wounds will not pollute our fellowship table.  Allow grace to wash over your relationships.
We seek out opportunities for hospitality, extend grace, and give our time to others.  The metaphor Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf uses to describe this life is embrace.  He writes,
Embrace implies that the [individual] and the other belong together.   For the self, shaped by the cross of Christ and the life of [God as trinity, Father-Son-Spirit], … embrace includes not just the other who is a friend but also the other who is the enemy.  Such an [individual] will seek to open her arms toward the other even when the other holds a sword.  The other will of course have to drop the sword … [for] embrace to take place.
If the other accepts the invitation, drops the sword and accepts the embrace, then both move into a life in which things can be produced, built, and erected.  The life of both can flourish with the blessing God.  It starts with the building of friendship.  That starts when we hear God, follow his lead, and open our arms, our hearts, and ourselves in hospitality and grace. 
Then, as Isaiah says, we will “go out in joy, and be led back in peace.  The mountains and hills will burst into song.  All the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  And it shall be a memorial to the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (55:12-13).

[i] This was preached Super Bowl Sunday.  The Patriots played the Sea Hawks.  In the AFC championship game there was a controversy because in the 1st half the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was throwing with footballs that were deflated below the NFL required pounds per square inch.  Talk about the controversy dominated not only sports talk shows but even national news in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
[ii] N.T. Wright (2008).  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, HarperOne (New York), p. 200.  What I have written here is an adaptation of an analogy Wright makes.
[iii] P. Hanson (1995).  Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching: Isaiah 40-66.  John Knox Press (Louisville), p.187, 188.

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