like rain and snow

When you live in a rain forest you learn what to expect. It rains. A lot. And up on the mountains? It snows. A lot. By the time March rolls around we are dreaming of the days when the rains finally cease and the snow begins to melt. If pressed to find a metaphor for God’s activity in all of this our minds wander to those long warm summer days and glorious sunsets. But not Isaiah. Not today. Today Isaiah (Isaiah 55:1-13) sees a God of rainstorms and blizzards. Isaiah the poet-prophet says God is raining down speech on the earth. He says God’s voice blankets the earth in the way snow transforms the landscape. Isaiah sees that God’s word is never futile, God’s message is not wasted. God’s speech is like the rain and the snow. It soaks into the earth, into us, into the church. It waters arid ground, dry souls. It prepares farmland and rain forest and you and I and the church alike for God’s coming season of growth.

We inhabit a world that regularly questions the value of speech. It wants to see action, not words. We are eager for a church that “walks the talk” and “lives the gospel”. But, of course, this assumes the church knows what it is that it is talking about. We cannot begin to live the gospel if we have only listened to, but have not actually heard, the gospel. If our ears have not been unstopped and our hearts are not yet broken open by a word that has spoken us into God’s newness, difference, oddness, holiness we can hardly walk a talk we cannot yet speak. So we gather here with thirsty souls longing to drink from the deep well of God’s living Word (Psalm 63:1-8). We gather hungering for soul food, for singing and preaching and praying that speaks life into our souls and into the soul of the church. We do so because we are growing in our trust that God’s Word is creative and transformative. We are learning to have faith that God’s talk surely leads to a new way, a new walk: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Today the Word, the new Word, the gospel Word comes in the voice of God who appears as a street vendor in the crowded marketplace of pitches and promises and slogans: “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.” Free? Is anything really free? We are wise consumers. We know that if it sounds too good to be true it likely is too good to be true. We look for the fine print, listen for the catch, wait for the other shoe to drop. We are, after all, members of the race. No, not of the human race. I mean of the rat race. It is the race which dominates so much that passes for life. It is the striving to make it, to succeed, to collect the most stuff that takes up so much of life. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

The gospel - God’s good word - starts here, with a question that probes and asks and disturbs. Why so much energy, so much cost, so much work for a life that is not fed and is not satisfying? This kind of talk destabilizes life as it is. This is not the speech one expects from a status quo God. This is a God who calls for an end to the rat race and who invites former rats to life as humans in God’s new community. This is the same God whose voice we have been hearing in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, the God who calls a new community into being: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). No longer rats on a treadmill. Now adoptees dressed in the clothing of God’s precious only child.

“Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good … 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.” This is it, isn’t it? This is the same good news Paul brings to the Galatians and to us. An everlasting covenant, God’s steadfast, sure love now offered also to David’s adopted children - ethnics, Greeks, heathens, outsiders, misfits, rats who have excelled, rats who have failed. In other words, for you and for me. It turns out the Galatians cannot believe it. It turns out they fall for hucksters in the guise of preachers who show up and woo them back to the rat race, to the world where nothing comes free, where there are no such things as everlasting covenants, where God - like everything else - is for sale.

The Galatians are not alone. The sales pitch that turns gospel into religion, that takes God’s free offer and turns it into a system of bartering our goodness in exchange for God’s mercy, is alive and well. It is alive whenever Christianity is defined as being good, earnest and right-minded. I mean when Christianity is marked by moralism. You know we are back in the religious version of the rat race when someone speaks of being a “good Christian” and our first thoughts are of a life defined by a resumé filled with doing good. For those whose world has been blown open by the news of God’s utterly free grace the signs of God at work are broken, flawed, troubled lives that are, slowly but surely, being made new. Do they look like “good Christians”? In the strange, new world on the other side of God’s astounding gospel such distinctions and rankings no longer make any sense.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the LORD.” How does Paul put it? “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:25). God’s logic is not our logic. It is not rat race logic. It is not the logic of market forces. It is cruciform logic. It is the logic of one who suffers so that we may live. It is the odd logic of one who seeks and seeks and seeks. We have heard in recent years of seeker friendly worship. By this we assume it is we humans who are the ones doing the seeking. We regularly imagine that faith is a great game of hide-and-seek, with God playing very hard to get. But God is not hiding. God is seeking, speaking, pouring down life-giving grace like the rain and blanketing the earth in a love that suffers with all who know deep ache.“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.”

Here, at this table, the Lord is very near. Here Jesus is the host in whom God’s new covenant - God’s new relationship, new family, new world - becomes present reality. Coming to the table we forsake our rat-racing ways. Here, we who have been so well schooled in the world of ranking and rating and competing and consuming, turn  from the unrighteous ways that have led us away from God, away from nourishment, away from life. It is what it means to repent. Here we return to school - to the school of God’s foolishness and the classroom of God’s weakness that, to our continuing surprise and delight, is the source of true wisdom and of unseen strength.

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed. We go back to the same homes, the same studies, the same jobs, the same aches, the same world. Yet nothing is the same again. We are departing that world. We are leaving it behind. We are entering God’s new world. To receive the free gift of God’s hearty soul food is to no longer be satisfied with the thin gruel that has been sold to us as fine dining. Once you discover God’s great love for the unlovable - even the unlovable in you and in me - you depart the familiar surroundings that have for too long been called “the real world.” Now we name those familiar surroundings for what they are - land of captivity, land of exile, land of loneliness, land of longing. When your seeking is met by the God who has been seeking you the journey to your true home begins. It is the home where you are at home with all manner of other seekers, longers, loners and former racing rats of every stripe. It is the promised home already here, now, tasted in bread that nourishes and seen in wine that seals God’s solemn vow. Come home. Receive the welcome gift of God. Depart the old world you know so well. Enter an Eastered world cracked open to receive the future made new by the untamed love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”        

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