Isaiah has been described by Old Testament scholars as the pre-eminent poet of the Old Testament. Here we see these skills on display, as Isaiah describes the generous offer that God is making to the people. No money? No worries, you can still come and eat and get wine and milk for no cost. These days, such an offer would be very suspicious as most of us subscribe to the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
But while we might not believe in free lunches, this God of infinite mercy and divine grace apparently does, and the abundance provided will include all, even those without means.
But then this God of abundance asks the real question of this passage. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” says God. It is a great question, and very pertinent for our time. Just think for a minute. What are the things that you buy that aren’t necessary? How many of us purchase things we don’t really need or want, but have been lured into their purchase by the promises of advertisements and lure of being made happier or more beautiful?
In the Western world in our time, it is a sad but true fact that we are addicted to consumerism. In Australia, we live in the biggest houses in the world, over 98% of our households own two or more cars, we are number one in the list of the 10 major world economies with the highest median and average wealth per adult. As a result, we produce 540kg of household waste per person each year and generate an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste annually. Each year, we purchase an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing and dispose an average of 23 kilograms of clothing to landfill.
We work in order to make money to consume things that aren’t necessary, and which are depleting and destroying our planet. Surely our God could not look at such waste and say to us “well done!” or “Blessed is the consumer” or “this what I always meant you to be doing.”
We probably all know that ultimately such consumerism cannot ever be truly satisfying, and being consumed by consuming can only lead to death, rather than life. Even back when Isaiah was writing, accumulating things of the world rather than the things of God appears to have been a problem.
So what are the things that can truly satisfy us? Well, says God, you might start by listening to me. “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
Now there is a thought. Listening for God and to God isn’t something we are really accustomed to doing. Some time ago, a wristband came out with the initials WWJD? It was intended to get people thinking about this very thing. The idea was that when confronted by a choice or a dilemma one would ask “What would Jesus do?” and the answer to this question would help the asker choose the best way forward. Maybe we should revive this practice, as it did serve as a guide to more ethical decision making.
God is inviting us here to look to God to fill us rather than becoming completely entangled in the material things of this world. We might honestly ask ourselves: Who is it we spend our time listening to? How often do we listen to God in prayer as opposed to the time listening to advertisers, for example? Just to put that in perspective, over 92% of us are exposed to what is known as broadcaster video on demand, watching nearly 3 billion ads every month.
Isaiah in this passage is insisting that everyone should be listening to the God who brings life, the God whose: “thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the LORD. Perhaps the thoughts of God are different because they are not moulded by cultures of things, acquisition, economies and capitalism.
Isaiah has always been my favourite prophet. His poetry and his extravagant images of abundance and life have always appealed to me. Yet it is not an abundance of stuff that Isaiah sings about. It is an abundance and generosity of grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. It is an abundance of things that that truly matter, and there is plenty to go around. Isaiah promises renewal and peace, calling and comfort – all of these things are spread out on the table where God calls us to eat. Isaiah’s metaphor isn’t about indulgence or extravagance – it’s about relationship with God and the nourishment this brings to our mind, body and soul.
There is a relationship with the gospel, though the somewhat chilling pair of stories about people who were killed by Pilate or had a tower fall on them may not immediately suggest a link. Why does Jesus tell this story of these suffering people? In the first century, people would have believed that people suffered bad things because they had sinned and were out of favour with God. Jesus seems to be saying that such calamities are random and the good and bad alike perish together. What is important, says Jesus is whether people have repented, or undergone metanoia, where they have changed their lives and focused on the things that give life.
Metanoia is a transformative change of heart and mind, a complete realigning of one’s life. The author of Luke-Acts uses the terms metanoeo(v) and metanoia(n) 25 times in his writings, which is around one half of the fifty-eight occurrences of these words in the New Testament. So it is a very important concept in this gospel.
This concept of a radical change in behaviour and attitude is then demonstrated by Jesus with the story of the fig tree. The tree, symbolic of maybe Jews and certainly disciples, is not bearing fruit. God, the vineyard owner, says, “Cut it down.” Jesus, the gardener, asks for one more chance: “Give it one more year. I will work the soil a bit and put some manure down.” Jesus wants to work the soil so that metanoia can happen, and fruits of such a transformation will be produced.
Metanoia is not a static process, metanoia calls for a continuous revitalisation and transformation and change in our lives and in our churches. Metanoia should disrupt the status quo and complacency of us and our faith communities. Metanoia relies on God instead of wealth or status, a point demonstrated by Jesus’ testing in the wilderness.
In Lent, we need to be watchful. We need to get our values in the right place, aligning ourselves with God in times of temptation and trusting God’s grace in moments of barrenness and brokenness. We need to fill ourselves with God and not things. We need to give up what draws us away from metanoia and faith well lived.
Lent is the perfect season for creating a new spiritual rhythm. It is the time for listening to God and filling ourselves with the things of God. Imagine what it would look like if the members of the church, instead of doing the same things like everyone around them, took the time to pray twice a day, read a Bible passage each day and reflect on it, fasted from indulgences like wine and chocolate, and performed a random act of kindness each week? Imagine what our communities would look like if all church members took this example of a Lenten spiritual discipline and it led them to be more grounded in their faith and more faithful in their service? Would we not radiate that that calmness and grace and compassion that we associate with Jesus? Would we not have a greater chance of transforming our world, and the barriers that divide us and separate us from God and one another?
Forming a new daily habit requires a change in priority and practice. These practices are often not natural to us. Listening for God is not a habit we have formed. But nonetheless, let me encourage you all to think about what Lenten discipline you might put into place.
Both Isaiah and Jesus are calling for us to examine our positions and priorities so we can be open to the possibility of metanoia, of listening for God, of filling ourselves with the things of God and sharing that grace and abundance. We are being asked to change our hearts and lives so we may find ourselves ever closer to the ways of Jesus.
These texts from Luke and Isaiah clearly call us to examine and re-evaluate our faith and our practice of it so we can be open to the possibility of renewal of our own hearts and lives, and of our church. It is by doing so that we invest in our relationship with the God of grace and justice and mercy. It is by doing so that we can begin to transform others and establish the kingdom of God.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine