Scriptures: Isaiah 55: 6-13, Psalm 65: 1-13, Romans 8:1-11 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
I have chosen to use Isaiah 55 as the text for today’s sermon and I want to begin by inviting you to join me on two imaginary grocery shopping ventures.
For the first one let us imagine that it is the first week of February of this year, long before we know what the Coronavirus is or have any idea as to its possible danger. I am going leisurely down the aisles of my favourite grocery story, looking at the apples, oranges and nectarines and picking up a few of each. Then I browse the vegetables, trying to remember if I need potatoes or onions so I pick up some of each just in case I do not have them at home. From there it is over to the meat section – here I take quite a bit of time looking over what is on sale, what might be best for a big meal when we have guests and what meat can be prepared quickly. I hesitate and then finally decide and move on to the dairy section where I pick up milk – now what kind? 2% or skim? Oh, I suddenly remember I passed by the canned vegetable section so I wander back to that part of the store and look over those shelves too and try to remember what I need. I go on like this and 45 minutes later I am ready to go through the checkout and head home. It has not been a stressful experience and I have not really been all that focussed – I have not even had a clear sense of what is important to buy or what will be the healthiest for me and for my family.
Fast forward to May 1st and again; I want you to come grocery shopping with me. I now know about the Coronavirus or COVID-19 as this pandemic is now called. I know that the virus can spread quickly and that even those who do not feel sick, might have it and might spread it to others in fact, it is possible that I have it and don’t know it. The daily news about the virus has made me anxious and worried even though I feel fine – some days I even suspect I am getting sick even though I am not. This time when I go out to my favourite grocery store, I have a list; it is clear that I have thought about what I want and where it is in the store. In my head I have made a map of the store and when I go in, I go straight to the places that have what I want: there is no browsing of the fruits and vegetables or the meat or the canned goods. And all the while that I am choosing my items, I am watching people around me and trying to stay 6 feet away and hoping they try to do the same. I leave directly with what I have chosen and drive straight home to unpack.
What happened between these two imaginary shopping trips?
Well the main thing that happened is that I became aware of the Coronavirus and that it posed a possible danger to my family and to everyone in my neighbourhood and even around the world. Because of this awareness, I re-examined my shopping routine. You could say that I became intentional in my grocery shopping. No more was I leisurely wandering the aisles or simply browsing through all the different sections trying to remember what I might want. I was now shopping with a focus that was not there before. I got what I wanted and went home.
As I read and studied Isaiah 55 this week, I noticed that the prophet talks about food as well, he talks about bread to eat and wine to drink. But even more importantly, the prophet talked about “being intentional”, about making a focussed effort. He urges the people to go after what God is offering; to seek it out and enjoy it.
Here is a little of the context for Isaiah’s message. The prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel who are in Babylonia; they are in exile but have been there for a generation and certainly some of them have become very complacent and content. Yes they no longer have the temple to worship in – that is way back in Jerusalem – and it is true that they cannot celebrate the important religious festivals with their families and other Jewish people from Galilee and Judea and Samaria. But for some this is not a problem – life has become easy and comfortable and most of the time there is no urgency to change or to look for deeper ways they might connect with God and be nourished by His spirit.
If you have your Bibles open at Isaiah 55 you can see how the prophet, in the first 5 verses, urges the people to eat and to drink good food. Four times Isaiah says “come”, two times he says “buy” and once he says “listen”. This is a strong invitation; he urges the people to participate in eating good food. The problem here is certainly not the supply of wine or milk or bread; there is rich food and lots of it Isaiah says. And why might the people of Israel not respond to this invitation? I think the answer is right there in the first line: this is for thosewho are thirsty! This is for those who sense, deep down, that what they are eating is not really all the satisfying. The invitation is to those who are not satisfied with the way their life is going, perhaps not happy with the meaning of their lives or their ability to connect deeply with family or with God. They are like I was in my grocery shopping in early February – kind of meandering around and wandering aimlessly and buying whatever was right in front of them without any real thought as to whether it was good food or even necessary food.
Then in verse 6 it seems to me the prophet changes his message just a little. Here he says:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near…”
I was struck by the phrase “while he may be found” – isn’t God always “found”? Isn’t God always “near”? Perhaps the answer lies not so much with God as it does with the people. Remember, they were in exile, far from their ancestors’ home and far, far away from the temple where their grandparents and perhaps parents had worshipped. And by now the urgency of being back in Jerusalem had faded for many of them. I suspect they were quite content to live in Babylon; at least some of them. So now the door is soon to be open for them to return and now is the time to “seize the moment”, take the opportunity to both go back to Jerusalem but, more importantly, to renew a vital relationship with God. This was the time “when God was to be found” if they choose to look for Him, this was the time to “call on Him.”
When I thought about this idea of there being a time to call on God, I was reminded of the passages in the Book of Acts that I have recently been reading.
On more than one occasion the Apostle Peter talks about those early days of Pentecost as being the right time to repent and follow Jesus. He urges his listeners to respond “now” and not put it off.
It is easy to think that we can put things off and I guess for many of the activities of our lives, this is true. After all we can put off getting a haircut or saving some money or cleaning out the garage – these are not life and death situations. But there are other things that cannot be put off as easily without them having a serious effect on our lives. We cannot put off getting our car repaired when the brakes squeal and the engine light flashes. We cannot ignore the bill that says our house insurance or car insurance will soon expire without some serious consequences. And let me suggest to you, that you cannot ignore that deep down sense of “lostness” or uncertainty or meaninglessness without it affecting you in deep and personal ways.
Isaiah says it is time to get “intentional”, to get focussed, to “seek the Lord” and to “call on him”.
We live in a time when it feels as if we can ignore God and that there are no consequences for doing so. We live in a time when we can manage to solve most of our own anxiousness by reading self-help books or getting regular exercise or going out with our friends? But perhaps COVID – 19 has changed that, maybe this is the wakeup call that has made us realize that there is much in life that is out of our control. Maybe we have felt much more uncertainty than what is normal for us and we are afraid.
One of the things that I have realized in regard to my faith during these past few months is that I can no longer count on Claude our Rector or Valarie our organist or the members of St. Mary’s who read scripture – I can no longer count on them to give me spiritual nourishment every Sunday morning in our church building on 15th and Montague. I realized I kind of took all that for granted and like my earlier grocery shopping, I kind of meandered my way through our Sunday morning liturgy. But now, now it is much more up to me to decide if I want to sustain or even re-energize my relationship with Jesus Christ.
I want to close by noting two things. The first comes from our Gospel lesson in which Jesus tells the parable of the Sower. What strikes me as I read that parable is that the seed is the same, no matter where it falls. And the seed, Jesus says, is the “word of God”. What is different is the ground it falls on and that ground is you and I, we have the choice to be like stony ground or like ground with thorns or like good ground; we can, I am convinced, make the effort to be ones who receive the word of God and let it do its work in us. We are the ones who may “call on Him while He may be found.” Or not.
The second thing I want to talk about is the image in Isaiah 55: 10-11 of the rain coming down from heaven.
I love gardening and for years have rented a community garden plot which I watch over carefully. Along with the rental cost is a water faucet which allows me to use the city water to water my garden as often as I want. After I planted my seeds in late May of this year, I began to water faithfully. May was a dry month for us in Regina and every day when I came to look at my garden, there were very few seeds that had sprouted. Other gardeners were the same and after a few weeks we were quite disappointed about the many seeds that had not germinated. And then we got a nice, sustained rain shower. It is hard to believe the difference it made. In only a few days, the peas and beans and carrots and potatoes were popping out of the ground. There is something about rain that is so much better than water that comes out of the garden hose.
This is an example of what God does. Isaiah gives this illustration as a picture of what God can and what God will do to the one who seeks Him and calls on Him: it will be to them like rain which comes down and nourishes the ground and the plants. His words give life, they are powerful and accomplish what God has intended for them to accomplish. His ways lead to deep joy and great peace.
Yes there is something miraculous about it – rain gives the seeds just what they need.
This morning (or whenever you listen to this sermon) I would invite you to ask yourself what have you learned over the past 4 months in regard to your faith in God? Ever since you became aware of the pandemic and the potential of becoming sick from the virus or passing it on to your friends and family, have you had thoughts about what is really important? I am sure that if you are the one who shops for groceries, you do it differently than you did 5 months ago. I am sure you think differently about having friends in your home or going to their place for supper.
In the same way perhaps you have been forced, like I have, to think differently about church. I have asked myself: what is it about going to church that is important to me? What is it about my faith in God that is important enough to me to make me “intentional” about my spiritual life? Before COVID – 19 came along it seems to me I was thinking about church and my spiritual life the same way as I was thinking about my grocery shopping: I was “browsing” and absent mindedly going through the motions of worship. There was no sense of urgency and sometimes very little intentionality to hear God’s voice or to sincerely express my gratitude in worship. I have been challenged by the prophet Isaiah’s words: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call on Him while he is near.”
I invite you also to do so and to prepare you heart and mind to be open and ready for the rain of God’s spirit to enter your soul. Amen