When I was in the third grade, my best friend David moved away. We had known each other since before we started school; he lived two yards away, across the street through the Goodman’s backyard. Most of the early part of my childhood was spent hanging out with David at his house, my house, or around the neighborhood. Then, his father got a promotion and his parents wanted to move closer to where David’s dad worked. I remember watching their family packing up to go, David frantically looking for the cat, Scruffy, who seemed to think this was a good time to hide in the most inaccessible place under the porch. I remember the big trailer sitting out in front of their house, nearly long as the house itself. Most of all, I remember a sense of dread and emptiness as their little grey car turned out of the driveway and down the hill.
We saw each once or twice after but not often. Years went by and then I got a call from David and he said he wanted to get together and catch up. It was senior year of high school and he was preparing to move to Clemson where he had accepted an ROTC scholarship from the Air Force. I got the address for their house and directions – from an actual map no less – and headed out to catch up.
The route was basic, and I had a general idea of where he lived in Marietta since I was born there and had been going there for various things through the years. Eighteen with a full tank of gas in the car and the radio blaring, I turned on to I-20 east toward Atlanta. It was a nice day, not too hot but warm and I had the windows down enjoying the late air. I got to the interchange with I-285, turned off and thought it would not be long now.
Ten minutes later, I realized that things didn’t look right. I should have passed the Smyrna exit and should have been coming up on the exit for Cumberland Mall and then the turnoff onto I-75, but the sign said twelve miles to I-85 – south. Marietta was north. I looked at the next interstate sign to get my bearings: I-285 south. I got off at the next exit and finally made it back to more familiar ground, ending up about twenty minutes later than planned but not without a fair amount of ribbing from David for getting lost on the way to the town I was born in.
We’ve all done that, though haven’t we? We tread on familiar ground, going to places we have gone before and still get lost sometimes. We go down roads that are familiar and they somehow, through some strange happenstance, become unfamiliar and we make wrong turns, take detours, and wander to places we never intended to go. Sometimes, we just get curious about what’s in the countryside along the route and detour to see what might be there. And sometimes, those places are not just on a road or a map but on our personal and spiritual journey. Most of us can remember beginning our journey of faith, how intent we were on staying aligned with the direction of the Holy Spirit and where we were being led in this new life of faith. Then we get distracted, complacent, tired, and find ourselves looking around, trying to figure out where the Spirit went and how we got to where we are.
As we come to our reading this morning, we find the Israelites in a similar place, looking around at the detour they have been on, trying to figure out where they are and how they got there. The truth is, they, like us, know the turns they took and the places they have gone. Communities have a long memory in that way. Israel has been on the Babylonian detour for sixty or seventy years and now the exiles are coming home.
Isaiah 55 is in the second part of Isaiah known as the “Book of Comfort” (Isaiah 40-55), which scholars think is addressed to the exiles who were returning from Babylon. The first part of “Second Isaiah” (40-48) addresses them in Babylon, and then the last part (49-55) was most likely written in Jerusalem, during the time the exiles were rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. The first few verses of chapter fifty-five talk about the circumstances the returnees have found themselves in: a wrecked city left for dust, people fighting over the good land in the area. Nehemiah, a book written during the return talks about people having to borrow money or sell children into slavery just to survive. This would explain why the invitation for those who have no money to come and get water, milk, and food would be so appealing and sound like such a relief.
Though it was a real event in human history, the Babylonian exile of the Jews was presented by the writer of Isaiah with such moving imagination that readers would later see in it much more than history. The beautiful poetic writing about a very real return from exile in Babylon would take on spiritual meaning to be read as describing the spiritual journey of every believer from our various alienations to our home in God. It was more than just remembering who they were physically as a people, it was remembering the journey of the spirit that had changed the people of Israel.
Though it was a hard journey, the Israelites returned to their homeland and rebuilt. In the same way, we may, at times, have a hard journey of repentance before us. Some of us come from very different places to get back to a relationship with God. That return, repentance, is often saddled with meaning it doesn’t have. Repentance, in its simplest terms, means to turn back, or more correctly, turn toward, and regarding spiritual matters, toward God. Repentance is not about turning toward rules but turning toward a relationship, not about changing the direction of our politics but our position relative to where God is and where we are going.
I think a little diagram might help here. If you look at the picture on the screen, you see a Star of David representing God and a series of dots floating around it. The green dot is closest, then the purple, then the blue, and finally the red. If we think about those dots as people, we might be tempted to see the green dot person as being a very godly person, spiritually together and living a good life in the Way of Jesus. The blue and purple have some potential, but they need a little work and the red person seems distant and far away from God. But what if I add a few lines and arrows to show you a bit more about the journey these colorful people have been on?
Notice that the green person, the one closest to God, is not necessary the person closest to God spiritually speaking. The green person, like all the others, is on a path that isn’t exactly straight. That’s because each of us has movement toward and away from God with every decision we make during the day. The movement away from God is sin and the movement toward God is repentance. We move in a basic, general direction but not a straight-line kind of thing. The green person is turning away and taking a path that moves opposite to the direction God is in. At the same time, the red person that appears to be farthest away is the one closest in relation to where God is because they are moving toward God not away from God in all their loop de loop travels.
Each of us makes a choice, choices actually, in every minute of every hour of every day. Unless we can find a way to cast aside our pride and confidence in our rationalizing defense of our behavior, unless we assume a posture of awe and reverence before the Creator of the universe and orient our lives in the direction of God, we will not find ourselves at peace with God and at peace with one another. We will also find ourselves moving further and further away from where God is and, in the process, more and more imprisoned by the wrong attitudes, ideas, and motives.
Isaiah 55 has a simple answer that emerges as a fresh and vigorous statement of faith addressing the despair of broken relationship with God. It is a proclamation of Gospel as well as a call to repentance. It is simply this, if you are hungry, thirsty, tired, hurting, alienated, alone, turn back from the direction that has led you into those things and turn toward God, following the path of Jesus’s Way. There you will find food for your hunger, water for your thirst, salve for your soul, and peace for your spirit.
Brueggemann, Walter. “Isaiah 55 and Deuteronomic Theology.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 80, no. 2 (Jan. 1968): 191-203.
Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40–66 | Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Hays, Christopher B. Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9. 12 17, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4011 (accessed 03 17, 2019).
Pick, Jennifer, and Todd Pick. With All Your Heart – Lent 2019 . 01 01, 2019. https://gbod-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/legacy/kintera-files/worship/With_All_Your_Heart_-_Lent_2019_Worship_Series_Year_C.pdf (accessed 02 27, 2019).
Tull, Patricia. Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9. 03 03, 2013. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1564 (accessed 03 17, 2019).
 Nehemiah 5:1-5
 (Hays 2017)
 (Tull 2013)
 (Brueggemann 1968, 202)