Texts: Isaiah 55:[1-8] 9-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Oh, that we all could have the faith of Isaiah! The kind of faith that refuses to let anything in present reality get in the way of believing in God’s provision, God’s guiding, and God’s future. Because you see, while Isaiah was entirely on board with the plan for Israel to return from exile in Babylon, the people were not.
So here is the prophet, tasked by God to entice people out of a place they had come to regard as home. The Israelites had been marched to Babylon as prisoners to serve their conquerors. But time had erased much of the sting of defeat. They’d found work, made homes, raised children.
The city of Babylon was magnificent; a place of commerce, industry, and arts. Its lush hanging gardens were famous throughout Mesopotamia. Meanwhile Jerusalem, the once beloved City of Peace lay in ruins. Everything was in need of repair from the broken city walls to the destroyed Temple. Very few Israelites were enthusiastic about going back to that.
Isaiah was undaunted. God had sent the word of return through Isaiah. Israel’s repatriation was inevitable and irresistible. Snow and rain come from heaven with a purpose which they accomplish because it is in their nature to do so. God’s reluctant returnees would eventually respond to the prophet and go. Despite pain, sacrifice, and missteps, God’s word did, in time, succeed in rebuilding the City of Peace through them.
But Isaiah’s prophecy was not really about success in rebuilding Jerusalem. What actually needed rebuilding was the Israelite’s understanding of who they were in God. Their return to Jerusalem for rebuilding is a metaphor for returning to God and the covenant. Babylon was a place that lured them to fit in, to acquiesce to a different understanding of God and faithfulness.
You see, just as snow and rain are destined to succeed in bringing forth seed and bread, God’s people have a destiny, to succeed in keeping covenant with God. But this is difficult to do while immersed in a culture that does not know what the covenant is, or feel the need to keep covenant with God at all. And what further success comes out of keeping covenant with God?
Isaiah’s image of success is that nature flourishes when we are keeping covenant with God. All creation is in harmony, singing out with irrepressible joy. The endpoint is shalom – the peace that passes all understanding.
This is where we come to us. Though Isaiah may be long dead and in the grave, his prophecy is directed to us. Babylon is not some historic footnote. It is now, it is here. As God’s people we are still a long way from our spiritual home and far from the peace that passes all understanding.
It is easy to be lured away from keeping covenant with God. Really, this is what Paul was getting at when he wrote about the difference between walking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. And it’s a real, daily thing, not a philosophical abstraction.
Isaiah prodded God’s people to remember that they no longer owed any allegiance to Babylon. A new empire had come along and set them free to live again in God’s covenant. Isn’t that what Paul was saying to his own generation? “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” We cannot raise the objection that we are trapped here, unable to leave.
So if we are already free in Christ, how long does it take for us to finally rise up and say no to sin and death? Will our generation finally say, enough is enough? We may have been stuck for a long time, but it’s time to re-claim the covenant with God and get the heck away from this barren land. Who isn’t tired of being immersed in public displays of unkindness, us against them rhetoric, chronic self-interest, and all or nothing agendas? Who doesn’t want God’s joy and peace? Bring it on!
Keeping covenant with God means setting our minds on Jesus. What Jesus said and did, the things Jesus held of first importance form our own engagement with everything around us. The gospel of Jesus is profoundly political because it is about how we live together and govern ourselves. But it does not follow any of the party lines we have ever invented.
Jesus didn’t promise material prosperity. Nor did he end illness, hunger, or danger. Instead Jesus embodied God’s covenant. It’s not a set of rules to be followed, it is our promise that we will commit to living our highest and best qualities as God’s creatures with our whole selves, body and soul. Just as Jesus did. Never counting the cost.
As we do so, God’s purpose will find success through us. It’s called righteousness. It shows up as justice and mercy. The Gospel is talking about God’s purpose succeeding too, in the parable of the sower. However you may have heard this parable before, its central theme is this: we are not the sower. God is the sower. Jesus is the sower.
Jesus told the parable to a large and diverse crowd. Later he explained it further to the puzzled disciples. They were the fields where the Word of God is cast. Not because they were better than the crowds but because they had answered Jesus’s call to follow him to live by his spirit. Just as we are doing in this present time.
See how prodigally the word of God is flung, without concern for the rate of return! This is not a parable about comparative productivity. Thirty-fold is just as overly generous as sixty or a hundred. This parable is about how eternally persistent God is in seeding.
And if we are presently hard or rocky ground, or prickly with thorns, bringing forth exactly zero-fold, God doesn’t give up. Even if we cannot be fruitful now, God’s word will not be prevented from success. The seed will rest deep within us, awaiting the opportunity to burst into life.
Meanwhile, the fertility of life in God goes on being joyfully proclaimed all around us. All that is needed is for us to fully claim our freedom from sin and death, to join the party of the covenant and sing God’s song. And you know what? This is the same faith that Isaiah had after all! Not perfect, but entirely sufficient. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.