a reflection on Isaiah 55:1-9
If I had to use early 2000s Facebook terms to describe my relationship status with the Bible, on some days I would choose, “It’s complicated,” and on occasion I may even check, “in an open relationship.” But that has not always been true. When I was younger, it wasn’t complicated.
In high school, I started reading scripture regularly for personal devotions. I had a special case big enough to hold my teen study Bible along with an assortment of multicolored highlighters. Over the next few years, I managed to read from cover to cover, at least once, and the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs (or the greatest hits) numerous times. I felt a sense of pride when I flashed my marked-up margins at youth group and a sense of shame if I went too many days without opening its pages. At that time in my life, I relied on being able to find verses to provide comfort for sadness, ease in stress, and satisfaction in uncertainty.
One of those go-to verses when wanting to ease inner doubt or end a theological debate can be found in the above Old Testament reading, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Left and right, I applied this verse like a defense mechanism against any unwanted questions from others or from within. Even worse, I used it to justify the ideas about God that made me most uncomfortable – as if all the worst parts of God could be explained away by, “Well, God’s ways aren’t our ways…”
While studying religion in college, I experienced a much-needed spiritual expanding, and in turn I often ended up on the receiving side of this misused expression. During theology classes I’d reasonably push back on notions of a God who orchestrates natural disasters or leads people into war or sends non-Christians to an eternity of punishment for the crime of not praying a specific prayer… and a classmate would smugly snap, “God’s ways aren’t our ways.”
Perhaps you, too, have had your good and genuine questions struck down by this verse; which is so sad, because if anything, Isaiah intended not to stifle curiosity but to stretch our imaginations to welcome better and truer ideas about God.
It’s honestly remarkable how badly it’s been misunderstood simply by being taken out of context, because what precedes is lovely. I envision a scene where Isaiah is proclaiming to a crowded marketplace of hungry and thirsty people, “Come, buy food and drink! Don’t have money? Doesn’t matter! Take what you need, and be filled!”
He continues by urging the crowd to invest in what will truly satisfy and that they will find life through listening and fulfillment by welcoming unknown nations who will soon be running to them. Further on, he encourages the unrighteous to return to God to receive mercy.
Free food for the poor, pardon for evil, life through listening, and welcome for the refugee aren’t exactly the loudest ideas shared in American Christian culture. We might be just as surprised by these words as Isaiah’s original audience was. Where we may expect a message about picking yourself up by the bootstraps, God offers bread. Where we may expect a program about how to live a successful life, God says to listen. Where we could expect condemnation for the wicked, God offers grace. Where some are ready for instructions on how to secure the border, God says fling wide the doors.
This is the backdrop that builds to the thesis, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Doing what it takes to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, and to offer mercy to the undeserving are God’s higher ways. Including the least expected into the family of faith is God’s higher thought.
Author Rachel Held Evans once wrote, “What makes the Gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in.” The book of order in the Presbyterian Church USA articulates it more pointedly. When outlining rules for church membership it reads, “Failure to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.”
Friends, the gospel isn’t just good news; it’s better news. It’s higher news. God’s love is just better than we think it is. God’s ways are always more gracious, more compassionate, more inclusive, more forgiving, and more generous than we could imagine.
Today, I hope you hear God calling through the crowded market, “Are you thirsty? Come to the waters where everyone belongs, and drink deeply. Are you hungry? Come, eat what is good, and be satisfied. Turn from whatever isn’t leading you to abundant life, walk in a new direction toward healing and wholeness, and watch while I tend to your beauty and growth. Come to the table where strangers and friends gather, and where everyone gets a second chance.”
Listen, so that you may live.