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Guest at God’s Table

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Third Sunday of Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

One could sum up the bulk of what we know about Lent with the question:  What did you give up for Lent? But it’s a mistake to believe Lent is only about giving up and self-sacrifice. Rather than scarcity, our text this morning is all about abundance.

What happens when you read life through your scarcity rather than from God’s abundance? You end up seeing life as an empty scramble for more. You see your existence as lacking, rather than full. Your soul’s pantry is sparse so you tend to hoard what you have in stingy self-protection for tomorrow it may be empty. We learn to look upon all of life as the struggle to hold in reserve our meager life and don’t recognize we are surrounded by God’s blessings.

Listen for the invitation of God who is willing to offer us food and drink and meaning in life.  What? You say you have no money to pay for these riches? Listen to the offer God makes in response to your poverty. An intriguing image of God emerges in this good news that illuminates our life with God.

A story of abundant hospitality:

When you walk through the restaurant door you notice the glistening of the leaded glass, the dark wood, and the brass fixtures. They are so beautiful you can’t help but wonder whether the owner might question whether you’re the kind of customer who should be there. We tend to go where we’re wanted, and that’s no different whether you’re at an expensive restaurant or shopping in an upscale store or when you’re sitting in church. I’ve been places where I felt unwanted, haven’t you? Likely it’s the look on the owner’s face as his eyes take you in from head to foot, up and down and up again, until at last, he looks into your eyes. It’s the disdainful look in his eyes and the scowl of contempt on his face that tells you, you crossed some line of social respectability or status.

This restaurant is different though. It’s clearly upscale and nicely appointed, but not at all stuffy. The lights are dimmed to give it that look of elegance, but somehow you can still clearly see the room and those in it in the warm, soft glow of the small table lamps that shine like beckoning beacons across the room, a look that whispers confidently, “Welcome.”

Soft music lilts just above the heads of those there, offering a soothing melody and quiet comfort. It’s soft and sweet but not overpowering to the conversation you might want to hold with a dear friend or lover.

It’s then you notice the maître-d’ who’s been standing silently nearby letting you take the room in; to observe all the thoughtful accoutrements of a room meant to be fully enjoyed as to its dedication to detail and meant to ensure the diner is thoughtfully welcomed. The maître-d’ is there to run the front of the house and that includes supervising the wait staff, welcoming guests and assigning them to tables, taking reservations, and ensuring that guests are satisfied with the whole dining experience.

It’s then an overwhelming sinking feeling hits you. What if they find out you do not have enough money to even pay for an appetizer in a restaurant as elegant as this? What if they find out how truly unworthy you are of such attention?

Nevertheless the maître-de is insistent without being pushy. She leads you toward a beautiful window seat where you can look onto the busy street. And so you follow her and reluctantly sit down.

The server stands ready at your table and pulls your chair back and fluffs your cloth napkin as he places it delicately in your lap. As soon as you are settled, the server offers you an opened menu. Your drink order is taken and the server withdraws while you look over the menu and consider your meal choices.

And oh my … such delicious food to choose from! Appetizers and soups and salads of all kinds and the entrees are described in near-poetic terms, in a way of describing food not normally considered in daily life. Such language for food elevates the expectation of the meal as though the beauty of language describes the artfulness of the food itself. When the food is served, its sublime flavors are nearly overwhelming, as though the food and drink were lovely ambrosia, something made by the gods and for the gods.

Novelist William Styron wrote the tragic story of Sophie, a Polish Catholic who survives the Nazi death camps, that captures this idea. Barely surviving the camps, through the intervention of the Red Cross, she lands in America and meets Nathan, a brilliant but doomed savior who serves her an elegant wine as he nurses her back to health. Styron describes it this way: “(Holding a glass of the exquisite wine Nathan has bought), she takes a long smell of its aroma. Then she drinks, and is overwhelmed with emotion. She says: ‘Now when you … when you live a good life, like a saint, and then you die … that must be what they make you to drink in paradise.’”[1] It’s that kind of savoring that is demanded of the diner by the heavenly meal itself.

It becomes apparent that when we finally come to terms with the love and grace of God, we are being welcomed into a world where life is savored like a fine wine and that food can transcend itself to become a meal where God welcomes us as though our arrival has been anticipated since the dawn of time. In that way, we enter into God’s gracious welcome not because we could ever pay for such a meal, but because God wants us to sit at God’s table.

After several generations of captivity in Babylon, the tone of Isaiah’s prophecies shifts dramatically. Our text this morning comes from the last days of captivity and the sun is just breaking forth where there has only been sad darkness. Where there’s only been doom and condemnation, now there is hope and beauty. The poetry of Second Isaiah is regarded as the most sublime in all Hebrew literature.

When the Bible speaks of God love, one could easily substitute the concept of hospitality. Today’s text is the startling offer of gracious hospitality, food and water and shelter. God’s love comes in terms of hospitality? A place of welcome … generous food and drink for sustenance … warmth and rest.

When added together it’s meant to comfort and sustain and to offer hope after the despair of life has been endured. Why does God act this way? Why does God offer hospitality and love rather than vengeance and retribution? Abraham Lincoln pondered this aspect of the Divine and concluded, “… mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” We could conclude from this that God is at work in God’s creation to nurture such love and mercy in us.

Are you worried you can’t afford such luxuries? Are you afraid you’ll be sent away because you have nothing to offer God in return? That’s the point of the poetry! If that’s what you’re feeling, you are feeling all the right things. And in contrast to our poverty, God’s extravagant hospitality welcomes us because the Great Host, the Divine One, wants us to come inside to have a drink on the house, and to enjoy a meal, to soak in the ambiance of the place, all gifts offered as signs of God’s great love. And so we are invited today to God’s table where we are offered bread and wine to remind us of God’s love and welcome. Don’t worry about your money, or your goodness or your failures; simply come to the extravagance of the table because the extravagant God has been expecting us.

[1] William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, New York: Random House, 1976, 140