A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on March 3, 2013.
What’s the hungriest you’ve ever been? For some of the kids in our youth group, the answer might be, during our 30-hour famine to raise awareness of hunger in America. I believe the kids have participated in this nation-wide project for several years – and it’s been a meaningful exercise. I think part of the reason why it’s meaningful is that for most of us in America, we don’t have much experience with hunger. I know, we might have to skip lunch occasionally at work because we’re busy. Or maybe we’ve done a lot of yardwork or had a good workout and find ourselves especially hungry at the dinner table. Yet I don’t know if that experience counts for too much alongside the plight of other Americans or world citizens who truly do not know where their next meal is coming from or who perhaps haven’t eaten in several days. Quite frankly, many of us Americans just don’t know that much about hunger or thirst.
Or do we? We might not know much about material hunger or thirst, yet I think we are a hungry and thirsty people. We thirst for authentic, intimate relationships. We hunger for meaning and purpose. We thirst for love and acceptance. We hunger for wholeness and peace in our lives. And many times, we will go to great lengths to try to fill that thirst and hunger. Yes, we buy products that promise to make us more attractive to others. We work harder to make more money to surround ourselves with the trappings of success. We go from one relationship to another, hoping that one day, we will find a person who will perfectly fill and complete us. Sometimes, we drink and eat not as a way to fill our physical thirst or hunger, but as a substitute for the deeper thirsts and hungers in our lives. Sometimes we even act out in inappropriate ways as a desperate measure to get someone to notice us, to pay some attention to us. We see all those things played out in the lives of people who make the front page of supermarket tabloids. We wonder: “For people who seem to have everything going for them, why are they so messed up?” Perhaps they are thirsting for something that nothing else that they’ve tried so far could satisfy. It’s almost like they are wandering in a desert, desperately looking for oasis, and when they think they’ve found it, it turns out to be only a mirage.
For them, and for us, God gives these words through the prophet Isaiah: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” God spoke these words of hope thousands of years ago to a people who were forcibly taken away from their homeland into a foreign country to live as exiles and slaves. God speaks these words of hope today to citizens of the greatest country on earth and yet who are perhaps enslaved by our own sins, addictions, fears and insecurities. God invites us to come to his living waters, but we have to recognize that we are thirsty and hungry for God. God invites us to come to buy bread and wine, but we have to recognize that we have no money. But in our thirst to be self-sufficient, sometimes we like to think that we can earn God’s blessings instead of begging for God’s grace. We’d rather labor on what does not satisfy than to admit our inability to become fully satisfied on our own.
So what can we do? The prophet tells us to “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on God while God is near.” OK, how does one seek the Lord? The prophet continues: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.” I’ve found that, in my own power, it is hard to forsake my wickedness. It is difficult to control my thoughts of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, lust and envy toward others. The best I can do is two steps forward and one step back. How can God accept such a struggling sinner like me? Isaiah responds: “Let him turn to the LORD, and the LORD will have mercy on him, and to our God, for God will freely pardon.” Now, I struggle with that too. Can the Lord really have mercy on me just because of my desire to turn to the Lord? As much as I struggle with God’s free pardon for my sins, I have a greater struggle with God’s free pardon for the sins of others. That sounds like cheap grace. But then God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Who can fathom of thoughts and the ways of God? Frankly, I am very skeptical of anyone who claims to have a direct line to God, and is unaccountable to anyone else. We all have seen atrocities committed by those who claim God’s direct authority and use the Bible to justify heinous acts toward others. But for those of us who call ourselves “Christians,” we follow the model and example of Jesus Christ, whom we believe is the final and perfect revelation of God. In Christ, we see a person who extended love and pardon to those who did not deserve it, even though it brought him pain, suffering and even death. Christians commemorate Jesus’ love and pardon for sinners every time we partake of the Lord’s supper. For a thirsty and starving people, Jesus lays out a feast, and invites us to eat what is good, to delight in the rich and nourishing provisions of God. We are invited to the feast through the everlasting covenant that God made with David, and fulfilled by the Messiah who was descended from the line of David.
Several years ago, Beth and I visited Hong Kong and China with my parents to celebrate my grandfather’s 80th birthday. Almost every night during that trip, my grandfather and all his descendants were invited to a banquet. We were served fresh fish, lobster, oysters, scallops, jumbo shrimp, chicken, duck, pork, soups of all kinds and tender vegetables at almost every meal. The food was so elegant and fancy that we did not see ordinary steamed rice served in any of the meals. People whom I had never met, went out of their way to treat me like royalty, not because of what I had done, and certainly not because I could pay for any of the banquets. They did it because of their love for my grandfather. Beth and I and my sister Lisa and her husband Ed were invited and accepted because we were the grandchildren of Ho Hung Chee. We just tagged along with the group and said, “We’re with him.” And that was good enough.
Who is thirsty and hungry? Today, we acknowledge that we are thirsty and hungry. This morning, God invites us to feast upon God’s goodness and pardon. We come buying bread and wine without money, because the price has already been fully paid by Jesus, who is the bread and the wine that satisfies. Jesus our Good Shepherd stretches wide arms of love and prepares a table before us even in the presence of our enemies. That’s because the Lord’s Supper is a feast that is made possible by God’s grace, in ways that are beyond our comprehension.
As children of God, we are all invited.
We who are thirsting for affirmation in the midst of painful rejection.
We who are hungering for connection in the midst of our loneliness.
We who are thirsting for forgiveness in the midst of our sin.
We who are hungering for wholeness in the midst of our brokenness.
To all of us, this invitation is given:
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! . . . Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.”
We dare to come to this feast not because of what we have done, and certainly not because we could pay for any of this. We are invited and accepted because of what Jesus has done for us. We just tag along with other sinful pilgrims and say, “We’re with Jesus.” And that is good enough. Amen.