28 February 2016

Accept Your Acceptance

Isaiah 55:1-9

Third Sunday in Lent

28th February 2016

Isaiah wastes no time. He gets right to the point.  How did your perspective get so skewed?  How did your values become so misplaced? How did your attitudes become so twisted, distorted, warped?  How?  Or, deeper, why?

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? 
Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy?  
Why do you invest your life in that which does not feed your life? Why do you exert energy and waste time on that which 
             does not satisfy your soul? 

Isaiah is calling Israel­­—calling us—to a time of honest soul-searching. 

Now is the time to take stock of what matters and what doesn’t. Now is the time to reevaluate how we live,
       how we invest and spend resources. 
Now is the time to question our values. 
It’s a time to listen to our hearts, be attentive to the soul,
          give up surface living and go deep.  It’s Lent, after all.

Isaiah is calling Israel to conduct a moral examen, a season of self-examination, calling them to take stock of their lives.  And in love, with grace, he asks them:

Why are you sabotaging yourselves? 
Why are you undermining yourselves, saying that you want one thing, but going after another? 
Why are you looking for love in all the wrong places?
Why are you striving after that which will only leave 
         you disappointed?

Isaiah’s questions are all rhetorical.  He’s not asking because he doesn’t know the answer.  He’s posing the questions—an effective tool of rhetoric—to move the argument, to make a point, to cause the listener to stop and consider. He’s not waiting for Israel to answer.

Isaiah offers the answer; it’s actually contained in the question. Israel’s search for and striving after something, expending a lot of money and time and effort in the process, suggests that Israel really lacks something at its core.  There’s a desire and hunger at work here that cannot be satisfied, gratified, fulfilled.  It’s that hunger and desire that Isaiah wants them to be attentive to.  He wants them to feel the depth of their hunger, to feel the depth of their desire.  

For what do you really hunger?  For what do you really thirst?  What do you really desire?  These are critical questions because our hungers and thirsts and desires inevitably push, move, direct us down one road or the other, one way or the other. We could say, then, that Isaiah is inviting them to consider what’s really driving their lives, what are they really hungry for, thirsty for?  These are questions we need continually to ask ourselves.  They’re essential for the journey. 

What’s really driving you?
What’s really motivating you?    

Isaiah cries to them, “Ho, everyone who thirsts”—actually, being from New Jersey I prefer to say, “Yo!”  “Yo, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” thus extending the invitation to all of us (Isaiah 55:1).  The invitation stands: the water of life is here. But do you thirst for it?  Or are there other thirsts? Are you thirsty for this water?  Desire it?  Long for it?  Dream about it?  And, can they—can we—acknowledge what’s missing in our lives? Can we name what we crave?  Is it the hunger for God? 

It’s important to remember this bit of wisdom running through scripture: need, want, lack are all required in the life of faith.  Need, want, lack.  If you think you’re self-sufficient, think you need nothing, want for nothing, lack nothing, then don’t be surprised if God seems absent or unnecessary.  There’s a direct correlation between wealth and self-sufficiency and the decline of faith, particularly in North America and Western Europe.  There is a direct correlation between the rise of secularism and the growth of enormous wealth in the West.

What Isaiah is offering doesn’t come through us or from within us, it doesn’t come from what we can buy or because we’ve earned it; we don’t own it.  What we’re really looking for, hungry for, and need, cannot be found in what we have or within ourselves. We have to acknowledge that we are poor, because what God gives cannot be bought.  You don’t need money for this.  We don’t have the currency to obtain it.  What you need is your poverty, to confess what you lack.  Didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Isaiah says, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).

And so Isaiah calls them to acknowledge their impoverishment, their need for God; he reminds them of God’s covenant with them, and he invites them back.  “Seek the LORD while he may be found…let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy…” (Is. 55:6-7). Seek and return.

But, still, there’s a nagging question embedded in this text.  What keeps them—keeps us—from accepting this gracious invitation?  Why does Isaiah have to remind and encourage Israel?  Shouldn’t they already know the generosity of God?  Shouldn’t they already be living in this life that Isaiah is inviting them to?  Shouldn’t we?

Yes, we all need these reminders.  We all forget what we know—which is a good definition of sin, forgetting what we know about God.  And, thus, we need help remembering.  We all go astray, every one of us, and we need to be brought back home—which is a good definition of grace.

What keeps us from remembering?  What keeps us from experiencing the joy of grace?  We could just call it sin, blame it on sin and be done with it.  But we can do better, we can go deeper. 

In my journey as a Christian, in my experience as a pastor, in countless conversations and classes and counseling sessions, there seems to be one major obstacle that prevents us from accepting God’s invitation.  It’s a barrier, sometimes a massive wall, high and thick, made of stone upon stone, stones of pain and hurt and regret and shame and disappointment and trauma.  It’s an enormous wall that we hide behind, a wall that encircles us, built to protect us further pain and hurt.  If we put words around this “wall” or “sin,” it might have something to do with the belief that we really aren’t worthy of such generosity, we’re not worthy of such an invitation.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all struggle with this. 
“I’m not good enough.” 
“I do not love enough.” 
“I’m not generous enough.” 
“I’m not enough enough.” 
“Isaiah’s invitation is for someone else who really deserves it.”

But that’s not what the text says.  Actually, what’s implied in the text and in the invitation is that we are worthy of such an invitation; otherwise we wouldn’t have been invited!  All we have to do is accept the invitation.  Accept your acceptance!

That’s how the great theologian Paul Tillich (1888-1965) beautifully expressed this, written decades ago in a sermon titled “You Are Accepted.”[1]  It’s a profound piece.  I remember first reading it almost thirty-one years ago—it was on March 25, 1985.  I know because I put the date I read it beside its listing in the Table of Contents.  I have returned to it many times. 

It’s really a sermon about grace, that moment when we are struck by grace and we get a glimpse of who we really are and who God is and what this stuff called “faith” or “religion” is all about.  You can’t plan for it, train for it, study about it, practice it, or buy it.  Grace strikes us, often at the lowest point of our lives, in moments of despair, when we’re barricaded behind that wall of not-enoughness. 

“At that moment,” Tillich wrote, “a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying,
‘You are accepted. 
You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, 
      and the name of which you do not know. 
Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. 
Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  
Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything;
      do not intend anything. 
Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’”[2] 

Tillich says, “If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before.  But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of us, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”[3]

When we know in such moments that God has said, “Yes” to us, we are then free to say, “Yes” to the stranger, “Yes” to your neighbor.  And then we are free to say, “Yes” to ourselves, because that which is greater than us has accepted us.[4]  Perhaps we need first to accept ourselves—every aspect of ourselves, including the part that’s difficult to love—in order to accept our neighbors, especially the ones we find it most difficult to love or the ones that drive us crazy.

Accept your acceptance!

God extends an invitation—to you and me—to share in the very life of God.  Not once, but—thank God!—again and again and again, until we say, “Yes,” and accept the invitation and finally feast upon and in God’s abundant life.  May it be so!

[1] Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 153ff.
[2] Tillich, 162.
[3] Tillich, 162.
[4] Tillich, 163.

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