Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Messianic Banquet

Isaiah 25:1-9 :The Messianic Banquet

“I will extol you my God and king
And bless your name for ever and ever
Every day I will bless you
And praise your name for ever and ever
Great is the Lord and his greatness is unsearchable”

These words are from Psalm 145 and I quote them to show you how the first verse of our reading from Isaiah echos this hymn of praise and thanksgiving in shape and content. Just as in the psalm  God is unsearchable so in Isaiah we hear that his plans were formed of old, faithful and sure, stressing the limitless range and space of God’s power in history.  

To understand this passage we have to look at what has gone before.

On one level Isaiah has been writing about the clash of two world empires, the Egyptian and the Assyrian and the effects that this has had on Judah, Israel and Palestine. Caught in the paths of the warring parties, sometimes making unlucky alliances these smaller states were often crushed. Specifically in the preceding chapters(23 and 24) we have heard of the destruction of Tyre -

“Wail o ships of Tarshish for your fortress is destroyed
When they came from Cyprus they learned of it”

Which put me in mind of John Masefield’s famous poem which begins

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood and Cedarwood and sweet white wine”

No rowing home to sunny haven for the ships coming to Tyre in Isaiah’s day for it was completely destroyed and the sailors only discover the catastrophe when they arrive.

On another level isaiah is writing about the ever present war between good and evil so a little later in the chapter we read:
“The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut ……..it will not rise again.”

So you might by now be wondering why after all this the new chapter begins with a hymn of praise. Are we to be pleased that the city is a heap of rubble, that it will never be rebuilt? And the answer is yes for we have reached the moment of the Messianic banquet - the royal banquet where God swallows up the cursed shroud of permanent death and brings ALL people to feast at his table.

I wonder if you like me were horrified by the footage of the Iraqi army rather joyously setting out for the city of Kirkuk - so recently liberated from so called ISIS by the combined forces - the Iraqis want to reclaim the oil rich lands from the Kurds, who only a month ago were fighting alongside them for freedom.  It was a moment to shout at the television set -  ‘enough - surely there has been enough fighting in this land, enough blood lost enough already! ‘

“Only God can stop this.” and this is what Isaiah is celebrating:

The idea of a feast for ALL nations to celebrate the destruction of God’s enemies and the beginning of a new era of peace and security is a very ancient one - found in North Canaanite and other Asiatic mythologies it would have been a familiar image. The prophet Amos describes a sumptuous banquet - the guests lie on beds of ivory eating lambs and calves, drink wine and sing songs and anoint themselves with oil. And so Isaiah prefiguring the well known passage in Revelation concurs:

“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people
a feast of rich food, a feast of well matured wines
Of rich food filled with marrow, of well matured wines strained clear.”

“He will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

I am a fan of travelling by train for you can look out of the windows at the countryside flashing by and I was struck recently by a passage in D H lawrence’s Women in Love where swishing through Bedfordshire one of the characters looks at the land passing by in the evening saying to himself
“Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is a beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost.”  

It is a strange thing to contemplate the destruction of the earth as we know it, the destroying of mankind the shaming of the sun and the moon but there is that divine promise so eloquently found again in the last book of the Bible:

See, the home of God is among mortals,
He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples
And God himself will be with them
He will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more,
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

And this promise was made by God to the people of Israel, by Jesus to all people, by the Holy Spirit to all creation and most crucially to you and me.


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