TEXT:  Isaiah 55:1-13; Luke 15:11-32

Would everybody who is able please stand up?  (Divide into three groups--left, right, and balcony)

If you...sit down

have a box of things in your home that you haven’t opened in more than five years

bought something at a yard sale that you later sold at a yard sale.

bought a car that you didn’t like six months later

own more than 10 books you have never read

have anything in your closet more than a year old with the tags still on it

own a power tool you have never actually used on a project

have ever needed a vacation from your vacation

have an object in your garage that you know must go to something, but you’re

not sure what

bought something you didn’t want because somebody else thought it was cool

ever had to pay somebody to tell you how much money you have

I took you through that so that you can hear the question God asks in Isaiah 55: 2. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  It is not asked in judgment, but in bewilderment...What are you people doing? asks God.  Why would you buy things that don’t nourish you or feed your soul?  Why would you work so hard for something that leaves you cold?  You work 24/7 so you can get more money and you throw away all that money on stuff that leaves you harried and anxious, tired and unsatisfied.  Why?  God is completely bewildered by our behavior.

It was like that from the day God put Adam and Eve in a lush garden and! Be fruitful!  Multiply!  It’s all good for you except for this one tree.  And, of course, that’s the one where they chose to spend their money...for that which was not bread…the thing that could not satisfy them.  It goes downhill from there. 

It doesn’t get any better across the next few thousand years, so God finally shows up in the person of Jesus to make things a little more clear.  Obviously we haven't understood where to find our true peace and satisfaction for our souls.  And so Jesus starts feeding the multitudes, saying to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Ask and I will give you living water,” calling himself the bread of life, transforming the plain water of life into the wine of abundance--still asking why we spend our money and labor on that which cannot provide health and wholeness.

In fact, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to think that Jesus may have had Isaiah 55 in the back of his mind when he told the parable about the Prodigal Son.  “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon,” says Isaiah.  That’s exactly what the Prodigal did.  He remembered God, abandoned his wickedness, came home, and was forgiven and received with joy.

In both the Isaiah passage and the passage about the prodigal son, the driving need is nourishment.  It is when the prodigal finds himself hungry and eating pig slop that he remembers the nourishment in his father’s house.  He returns home because he is starving.  Isaiah is warning the people that they are headed down the same road as the prodigal.  They are not being nourished…they are spiritually starving in the midst of the abundance that God has provided. 

As a culture, we are spiritually starved.  You can tell just by a visit to any bookstore.  Chicken Soup for the Soul now comes in so many specialized versions it’s impossible to keep up.  Chicken soup is great when you’re sick, but a robust and healthy life requires much more…and a robust and healthy spiritual life requires much more than a collection of heart-warming stories.  Are you spiritually satisfied?  Are you taking in enough spiritual nourishment to boost your spiritual immune system and grow your soul?   Are you in a far country eating pig slop when all the abundance of your father's house is there for the taking?  Life is hard.  We need the food God offers.

When we are taking the nourishment of God...when we are filling ourselves with prayer and Scripture and worship and are using our labors and resources for the meaningful work God has chosen for us...we will have the strength and stamina necessary to get through the hardships of this life and move from mourning to dancing, from sorrow to joy.  “Sorrow may endure for a night,” says the Psalmist, “but joy comes in the morning.”  The sorrows will come, but they will also pass. 

BUT...if we are not getting nourishment from God and are running ourselves ragged in meaningless work, the sorrows and difficulties of life will drag us down to the point where we can no longer experience joy, no matter what happens.  Our joys will become sorrows and our dancing become mourning...every glass will be half empty rather than half full, every triumph will have its dark side, every blue sky a dark cloud.

How we function in life has everything to do with where we are drawing our sustenance from.  We are what we eat, in a way.  Looking at it objectively, every single life will have times of sorrow and times of joy.  What God promises is that if we get our sustenance from God, we will be able to believe in goodness even in the face of great evil and we will be able to return to great joy even after great sorrow. 

If we try to live off of what the world has to offer, however, we will become cynical and jaded and live out our days increasingly unable to enjoy any form of pleasure at all.  And how true that is.  We all know people of both types--the one that can find the silver lining in every cloud as well as the one who can find something to be miserable about no matter how happy the occasion.  The witness of Scripture is not that these are just different personality types.  They are a direct result of the types of things and experiences that we consume.  If we dwell on the things of the world and spend our time chasing after money and possessions, we will grow bitter...that’s not real food.  If we dwell on the things of God...fill our lives with prayer and Scripture and worship and thanksgiving and we will be an inspiration to the world, even when life is crumbling around us.

Where do YOU draw your nourishment and your strength?  Where do you look for your satisfaction?  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price...For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And what is that purpose?  It’s right there...seed to the sower...meaningful work, work with a purpose that will benefit both you and others; and also bread for the eater...the bread of life, real food, nourishment for the journey.  The purpose for which God sends out His word is summed up at the end of the chapter, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

“If you will live this way,” says God...if you will draw your strength from me and my word, and if you will accept the work and the calling which I have for you, THEN “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

The passage invites each of us to ask, "What is going on in my life right now?  Am I producing thorns or cypress?  Briers or myrtle?  Bitterness or joy?  For what do I spend my money?  Is it bread?  Does the use of my time bring me any satisfaction?  For that matter does it bring anybody any satisfaction?"  It's a critical question.

A piece of God’s own Spirit has been placed inside each one of us.  We are spiritual beings, each with a unique purpose and calling from God.  Like our bodies need food, that Spirit needs nourishment to grow.  Without that, our spiritual muscles can’t develop and our spiritual eyes and ears become blind and deaf.  That’s why we come here…not only to receive spiritual food, but to learn where to find that food ourselves and, eventually, to become mature enough to feed others.

Spiritual growth is a process much like physical growth.  Babies and the infirm need to be fed by others, and it is the same in spiritual life.  We gladly provide spiritual food for those who are new to faith or those who have been battered by life or spiritually starved.  We all have times that life knocks us down…when we have the spiritual flu and need to be fed by others.  And there is certainly no shame in being new to faith and receiving what is offered.  But we need to be careful of becoming spiritually dependent on the feeding of others and never growing to the next stage.

As children mature, they begin to learn to feed themselves; and as people of faith mature and heal, we learn how to find spiritual food in all sorts of places and at all sorts of times.  In our spiritual adolescence we learn to feed ourselves through the spiritual disciplines…prayer and Bible study, worship and Christian fellowship, giving generously and receiving gratefully.  So the church has the role of sometimes refusing to give a handout and instead saying, “Everything you need to make a sandwich is there in the kitchen.  Here are the instructions.”  Pray.  Study.  Give. Worship.  It will taste good and you will be satisfied.  Some children throw temper tantrums when forced to feed themselves.  So do some church members.  It's a necessary step to spiritual growth.

Healthy adults come into their prime with a responsibility to feed and care for others.  We learn to produce food ourselves and to distribute it to the hungry.  In our spiritual maturity, we focus on providing spiritual nurture and training for others.  It might not be the food we prefer ourselves, just as baby food many not be on most adult dinner tables, but we know it is best for the little ones.  And so we reach the point in our spiritual growth of taking on the sacrificial role…of giving up something we like having so that those who are new and those who are hurting and those who are starving can be given the spiritual nourishment they need.  It’s hard, as the Prodigal’s elder brother shows.  He wanted to remain the focus of attention and be the one to receive, even though he was already healthy and well-fed.

In spiritual maturity I can now miss worship for a season to tend the Babies’ Nest or teach Sunday School because I know how to connect with God on my own.  I can leave the experience of receiving in worship and follow a call into ministry in order to lead worship or to serve in the mission field.  I can accept music or worship forms that I don’t care for because I know they are feeding the ones who need it most. 

And so, stage by stage, we learn and grow, mature and serve.  In Biblical terms, we produce fruit and eventually “seed for the sower and bread to the eater.”  And it all starts with getting the right nourishment from the right place--the living water, the bread of life. 

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”  Or, to say it another way, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  The Prodigal finally figured it out and returned to his father’s house.  What about you?  Amen.

© 1999, Anne Robertson

Return to