Chaplain Tucker Messamore: Invitation to a Lenten Feast

Sermon delivered on Lent 3C, Sunday, March 20, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; St. Luke 13.1-9.

As you can see on the screen, the title for my sermon today is “Invitation to a Lenten Feast.” I realize that this probably looks like a typo, like an “e” got accidently inserted into the last word. that it should say “fast” instead of “feast.” But you should know by now that we’re real professionals here at St. Augustine’s, that everything always goes according to plan, and that we would never allow for a silly error like that. I assure you; the title is correct as it appears: Invitation to a Lenten Feast.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Tucker, we know you’re relatively new to Anglicanism and liturgical Christianity, you’re wearing an alb for the first time in your life… maybe you don’t really understand how to observe Lent.” After all, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines Lent as a “period of fasting in preparation for Easter,” a time “of penance by abstaining from festivities, by almsgiving, and by devoting more than the usual time to religious exercises.”

Of course, all this is true. But as we take a closer look at today’s Old Testament reading, I hope we’ll see that Lent is not a season for fasting or penitence or self-denial as ends in themselves. Rather, Lent is about fasting so that we can feast, being emptied so that we can be filled, repenting of sin so that we can experience true joy.

Our passage from Isaiah begins with an invitation to a feast: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (vv. 1-2). Here the prophet sounds like a food vendor calling out to those who pass by on the street to announce a special offer: an abundant supply of choice food and drink, available to all who hunger and thirst at zero cost.

This is an offer Isaiah’s original audience would have been eager to accept. Judah had been oppressed for years by foreign powers who attacked and besieged their cities and took waves of captives into exile. The book of Lamentations vividly describes the horrible circumstances God’s people faced when Jerusalem was under siege: “The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives them anything… Happier were those pierced by the sword than those pierced by hunger, whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field” (Lamentations 4:4, 9). Sadly, these conditions are not difficult to imagine as we see footage and hear horrifying stories from those in besieged cities in Ukraine.

But the offer the prophet announces is not for physical food, but for something more vital: that which nourishes the soul. Spiritual sustenance was also something God’s people lacked. At the beginning of v. 2, the prophet asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The reason God’s people faced famines, plagues, attacks from their enemies, and exile from their land is because they had turned away from the God who had called them to be His people, brought them out slavery, and led them to the fruitful and abundant land they could call their home. Instead of worshipping God alone and following His commands, God’s people worshipped false gods, practiced sexual immorality, and oppressed the poor and helpless, taking advantage of the most vulnerable people in society to benefit themselves. They turned to sin and selfish ambition thinking they would bring happiness and contentment, but they would ultimately fail to deliver. We could say that God’s people had exchanged the lavish banquet God offered for a plate of gruel. Elsewhere, God puts it this way: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).

At this point, we should acknowledge that as God’s people today, we too often make this shocking exchange. Our sin nature inclines us to seek fulfillment in the things of this world, what St. John calls “the [lusts] of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, [and] pride in riches” (1 John 2:16)—money, power, sex, possessions, food and drink, the praise of others, on and on we could go. I don’t feel the need to provide an exhaustive list because if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all envision the things we turn to in search of happiness or to medicate ourselves.

Whatever these things may be, while they may give us a temporary thrill or numb us for a moment, they cannot satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts, for we were made to find true joy in God alone. As our own St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” C.S. Lewis famously said, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory26).

But we don’t have to live this way! The prophet exhorts us, stop “spend[ing] your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy”! “Come to the waters! . . . Come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” This is not just an offer for the people of Israel; Isaiah envisions a day when people from all nations would come to this banquet (vv. 3-5). Indeed, Jesus extends this same invitation to all who trust in Him: In John 6:35, He proclaims, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 

Our question then is how? What does it look like for us to “come to the waters” and to “eat what is good”? How do we take advantage of this offer?

Although Isaiah doesn’t use the specific word, he is describing repentance. The prophet highlights two necessary movements, two important steps that repentance entails. First, we must turn away from sin. In v.7a, Isaiah exhorts us, “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts.” This involves admitting that we are not okay, that, as Father Kevin reminded us in his Ash Wednesday sermon, that there is something deeply wrong with us. As Jesus warns in our gospel reading, “Unless you repent, you will all perish.” (Luke 13:3). We must acknowledge that we have a sin nature within us that inclines us toward evil and sin, that predisposes us to choose lesser things over the God who alone can satisfy the deepest longings of our souls.

This means that in order to turn away from sin, we must also turn toward God. It is only though the saving work of Christ that we can receive “abundant pardon” for our sin (v. 7) and be released from its bondage. It is only by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can have the power to say no to sin. Together, these two actions that the prophet describes—turning away from sin and turning toward God—constitute repentance.

But we should understand that repentance is not a one-time event in the Christian life that takes place when one comes to faith in Christ. It is an ongoing practice through which God transforms us and sanctifies us. Isaiah urges us to “Seek the Lord” (v. 6). Speaking through the prophet, God tells us, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good… incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (vv. 2b-3a). We listen to God and draw near to Him through prayer, through Scripture, through the liturgy, through the sacraments. As we mediate on who God is and what He has done, as we are reminded of His ways, we begin to see sin for what it is—a poor substitute for the abundant life we are promised in Christ. This is how we come to the feast that God has set before us: by practicing repentance, by turning away from sin and turning to God.

This Lenten season, we can avail ourselves of disciplines that will help us to continually practice repentance.

On Fridays during Lent, we observe the Stations of the Cross, a practice that helps us reflect on Christ’s journey to Calvary. Mediating on Jesus’ crucifixion reminds us that He has paid the penalty for our sin and has set us free from our bondage to it. In the cross, we see both the seriousness of our sin and the love of our God. Jesus’ passion shows that God is not a petty tyrant who gets angry at us because we don’t do things His way; He is a God who loves us and wants what is best for us—so much so that he was willing to take on human flesh and suffer and die to set us free from sins power and its eternal consequences.

During Lent, our priests are also setting aside Tuesday evenings to offer the sacrament of confession. While we do confess our sins corporately as a part of the liturgy, there is something truly powerful about confessing your specific sins aloud to another person and hearing them speak God’s pardon over you.

Lent is also a season to practice the discipline of fasting, which can help us “find victory over temptation.” As Fr. Kevin shared in a Lenten post, St. Augustine taught that when we deny ourselves a harmless pleasure like coffee or chocolate, we are training ourselves to say no sinful desires of the flesh (McKnight, Fasting: The Ancient Practices, xv).

Finally, in the Anglican tradition, we have the gift of the Daily Office, a way to orient our lives around the gospel and to establish daily rhythms of worship, Scripture reading, and prayer. If this is not a discipline you currently practice, Lent is a great time to begin. These are just a few disciplines that can aid us in the practice of repentance this Lenten season and beyond.

As we close, I want to share a story that Bishop N.T. Wright recounts in his Lent for Everyone devotional on the gospel of Matthew. Once, when he was young man, he ran out of gas while out for a drive in the English countryside. Observing his plight, a nearby farmer offered to fill his tank, but he didn’t realize until later that he had received a special blend of fuel intended for use in a lawnmower, not an automobile. Thankfully, he was able to make it back home, but when he got there, his engine was sputtering and coughing “like a sick animal.” Wright describes the sense of relief that he—and his car—felt when a mechanic was able to remove the thick sludge built up in his carburetor.

This, Wright says, is an illustration of the opportunity we have before us: “Lent is a time for discipline, for confession, for honesty, not because God is mean or fault-finding or finger-pointing but because he wants us to know the joy of being cleaned out, ready for all the good things he now has in store” (N.T. Wright, Lent for Everyone: Matthew, Year A: A Daily Devotional, 13). This Lenten season, may we heed the call of the prophet. May we turn away from that which will only leave us feeling empty and turn to the God who alone can satisfy us. As we come to the table this morning, may we feast on Christ, our bread that came down from heaven (John 6:41) and our living water (John 7:37-38), that we may never hunger or thirst again (John 6:35).

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.