The late Aquinas scholar Josef Pieper said that man’s “whole existence is determined precisely by the nonpossession of ultimate gratification” (in Happiness & Contemplation, p27).
Gratification is happiness – not a momentary pleasure, but the happiness for which God made us: to be with Him, to enjoy Him, and to receive His creation as a gift. Our nonpossession of this happiness means that life is lived always pursuing it. This leads to anxiety, bad decisions, selfishness, and blame. Are you happy?
I will never forget an encounter I observed between two students and one of our school teachers. These students were scrambling for a better position in line, and the teacher asked the student who had pushed his way in, “What did you gain?” I find that question reverberating in my mind when I’m scrambling to obtain something I think will make me happy. “What did you gain?” Paul Gerhardt’s observation reproves this quest for self-exaltation:
What at last does this world leave us
But a hand full of sand
Or some loss to grieve us?
What we think will make us happy doesn’t satisfy for long. Have you ever tried to introduce something you love to others, only to find they have no taste for it? What is worse is when you see others making a mistake, choosing what is harmful, but they will not heed the warning.
That’s the voice of God the Father in today’s reading from Isaiah (55:1-9): “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The reading opens in a Mediterranean marketplace. We heard the English Standard Version, which leaves the first Hebrew word untranslated. The King James tradition approximates a transliteration: “Ho!”, which reminds me of an English policeman in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, where a student steals a policeman’s hat and the copper shouts, “Ho there!”
It’s a word to get your attention: Hoi! We’re dropped into this Mediterranean marketplace, and the vendors are all shouting at us: “Hoi! Come here, we have wine!” “Hoi! Come here, buy this bread” “Hoi! Water!” “Hoi! Milk, milk for your children, good price, good price. Come here, come here, come here.”
Our markets aren’t like that, but advertisements still batter our senses everywhere we turn. And if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, the real product being sold is not the bread or the wine, the beer or the BMW. The product is happiness, and her sister, security. The model’s sultry smile; the laughing, happy family; the sunset on the beach – all present the illusion of happiness that cannot last.
Amidst the shouting vendors and carnival barkers, comes the voice of the Father, the God who made the waters and the wine, the milk and the bread, and He calls you to reappraise your life, what you value and what you neglect. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
This Vendor makes an astonishing announcement: Hoi! “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
That’s the Gospel. You’ve been searching all your life for what will make you happy, but it has only led to dissipation, degradation, disappointment, dissatisfaction. Here is the Lord offering you the forgiveness of your sins without cost. Here is your Father inviting you to the true happiness, the happiness for which God made us: to be with Him, to enjoy Him, and to receive His creation as a gift.
It seems of course too good to be true. But this passage from Isaiah, chapter 55, is of course part of a larger context. In chapter 53 we have the Suffering Servant, the death of the Messiah where He pays for our ransom not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death:
He is the
Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
That peace you seek but never seem to find – it is not for sale. The Lord Jesus has bought it for you with a price you could never pay. The transgressions that stain your conscience are washed away by the flood of His baptism.
Isaiah 54 is a song of praise for what Jesus has done for you, and then today, Isaiah 55, is your invitation to the festival meal where He shares His gifts with you.
Did you notice the covenant language? “I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” The Old Testament had a covenant in blood, at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given. Repeatedly Israel walked away from God’s covenant. And so have you: bad decisions, laziness, despair; anger and a determination to be right – each are steps away from walking as a disciple of Jesus.
Today the Lord says to you just what He says in Isaiah: “I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” That word can be translated testament, and these are the words of Jesus: “Take and drink, this cup is the new testament in My blood, shed for you for the remission of sins.”
The Lord Jesus is the one who offers you the bread that is good, and the wine without price. I can’t and won’t promise you happiness for every moment of this life, for we are still burdened by temptations and sorrows. The devil will harass you, people will slander you, and your body will die unless the Lord returns first.
But with the Lord Jesus, you are on the way to happiness, the true happiness: to be with Him, to enjoy Him, and to receive His creation as a gift. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The vendors in the marketplace offer you false promises. Don’t fall for them. The Gospel—forgiveness, life, and resurrection in Christ’s new creation—that’s free. “Listen diligently to [Him], and eat what is good.” +INJ+