Listen again to the words of Isaiah. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wine….And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples….. He will swallow up death forever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces and the reproach of his people He will take away from all the earth…let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”
The prophet Isaiah has a vision before him that is strikingly similar to the vision that St. John paints in the Book of the Revelation. It is no wonder that St. Gregory of Nyssa said that Isaiah “knew more perfectly than all others the mystery of the religion of the Gospels” and St. Jerome said that he was more of an Evangelist than a Prophet.
What Isaiah is seeing is what St. John calls the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. This is the consummation of the ages when the bride of Christ, the Church, is fully united to Christ as her husband. And just as Isaiah did, St. John prophecies that God will wipe away every tear and there will be no more death or mourning or pain because the former things have passed away. That is the Great Day to which both Testaments point. That is our future. A time, as Bishop NT Wright says, that God will put everything to rights.
And while the vision of that day is something that we should keep ever before us, it is equally important to understand that there is a path that takes us from this vision to its fulfillment and that path takes us by way of the cross. The collect for Friday’s Morning Prayer puts it this way; “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified: Mercifully grant the we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…” Thus after Isaiah gives us the vision of the Great Day of feasting, he introduces us to the Suffering Servant.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
While at first it may not sound like very good news that the path from vision to fulfillment involves the cross, it should not surprise us. Life in general seems to work that way. If you have a dream that is worth fulfilling it goes without saying that it will involve sacrifice. If you have a dream of starting your own business then you had better understand ahead of time that you will be putting in 60-80 hours every week for the first few years.
Years ago Larry Bird became a basketball sensation when he played for the Boston Celtics. But that didn’t happen over night. While still in high school he would be at the school gym every day by 6 in the morning making 500 free throws. Even as a pro he arrived on the court hours before anyone else did to practice his shots, he said until he was comfortable. That is how he made it look so easy.
Our Choirmaster Kirk is a phenomenal musician. I wrote him an email asking what kind of sacrifices he has made to be at his level. This is what he wrote back. “In the early years of my music career, I constantly worked hard on honing my songwriting, piano and vocal skills. This is still an ongoing, never-ending process, as there is always room for improvement. I have spent countless hours listening to other professional pianists and songwriters, studying the mechanics/rules of songwriting and have done much re-writing of my songs….” And we benefit from his sacrifice.
The opposite is also true. Folks who are unwilling to sacrifice do not see their dreams fulfilled. There is a man whom I have known all his life and while he should be at a stage now where is mature and prospering he still doesn’t know, as it says in the book of Jonah, his right hand from his left. He is clueless and foundering in life because he has spent his days either looking for a quick fix or waiting for things to be handed to him. His unwillingness to sacrifice has resulted in him being stuck and unproductive.
So again it should not surprise us that sacrifice is required in our spiritual lives as well; that from vision to fulfillment is the way of the cross. What does that look like?
I believe it is different for each of us because we are uniquely made and uniquely called. For Isaiah and St. Paul the sacrifice was literal. The Talmud says that Isaiah was sawn in two under King Manasseh and as you know St. Paul was martyred in Rome. But as the collects put it, the way of the cross can also be for us the way of life and peace, so it doesn’t have to be just about dying.
One common experience of sacrifice that we are called to make is when we intentionally exchange our wills for God’s will. Jesus showed us that way when He prayed so in the Garden. “Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.”
I knew a priest in the Diocese of East Tennessee that was a successful heart surgeon when the Lord called him into priesthood. As you can imagine that resulted in a slight dip in his income. In addition the Lord placed him in more than one conflicted parish so he went from being treated like a god in the hospital to being bitten by his own sheep. I have no doubt that there were plenty of times that he wished he were back in the operating theatre. The stress of ministry even resulted in him having a heart attack. But not only did he survive it he went on to be a very joyful person who was grateful for it all, the peaks as well as the valleys. His joy came from exchanging his will for God’s will.
Another common way that we experience a cross is when we are willing to sacrifice our reputations for His sake. If you have never seen the movie Chariots of Fire, put it on the top of your list. It is the story of a Scot named Eric Liddle who had a calling to be a missionary but before doing so he represented Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris (France not Tennessee). He was a faithful Christian whose tradition did not allow him to play sports on the Lord’s Day and so when he found out that his heat was on a Sunday he declined to run. Not even the Royalty could guilt him into running . He stood his ground and accepted the outrage. It ended up that he got a different race on a different day and he went on to win a medal.
The movie doesn’t tell you this but lest you think he was just being a legalistic Pharisee, there is more to the story. He became a missionary to China and was captured by the Japanese during World War II and placed in a concentration camp. At the camp he refereed a children’s field hockey match on the Lord’s Day because that was the most loving and helpful way to serve the children. He died of an inoperable brain tumor while still in the camp. One of his companions said of him, “He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” Eric found the way of the cross to be life and peace.
I don’t think that the Lord plays games with us. You will know what your particular cross is when He shows it to you and it will be up to you to take it up or not. But keep in mind. To go from vision to fulfillment requires sacrifice.
But there is an added and surprising benefit to sacrifice and that is that it leads to godliness. I learned this from Dave Ramsey while going through Financial Peace University. Dave has an expression, “Live now like no one else so that later you can live and give like no one else.” What he means by this is that we are to sacrifice now so that later we can live well and be ridiculously generous.
Done correctly sacrifice leads to generosity and for us as Christians this is a very important quality to develop because it is a hallmark of God. I recently read a Tim Keller Book called The Prodigal God and he used this term to describe God because one definition of “prodigal” is to be “recklessly extravagant.” Keller’s point is that in sending His Son to die for us God seems to fall in that category…and aren’t we grateful for such extravagance. So sacrifice leads to generosity and generosity to godliness.
This brings me to my last point about walking the way of the cross that takes us from vision to fulfillment. Walking the way of the cross is how we obey the Scriptural command to put on Christ. St. Paul says in Romans “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provisions for the flesh.”
And the reason that is so important is because putting on Christ is how we are properly dressed for the wedding feast of the Lamb. And why is that important? “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’…then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness.’”
The way of the cross that results in our putting on Christ is a middle way that avoids two ditches. One ditch is self-righteousness. The Bible is clear. “There is none righteous no not one.” So if we think that our good works will get us into the wedding feast then we are sorely mistaken.
But the other ditch, the other mistaken notion, is that there is no need to put on Christ because 30 years ago I was baptized or said the sinners prayer and therefore I have my ticket punched. It not a punched ticket that gets you into the wedding feast, it is the proper garment and the proper garment is to be clothed in Christ. We clothe ourselves in Him when we walk the way of the cross.
Isaiah and St. John give us a vision of our future that should inspire our daily lives. The vision is so glorious that it makes the way of the cross the way of life and peace. This vision keeps us from being too entangled in this world and helps us establish proper priorities for our lives. The Eucharist that we celebrate each week is a foreshadowing of and a participation in that wedding feast. It is God’s promise to us, as Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”