T HERE IS A STORY told about the famous golfer Arnold Palmer. He was asked by an oil sheik or magnate to come to Kuwait a number of years ago to lay out and then supervise the building of a golf course. Palmer went, built a magnificent course and was paid royally for all his efforts.
As Palmer prepared to leave Kuwait to head back to the states, the sheik asked him what he could give him as an additional gift. Arnold Palmer didn’t want any additional gifts because he had been well paid, but he rather nonchalantly said to the sheik: “Oh, well, give me a golf club.”
Can we imagine how many golf clubs Arnold Palmer has been given to try out or endorse? So Palmer thought nothing more of the suggestion; got on a plane and flew back to California.
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AT THE AIRPORT, Arnold Palmer was met by his secretary, whose opening question to him was: “Mr. Palmer, what in the world are you going to do with the West Shore Hills Country Club?”
No one has made me aware of how Palmer responded to this unbelievable gift — a gift that was probably only a small dent in that sheik’s pocketbook.
One can imagine, though, that Palmer wondered if there were some strings attached to the gift. What next would the sheik like for him to do? Or some other favor?
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CAN’T WE IDENTIFY a bit with Palmer’s suspicion about a gift that had been given and what are the strings attached? Isn’t it often the case that when a gift is given to us we wonder what the hitch is or what we have gotten ourselves into?
It doesn’t seem to happen anymore, but some time back I’d receive these invitations in the mail to accept an offer for a weekend or so at some resort in Timbuktu or some exotic place if only I’d be willing to sit down for a sales pitch on buying a condo or something like that.
My imagination went wild with seeing sales people locking a door until we agreed to commit. What were the strings attached to the free gift?
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HOW DO WE RESPOND to gifts when there seems to be no cost?
So, too, surely the people of ancient Israel were perhaps suspicious of King David’s annual gift of a royal picnic, which evidently occurred at the beginning of each year.
This was a picnic, not for King David’s cronies and the people who had his ear, but for all the common people of the land of Judah. They were invited to come and eat to their heart’s content the royal food that David enjoyed throughout the year.
All the succulent food of the royal house was put out buffet style; everyone was invited to come and eat on the house; to come eat without any cost or without any charge.
Obviously the people enjoyed the feast, but one wonders if even they, also, were a bit suspicious — what are the strings attached? How do we receive this gift that is so freely given?
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ISAIAH, THE PROPHET, used words from that royal invitation to invite all who would hear, including us, to another royal banquet. Hear his invitation again:
“Come, 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.”
Isaiah invited to a banquet all who thirst for God; all who would like to reconnect with God and all who have never been close to God. The invitation is for all of us.
Using words that are almost formula-like from King David’s earlier annual picnic, Isaiah flung open the door to God’s banquet hall and invited any and everyone to draw closer to God without having to pay for it.
God’s mercy is compared to wine and milk that one may purchase without money, without cost, without price. It’s on the house!
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OFTEN IN OUR SCRIPTURES, a familiar expression for seeking to be close to or near God is expressed by saying that we thirst for God. The psalmist in Psalm 42 expressed this desire in this way:
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
Everyone is invited to hear this invitation; the banquet doors are thrown open wide for all who thirst for God or seek God and his mercy. “Come to the waters … . Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
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ONCE AGAIN HEARING this marvelous gift offered to us, isn’t it easy for us to be suspicious of what is the catch? What are the strings attached? What does God desire of us in responding to his gift of grace, mercy and even peace? What are the strings attached for the grace and mercy of God that are given to us so freely?
The reading from Isaiah leads us to some sense of what the catch is by countering or balancing the free gift of God’s love and mercy with some strong imperatives that urge something of us. Hear his words again:
“Listen carefully to me (reference to God) … .
Incline your ear, and come to me; … .
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon while he is near; … .
let the wicked forsake their way … .
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
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GOD’S GIFTS of mercy, love, forgiveness, nearness are never deserved; can’t be bought, but the nature of the gifts is that they have to be received, accepted in order to enjoy the gifts. They’re such gifts and the giver is such a precious giver that his presence insists on some response. We don’t receive God’s gifts by driving by God 90 miles an hour with our busy lives thinking that they will fall upon us, But when we listen carefully, incline our ears, seek the Lord and on and on, God responds with life-changing mercy.
Yet do we want to receive the gift of nearness to God? Do we really want God to be close to us? Or in Isaiah’s words:
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy?
The late Isabel Rogers, one of the great teachers of the Presbyterian Church, in a study book for Presbyterian Women a number of years ago, quoted a famous minister from an earlier time, Henry Sloane Coffin:
“People’s preoccupation with their own interest is God’s serious obstacle. His cause doesn’t suffer so much … from antagonists as from the apathy of a mass of indifferent nobodies. Such folks do not vigorously oppose, but ‘sit upon’ His plans, not wishing to be disturbed.”
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IS OUR BIG PROBLEM that we don’t want to be disturbed by God? Is it that we don’t want our prejudices, our self-interest and our security to be interrupted by our God who “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly,” in the words of James the apostle?
What are the strings attached to a God who would bless us so bountifully and so purposefully that the prophet Isaiah would liken it to a banquet in which we can come, feast and enjoy ourselves and be close to God without any cost or any price? Seek the Lord while he may be found, says Isaiah. Let the wicked forsake their way and their unrighteous thoughts. Let them return to the Lord so that he may abundantly pardon them. The grace and mercy of God, when accepted and received, lead us to turn our lives around from being so preoccupied with ourselves and our ways and to be open to the working of God in our lives.
The string attached to God’s gracious gifts of his mercy, grace, presence is God’s call for our repentance. We’ve just about worn this word or concept out in our Christian tradition. It is a life movement that Jesus calls us to in rehearing the parable of the fig tree that for three years bore no fruit. The owner wanted to cut it down; the gardener asked for one more year.
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JOHN CLAYPOOL, a retired Episcopal minister, has written that repentance touches on something that is deep in the human heart — the desire for authentic change. The desire to be more loving, to be more caring, to be bringers of peace into the lives of others instead of spewing hurting and destructive words and on and on. There is something in each one of us by which we realize that we need to change and become more Christ-like.
That change or turnaround occurs when we receive the gift of God’s grace and love that is freely given to all who will receive it. The string attached to God’s marvelous grace, to come to his banquet is to turn our lives around and become new people — to perceive others differently; to react to others differently; to have different strivings for our lives. That’s the catch!
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HOW IN THE WORLD does this turnaround happen for those of us who are often suspicious of any gift and who are resistant to change, not wanting to be disturbed by God? Isaiah gave us his marvelous reminder:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
His witness is that our God is not stymied by our ways of thinking and doing things. In some mysterious way God works in our lives, leading us to respond to his grace and mercy. He leads us beyond our suspicion of what is the hitch, beyond our resistance to change. He invites us to feast on a new life in Christ — the same Jesus who said whoever believes in me shall never hunger or thirst; whoever follows me shall find life.
Most of us have seen on a wedding invitation or an invitation to a social event the short abbreviation: RSVP. It comes from the French words réspondez s’il vous plaȋt. In English, please reply.
The love and mercy of God are new and fresh every morning as the prophet Jeremiah once spoke. The hitch? The strings attached for us are: “RSVP.”