Dance of Death, Isaiah 55:1–5, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13), August 2, 2020
A Concordia Seminary professor, Dr. David Schmitt, described the first recorded history of the idea of the Dance of Death. He tells how the Treschel Brothers, in their printing of the Old Testament in 1538, included a picture of life after the Fall with a woodcut. In this woodcut, Adam and Eve are both involved in labor. Adam is tilling the ground and Eve is nursing a child. Near Adam, however, one sees death, a skeleton tilling the field. Near Eve, death again is visible, an hourglass measuring the limits of our lives. Death is everywhere, hounding our efforts and measuring our days, so that we “labor for what does not satisfy” (Is 55:2).
This woodcut was actually creatively appropriated from a much larger painting. In St. Mary’s church in Germany, there was a huge painting nearly 100 feet long, weaving itself along the walls of a small chapel. The painting filled the walls with life-sized figures in a chain dance with death. Death was weaving itself in and out of the figures, calling to them to “Come to the Dance.”
People old and young, rich and poor, from the pope and the emperor to the hermit and the peasant are invited by Death. Even gathering for worship, one was surrounded by the figures dancing with death. You never know when Death might extend his invitation and take your hand.
And so it was with Israel. Israel was a nation in need, living in exile and in physical and spiritual poverty. In fact, the entire last portion of Isaiah is written as comfort in anticipation of suffering under the rule of a foreign power in a faraway land. Surely that experience would leave some skeptical and many apprehensive about promises made to them that seemed too good to be true, even if the promises were made by God Himself.
I mean, who hasn’t heard it said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” “You get what you pay for,” or “You only live once”? In a world familiar with rip-offs, cheap imitations, and the fine print at the bottom of the page, it is difficult to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s Old Testament Reading.
The text presents somewhat of a paradox, how can you buy anything of value without money? Of course, the implication is that you cannot. Everything that is worth anything today has a price attached to it: bread, wine, milk, and even water.
Little has changed over the centuries. Today, despite deepening moral bankruptcy and greater social polarization, people are growing weary of all the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that clutter their mailboxes, litter their e-mail accounts, and consume space on their answering machines and offer some kind of hope, any kind of hope, for a better life.
Skeptics and cynics scowl in unbelief as philosophies and religions compete for our attention. More and more people are identifying themselves in the “no religious preference” category than at any other time in history. The Church, you and I, are faced with the challenge to try to express the Good News, and its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ, in any way that can grab the attention of the unsaved and strengthen the faith of the elect. Hey, you! Listen to this!
God’s people have long heard death’s call. Isaiah gives voice to the question that has troubled all people ever since the Fall: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”(2)
Why do we do that? Because that is all we are able to do. From the glossy magazine ads that litter our life, to the billboards that hover in the sky, our world is filled with those who are crying out to us: “Come and buy.” “Come and try.” Why? To try and make the little bit of life that we have satisfying, because, in the end, nothing will last. All will decay. Death will whisper its invitation to “Come to the dance” and all our labor will be in vain, all we have gained in this earthly life will be for naught.
In contrast to the Dance of Death, Isaiah gives voice to the Lord of Life. Like death, the Lord’s call is to everyone. No one is excluded. But unlike Death, the Lord’s call brings people life. The life that the Lord offers is rich and free, without money and without price.
It will answer the deepest needs of human experience, bringing eternal life to the soul. Most surprisingly this call is not new. It is one that reaches deep into Israel’s past and one that reaches out to embrace the world’s future, as all nations come to the one truth in the Lord Jesus Christ. Even “a nation that you do not know” and “a nation that did not know you” (5) will join in the feast, one day. In today’s text, Isaiah issues a call from the Lord of Life and His voice triumphs over the Dance of Death.
The prophet Isaiah has in mind something more than water, something more than wine, something more than milk, and even something more than bread. Clearly he is pointing beyond that which provides physical life and nourishment to that which satisfies the spirit.
You can see this contrast that is being drawn in the text between that which satisfies only momentarily and that which satisfies for eternity. It is in that, that we find the futility of seeking satisfaction from sources, which cannot provide it. Here is water that still leaves one thirsty. Here is bread that still leaves one hungry. Here is labor that produces no lasting result. The world is caught up in seemingly endless activity that can only be described as futile with respect to finding satisfaction of the soul.
Yet, God has prepared a victory feast, and has invited all to be incorporated into David’s everlasting covenant. The everlasting covenant with David was always to be understood as fulfilled in the Messiah. This covenant is one of total grace, initiated and fulfilled by God alone. Hence, whatever is offered is done so free of charge. What is offered is in abundance as it fully satisfies. Despite the buying and spending language, this paradoxical completion reflects His covenant of grace, without money or price. And the end result is that the guests become His witnesses to the world.
This moves us from mere physical eating and drinking, to the final Promised Land and to the fullness of God’s salvation. Now, from our post-Easter view, we see that the soul lives fully in the final resurrection on the day of Jesus’ return. The wine and milk point to the joy and richness of this meal of blessings. He speaks to us in metaphor and language we can understand and which contains His power to re-create and change us.
Everyone is invited and included because everything is free, such things as status, wealth, power, and fame do not matter. This call has not stayed in the promise of prophecy but taken on flesh in Jesus Christ. He came to dance our dance with death, died on a cross, and rose victorious never to die again.
Suddenly, the church is surrounded with a chorus of witnesses, you and me, who invite the world to life. God has empowered His total claim by His total gift. Jesus does not ask for anything that He has not Himself given. When He demands our whole self it is because He has given His whole self.
This morning, this cry of the Lord of Life is sounded. It is an eternal cry of salvation for all. It comes from the One who danced with death, died on a cross, and rose victorious never to die again. This is the cry that Jesus will raise on the last day. By the power of His life, He will raise all people from the dead and, by the power of His love; He will call all who believe in Him to enter into the new creation. Amen.
(Much of the opening illustration and the Dance of Death came from Dr. David Schmitt, Concordia Seminary Professor and Chairman of the Department of Practical Theology, and Gregg H. Benidt Memorial Professor of Homiletics and Literature.)