Reading – Isaiah 1:1, 10–20
1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
I was not scheduled to be doing chapel today and this is not the scheduled reading either. The original reading assigned for today was one on which I have already preached, so I swapped it for this one from Isaiah.
I imagine that this is not a popular reading in the church, but I assure you that it’s on the lectionary. The reasons why I think this reading is not popular should be self-evident. Why should we gather to worship and praise God and then read that God hates our “solemn assemblies”?
Another reason this text might not be popular is that it might be described as self-preaching – in other words it is a text that preaches itself. The message appears so obvious that, once read, the preacher is left with little to do. But is that really the case?
The prophet does not begin with niceties; he starts by addressing the people as the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah. These are terms of abuse. Yet this form of address sums up the message; these are people for whom condemnation is coming. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were burnt up for their sins. It is worth remembering what sins they were guilty of. To jog our memories, we turn to Ezekiel 16:49, which reads:
“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
This sets the tone and outlines the message to come, that combining pride and vanity with disregard for the poor and needy is sure to gain God’s condemnation.
God rejects the sacrifices of such people. Their feasts are worthless. Their worship meaningless.
The temptation we all face, reading this in our own solemn assembly, is to read this as God addressing bad people who have turned away and who yet strive to be justified by God through worship, rituals and sacrifices and nice words about God. Such harsh judgments are not for us; they are for other so-called “Christians” who have blood on their hands and do not worship with a good clean conscience. We are better than them surely? Aren’t we?
Let’s read further. In verse 12 God speaks “When you come to appear before me”. This is indicative of the attitude of the hypocrites. They come to appear before God as though God is somewhere where we can go to present ourselves to God. But God does not live in some temple or church. God is everywhere, and sees our corruption day by day. God sees both the bad we do and good we left undone.
God also sees how we try to present ourselves in church on Sunday, wearing our best clothes and carrying our Bibles as though God will be pleased that we have ironed our shirt or dress, placed some money in the collection plate, and sung in the choir.
No! God is not impressed by our staged appearances. We are before God all the time. What, then, is the point of all these pretensions and posturing before God?
Is it self-justification? Are we trying to cover up our sins? If so, we take the Lord’s name in vain – we utter the right words, but have instrumentalized worship and in doing so we reduce God to be something less than God. If we do this, we are trusting in our works and deeds more than God. And we have created a reason for worshiping God.
This is should be a great caution in our nations today. There are false prophets and pastors offering reasons to come to their church. “Come to my church and be blessed”, they might say. Or, “Come to my church and be healed”, or “Come and gain a new purpose in life”.
But the truth is that we cannot make true worship serve us and our needs; true worship serves only God, it cannot be made by humans into something that benefits us. To make ourselves into the end or point of worship, inevitably means turning God into a mere means.
This does not mean that we cannot enjoy worship or that we get nothing out of it. But anything we get from worship must not be sought intentionally, even with a good will. Anything we gain from worship must come as the free gift we receive from God when we serve and worship him alone. It cannot be promised, anticipated, or manufactured in advance.
Further on, we read that “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” Here we see God making a double criticism of our worship.
Bringing our offerings to God is important. It helps the church and the needy, and puts money in its rightful place as something we can freely part with. But if we are giving to bribe God to turn a blind eye to our sins, we are fools. We cannot bribe God. God sees through such shallowness. God doesn’t want or need our money. God wants our lives. As Jesus said, we should love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37). In other words God wants our whole being to be be focused on God.
Incense, as used in worship, is sometimes thought of as carrying our prayers up to God. But the real use of incense was to mask the stench of a sinful humanity. But incense cannot disguise our sin from God. God sees our sinful hearts directly and cannot be deceived in this way. Incense cannot shield the stench of our hypocrisy or be a smoke screen to hide our iniquities. To think we can hide our sins from God is to only fool ourselves.
When we persist in our hypocrisy God even indicates that God will turn away from our us, even if we reach out to God and say our pious prayers. God will fall silent in face of our hypocritical piety.
But we should not despair, God’s silence can be broken when we return to God in due humility. We can and must try to break God’s silence toward us through repentance and true worship.
How can we do that? In verse 16 we see God demand that we clean ourselves up before he will turn to us. We must repent. The verse reads “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean”.
This poses a theological problem. Can we really cleanse ourselves in such a way as to be acceptable to God? Christians usually say that we are washed clean in our baptism, or by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Isn’t it Christ alone who can wash us clean and make us whole?
Christianity rejects the idea that we can reach up to God through any human means. This is what seems to be denied by the first half of our reading which condemns our human efforts at self-justification. Rather God reaches down to us to bring us to him.
Martin Luther, no fan of salvation through works, simply states that this verse says that we should follow the advice of the Psalmist in 37:27: “Depart from evil, and do good”.
That is what is required. We clean ourselves up by turning from evil and doing good. And we can always make a fresh start in doing so. We must turn from evil. That is the first step – do no harm and refrain from evil. But this is not enough. We must pursue the good and justice. This is obedience to God.
Well I could end here and my message would have been simply that we ought to worship with right intention, avoid evil and do good. We might add at this point that the ancient Israelites were foolish to try to justify themselves and deceive God. We might be tempted to think that we are better than them. But before we pat ourselves on the back, we should make sure that we don’t commit a worse sin.
In their attempts to be justified, the Israelites were addressing God, and in doing so were at least recognizing God’s importance. A potentially worse sin is when we try to justify ourselves in the eyes of other people. It is one thing to try to justify oneself before God. It is worse to ignore God and try to justify oneself before one’s peers, leaving God out of the picture altogether. This happens when we try to keep up appearances and live in line with human values and rules. But adherence to cultural and social norms which place us right in the eyes of our neighbor does not put us right with God.
God is not deceived by this posture. It creates another god to which we give all of our selves. This god could be culture, money, technology, or work. But neither God nor society are deceived by this stance either.
Let’s focus on the one true God with our whole being, avoid evil and do as much good as we can under the continual guidance on God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.