Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
1The 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.
10Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11What 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. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When 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.
16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18Come 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. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Sermon: Preaching on the Same Old Thing
You may not realize it, but you have a best friend sitting in this room, especially concerning my preaching, and his name is Clint. He gives me honest feedback in the car on the way back up to Prescott: The sermon was too long, (never too short), the sermon rambled, was unfocused, needed a good story or joke, got too political, but most frequently I hear that it’s always about the same thing: taking care of the poor and or sometimes that God loves you. He’s a really bright guy and I take him seriously and trust him completely. He’s right, it does seem that I am always preaching on the same old thing or things, and I own that. And today will be no different, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.
Now I had an especially formative pastor who once told me that every good preacher has only one recurrent message, one recurrent theme in his or her preaching. He told me his wife once told him what his was (this, by the way, is what ministry spouses are for): His recurrent message was that God is in the mundane—God reveals Godself to us in the mundane. All this pastor’s sermons somehow underscored how God comes to us in our mundane, day-to-day living and shares our common lot with us, and this is how we can know God best.
I know that my messages are often centering on justice and peace, on caring for the marginalized and poor, which is good for our souls—and also that God loves us more than we can know. But here’s the thing, every time I open my Bible, roll up my sleeves, and start reading, interpreting, and researching, I see that the Bible’s pages, whether they be Old Testament Prophets or the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, communicate the primacy of caring for the marginalized an poor again and again.
And so, I’ve chosen this summer to preach out of the lectionary, but just the weekly Old Testament passages, which thus far have covered significant passages from minor prophets Amos and Hosea—and you have heard about these justice prophets and what their messages were. Today and next week the lectionary has us explore two passages from one of the major prophets called Isaiah. And guess what! Isaiah is saying nearly the same thing to the people as were Amos and Hosea! And this tells me something. In fact, it recalls one of voices of my seminary professors who used to say that there were over 2000 passages in our Bibles about how, if you really don’t want to get God mad at you, you really ought not oppress the poor, the marginalized, the alien, widow or the orphan. Over 2000 passages! Conversely, there are only about five passages that may even allude to what we call homosexuality, but we’ve certainly spent a disproportionate time on that in our culture. Oh, for the day when the widely-heard TV preacher spends time defending the immigrant and disadvantaged in this world…And so your best friend here might say that I’m rambling, so I better get this focused pronto.
But I kid you not. Do you hear the echoes in Isaiah today of what we’ve been talking about in Amos and Hosea? And by the way, our sermons are now posted on our church website: www.myccov.com, under the tab, “About Us.” So, you can go back and revisit Amos and Hosea if you wish.
Our passage today is from the first chapter of Isaiah. In the first verse, we learn that Isaiah has a vision. Not only that, but we learn the historical period of that vision: These were the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the kings of Judah. This dates this part of Isaiah to 742 to 701 BC. In the first verse, we also learn whom Isaiah’s oracles will be against. This time it is not the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as were the oracles of Amos and Hosea directed. No, this time the oracles are against Judah, the Kingdom of Israel in the south where Jerusalem was and is. Then the lectionary has us skip over to verse ten, where Isaiah begins to cut to the chase. At issue in our passage is that Israel’s sacrifice system and worship were superficial in God’s eyes. Similar to what God said to Amos about temple worship in the Northern Kingdom (remember when God got mad about the people sitting there in the temple daydreaming about how they would make more money fraudulently off the backs of the poor?). Here, God through Isaiah is communicating about the same thing to the Southern Kingdom, Judah. God wants the people to hear that God strongly rejects the religious practices of Judah, even though God once required these practices, which were important; indeed, a lot of the OT functions to describe the requirements of Israel’s right worship in detail. So, what’s the problem? It appeared that Judah was following the prescribed sacrifices and burnt offerings okay. Judah was observing its prescribed feast days, new moons, and appointed festivals. But God says that these things are essentially meaningless now. The wording in verse 10 is thus, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? 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…In verse 15 God through Isaiah goes on to say, “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.” In short, God is unimpressed by their worship. At this point in time, God wants something else, something absolutely crucial, that’s missing in the people: And I think that is integration of worship and service.
And why is God so unimpressed with their worship? Because it is superficial; it is not changing hearts and lives; it is not translating to right living and right relationship among the people, especially for society’s most oppressed. There is no integration; no sense of oneness, unity, and connection among all strata of society. So, what is the aim of the passage? Yes, I’m preaching on the same old thing again: We find out what God really wants of the people in verses 16-17: Verse 16 says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes: cease to do evil, learn to do good.” And what is it to cease to do evil and learn to do good per this passage in Isaiah and in about 2000 other passages in our Bibles? Well, we will keep reading in verse 17: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” See, it’s not just me and my repetitive preaching about justice and the oppressed and the orphan and the widow. Sometimes I wish more sermon topics were being suggested by the biblical texts. But see, it’s right there; and it’s everywhere else in the Bible.
Please know that good preaching, biblical preaching anyway, never begins as an idea in the pastor’s head. He or she is not supposed to jump around in the Bible proof-texting this idea or that self-generated idea. Preaching must start with a text and the topic suggested by the text. And then you should hear what that text meant then, and next you should hear if and how it translates into our time: what it can mean now. And we also have to see how the rest of the biblical canon backs up the point. And by the way, the point today is heartily backed up—over 2000 times! Then we ask, how do we churchgoers in 2019, in an era when children and families of another skin color are locked in cages and shooters go on horrific rampages, and American individualism and arrogance are undermining what once was a more civil society, how do we apply that text to our lives today? How is it relevant now? That part gets to what we call the application. Oh, and darn, that can get political. So, we pastors talk about how we have to speak out prophetically, but ultimately, we play it safe and don’t typically name names. We don’t tell you how to vote. That’s how our clergy retreat discussions go, anyway.
So, how does this text apply today? We Protestant Christians don’t have an elaborate sacrifice system as part of our worship as did the Israelites in our text today. We have our feast days, our holidays, our worship though, to be sure. We go to our churches as Judah went to its temple, we, like them, take up a collection and sing praise songs and observe rituals—though most of the rituals were and are different for us (we don’t sacrifice animals here). And God is saying to us through Isaiah that it’s not going to Temple and going through the motions that makes God happy. It’s not going to church and going through the motions that will in any way save us or please God. It’s not that you shouldn’t go, mind you, but you go to those places to learn how to be on the outside of worship; you worship to see the grand drama of salvation enacted again and again. You go to worship to integrate your life, to be hearers then doers of the word. Sometimes we say in the benediction, “the worship is over, but now the service begins.” You go to your places of worship to remember that all of humanity are souls created by God, because how we can forget this through all of life’s distractions. How quickly we forget our interconnectedness. Worship must inform our lives; what we glean from worship must be integrated in our service, our practice. There must be no disconnect between our worship and our living. Isaiah tells us that Israel’s worship of God was not informing their lives. And the litmus test is the same old thing: Israel, at the time of Isaiah, was not seeking justice rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. And I wonder if we are doing much better.
So, let me tell you about a little skit that I watched introduce a Ted Talk about taking the bible literally verses taking it seriously—lest your best friend here tell me that there was no good illustrative story in my sermon today. A man dies and is welcomed by God into heaven. The man says, “Wow, I’ve finally made it to heaven. I’ve worked every day of my life making sure I would make it here!” God says, “Welcome to heaven! Just a few questions to make sure you really belong here.” The man interrupts, “I’ve been a perfect Christian all of my life!’ God says, “Okay, then. Let’s see about that!” “So first off,” God says, “I need you to categorically assure me that you have rejected any scientific teaching that contradicts even one word of the Bible.” The man replies, “Absolutely, absolutely!” God says, “Great!” and then continues. “So, do you, based on the authority of scripture, accept that there are talking snakes,” to which the man replies, “I do, I do; they’re in Genesis 2.” “What about talking donkeys,” to which he replies, “Numbers 22.” God asks, “Unicorns?” and he replies, “Psalm 29.” God goes on to ask, “And what about hoards of suicidal, demon-possessed, cliff-jumping pigs,” and the man replies, “The Gospel of Mark, the fifth chapter.” God compliments the man and says, “Very good; I’m impressed.” God continues, “One final question then before I let you in. Did you do as I told you and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor?” And the man hems and haws and finally stutters, “What? Were you serious about that?” And God replies, “Very serious. So serious that I said it twice.” And the now-humbled man says, “Ooooo.”
And so, what is the point? The point is that we become really disconnected from what God wants. We get mired in insignificant details (that really don’t cost us much) like believing in talking snakes and unicorns only to reject the big picture of sacrificial living, because we deeply fear the most significant things God requires of us: To treat the outsiders well; to care preferentially for the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the migrant, the one who does not hold the privileged places that we do. We deeply fear that there are not enough resources to go around in order to maintain our own positions. We deflect our energies elsewhere by getting all hung up on going through the motions and mindlessly and heartlessly perform the rituals, thinking that they will somehow save us, as we cling to and get huffy about ridiculous details (things like insisting on saying Merry Christmas rather than happy holidays) instead of doing what God tells us over 2000 times.
It’s like a Methodist minister I know who did something edgy: During his sermon, he posted a picture on the big screen above the sanctuary of a small child in Africa, so thin you could see his hip sockets, obviously starving to death. Then he began to preach, and at one point in the sermon let loose a string of shocking obscenities. The congregation gasped, horribly offended. Yet, this was precisely his object lesson. “How is it that my language so offended you, but you didn’t blink when I put up this picture? What should offend you is how much that little boy and his village desperately need us right now. How much “offense” energy are you putting into getting a program going at this church to help end this famine?” See, this is Amos’ message. It’s Hosea’s message. It’s Isaiah’s message; it’s Jesus’ message, and I guess it’s why I keep preaching on the same old thing. Because ancient Israel’s society and our society keep failing at safeguarding the oppressed.
But the prophets never leave us without hope for change. The end of our passage today communicates a soaring hope. Isaiah, speaking for God says, “Come now, let us argue it out. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good on the land; but if your refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” Because we know that things often unfold like karma. If we neglect the least of these, if we are unfair, there can be bloody revolution. In these hope-filled verses at the end of today’s scripture, the Christian may even see Christ forecasted. Sins that were once as scarlet become like snow. But our works are still required, because the text uses that little, conditional word “if.” If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat good on the land, God says through Isaiah.
I remember when my daughter in early toddlerhood refused to eat at her high chair, turning her head away from the oncoming spoon. We tried playing airplane. We tried reverse psychology: don’t you eat that now! And we’d close our eyes and hear a giggle. “Here God speaks to us as a stubborn child. Come then, let us reason together[; or as the NRSV says, let us argue it out]. I have something wonderful for you. But as long as your head is turned away and your mouth is sealed tight, you can’t eat it” (Stan Mast, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-14c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary.)
May our worship never become ironic, unintegrated with our lives. May we never be unclean. Serving God often means changing our ways. We can only wash and purify ourselves by doing good, helping others, bringing about justice. This is what God saves us for; this is always the response to our salvation. That’s what brings about the kingdom come. A Taizé service on this passage puts it this way, “Those who get off track politically and socially and violate the weak and the excluded have distanced themselves from God. As the true ruler, however, God invites them to return…” (http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2007-09-01). May we never even stray. Amen.