Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20

We’ve been spending the summer with the prophets, and this morning, we hear from Isaiah: the most well-known, frequently quoted, complex of the prophetic books partly because it may well have been written before, during, and after the exile, and later compiled into one volume. So we get warning and judgment, hope and reassurance, restoration and resurrection, all in one book. Many see Chapter 1 as a sort of summary, setting the stage for the rest of the book – what 65 more chapters will further explore and develop.

There are a couple words in today’s text that run the risk of sending you down a mental and emotional rabbit trail that would lead away from the heart of the text. Isaiah calls out: “listen and hear the Word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom, you people of Gomorrah” … and, my guess, is, your mind is already off and running… making it hard to do what Isaiah is calling us to do: listen and hear. A lot more could be said, but the simplest thing I can offer, so that we do hear what Isaiah is saying in this context, is a helpful reminder from fellow prophet Ezekiel, who says this in chapter 16: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom [was one of the cities that God destroyed way back in Genesis]: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” So when Isaiah talks about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, that’s what he’s talking about – pride and wealth that become barriers to care for others. That’s important to remember, as we hear this text.

So, let’s listen now for God’s Word in Isaiah, chapter 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.
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
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.

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
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.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
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.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

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.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

We’re trying to supply sermon titles by the end of the week to Marybeth to get into the bulletin, and you’ll notice I didn’t… and this week, at least, But I do have a title now: “Questions for the Worshiper to Ask”

After reading this passage together as a Program Staff a couple weeks ago, one of us (I won’t reveal who), said, “I thought I got tired of church sometimes, but listen to God!” God is hacked off, here, at the people’s worship, and so the passage should lead us to ask: why?

And the answer seems pretty straightforward. “I hate your animal sacrifices – burnt offerings and bull and ram blood, your festivals and the incense you burn, these empty prayers you pray… they mean nothing to me, and you keep offering them.”

It would be easy, but a mistake to read this passage from the safe distance of condescending pity and disappointment: “Oh those ancient Israelites. Always bungling things up and missing the point.”

The text has to be directed to us, always, for it to come alive as God’s Word. And so we have to then ask: are there things that we do – for God… to worship God – that God hates?

We don’t really have animal sacrifices and burnt offerings or new moon festivals… but:

We do have tithes and offerings.
We do have thoughts and prayers.
We do have communion, and baptism.
We do put a lot of energy into vibrant children’s ministry or a re-energized youth group.
We do pride ourselves on creative and fresh music and theologically rich liturgy and high quality art and furnishings and architecture.
Many of us wear very nice clothes; we seek excellence in our video streaming experience and have poured resources into that; our worship services & meetings are arranged and carried out decently and ______ … (in order).

Does God hate any of those things? I want to say: well, no. I don’t think so. Not necessarily.

The problem for the Israelites was not the sacrifices and burnt offerings. God doesn’t object to incense or festivals, because they’re inherently wrong. No, in fact most of the things they were doing God had commanded in the Torah!

The problem was that the people were relying on these things to cover over the fact that they weren’t living the way God had called them to live. It’s that they’d allowed the rituals, the outward expressions of what were intended to be habits and actions that turn people toward God in worship and in love for neighbors, to become their worship, to replace their care for others.

A few analogies may be helpful. Imagine a husband buys flowers and writes a nice handwritten note professing his love, and leaves them for his spouse, once a week. “That sounds lovely,” some of you may be thinking. It certainly could be. But not if that action is a substitute for that husband ever listening, or seeking to actually be a partner; not if they are given as appeasement for daily physical or emotional abuse. Suddenly, that sweet action is seen in a completely different way.

Or imagine a mom buys ice-cream for her daughter and apologizes for yelling at her in a moment of frustration. And the next morning she screams at her daughter again, and after school buys more ice-cream and offers another apology, and the pattern is repeated again and again, and again, until that child grows into and becomes a resentful, screaming mother herself. Does that ice-cream, and those apologies, mean anything at all? Or would that daughter come to hate them as empty gestures?

How about a society that quickly and compassionately offers thoughts and prayers… or let’s make it a little less broad – how about a religious institution or community, who compassionately offers thoughts and prayers in the wake of a mass killing… and schedules a service for more thoughts and prayers in a few months, when surely there will be some more killings to pray about… without trying to take any action to prevent the killings, because any action might be seen as too political.

In those cases, otherwise fine or even commendable actions become offensive, appalling, abominations – to the spouse, the daughter, the victims, and to God.

We don’t necessarily need to stop doing any of those things – thoughts and prayers, great music and programs, even the sacraments… we just have to recognize that they are not, alone, the worship that God wants.

And so the other question the passage raises for us has to be: what are we being called to, instead, or in addition? If there are things that we do or don’t do that lead to God saying, I hate what you are doing for me… then how can we be sure to avoid that?!

Those of you who were here last week had a perfect summary of what we are called to, when Patrick preached on Micah 6:8: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly – in step – with God. Isaiah, in our passage, offers his own version of this: cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I had the privilege of spending all of last week with 12 youth and 2 other adults from our congregation, as we took part in CYM – Charleston Youth Mission – serving organizations doing great work in the Charleston area and learning about poverty, racism, and the kingdom or “kin-dom” of God as it is expressed and experienced in that place.

I want to share 3 examples of the kind of worship I think God, through Isaiah, is calling us to, from our time in Charleston.

One of the ministries that made the biggest impression on us was an organization called Closet of Hope. Half of our group spent most of Tuesday in an unassuming, unmarked house in a suburb of Charleston… filled with clothes that have been donated, mostly by foster families, to be given to other foster families. The founder of Closet of Hope, Kelly, is a foster mom who learned, when her first (of now over 100 children who have been in the care of Kelly and her husband) foster children arrived at their home that they often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs. She sent out an all-call to her friends and others in the foster care community, and, after a few months found that she was accidentally running an unofficial clothing bank out of her garage. Many storage units and a couple years later, the organization is now an official nonprofit, already outgrowing their new space. Foster parents and/or children can come shop at the house, with no limit, taking high quality shoes, clothes, and other items… for free. Our youth were told: “if there’s a stain, or a rip (not the fashionable kind some pay good money for) – if you couldn’t imagine buying or a friend buying and wearing the clothes, set it aside and we will donate it to another place. We want the foster kids who get our clothes to feel and know the dignity of having like-new clothes that don’t make them feel like an afterthought.”

The volunteer who trained and worked with us, Cassie (who I would guess is in her mid 20s), was there with her two young daughters. Instead of spending the day at a park, or in front of screens, or even with a baby-sitter so that she could work, or volunteer – she brought them with her (and it was clear that they do this, regularly). They’re too young to understand, now, but those little girls will grow up seeing their mom give her time, to care for foster families.
For Kelly, and for Cassie, their worship was the action in their lives. And that made an impression on us.

On Thursday, our CYM leaders took us on a walking tour of downtown Charleston, including a stop in front of Mother Emanuel AME church, the site of the horrific and tragic shooting and murder of 9 African Americans by a white supremacist just after a Bible study they had welcomed him into, in 2015. Our leaders told us that it was soon after this that the Confederate Flag, linked with the ideology of the killer, was finally removed from all government buildings in the state, and so that evening I took the opportunity to tell our group the story of Bree Newsome. Do you know about Bree Newsome?

She’s an African American activist and filmmaker, and ten days after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, at age thirty, with a harness and ropes and helmet, Newsome climbed the 30-foot flag pole that held the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, committed to removing it. Police officers were alerted to her presence and arrived while she was high up on the pole, and ordered her to come down. She called down to them in response, “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” She unhooked the flag, told the police that she was prepared to be arrested, shimmied down and extended her hands, and as she was led away in handcuffs, she recited the 23rd Psalm. The flag was back up 45 minutes later… but then (after much public debate) taken down again weeks later – permanently. Bree Newsome’s worship was the action in her life. That made an impression on us.
(One of our youth even noted: she’s a prophet, isn’t she?)

One more story from Charleston. On Wednesday night, we were having our nightly devotional – a time in which we could process and discuss anything that came up during the day – anything we were thinking about, inspired or troubled by. That night’s conversation began with observations about the differences between organizations and ministries in Asheville, and those we’d spent time with in Charleston… which seemed (by comparison, broadly speaking,) to be disconnected, doing their own things, not quite as hospitable and welcoming as it seemed like they wanted to be, or even thought they were. And then the conversation shifted. A few in the circle noted that our own youth group, at times… felt that same way. It turned out that many of the younger, newer or less frequent participants in our youth group expressed that they felt excluded, like outsiders trying to break into a clique of people who loved each other fiercely, but weren’t really looking to add more to the inner circle. Honestly, it was a hard conversation to listen to and be a part of, because there was legitimate pain being expressed, and pain felt by those hearing that they had inadvertently left others out.

And, it was one of the most beautiful, respectful conversations I’ve ever experience – not “youth conversation,” but any conversation. It took tremendous courage for the youth who had felt like they were on the outside looking in to speak up… and it took immeasurable grace and humility and maturity for the others to listen… and to not only not become instantly defensive, (which would have been my and I think most people’s instinct), but to ask questions with curiosity, and to seek reconciliation and form a plan to move forward in a different way. For those youth that night, their worship was that conversation – the action in their lives. That made an impression on me.

This is the kind of worship God is calling us to:
Learning about the needs of those God’s heart breaks for, and making our lives about meeting those needs, like Closet of Hope; prophetically speaking out against things that we know are wrong, like Bree Newsome; courageously speaking the truth about what we’ve experienced and felt, and humbly listening to those who have experienced things that we haven’t, like the incredible youth of FPC Asheville.

When we worship with our lives, we hear the hope and promise – the good news, found at the end of our passage. Listen again:

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.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

It’s not that we have to be perfect… “or else! God’s gonna get us! We’ll will be devoured by the sword!”
Isaiah, like several other prophets, gives the image of a courtroom drama, and in the case of Yahweh vs. the people of God, the evidence is on the side of the divine plaintiff. The arguments against the defendants – God’s rebellious children, is plain, and strong. The twist is that a guilty verdict is not pronounced! God, who is both prosecutor and judge, also becomes the arbiter, offering a way out. And we hear it throughout Scripture:

Align your lives with the one who is merciful and compassionate, who is good and does loves justice, who rescues the oppressed, defends the orphans, pleads for the widow.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has not only washed and cleansed us, but has shown us what it looks like to worship with the action of our lives.

Rev. David Germer
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina


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