October 30, 2022 Sermon, Delivered by Rev. Betsy Wooster
Federated Church UCC, Chagrin Falls, Ohio
Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 1:10-18:
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.
Let us Pray:
Reforming God, open our ears that we may hear your holy words for us today, words of honesty and love that deepen our connection to you. And may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable unto you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Wow, Isaiah really let ‘em have it! But, before we get to Isaiah’s prophetic critique, because you know a critique coming – unless your mind wandered during the scripture reading – before we get to the critique, let’s get our bearings on what it means to be a prophet.
What do we mean by that? The word Prophet?
A common understanding – or misunderstanding – of prophecy is that a prophet foretells the future, like an oracle or a seer or a fortune teller. This definition of prophecy is to predict things that will happen in the future – maybe even the distant future.
But that’s not a helpful way to understand prophecy in the scriptures of our Bible. The prophet Isaiah and other prophets were not so much people who saw the future clearly as they were among the only people who saw the present clearly and told the truth about it. And in telling the truth, the prophets speak for God.
Isaiah steps in as God’s voice to proclaim a withering assault upon Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, all kings of Judah. Where is Isaiah? Who’s he speaking to? Why’s he upset? And especially why is he upset about religious practices?
Isaiah is at the temple, the solemn assembly, and he sees the fasting, the sacrificies, the burnt offerings, the blood of the lambs, the making of many prayers. You might think that God would be pleased by all of these practices of faithful worship.
And I can imagine that people were surprised, shocked, at this message of condemnation from God. Isn’t this what God wants? They might say to Isaiah, and perhaps did. Doesn’t God want us to come to the temple, to join the sacred rituals, to lift our prayers, and to be assured of God’s presence and to be comforted in our relationship with God?
So why does Isaiah begin with this message of God’s rejection of all these religious practices? Because those religious practices had become, at least collectively, a false front to cover up unfaithful and unjust actions.
What God really desires, Isaiah proclaims, is that they make themselves clean, remove evil from their actions, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Isaiah is telling them to do justice, to be God’s just people. The religious practices should be a way to help focus and inspire them to be God’s just people.
Although we are talking right now about Isaiah’s critique, let’s remember how good and powerful the religious practices were at that time. Isaiah is believed to have been written in the 8th and 7th centuries before Christ. So put on your historical imagination hats and let’s travel back 27 centuries to picture Isaiah at the solemn assembly.
We’re at the Temple in Jerusalem, the first temple before it was destroyed and the new temple was built, just in case you have pulled up your mental image of the second temple.
The Temple was the center of people’s engagement with the divine power of God by holy ritual, including offerings of the animals raised in their herds and farms: rams, bulls, sheep, and goats.
It’s a little too easy for modern people, and maybe especially for Christians, to write off all of that ceremony and ritual, especially with burnt offerings, as out-dated and ill-informed. It was for them an act of generosity and communion with the presence of God. The solemn assemblies were reverent, holy and good.
Imagine the people of Jerusalem and the pilgrims from other villages and cities who arrive for these solemn assemblies on feast days: smell the incense from the Temple, imagine stepping into a building that is so thoroughly unlike anything else that you would experience in any other part of life – all of it speaks of an experience that is set apart and transcends the mundane experience of day to day life.
In the Temple, there is a sense of mystery and holiness appropriate to the ritual encounter with the divine majesty of God. All of these acts of worship are meant to be transformative in the lives of the people, and most crucially, their leaders. But,God sees how easily rituals can become merely rote actions. God can see if their hearts are not in it.
The rituals have become more about ritual itself, and less about transformation. They’ve been used to provide a false veneer of faithfulness on the surface of an unjust society. Isaiah is saying that if you peel back the fake oak veneer, that it’s just particle board underneath. That’s why Isaiah let them have it.
As we take off our historical imagination hats, we wonder if this message is also for us? After all, our scriptures endure over time and these sacred texts are speaking through time to us. Maybe they are asking whether our religious practices are transformational in our lives or are they rote practices? If nothing else, this text is a reminder that God calls us to fill our lives with actions that match our words.
Isaiah was speaking for God, criticizing empty rituals and calling for righteousness and actions that are good and just. He has let them have it. But there is an interesting twist near the end of this passage. We easily miss it, because we are so shocked by God’s anger and the sense of hurt that God is somehow not seeing what is in our hearts.
Isaiah says one more thing in this passage on behalf of God.
As it turns out, God begins with condemnation, yet ends with an open heart. Did you miss it? God says to God’s people, “come now, let’s argue this out.” Arguing it out means that God wants to listen to our side of the story. It also means that we are called to listen carefully to God’s side of the argument.
It may be God’s way of telling us what God can no longer bear, and yet has not given up confiding in us, or desiring relationship with us, or yearning for us to live our faith with the same energy we bring to the prayers and rituals of worship, yearning for us to live our faith both inside and outside these walls. No, God wants conversation. God wants honesty and conversation.
There are times when we need the clarity of God’s unambiguous word, but God has made it clear that it’s not the last word of judgement, God’s unambiguous words are an opening, an invitation into relationship with God that will lead toward transformation.
Hebrew Scholar and theologian, Kathy Darr, describes this as God leading us both to the radical rejection of evil and the active acquisition of what is good.”
The insight of the Protestant Reformation is that the church is reformed and is always reforming. The church, and all of us, are in a continual reformation to the active acquisition of what is good in the eyes of God. The Rituals of prayer, thanksgiving, and moral reflection that are part of worship are ways of focusing and strengthening those of us who offer them to do the things that will make a difference.
The idea of our rituals – whether the ritual is burnt offerings in the Temple or prayer and singing and dancing around the communion table – is that they reflect our desire for what God desires.
Our rituals focus and strengthen our desire for our lives and our communities to reflect God’s intention. Isaiah says that God desires, even demands, action that reflects what is right and good and loving, rather than empty ceremonies and cynical ritual.
Of course, it is not a choice between one or the other.
It’s true that thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s true that ritual is empty if it does not affect the rest of our lives.
Yet ritual, prayer, singing hymns, sharing communion, being together in community – all of these practices are God’s way of encouraging, inspiring and strengthening people to join with God to create the kind of lives and create the kind of community, and create the kind of world that God desires.
We come to worship, and we hope that the experience of worship is affirming, that it is comforting, that it strengthens us in the assurance of God’s presence. We have the feeling that God is in heaven and all is right with the world.
And we hope that’s true, but shouldn’t we also leave worship with the feeling that our lives are unresolved and this world is unresolved, and God is in relationship with us, always leading us toward a resolution.
Thanks be to God. Amen.