Our reading for today is arguably the most important of the Lectionary’s 69 selections from Isaiah, because it summarizes the message of this truly “major” prophet. Verse 1 reveals the author, place and time of this prophecy. Most significantly, it tells us why we should listen to the prophet—what he writes is the “vision” he “saw.” That is prophetic talk for “what you are about to read is a revelation from God,” not something Isaiah made up on his own, not the result of his religious imagination and theological insights.
Verse 1 indicates that Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings in Judah. Since his call came in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) and continued into the reign of Hezekiah, we can locate his work in the second half of the 8th century BC between 750 and 700. To place it in the context of larger history, the northern Kingdom, Israel, was crushed and taken into exile by Assyria in 722. Judah itself was nearly wiped out in 701, and the Babylonian Exile began in 597. Thus, Isaiah spoke God’s word during a time fraught with international danger.
During a good deal of that time, however, Judah was enjoying a boom time. James Limburg describes it this way. “Jerusalem just past mid-eighth century BC was a place where the economy was booming, the elite were basking in the prosperity of the Uzziah years, and ecclesiastical institutions were buzzing was sacrifices and songs. But beneath it all, something was wrong. A terrible sickness was eating away at the heart of the nation. Isaiah had seen it, and tried to warn his people before it was too late.” If that sounds like a not-so-subtle criticism of the current administration in the United States, you should know that Limburg wrote those words in 2001.
Verses 10-20 identify the terrible sickness that was eating away at the heart of the nation. Or to put it in terms that fit the mood of Isaiah better, these verses give us a preview of God’s legal case or complaint against his people, complete with possible sentencing guidelines. In verses 10-15, God strongly rejects the religious practices of Judah. In verses 16-17, God clearly spells out the justice and righteousness he requires of his people. And in verses 18-20, God summons his people into his chambers to offer them a deal that will allow them to avoid punishment. But he also threatens them with dire consequences if they refuse his offer.
God’s rejection of the religious practices of Judah could not have been more complete, which is remarkable given that God himself required those practices. Referring to his message in both prophetic (“the word of the Lord”) and priestly (“the law of our God”) terms, God compares his beloved chosen ones to Sodom and Gomorrah, those legendarily wicked cities that had been utterly destroyed in Abraham’s day.
This harsh condemnation came in spite of (or perhaps because of) Israel’s hyper-religiosity. Nearly every conceivable religious term is mentioned: sacrifices and burnt offerings, fat and blood, bulls and lambs and goats, processions (“tramplings” in verse 12) and incense, New Moons and Sabbaths and appointed feasts. The Pentateuch is filled with instructions about all of these things; they were an important part of Israel’s covenant obligations.
But God says that he doesn’t care about these things now: “what are they to me, I have more than enough of them, I have no pleasure, who asked this of you, stop bringing, detestable, I cannot bear, my soul hates, they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” God cannot be too negative about the religious practices of 8th century Judah.
How can that be? Has God changed his mind, shifting from a religion centered relationship to something else? Has he forsaken the sacrificial system that had been so central to Israelite religion? Or has Judah done this religious observance wrong in some way, using the wrong kind of animals, or the wrong ceremonies? Or were they not frequent enough, or passionate enough? What was wrong with Judah’s religious practices?
The last part of verse 15 reveals the heart of the issue. Earlier verse 13b had called their assemblies “evil” without specifying how they were evil. Verse 15 carries God condemnation to a frightening level, rejecting not only the rituals and the rules of their religion, but even the prayers of their hearts. “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” How terrifying!
Why? “Your hands are full of blood….” Well, yes, of course, from all that sacrificing. No, not the blood of bulls and lambs and goats, but the blood of human beings, of your fellow Israelites. Does God mean that literally or figuratively? Probably the latter, but it’s no less serious to God. Israel has been “killing” their fellow Jews and that murder made their worship detestable to God.
Listen as God gets specific. “Wash and make yourselves clean….” God is not talking here about the ritualistic washing prescribed in Torah, nor even about the more substantive washing away of sins. That may come, but first Israel must genuinely repent, which involves a change in behavior. In effect, God is saying, “Don’t think you can make this right with a bit of water and some weak words of confession.”
Instead, “take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” In what way? What specifically do you want of us, O God? Or to put it in the parallel terms of Amos 5 and Micah 6, “What does the Lord require of you?” In two words, “seek justice.” What does that mean? “Encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
The justice God wants of his people is social justice—not merely giving a piece of bread to an orphan or a new coat to the widow, but coming alongside those who are oppressed by the powerful in your society. The justice God demands of his people involves protecting the defenseless from powers to great for them, even if that means going to court for them so that their case is presented to the judges of the land. It may even involve pleading their case in the legislature, so that the laws take account of the needs of the marginalized.
In earlier postings, I have noted that many Christians resist this call for social justice because they think it minimizes Jesus’ call to “make disciples.” Pursuing social justice is seen as an enemy of evangelism, perhaps because some people who are committed to social justice are weak on evangelism, seeing it as cultural imperialism, as the imposition of my beliefs on people of other or no beliefs. In those early pieces, I pointed out that making disciples entails seeking justice for one and all. If we want people to follow Jesus, we must help them overcome obstacles to their discipleship, and some of those obstacles are embedded in the social systems in which we live. Thus, seeking social justice and “winning souls” go hand in hand.
Similarly, some people see a contrast between worship and social justice. The church exists to worship God, not to change the world, says the one side. No, says the other, what we do in the courts and the streets matters more to God than what we do in our holy huddles in church. These words of Isaiah seem to agree with the latter opinion, if we tear them out of Scripture and make them God’s only word to his people. What they really mean, however, is that true worship of God entails caring for the children of God, wherever they may be, whatever may be their condition. “He who says he loves God while he hates his neighbor is a liar,” says I John 4:20. Worship must lead to love for neighbor, because the God we love calls us to love them. And love for neighbor must lead to worship, because the work of justice cannot be pursued in our own strength.
That emphasis on our need for God’s grace is the import of the last 3 verses of our reading. Verse 16a said, “wash and make yourselves clean.” But that is not something we can do apart from the grace of God. Thus, God ends his stout condemnation of worship and his strong call to just living with a summons to God’s inner chamber. “’Come then, let us reason together,’ says the Lord.” That is legal language; you argue your case and I will argue mine. I will bring my accusation and you can bring your defense.
We know who will win the case. That’s why the next words are so surprising. God offers to do the cleansing Israel cannot do. Even if your sins are like scarlet (recall the “hand full of blood” of verse 15), they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” How can that be? God doesn’t explain that to Isaiah, but it must have to do with the work of God, since it is God who offers the cleansing. It will be the Good News of Jesus that announces a new Lamb and a new sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. But at the very least, Isaiah’s prophecy shows us a God who loves mercy rather than sacrifice and who, in his mercy, will forgive the sins of those who truly repent.
Verses 19-20 are all about the necessity and nature of true repentance. The two “if’s” loom large. “If you are willing and obedient…. If you resist and rebel….” The difference between “you will eat the best of the land” and “you will be devoured by the sword” is that little word “if.” You can either eat or be eaten; it’s the same word in Hebrew. While not denying God’s free grace and wide mercy, it is clear that repentance is necessary.
And it is clear that repentance is not just saying you are sorry. Genuine repentance has to do with the bending of the will and observable behavior: being willing versus resisting, being obedient versus rebelling. It’s not that we earn our cleansing by repenting. It is rather that repentance and its positive twin, faith, are the way we receive grace and mercy. If we won’t turn away from sin and open up to God, we can’t receive salvation. “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
It was John Calvin, I think, who called faith “the open mouth of your soul.” God is willing and eager to fill us with the salvation earned by Christ, but if our head is turned away from God and our mouth is closed, we can’t drink it in. We must turn back to God (repentance) and open our soul (faith) in order to receive the free grace and wide mercy offered to us in Christ. I can still see my children in early toddlerhood, refusing to eat, turning their heads away from the oncoming spoon filled with yummy food. Here God speaks to us as to a stubborn child. Come then, let us reason together. Let us talk about this. Use your head. Be reasonable. 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. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 11, 2019
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Commentary