Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 7, 2022
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Commentary
To get the full impact of Isaiah 1:10-20, you need to back up to verse 9 (left out regrettably by the Lectionary) in which the people of Israel say to themselves (in the wake of great desolation in their land) that with at least a few folks still living, they were not quite as bad off as Sodom and Gomorrah had been. For all we know, maybe it was a proverbial saying back in that day. “Better than Sodom and Gomorrah!” In verse 10 the Lord then picks up on that reference to those evil cities of old and turns the tables on the Israelites by addressing them as Sodom and Gomorrah!
Can you imagine something like this today? Suppose some members of Congress went on TV to say something like, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re a righteous nation because otherwise some of the things we’ve done might make us look no better than the Nazis!” But then suppose a pastor—who purported to be speaking for God himself—addressed those congressional representatives by saying, “Listen up, you Nazi thugs, you storm troopers in three-piece suits, you concentration camp guards sporting $150 haircuts, because I have a message from God for you!”
Well, that just wouldn’t go over well at all! One can imagine lots of different fates for the hapless pastor who slapped the Nazi label on American leaders but none of the imagined scenarios would be very pleasant.
You can only imagine that things didn’t go much better for Isaiah. And the reason for this is all-the-more dicey in that what Isaiah targeted in his speech was precisely the façade of pious religious practice. But few people get as hot and as hostile as the faux religious when they are told that their religion is a sham.
That’s the ironic thing about idle (idol?) worship practices: the genuinely devout are devastated in case someone so much as suggests that there may be something amiss with their piety, with their worship practices, with their devotion. Nothing furrows the brow of a truly saintly believer the way a whiff of hypocrisy does. Tell a genuine disciple that something is wrong with her prayer life, and she’ll likely drop to her knees in penitence and prayer.
But tell a true hypocrite that his devotion to God is as hollow as an empty rain barrel and he’ll likely slug you. He will tell you that it is you who needs to repent for assailing such a stellar devotee of God such as himself. But that’s just the charm of self-deception: it neatly insulates one from the truth. First you deceive yourself and then you convince yourself that you have not, as a matter of fact, deceived yourself to begin with. It is one of sin’s most deadly of double binds (and double blinds). The fool, they say, is often in error but never in doubt.
Isaiah came to the leaders of Israel and to the people and applied the “Sodom and Gomorrah” label, and you just know it went over like a lead balloon. “You think you make me smile when you come to the Temple and offer sacrifices?” God says through Isaiah, “Au contraire! I choke on the smoke, my eyes are red from it. You think I don’t see your hearts? You think I don’t look at how you treat the poor the other six days a week? How can you confess sins you don’t even know you have? How can you praise me when you so clearly have no idea who I am? The whole thing is a sham, a spectacle, and it makes me frankly sick.”
It’s dodgy to identify oneself with God, but I think that even on the human level we can understand why God is so agitated. After all, is there anything quite so maddening as hearing flattering words from someone you know full well hates your guts? If you know that so-and-so does nothing but run you down behind your back and undermine you in front of others, then if that person comes across just as sweet as pie to your face, you want to throw up (especially when it’s in the presence of other people who do not know what you know about old so-and-so). Or even if it’s not quite that extreme, we all know how frustrating it is to have other people assume you are on their side.
Suppose you have a deep passion for the underdog, an abiding sense of justice for the poor and the oppressed in society. If that is who you are at your core, then you know how sickening it is to have some greedy corporate tycoon speak to you in conspiratorial tones about how the poor deserve what they get and why don’t they just get a job, etc. If you assume I think just like you do—but if as a matter of fact quite the opposite is true—then your buddying up to me as though we are both on the same page is going to drive me a little crazy. It will probably make me angry, too. If you represent everything I am disgusted by in society, then your projecting that all onto me is more than annoying—it will feel like character assassination!
Surely this is all magnified for God. People who treat the poor as garbage cannot come to worship the God whose very character says that he pays attention to those folks most of all. And anybody who think that some worship is better than no worship are proven wrong by passages like Isaiah 1. God would rather be ignored than praised by people whose very lives are at variance with his core holiness and goodness.
This passage from Isaiah 1 is paired in the Year C Lectionary with Luke 12 and Jesus’ words to the disciples that the kingdom is theirs as a gift of grace. But Jesus goes on immediately in that passage to say that receiving such a gift means being diligent stewards of it. You cannot be a true citizen of the kingdom by grace and then live any old way you want thereafter. We must be watchful and by “watchful” Jesus meant more than scanning the horizon for the return of the master. “Watchful” means also doing what Isaiah says near the end of this passage: taking care of God’s special people, tending the poor, working for justice, and basically living as citizens OF the kingdom and not merely people who take comfort from knowing they are IN the kingdom.
Isaiah’s words to Israel likely did not go over well. The question we need to pose as preachers today is whether such words bother the church even yet today. Maybe we are not quite as bad off as Israel was in Isaiah’s time but the call to live consistent lives of discipleship comes afresh to each generation of believers. When confronted with such prophetic words, the question is whether we are called up short by them and so led to an honest assessment of our lives or whether we react with the eye-rolling anger and incredulity of the self-deceived.
That’s not a comfortable question to face but it is the one that confronts us in this text.
Some of us may remember the book Habits of the Heart and its single most famous interview with a California woman named Sheilah who had founded her own religion curiously enough called “Sheilahism.”
But when was the last time you heard someone like this say, “I made up a new religion by borrowing from Christianity, Judaism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Islam. I took the best of all those faiths, popped them into a spiritual blender, and whipped up a frothy new god that now guides me . Once I encountered my new god, he told me I had to repent, I had to clean up my life and change my ways, I had to devote more time to serving the poor and denying myself the trappings of the good life as our society defines it.”
No, that’s not the drill. A funny thing happens when, like Sheilah, you make up your own god: the first thing that god says is that you are just fine the way you are. Almost no one makes up a god who ends up being demanding. Hence it’s no surprise to find that the same people who tell us these days that they hate creeds, catechisms, sacred Scripture, and other pre-packaged forms of truth are also the people who tend to make up their own, always very convenient, religious ideas.
The moment I find myself thinking that Jesus endorses every opinion I have, I need to worry. The moment we find ourselves tempted to think that Jesus approves of every action our own nation takes, we need to start getting worried. The moment any one of us becomes so rigid in his or her conception of Jesus that we refuse to listen when we sense that even the Bible may be challenging our ideas, then we need to be very, very worried. Because the Bible, and the Holy Spirit’s witness to God through the Scripture, must ever and always have the final word on who it is we must worship.
That’s why I have always liked these lines from C.S. Lewis: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. God shatters it. God is the great iconoclast. Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence? Most are offended by iconoclasm. Blessed are they who are not.” Of course, Lewis did not mean to convey that there is no fixed reality to God. Instead, Lewis wanted to say that God will always burst our abilities fully to conceive of him. The God of the Bible resists neat formulations or easy packaging.
Really to hold in creative tension the full display of God which the Bible gives us requires a balancing act–sometimes it even requires a dumping of any one-sided pictures of God we perhaps once carried with us. The Bible reveals a multi-faceted, always surprising God; a God who is at once the Lion of Judah and the slain Lamb. He’s both. He is the fierce judge whose holy word is like a two-edged sword and he is the God of all grace who inflicted that sword on himself as a means to our being saved. He is at once the God who truly is “above it all” dwelling in light inaccessible and he’s the God who is close enough to his beloved creation that something of his glory can be seen in your flower garden.
The Bible constantly challenges us. So perhaps one way of trying to make certain we are worshiping the true God and not one of our own manufacture is to humble ourselves before the Bible.
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