Sunday 11 August 2019
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The text from Isaiah this morning comes in three parts, and so you get a sermon in three parts. In part one, we are told that worship is worthless if it doesn’t lead to social justice. In part two, God offers to let us talk through our situation. In part three, God offers us forgiveness and a transformed life.
Part One. The majority of this text from Isaiah is concerned with the upside down priorities of the people, particularly the well-to-do and comfortable of society. It seems that the people of Judah are doing everything right when it comes to following the rules of worship and making offerings to God. They are giving all of the proper sacrifices. They are observing all of the appointed times of worship, attending to all of the religious festivals. But for some reason, even though they seem to be doing everything right, God is unhappy with them.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
The first impression we often have of God’s rejection of this Judean worship is to think that the Judeans are worshiping incorrectly, or that God is somehow asking them to move their worship in a new direction. Maybe God is trying to tell them that the sacrifice of animals as a form of worship is wrong. Maybe God is telling them that their rituals are empty. This has often been the view of many Christians, especially Protestants.
But that doesn’t seem to square with the text that we have in front of us today. Yes, God is sick of all of the burnt offerings and the Sabbaths and the new moon festivals. But it is not because these are inherently incorrect forms of worship. Quite the contrary. It is not the style of worship that God is upset with, it is the result of the worship. The problem that God has with the Judeans is that even though they are putting forth all of this wonderful worship, it is not leading to social justice in the world. God tells them that worship is worthless if it does not lead them to right action, if it does not lead them to care for the poor, if it does not lead them to tend the planet, if it does not lead them to bring about justice in the world.
And that is certainly something that relates to our lives as Christians in today’s world. There are frequently discussions and arguments in churches about worship and worship styles. Do we sing older hymns, or do we sing more contemporary songs? Do we use a hymnal, or do we print the words on a screen. When do we sit, when do we stand, and when do we kneel? Do we use traditional language or contemporary language? What method do we use for taking communion and how often do we take it?
These are all interesting questions, and well worth discussing, but they are not the questions that are raised in today’s text. No, the message that we hear from God today is not concerned with what style of worship we use, but in whether or not our worship is effective. And the standard of effectiveness is not whether or not we enjoy it, it’s not whether or not it makes us feel better, and, surprisingly, it’s not even whether or not it gives us an experience of the divine.
According to Isaiah, the standard for effective worship is whether or not it leads us to act with justice. Does our worship cause us to deal fairly and justly with our neighbors? Does it cause us to look out for the poor and the oppressed? Does our worship lead us to care for the needs of our community? Does it lead us to call for laws that will protect the most vulnerable in our society? Does it lead us to defend the planet that is our home?
According to Isaiah, if our worship does not do these things, then it is worthless. If our worship just makes us feel better on Sunday morning but doesn’t lead us into service in the world, then God finds it repugnant. If our worship makes us think that we are right and well with God, but it doesn’t call us to do God’s work in the world, then God wants no part of it.
Because worship is meant to make us better disciples. It is meant to bring us closer to God, and being close to God means being a promoter of justice. Worship should produce the fruit of faith in the world, not just satisfy our hearts. So if we are coming here just to get our weekly fix of religion, but our lives outside of this sanctuary are not changed, then we are not right with God.
Which leads us to Part Two. The truth is that we are not always right with God. We don’t do everything that we should do. We do do things that we shouldn’t. We are not as good of disciples as we could be. And too often we leave the doors of the church on Sunday afternoon and go about our lives virtually unchanged by the message of God that we shared inside.
But even in the midst of God chiding the Judeans for similar faults, God says something very interesting. The version I like best comes from the New Revised Standard Version: “Come, let us argue it out.” In other translations it is rendered, “Come, let us reason together.” It’s not something that we often think about doing with God: arguing and reasoning. More often we think that arguing with God would be some sort of sin, somehow sacrilegious. After all, isn’t God always right? Wouldn’t arguing with God be rejecting the divine will?
But here God tells us plainly, “Let us argue it out.” God seems to want to give us a chance to state our case on the matter, to give our defense for our actions. God wants to talk it over with us, to give us time to share our side of the story. It’s a truly remarkable image of God, as one who is willing to work with us, who is ready to listen to us and our situation. And it is an image of God that we would be wise to pay attention do. God can handle our argument, our hurt feelings, even our willfulness. God would rather have us be argumentatively engaged than silently detached.
After all of that arguing and reasoning and settling of things with God, we are led finally to Part Three of our story. Even though we have fallen short of what God desires of us, God is willing and ready to forgive us.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson,
they will become like wool.
God can wipe our sins and misdeeds away and make us clean again. God can take out the stains of our guilt and make us pure and holy again. God can forgive us, make us God’s children once again. It is a wonderful mystery of faith that even when we make the worst of mistakes, God is always waiting, always ready to forgive us, always ready to welcome us home.
But God’s work in our lives does not end with forgiveness. It isn’t just about cleaning up our old messes and washing away our sins. God’s grace for us extends beyond that. God offers us a transformed life. God will not only blot our old sins, but God will also walk with us so that we don’t we do better the next time. God will set us on the right path. God will inspire us to do God’s work in the world. To care for the poor and the broken. To be good stewards of the created world that God has granted us. God will make us into better disciples. God will help us to do the work that we were unable to do on our own.
God’s grace is not just a get-out-of-jail-free card. God’s grace doesn’t leave us as parolees. No, God’s grace continues to work on us, to transform us into faithful servants, and even into beloved children. If we are willing. If we are willing to be transformed, then God is ready to do it.
So to wrap things up: God wants more than just good singing and nice prayers from us when we come here to worship; God wants our worship to send us out into the world to serve and to call for justice. When we do miss the mark, though, God is ready to talk it over with us, to argue it out, to reason through our situation and to settle things. And when we are ready and willing to follow God’s way, God will wash us clean of our sins and empower us to be better disciples. God is there with us every step of the way, leading us out of sin into a transformed life, and offering us grace all along the way.