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"Worship Charades"
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

This morning we visit ONE of the most--if not THE most--significant of the prophets, the prophet Isaiah. I have read that in the gospels Jesus cited Isaiah more than any other prophet, which lends considerable weight to the work of Isaiah.

So substantial is the work of Isaiah that many consider it to be not one book, but two, and chapters forty through sixty-six have been called Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah.

Some scholars go even further to argue that Isaiah is three books all tied together, that there is a “Third Isaiah” beginning with chapter fifty-six.

And if Christians know nothing else of Isaiah, they should be familiar with the songs of the suffering servant. When Handel wrote his “Messiah” he borrowed extensively from the fifty-third chapter, a profound prophecy of the crucifixion of Christ.

“...he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

But let’s go back to the beginning of Isaiah, the opening verse:

“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.”

And we know that Isaiah is a prophet, that this will be a work of prophecy, and that it will concern itself with the southern kingdom of Judah. We also know the time period that is involved. However, that period probably begins at the END of Uzziah’s reign.

Isaiah’s well-known call to ministry, which we find in the opening to the sixth chapter, begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”

Also, Isaiah probably did not live through ALL of the reign of Hezekiah, who died around 687 BCE. Nevertheless, Isaiah was likely very active as a prophet for some forty years, from about 742 to about 701 BCE.

As I said with respect to the prophet Hosea, that which we find in the opening chapter of a prophet’s work probably has a very good reason for being in that position, and we should not regard it lightly.

Well, we are not going to deal with ALL of the opening chapter of Isaiah this morning, but only about one-third of it. But still, I think it tells us what Isaiah was hearing as God’s priorities, and I think we can find reinforcement for this in other parts of the work of Isaiah.

The tenth through the twentieth verses of this chapter are dealing with worship--at least, as the Jews knew it.

“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”

Well, those cities no longer exist, and there are no rulers or people in them, so what is God’s point? It’s apparent to me that Sodom and Gomorrah here symbolize disobedience, so in a sense God is preaching to those who haven’t been listening.

Something like pastors preaching to those who aren’t in the sanctuary.

And then God lays it on:

“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.”

Now, we might have some trouble identifying with all these dead animals, but we need to understand that animal sacrifice was part of the religious rituals for the Jews.

And it continued to be for a very long time.

In the gospel according to Luke, when Jesus was presented in the temple at the age of eight days, his parents “offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

But I don’t think it was the practice of animal sacrifice, in itself, that was upsetting to God. Look again at the question God raises: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” And I get the feeling that God might be asking folks, “Do you think I’m keeping score?”

“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.”

When God says to not “trample my courts,” God is talking about processions, about parades through the temple.

Now WHY might that be upsetting to God? I think that this may be a key to some other ideas in this chapter. I think that God is raising questions about WHY there are processions through the temple, about WHY folks bring offerings, and about WHY they burn incense.

Do they do these things to please God? Or do they do these things to please themselves? Are they just showing off? And the same could be said about the multitude of sacrifices in the previous verse.

“New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.”

And now, for another slant on this passage, listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation:

“Listen to my Message, you Sodom-schooled leaders. Receive God’s revelation, you Gomorrah-schooled people. “Why this frenzy of sacrifices?” God’s asking. “Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves?

Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, who ever gave you the idea of acting like this, Running here and there, doing this and that--all this sheer COMMOTION in the place provided for worship? “Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games.”

And I think I hear God telling those folks: You have form without substance. You are going through motions that don’t mean anything to me.

But even worse, as will become more evident as we proceed through this passage, God sees folks going through motions as if they were intended to cover up their sins.

“Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.”

Eugene Peterson really gets carried away with this one:

“Monthly conferences, weekly sabbaths, special meetings--meetings, meetings, meetings--I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.”

As I said, going through the motions, as if to cover up one’s sins. “Solemn assemblies with iniquity.”

Indeed, I suspect that there are lots of folks who dearly love to attend worship services, and have a good time with their friends, as long as they aren’t reminded of their sin.

In fact, that was the single thing that got the early prophets of Israel and Judah in constant trouble. They had the bad habit of reminding people of their sin.

So how does God look upon the behavior of the remorseless sinner in worship?

“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.”

It’s an ugly image, but probably necessary. We all want a lot from God; but we frequently are not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary for God to respond positively to us. And even when we are prepared to confess our sins, in order to be forgiven, we are less prepared to repent of our ways and commit ourselves to new ways of life.

Actually, although God is taking a hard line in this verse, I think that more often than we deserve, God does NOT hide God’s eyes from us. God DOES listen to us. But it is not because we have earned God’s goodness.

It is only because God loves us far more than we deserve to be loved.

And God tells us what we should be doing to deserve God’s attention, to deserve God’s responding to our prayers:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good.”

And God’s cleanliness is not a concern for physical sanitation. Rather, it is a purification of the soul. We don’t like to think of ourselves as “dirty” people or as “evil” people. And most of the time, most people are not.

I really don’t know how much evil there was among those to whom Isaiah was preaching, but I think that even today, we can learn something from what he was saying to them.

God really does keep this pretty simple: “cease to do evil, learn to do good.” I really suspect that there is not a single person who does not have at least some small corner of his life where he could clean up his act. Or she could clean up hers. And pastors need as much work as anybody else.

Nor is there ever a shortage of learning to be done. God does not care how OLD you are. God does not want to hear you complain about learning something new. God insists, “learn to do good.”

But God also reminds us, as Jesus worked so hard to remind us, that we need to be concerned with loving our neighbor.

“Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Now, you’ve probably heard this before, and you may be numb to its meaning, so allow me to emphasize again: widows and orphans at this time in history pretty much had to fend for themselves. If children lost their parents and had no family to take care of them, they were on their own. Likewise, if a woman lost her husband and had no family to take care of her, SHE was on her own. There were no official charities or governmental organizations. But there were many beggars in the streets, and many of them were widows and orphans.

God continues,

“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.”

Now, from verses ten through fifteen God has been very critical, attacking the hypocrisy of the people’s worship, accusing them of leading evil, unrepentant lives, and closing that section of scripture with “your hands are full of blood.”

But then, in the next two verses, God carefully explains what God expects of them: cease to do evil; learn to do good.

So when God says, “come now, let us argue it out,” God is telling them, and us, “You can DO this! Your bloody, scarlet, red, crimson sins CAN become like the pure whiteness of snow or wool. You CAN change!

In other words, God does not WANT to be angry and critical. God would LOVE our worship services. If only we would clean up our act. But God is clear in setting conditions for us:

“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.”

Now notice that God does not say, “this is how I will punish you.” Nor does God say, “this is what I will do to you.” No, God simply says, “this is what will happen to you.”

I took the title of this sermon from Peterson’s translation, “Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games.”

But beyond worship, and beyond religion, in the eyes of God I think we need to be mindful of other charades or games we may play. In this text I think God is upset with our dishonesty, because it allows us to hide from ourselves.

It allows us to fool ourselves into believing how perfect we are, when, in fact, we are doing little more than playing a game, in form without substance, and not fooling God for a second.

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