Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019 – Isaiah 1:1,10-20 – Trinity, Winchester
As Christians, we say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it’s not always clear exactly what that means.
There are many answers. For instance, scripture is a record of God’s interaction with God’s people over time. Through scripture we come to know God and who we are in relationship with God. Not only do we believe that its human authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote when they wrote it, we also believe that God inspires our hearing of it today.
One of the specific reasons that I’m convinced scripture is inspired is because of its lasting relevance. Across time and culture, God’s word continues to inform our life together. For example, hear God’s words to us this morning from the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. (And, yes, I’m paraphrasing here…)
“I’m tired of your sacrifices. I have had enough of your burnt offerings. I do not delight in the blood of your bulls. Your incense is an abomination. Your solemn assemblies make me sick.
“I find your festivals burdensome. From now on when you pray I’m not even going to listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves! Start doing some good for a change.”
In other words, God says, “I’ve had it *up to here!* Get yourselves under control!”
These words are hard to hear. For that reason we might be tempted to write them off as water under the bridge, a travelogue of an ancient people dealing with ancient problems.
However, Isaiah’s prophecy is as relevant today as it ever was. Our hands are still full of blood. Not the blood of bulls but the blood of school children and innocent bystanders.
We’ve tried to wash them, but rather than searching for the cleansing rivers of God’s grace, we opted for the tears of blameless immigrant children.
Much like the ancient Israelites, our nation is at a breaking point. The question is, what are we as Christians going to do about it? As Isaiah says, the answer is much more than simply, “Go to Church.” We must also speak out—and act—in the name of God.
Mainline Protestants and Catholics in America often shy away from claiming the authority of God. We are nervous about the prophetic role of our faith. Our reticence to don a prophet’s mantel is not without reason.
Some people who call themselves Christians spend so much time damning people to hell that the rest of us have become conditioned to think that claiming God’s authority is a bad thing. In an attempt to seem relevant, the Church has forfeited its prophetic witness to fear-mongers and imposters.
Perhaps the reason that many contemporary Christians are uneasy about claiming God’s authority is because they perceive themselves to be inadequate. They don’t want to presume to know the mind of God, only to find out they’ve confused their own desires with God’s will.
This instinct is admirable—no one should mistake themself for God! However, you must remember that God created you, God called you good, and God entrusted you as a steward of his creation and his word.
So, while you don’t have to call yourself a prophet, you at least ought to act like you’ve read them, and you must share their message with the world.
Today that message is this: God is fed up with our sacrifices, our empty thoughts and prayers, our vapid rituals and festivals. Before you go preaching and teaching this message, understand that God does not criticize liturgical practices because they are bad in and of themselves. God criticizes them when they are unaccompanied by acts of justice and mercy.
Valuing liturgics is fine, but valuing liturgics over people is not.
Praying is a wonderful tactic for change, as long as you understand that true prayer is a way of life, one that informs the way you act in the world.
By all means, please, come back next week to participate in the prayer book rites that so richly inform our faith, but remember: while keeping the liturgical calendar is important, it is not more important than how we treat the least of God’s people. Our participation in these liturgies rings hollow unless we also “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”
Today is not about bad-mouthing liturgy. It’s about realizing that, no matter how we worship, when we ignore the urgent needs of those around us, we sin, plain and simple. The good news is that God offers us forgiveness anyway. Although our sins are like scarlet now, they will become like snow.
“If you are willing and obedient,” God says, “you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.”
We are tempted to hear this as though our own actions will determine whether or not we are forgiven by God. Such is not the case. We can never do anything to earn or to forfeit the marvelous grace of God.
In these words God is not giving us an ultimatum, i.e. “Do this or else be damned for all time.” Rather, in these words God is assuring us that with a little help from the almighty, we do indeed have the power to make things better.
Through Isaiah, God offers us a clear, honest, warning. If you do what I recommend, then your communities will flourish. Everyone will have the food, water, shelter, and love that they deserve as children of God.
If you do not live like I recommend, then your dire situation will persist. You will continue to live with the evil of inequality, fear, and guilt.
Today, and everyday, God invites you to repent and to commit ourself to what is good and just and merciful. You have the power to do what is right, not on your own accord, but because God works in and through you.
I know that you already know this. You know it because you know Jesus. In Jesus, God showed us that our humanity matters. God makes divine use of even our frail flesh. What a blessed thing.
I’m not exactly sure what I can urge you to do without risking tax-exempt status, so for now let’s just make it simple. What I’m saying is this: hear what God’s prophets are saying to God’s people, take advantage of God’s grace, and for God’s sake, do the work God has given you to do.