August 11, 2013
Is. 1:1, 10-20
Many people claim to represent justice or want to enact justice. Before having an office here at the church I worked in the Methodist building which sits right next to the Supreme Court. Whenever something notable was happening at the Court I would know by the number of people gathering there to voice their pleasure or displeasure. Many movies portray someone who was wronged seeking “justice” which is typically merely revenge.
Our passage in Isaiah vividly portrays sacrifice, justice, and who will judge. Like a brilliant mural on an old building Isaiah paints a vivid picture of sacrifice, justice, and judgment.
As we make our way through this passage I ask that you keep the page open to refer back to. Many scriptures—but especially the prophets such as Isaiah and poets are full of elaborate imagery. This imagery not only grabs our attention but it typically refers back to some common understanding, historical event, or religious writing. While we cannot look at everything found here if we slow down and take a second or third look we will start to see the internal logic of the passage, the vivid scenes it describes, and the deep history it alludes to. We will practice of slowing down and taking a closer look.
As we read several themes emerge–Theme #1 –Sacrifice –or God’s dissatisfaction with the corporate official worship as practiced in Israel at this time
In the Old Testament sacrifice is a prominent form of worship. In order to be cleansed from sin before entering the temple for worship and as part of the worship in the temple many types of animal sacrifice were required. Because we have spent a lot of time in the New Testament sometimes we have a more negative view of sacrifice than the nation of Israel in the time of Isaiah. We are used to Jesus, the prophets, and letter writers criticizing the manner of sacrifice. We view sacrifice through the lens of the New Testament. While I think we should be reading with Jesus and the New Testament as our primary optic this does not necessarily help us to understand what Isaiah is saying and why he writes this.
The background of Isaiah and the prophets is the law. This is a set of commands and practices that were to guide the people of Israel in right worship of God and in just relationships to each other. One sample passage from the law found in Leviticus 6 is ,
[a] “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, 3 or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— 4 when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, 5 or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt. 6 And you shall bring to the priest, as your guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. 7 The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the Lord, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby.”
Such was the law. It provided a means for the people to “atone” for their sin—a way to repair the damage their sin did to their relationship to God and to others in their community. We see this passage command correcting the offense of robbery through repayment plus a little, one-fifth, to the victim of the robbery and a “guilt offering to the Lord.”
So the system of rituals, feasts, fasts, and sacrifices were commanded by God but in our Isaiah passage we hear God stating about these.
11 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.
God commanded these sacrifices and rituals but is obviously not very happy with them.
Which brings us to theme #2: Justice– For God to be pleased with the community—which is mediated through their corporate worship and sacrifice—Israel must “cleanse their hands.” Or for God to approve of their worship they must have Justice in their community.
Verse 16 starts by saying
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
Going back again to the law given by God we would see many injunctions and instructions toward forms of cleansing. While these may have had a practical value of greater hygiene these were primarily rituals in which the worshiper did preparatory washing for eating or sacrifice. If you travel in parts of the world where Islam has a major presence you will little tea pots around or spigots in public bathrooms specifically for these washings.
While visiting a tailor friend in Mararaba, a town close to where we lived in Nigeria, I heard the call to prayer. One young man, apparently running quite late, was running to the Mosque. While running he was performing his washing with bag water. He stooped, squirted water, and rubbed all while bounding down the dirty street. This cleaning has more symbolic ritual than dirt removal. When Isaiah states “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” his audience would first have thought of similar rituals. Verse 16 continues however with:
“remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
In this instance the cleansing is not a ritual washing but cleaning up of actions. Rather than do evil things do good things—the good things listed are seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. Isaiah is calling for a reform in action: this action is characterized by justice. What is justice?—Stanely Hauerwas, at theologian and ethicist at Duke Divinity School might say something like this–As socially minded people in Washington DC this confirms what we may have thought already—justice is a good idea. My job as the coordinator of the Office of Public Witness would seem to be for the purpose of seeking justice for everyone. I work with a lot of good people do work that seems to be quintessentially aimed at justice. The justice commanded in this passage is very specific: defend the orphan, and is based on right worship of God.
The string of reasoning and proclamation does not end with “do justice.” It continues with you will be cleansed. “Made white as wool.”
Which brings us to theme #3: There is the potential for judgment. Verses 19 and 20 read
“19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Yikes!—serious language. Why do we feel uncomfortable with this language?
There is a long history of Christians emphasizing God’s judgment. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” is said to have left people in the audience quaking. Not only have some seemed to relish God judging but many have tried out these acts of judging.
In his book “They like Jesus but not the Church” pastor Dan Kimball writes that he found one of the main objections he hears about the church is that it is judgmental. He notes that it is not that people don’t want to be challenged by Jesus to be better people but that Christians, at least as they have experienced tend toward condemning and judging. So there may be good reasons for feeling a little queasy about language of judgment—many times this has been misused.
In fact–Our judging is judged
A classic text we think about when we think about judging is Matthew 7
7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor,[b] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s[c] eye.
Similarly in James we read:
“11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.[a] Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?”
In both these texts we see our judging judged. There is, however, the image in the Bible of God as Judge. Judge sits over the court in judgment—to determine right or wrong, guilt or innocence. God who knows all and who is also merciful is the Judge of all.
Turn back to Isaiah—there is a big “if.” If is causation. If you turn. If you cleanse yourself—do justice—care for those in need—worship God in truthfulness. The purpose of this passage is to guide the people into the ways of peace—peace with God and peace with others.
The Isaiah passage speaks about a community’s life that is standing in the face of judgment, the criticism brought relates to the manner in which the community is sacrificing and living in relation to their neighbors who lack power and the ability to fend for themselves.
We have taken a look at a passage in Isaiah. Isaiah the prophet sent to preach to a people long ago who have little in relation to us. It is the risky business of the preacher to seek to find some application from such a distant text but we also read that all scripture is useful for correcting and building up the community so let’s think together what we may learn from this.
What does it mean for Washington City CoB to repent as a worshiping community and as individuals? What does it mean for us to act with justice? What does it mean for us not to judge but also recognize that God is a judge of our actions?
Brethren Nutrition Program—meeting need, resisting injustice—witness against a system and value of caring for self
Culturally, we are taught to value people for what they add. Much success is based on who you know or the possessions or degrees you have. CEOs are in part paid for their skill in an in part paid for their contacts—their networks. We want to know the people at the top. When we are acknowledged by them or are near them we find it exciting. On Tuesday I was at an event at the State Department at which Secretary John Kerry spoke. When I got back to the office we posted on Facebook about the event. I would likely not have posted if this was an intern making an announcement. Culturally we value knowing certain people because of their positions, power, and possessions. The Brethren Nutrition Program while doing something as straightforward as getting people food inverts this set of values. While providing food it is a prophetic witness of values flipped upside down.
I don’t say this so that we just feel good about ourselves but so that we can continue but only more so. How can we challenge the injustice of people living in such need just blocks for the Capitol Building? How can we take more seriously valuing our guests at the soup kitchen?
Re-read Isaiah 1:10-20 this week—Let the colors sink in. Read it several times. Read it slowly. Where does this challenge our worship? Are we bringing a true offering of praise. Where are we doing well?
Where are we doing justice? Where are we apathetic?