Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 & Psalm 50:1-6, 16-23
In our text this week, I think it is safe to say that God is a little more than annoyed with us, wouldn’t you agree? We just heard over twenty verses (which is just a small chunk) of the prophet Isaiah and the Psalmist proclaiming that we have completely let ourselves go, and that our sacrifices are no longer acceptable. “Why?” these people must be asking… “we have kept up our sacrifices to the Gods!” they might say defending themselves … “but this is how we have been taught to please the Gods” they might even be saying… and they are not wrong.
Ritual, offering, sacrifice… these are the foundations of daily life back then (and today, but I will get to that later). That was where the emphasis on reverence to God lay. It was the central way of communicating directly with deities. You bring your sacrifice, you stay in good standing with God, you go about your business. Even prayer how we think of it today, was not quite a thing yet… if ever there were prayers being spoken, it was usually accompanied with an offering, a sacrifice… some sort of mediation, to entice God to fulfill whatever it was that you were asking for. Think more along the lines of a transaction, or a bank account. If you stay in good standing, and nothing bounces when God goes in to cash your check… you are good to go.
So in our text today… in walks Isaiah, this crazy person who has been wandering from town to town… and he is saying “actually… your sacrifices to God? He isn’t taking them anymore… and in fact… he is disgusted by them.” Can you imagine? I would have been gobsmacked. What do you mean God “does not delight in the blood of bulls” or that my “incense is an abomination” to God? I have some burning right now!! Why? Why? Why? Why is this not enough anymore? These people must be asking…
And the answer to that can be found in the words of the Psalmist that we heard today… “you have cast my words behind you, you make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers… you give your mouth free rein for evil, and you sit and speak against your kin”…. OH… that.
Even reading it now, I always get a little bit anxious for them because I can feel their utter exposure… you know the feeling, when you find out someone was watching you when you thought you were alone?… there are those few seconds of terror as you wrack your brain to see if there is anything you should be embarrassed about? Well guess what… turns out there is a LOT that they should be embarrassed about. Whether through laziness, forgetfulness, or some malicious intent… this community had completely thrown out the other half of the faith their God had called them to. They had fallen prey to their convenient transactional idea of God… that their sacrifices would somehow erase the bad behavior and neglect of the poor.
It turns out that what they told themselves had been honoring God (and to be fair, was the popular conception of what pleased God)… was not honoring God at all… this transactional faith was instead creating a system of extreme hypocrisy, and perverting the true character and the will of God in the process. It became so bad that God sent Isaiah to say on God’s behalf, “Your sacrifices alone has never been the point, you are letting the poor get trampled, and I have had enough”.
How did we get so far away from the will of God? It always amazes me how easily as humans, we can trick ourselves. One way the Judaeans had completely gone astray was in that bank account metaphor… I would be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that that idea is still in the water all around us today… but the toxic, harmful assumption in that metaphor, is that God wants us to do things that benefit God… that somehow we have something that God does not, and that it pleases God when we can place that particularly hefty sacrifice in God’s account. We are confusing ourselves with who God is… God is not our boss, God is not a landlord, and God is not a business. How laughably arrogant we must be to think that not only is there something we can offer God that God does not already have, but that God would be that shallow to take it and run… God is not in need… God is in love…. With us. How sad that we are constantly forgetting that very important fact.
What Isaiah and the Psalmist are trying to tell us is that it was never the goal to do things that benefit God, ESPECIALLY at the cost of one another… God wants us to do things that benefit one another… that benefit the community, and build each other up… that is what makes God truly happy. If God is in love with us, then it only makes sense that God would want all of us to flourish. And when I say flourish I do not mean economically… all throughout the bible we hear God saying that what the kingdom really is is kindness to one another, mercy, honesty, empathy, sharing resources, and caring for the oppressed. THAT is flourishing. For a reminder of this we need only hop over a few books and look at the ten commandments. “You shall not steal, you shall not covet, you shall not kill.” These are all different ways of saying “be nice, do not be selfish, and build true community.” Since the new testament obviously did not exist yet, this is the God and the scripture that these Judaeans would have been familiar with scripturally. Their effort to appease God through sacrifice alone is violating the very way of life God has called them too. What good is an offering, if it came to our hands through means of extortion? How is the blood of killed animals pleasing God when they passed starving children on the way to the synagogue? These are the contradictions Isaiah and the Psalmist are begging them to see… and they are contradictions that still exist today.
And that right there is the beauty of scripture to me… it reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles, and that what we struggle with now, has been around for millennia. But it also reminds us that God is constantly calling us to be better, and to participate in the creation of a better, less hypocritical, world.
So how are we honoring God? As individuals, a community, a nation, and a world? Have we, like our friends the Judaeans, tricked ourselves into a hypocritical faith? Into complacency? This scripture causes me to ask “Where is my relationship with God right now? Is it only in ritual, or is it in the unscripted vulnerability that comes with helping others?” Neither are inherently bad, but am I leaning too heavily on one or the other? It is easy to fall, to become unbalanced, and that is not bad, that is natural, it’s human. I don’t think God becomes angry at us for our seasons of faith… but I do believe that God wants us to hold ourselves accountable. If we can read scripture and be honest enough with ourselves to say “oh rats… I think this is highlighting the fact that I have been negligent in this area of my faith life while feeling pious and holy over here… how can I do better?” … then I think God is very much pleased.
So as we step back into our lives at the end of service, I encourage you to take the words of Isaiah and of the Psalmist to heart. Ask yourselves “How am I honoring God? Is it through coming to church? Is it through helping the community? How do I balance out my offerings of time, money, participation, and service so that I am trying my best not to become hypocritical in my words and actions? These questions remind us that church is not a place, and that God is not contained to our sanctuaries. God cares that we are trying to be good people in ALL aspects of our lives… through work, church, friends, family. Church is everywhere, it is a way of life… which means that, THANK GOD, we are constantly being given new opportunities to love God and love one another better. So I ask again “How are you honoring God?” Amen.