Hard words for a hot summer night

a sermon preached on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

In our reading from the prophet Isaiah, we have heard hard words for a hot summer night; words challenging all of the ritual, liturgical and priestly practices of the people of Judah, of the city of Jerusalem.

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

Jerusalem the holy city, set at the heart of what was meant to be a holy land and a holy people, now characterized as Sodom and Gomorrah; as being cut from the same cloth as the most debased and corrupt examples of a broken humanity that this people has in its collective memory. It is like calling a church a brothel, and at the same time accusing the government of being a mafia mob.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough…

I have had enough of the sacrifices, the festivals and holy-days, the offering of incense, all of the carefully scripted observances.

(T)hey have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.

Sure, these are things set out in the torah as ways for this people to express their worship and faithfulness, but according to Isaiah it has all become a wearying burden to God. “I have had enough.”

Which is sobering stuff to read in a church setting, and  in the context of observing this holy day of Sunday, following a liturgical script, even offering up incense. In the end, is this all a problem and a burden and a thing wearying to our God?

As Walter Brueggemann observes, there was a time in the Protestant tradition when these sorts of verses were understood as being an outright rejection of high liturgical practices and of all things priestly. Yet if, he continues, “we read on to verse 15, low-church practice fares no better in this indictment.”

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.

“God,” says Brueggemann, “also will not hear prayers from this distorted community.”

So what is going on here? What is really at stake? In short, it is all about a lack of integrity; of the connection between right worship and right practice, or between what we say and what we do. That’s what so deeply troubles the God of Isaiah. “Cease to do evil,” proclaims Isaiah,

(L)earn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

When it comes to the most vulnerable of the world in which you live, open your hands and seek justice. Integrate what you say you believe with what you actually do. And above all, don’t hide behind the practices of religion – whatever they might be – believing that in doing them you’ve done your obligation and put things right with God.

Isaiah is not launching an outright rejection of specific liturgical or religious practices, any more than he is rejecting prayer. What he is critiquing, though, is hollow and disconnected piety; any kind of religious practice that fails to connect with the needs, hungers and deeper realities both of the self and of the neighbour.

“I have had enough…  they have become a burden to me.”

We’re not much tempted to think that sacrificing a goat will set things right, so it is relatively easy to stand with Isaiah in condemnation of hollow practices. I actually think, though, that in our own contemporary context the point where this all becomes pressing has to do with the desire for personal experience. The quest of the spiritual high – the mountain top experience that people get at church camp or at a prayer meeting or worship night…. or maybe even in the midst of this place, with a particular piece of music and the scent of incense and the taste of that wine – I want that again.

But in a week or a month or a year the powerful personal experience? It is tempting to move along to the next experience, to seek the next point of contact with that feeling. Or maybe to write it off as a phase I was going through, and which no longer “works for me.” Hmmm.

Don’t get me wrong here. Christian camp can provide a pivotal moment for many people, as it did for me, and an openness to experiencing a sense of the holy in a gathering place is not a bad thing. Not at all.

But does it connect, and does it integrate? Do the words spoken and rites enacted and the felt-experiences have any resonance with what we’re all going to be doing tomorrow or next week?

And for all of the hardness of his words, Isaiah is finally a prophet filled with hope. For all that he understands God to be wearied by the distortions of the people of God, Isaiah also believes that God does want to bring them – and us with them – into right relation. Certainly there is urgency in his message – an urgency echoed by Jesus in his words about being watchful and alert – because this is important, soul-shaping stuff.

And the urgent question for us in this place is this: how will we take what we hear and say and sing and do this night in worship, and let it shape our souls for tomorrow?

Amen.

Jamie Howison

One Response to Hard words for a hot summer night

  1. It is good to have a sermon leave one dealing with a personal question, and not necessarily an all encompassing answer.

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