Isaiah 1: Israel on Trial

After our intro to prophets broadly speaking, we began our series on the Prophets of Young and Old in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is the first book of the prophets and the reading comes from the very first chapter. Chapter one is a kind of introduction (imagine that) to the book of Isaiah, where the prophet puts it all out on the table, holds nothing back. Imagine Isaiah, speaking this sermon, this word from God, in the temple courts.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
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.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
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.

12 When you come to appear before me,*
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 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.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

18 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.
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.

When I was a kid, Perry Mason and Matlock reruns played every weekday from noon to one and from one to two. During the summertime, we would come in from outside, plop our tired, sweaty bodies on uncomfortable wooden stools, and eat lunch with our eyes glued to the 10-inch square white television. I’m not really sure why we watched one or sometimes two hours of dramatic, courtroom TV. As I think back on it, I can’t really figure out what would be so interesting about over-the-top lawyer shows to school age kids. Perhaps the intrigue, the mystery, “the anything can happen” kind of plot. Once you’re in the courtroom…it’s all up in the air. No one knows what the outcome will be. Suspense. Mystery. In the last five minutes, Mr. Mason or Mr. Matlock inevitably conjures up one final piece of evidence that secures the verdict in their direction. Guilty. Not guilty.

Israel is on trial in Isaiah 1 and God is the prosecutor. Unlike the lawyer, courtroom shows, who find a last piece of evidence in the remaining five minutes of the show, God puts all the evidence for Israel’s infidelity on the table from the moment the trial begins. What has brought Israel to the witness stand? Their rebellion against God. What is the nature of this rebellion? The content of their worship—the recurring conflict between how Israel acts on Sunday and how Israel treats their neighbor on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The prosecutor God doesn’t hold back feelings about their so called worship: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?, says the Lord. I have had enough! You come before me with your sacrifices in worship, who asked this of you? Surely, not I! This is not what I want! Where did you get the idea that these are the sacrifices I asked for? I do not delight in these gifts!”

Somewhere along the line, Israel’s sacrifices, what they were doing to worship God, morphed into something that God didn’t ask for at all! Somehow, they got away from the essence of what God desires. They thought they were excellent worshippers, sacrificing great things for God. But the problem was, they were following rules, guidelines for worship and sacrifices, that were basically, made up! These sacrificial ideas came from human origin, likely couched in good intentions. But the prosecutor God rejects these made-up rules, these false sacrifices. The Lord says, “Trample my courts no more! I cannot endure your solemn services of worship. Your religious festivals, conferences, assemblies, and revivals—my soul hates.”

How did Israel get here…get to this point? They couldn’t have done this on purpose! Where did their sacrifices go wrong? True, purchasing the appropriately sized ram or bull does take the better part of a Saturday, not to mention the financial commitment. Someone has to feed the beasts until they are the proper weight for sacrifice…it’s not your problem if the farmers and herders aren’t paid a living wage. With all the time it takes to worship in the temple, who has time plead for the widow? Her family should take care of her anyway. Israel was just busy doing all the right things—serving God, making sacrifices, obeying the rules, ensuring the best, most dynamic, cutting edge worship practices were taking place in the temple. To this Israel, who believes they are doing all the right things, God asks, “Who told you these were the right sacrifices, the right things? Who asked this of you? Not me!”

God’s prosecution of guilty Israel beckons us to also evaluate the sacrifices we make for God. We too are a worshipping community, professing the God of Israel as the one true God. We too make sacrifices for the sake of our faith and the sake of our church.

Did you spend years waking up 15 minutes early on Sunday to make sure your clothes were ironed for church? Sacrifice.
On Superbowl Sunday, we tevo the game so that we can still meet for church, instead of rescheduling. Sacrifice.
Perhaps some of us stood for an hour or two in the rain and humidity to protest the legislature on Moral Monday. Sacrifice.
Did you avoid school dances, movie watching and card games until the your church discerned the Spirit’s movement that these things are now reasonable in some instances? Sacrifice.
Have you or someone you know taken the time to change your Facebook status once a week to include a verse or a statement of faith and then in the month of November, update it every day so that God knows the things you’re thankful for! Sacrifice!
Do you not vocalize all of your thoughts about people you don’t like, but instead keep those thoughts to yourself because of your Christian love? Sacrifice.
I paid, or rather, am still paying, for a top theological education at Duke Divinity school. Sacrifice.
That money you gave in jubilee last year, could’ve bought you a 50” HD flat screen and put surround sound in your living room. Sacrifice.

The question that God asked Israel now comes to us. Are these sacrifices the that God has asked of us? Who made these rules?! What if these sacrifices, like those of the on-trial nation of Israel, totally miss what God has asked of us? What if, like Israel, God says to us, “I loathe your music. Your sermons…they disgust me. Your communion bread stinks. I hate your worship.” Why? Is it because God literally hates what are doing in church, sacrificing our precious time for worship? I don’t think that’s quite it. What breaks God’s heart is when God’s people are more concerned with doing the “right thing” than caring for one another! What breaks God’s heart is when we forget what God has asked of us and instead follow the human guidebook for “right Christian living” or “how to be successful.” The sacrifices we offer to God must not be a list of checked boxes. Did you give away money? Check yes. Did you iron? Check yes. Did you cheat, lie, curse or steal? Check no.

What then does God want from Israel…from us? The prophet Micah asks this question directly: “What does the Lord require of you?” Ironed clothes? A long list of things you don’t do? Constant busyness?
No. Here is what the Lord requires. Micah says, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The prosecutor God of Isaiah 1 makes some harsh accusations. They are hard to read and hard to wrestle with. They cause us to take an inventory—to think and question what we do and what we don’t do. But there is hope. God is not only the prosecutor in this court room, God is also the judge; the one who makes the final call, the one who has the last word, the one who shows an abundance of grace and mercy. All is not lost. The verdict has not been cast. God’s word to Israel shifts. After the harsh accusations, after the honest truth has been spoken, God offers another way. Here is what God requires of you, Israel, and us, church:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God offers Israel abundant grace. God offers Israel another way, another chance, another opportunity. God reminds them and us that our worship is marked by so much more than a list of sacrifices, rule following, box checking, and do’s and don’ts. That’s good news because I hate to iron, but I love to dance! Every time we listen to someone that’s on the margins and treat them with dignity, that act is a proclamation that Jesus is Lord. You’re my God! That’s worship! Every time we choose to stand for the least of these, we proclaim Jesus is Lord! When we visit the elderly, write to the sick, shower a child in love and belonging, we proclaim, Jesus is Lord! When we invite people into our homes, to sit at our table, we proclaim, in that act, Jesus is Lord!

What does the Lord require of us?

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