Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah! 11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD. I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts? 13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me. New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly– I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! 14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. 15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. 16 Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool. 19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land. 20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. The LORD has said this. (CEB)
The Vision of Isaiah
Several years ago, Joy and I went back to Findlay, Ohio for Homecoming at The University of Findlay. And we decided to hit some of our favorite places to eat in town. So we had sushi at Japan West, where Joy had worked as a waitress. We had chimichangas at Olers. And we ate breakfast at a place called Breakfast at Marie’s. What made that breakfast memorable was the couple sitting next to us. When the woman received her omelet, she complained to the waitress that there was too much cheese in it. And the waitress said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but you did order the Three Cheese Omelet.”
Joy and I cracked up laughing. When the waitress came to our table, we jokingly complained that there was too much ice in our ice-water, and too much egg in my egg benedict, and too much bread in our toast. I mean, it’s not like the woman ordered something that was mislabeled or incorrectly described. It was a Three Cheese Omelet. But she was genuinely surprised and annoyed at the cheese in her cheese omelet. It wasn’t what she expected. It wasn’t what she wanted.
There is a vein of thought about worship among many American Christians that runs deeply contrary to what worship actually is. One of my friends in seminary described the phenomenon as “Church hoppin’ and Holy Spirit shoppin’.” It’s the idea that we tend to look for places of worship like we might shop for a pair of jeans. We’ll try on all different shapes, sizes, cuts, and styles until we settle on our preference: what we like, what we think is comfortable.
And, to a point, I think that’s okay. But only to a point. There are congregations out there that are abusive and hurtful, and whose theology is questionably Christian. We want to find a place of worship where we feel at home, where we can be a part of the community, where we are encouraged to ask questions, and where we can grow in our faith.
The point at which it’s not okay is when we begin to look at worship as a consumable commodity. When our primary reason for attending worship is for what we can get out of it, we have lost the understanding of worship altogether. That is the moment when we make worship about us instead of about God.
What is worship? What is its definition? Is worship something God does for us, or something we do for God? Is worship something God offers to us, or something we offer to God? Is worship something we get from God, or something God gets from us. You see, every time I hear someone say, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” whether it’s the sermon, or the music, or Holy Communion, or the prayers, I know I’m listening to someone who believes the absolute fallacy that worship is about them. If a person didn’t get anything out of it, they might want to consider what they put into it. What did you give?
Worship is not mislabeled on the menu. When it says, Three Cheese Omelet, it means Three Cheese Omelet, and it’s going to have a lot of cheese. When we talk about worship, we mean worship. Worship is, by definition, an activity. It is something we do. It is something we give to another: the creator of the universe. It is something we, ourselves, offer. It is not about us. It is about God, who is the object of our worship.
Now, the beautiful thing about worshipping God is that we do receive grace from God when we give God our worship. That’s how relationships work. Relationships are about giving and receiving, receiving and giving. It’s not receive, receive, receive, receive. That’s called selfishness and self-centeredness.
Proper worship has little to do with feeling a certain way during a prayer, or singing with the right amount of gusto, or going through a specific set of motions. Worship is as simple as offering ourselves to God, no matter what we’re feeling, no matter how good or bad we’ve been in the past week. Worship is an offering of self to God. When we do that, that’s when we’ve worshiped. That’s when we receive grace.
Yet, Isaiah insists that worship extends into the ethics of our every day. Isaiah, and a few others among the prophets, downplays the importance of animal sacrifice. One of the misunderstandings Christians have of Jewish sacrificial practices is the idea of propitiation, that Jews sacrificed animals in order to appease God. Christians often think that God would not forgive unless there was sacrifice. But that isn’t the case. Sacrifices were offerings. In fact, animal sacrifices were called offerings. There were burnt offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, guilt offerings (also called trespass or compensation offerings).
There were also free-will offerings, which were usually fruits of the harvest that were given in recognition of God’s goodness. That’s, essentially, the kind of offering we give when we put our money in the offering plate. We give a tithe because we recognize that God has been awesome to us. Everything we have is a gift from God.
Animal sacrifices were not made to satisfy an angry God. Honestly, that’s not a very positive view of a loving and patient God who is often described as a father, a mother, and a faithful spouse. The system of animal sacrifice was not designed to be propitiatory. God’s forgiveness can never be purchased by sacrifice. God’s forgiveness is not something one can buy. The New Testament goes through great pains to describe salvation in Jesus Christ as a free gift offered to all. Salvation is God’s action for us, on our behalf, not something we can buy or earn.
With the exception of burnt offerings, where the entire animal was burnt to a crisp, sacrificial animal offerings were meals that people ate with God. God got a portion, the priests got a portion, and the people making the sacrifice got a portion. Eating a meal with someone meant you were friends. It had to do with hospitality. It meant there was peace and goodwill between you and the person with whom you shared the meal. That same idea is tied to Holy Communion, which is a meal we share with each other and with God. We receive God into us in Communion.
The problem is, when you look at sacrifice as a propitiatory thing, it makes it very difficult for the poor to be forgiven of their sins because they can’t afford all these offerings. In fact, what Isaiah argues, here, is that animal sacrifice is less important that treating people well. Isaiah argues that God doesn’t give a lick about the animal sacrifices. What God really cares about is justice! Isaiah says, “Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (CEB).
More than anything, God wants justice.
Isaiah addresses the leaders and people as Sodom and Gomorrah. What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? It’s probably not what you think! If you’re thinking sexual immorality, that didn’t even appear as an idea until the Hellenistic times. In fact, Jude 1:7 is the only place sexual immorality is mentioned in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jude gets that from Ezekiel.
However, Ezekiel was using the example of sexual immorality as a metaphor for unfaithfulness, which is something the New Testament also does. When speaking of Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness to God, Ezekiel describes the sin of Sodom like this, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:49-50, CEB).
The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was that those with means did not help the poor and needy! That is unfaithfulness to God. That is essentially what God defines as the test of our worship. For the Jews, it wasn’t the number of animal sacrifices offered, it was whether or not people gave and cared for the poor in the land. For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, true worship of God has everything to do with justice!
Worship is something we give to God, and what God demands—what God has demanded from ancient times until now—more than anything else is justice for the poor, justice for the oppressed, justice for widows, justice for orphans, justice for the homeless, justice for the abused, and justice for the rejected. When Jesus taught that, when we throw a banquet we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, he wasn’t kidding.
We try so hard to tame Jesus down. And we’ve become good at it. We dismiss, outright, the things he said that we simply don’t want to bother doing. Oh, that Jesus. He says all kinds of crazy things. We would prefer to think that some of this stuff was mislabeled on the menu, that it might say Three Cheese Omelet, but what we want is plain and palatable.
We don’t want to think that Jesus was giving us a serious command to invite poor and disadvantaged people into our homes for dinner (Luke 14:13). We don’t want to think he meant we should actually love our enemies and pray for people who harass us (Matthew 5:44). We don’t want to have to do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27, 35). And we aren’t too fond of the idea that we should give ten-percent of what we earn to God while also working for justice, peace, and faith (Matthew 23:23). It sounds too difficult.
The thing is, when we start doing it, we find that it’s not really difficult at all. I know we get some of this right on occasion. As a pastor, I know we do. But God wants more than our bare minimum. Our community of faith, working together, could do so much more. What Isaiah’s vision speaks of as true worship of God includes living our every day with these things in mind: “learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (CEB).
The argument God makes with us at the end of the chapter suggests that God forgives our sins, not by purchasing forgiveness with animal sacrifice, not by earning it through doing the work of justice and mercy, but simply by receiving it as God’s gift to us when our lives come into line with God’s values. That’s what true worship looks like. A life that draws so close to God that we live according to God’s values. Worship is when we really and truly offer ourselves to God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!