Sermon: Church. What is it Good For?
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
I was reading the other day and I came across this article that said “Chinese Engineers Invent Self-Cleaning Clothes”. Seriously, I’m not making this up. I wondered if it was written as a joke for college students or lazy bachelors, but seriously, clothes that will have the capacity to clean themselves. How you might ask? Good question. According to the study, dunking cotton into a vat of specially crafted “nanoparticles”, whatever those are, creates a material that self-cleans whenever it becomes exposed to sunlight.
In a test, the engineers treated the fabric and then soaked it in orange dye for 30 minutes. They then hung the clothes under simulated sunlight; and after a short time, the dye released and was able to be rinsed off with water. Amazing but true. I’m not sure what it does with regard to various “odors” that get in our fabrics, but at least the material would always look clean. However, it’s not a total excuse for laziness. One still has to hang them up in the sunlight and rinse them off. Some work still has to be done. This is a bit like what Isaiah is saying to Israel in our passage this morning. To be restored or “washed clean”, Israel is going to have to do some work.
Hear again what was read in our assurance of pardon this morning. “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”. Washed clean from all sin and unrighteousness. Visualize that imagery. As clean as freshly fallen snow.
It’s been a while for me now, but when Tracie and I were living in the foothills of the Appalachians in Tennessee, we used to get some really nice snowfalls. Because of our jobs, we usually did not have the luxury of just sitting by the fireplace and drinking hot coco all day long. Unfortunately, we had to go and shuttle people to and from work in our 2-wheel drive, wannabe Explorer. However, there was something about being outside in that clean, pure, snow, where all of the sounds of civilization just seemed to melt away. You really do get a sense of total purity. That is what Isaiah is saying. As clean as snow and as soft as pure wool. But there is some backstory.
In our passage, Isaiah is writing in Jerusalem during the reign of four different Judean kings, probably around 700 BCE. He is speaking for God who is basically bringing a lawsuit before the nation of Judea for their failure to keep the covenant. Not only have they turned away from YHWH to worship other gods, they have forgotten their roots as a people who were once enslaved and exploited in Egypt. In short, they have gone from being oppressed to being the oppressor and God is not pleased.
“Hear the words of the LORD you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah”! Words to both those in charge and to the people they govern. One caveat about Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of all the issues in the church today surrounding homosexuality, we have a tendency to categorize Sodom and Gomorrah with sexual sin. For the people in Isaiah’s time who heard these words, that was simply not the case. Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked cities that exploited the poor, the widow, and the orphan. It was not about sex but rather a failure of the people in these two cities to show genuine hospitality to both the stranger in their midst and to those in dire need.
That is what Isaiah wants the Kings and the people of Judah to hear. They are on the same path of destruction as those cities, if they don’t change their ways. But can’t you hear the King saying, “But Isaiah, we perform the rituals; we offer sacrifice to atone for our sins; just as we have been instructed; we are fulfilling the law”. To which God replies, “I have had enough of your burnt offerings . . . trample my courts no more . . . incense in an abomination to me”.
These are really strong words. Earlier I had asked that you either write down or just think about one of your favorite items of worship. These words from Isaiah, if they were being said to us today might sound like this, “I hate your worship. Your prayers make me sick. I loathe your music. Your sermons are a sacrilege. Who asked for your offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it!” [tear up your order of service]
God does not want any of this? But wait a minute. Isn’t this how we are supposed to worship. While it is not found in its entirety in our Bibles, the framework that we follow closely resembles how the early church set their worship. We have a GATHERING; we offer a time of CONFESSION and PARDON; we PROCLAIM the WORD; we RESPOND to the word with communion, baptism, our offerings; and then we SEND ourselves out into the world. It’s all very Reformed . . . Right!? [tear another order of service]
Okay, maybe we need to move to a more contemporary service. We will sing praise songs, have a shorter sermon, use PowerPoint presentations to share the message; and send out the service on a podcast and the internet each week. We will rock on Facebook and Twitter and we might even set up streaming or Skype so people from far off places can watch and see and share in our worship. [tear up another order of service]
Okay, we can do what some people are doing in other parts of the country and start having church in other places. We will go to bars during Sunday morning when they are not being used to try and reach those who don’t want to actually come to “church”. We will find the unchurched and bring church to their turf. We will go where no church has gone before! [tear up another order of service]
So, what the heck are we doing here? Why do we sing and pray and preach? Maybe we should just pull in the tables; stack up all the chairs; close the hurricane shutters; and head home. What’s the point of all this?
Well, according to our Reformed tradition, the reason we come together every Sunday is to Glorify God. It is our response to the Divine. It’s our response to all that God has done, in the world and in our lives. We praise, we proclaim, and we remember God’s claim on our lives and the ultimate redemptive action of Jesus Christ. It is where we offer ourselves to God and become equipped for God’s service in the world.
Here again the words from Isaiah. “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”. Your hands are full of blood.
What Isaiah was dealing with was blatant hypocrisy. People were going through the motions of the various rituals. They were making sacrifices for the atonement of their sins and then were going out and exploiting the masses. They were washing the outside but the inside remained unchanged. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow”.
When the prophets speak, you will often hear of the widows and orphans. In ancient Near Eastern societies, this was the group of people, because they were no longer attached to a male provider, were easy to exploit. In our day, while it might be the widows and orphans, we have to think about all the people, who for numerous reasons, get pushed out to the margins of our society and exploited. The homeless; the mentally ill; the immigrants; the uninsured; those basically “different” than us.
What Isaiah was proclaiming against was that disconnect between our worship and our actions. All those various ways of worship . . . traditional, contemporary, modern, post-modern, in this space or out of this space . . . can all be fine. They can all be appropriate ways of responding to God. But if we leave it here; don’t allow it to change us; don’t carry it outside of the door and into the world . . . then it’s for nothing!
James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his Epistle, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearer who deceive themselves” . . . “if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”. (James 1:22; 2:15-17)
Martin Luther, one of those in the Reformation Hall of Fame, hated James. He called it the “Epistle of Straw”. It is difficult. It creates a tension that can be hard to reconcile as we live into it. On the one hand we know that we have been called and claimed by the Grace of God. Not because we were good enough, or said the right prayers, or did the right things. Nope. Only by the Grace of God though the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. It’s God who says, “I will make you white as snow”.
On the other hand, we have been called to service and to action. We hear it in Isaiah and we hear it in the Gospels, and we hear it in James. Go. Do. Serve.
Maybe Grace is a little like that self-cleaning shirt. The shirt is us and the dirt on it is our sin. Instead of soaking in “nanoparticles” we are soaked in the blood of Christ. Our sins wash off based on nothing that we have to do. But maybe like the shirt, we still have to act. We have to take off the shirt; we have to rinse; and we have to put it back on.
Our challenge is to live into our new life. That was what Isaiah was proclaiming. That is what Jesus taught. That is our message. Worship is community transforming and world altering, IF we allow the Spirit to move us and change us. Don’t leave it in here. Go and Do.
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray, “Most gracious and loving God. We thank you for your Word which goes before us to lead, to guide, and to illumine our path. Help us to be doer’s of your Word and not just hearers. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.