Scripture Readings: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Faith for the future
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I was once Associate Minister in Currie, which is nowadays is a suburb of Edinburgh, but it was always interesting to talk to the oldest people who remembered when it had been a little country village. One very old lady told me once she had been worshipping in the same Church- Currie Kirk- all her life. And she told me how it had been when she was a girl. She explained that her family had to go to church each Sunday. Her father was a gamekeeper, and if he wasn’t there the laird would have noticed and he’d have lost not just his job, but his tied house as well. Homeless and jobless if they didn’t go to church.
Thank goodness, we live in a different age nowadays. There is no great cultural expectation that we have to go to Church. We come because we want to. It’s our own choice. And that old lady in Currie continued to come to church, not because she was forced to, but because she wanted to.
If we were to hold a survey and ask everyone here, ‘Why do you come here each week?’ we would get many, varied answers. Each of us would give different reasons for coming, even if some of us would find it hard to put into words. But surely one thing we would all have in common is that we would want to say something about faith. It is faith that brings us here, one way or another. Participating in worship is something which people of faith do- it is part of our faith. Even if we don’t think we have a very strong faith, even if we are seeking faith, still this is the place to come. We feel that here, in this place, at this time, we might experience something to do with God.
In our reading from the Old Testament today, the prophet Isaiah is probing the reasons why people worship, and what that says about the nature of their faith. It is a time of crisis in the life of the people of Israel. They have been invaded by powerful neighbours, and Jerusalem itself is threatened. But it was a religious age, and the old ceremonies are carrying on. Indeed, they might even be more popular than ever. To stave off the threats, to ward off instability, the people of Jerusalem are offering more sacrifices and prayers than ever. It is a very natural human reaction- trying to appease God in turbulent times.
But God, speaking through his prophet Isaiah, is not impressed. With heavy irony, the prophet proclaims that God does not accept their worship. God says to them:
Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals. I am tired of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats. Who asked you to bring me all this when you come to worship me? Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple? It’s useless to bring your offerings. I am disgusted with the smell of the incense you burn. I cannot stand your New Moon Festivals, your Sabbaths, and your religious gatherings; they are all corrupted by your sins. I hate your New Moon Festivals and holy days; they are a burden that I am tired of bearing.
God is telling his people that he is fed up with them worshipping him all the time. This is just the opposite of what religious leaders often say. Usually they say: you need to worship more. We need more people going to Church, we need more prayers and more hymns. Some people seem to count their piety by how much they attend worship.
But the prophet Isaiah is saying the opposite. He says that God is bored and annoyed by all our religious activity. It does no good. And why? Because Israel is a broken society.
At one point, in verses we omitted from the reading, Isaiah says that Israel has rebelled against God:
‘You are doomed, you sinful nation, you corrupt and evil people! Your sins drag you down! You have rejected the Lord, the holy God of Israel, and have turned your backs on him.
With all their religion, all their worship, still Isaiah claims that the people have turned their back on God. But surely a people who are putting so much effort into their faith can’t be accused of turning their back on God?
The old Temple worship, in which sacrificing animals played such a large part, must have been a messy affair. You could imagine that the priests of the sacrifice would at some points look more like butchers. And so Isaiah uses a vivid image, one which would have been familiar to the Temple worshippers:
When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood.
I think this is how it would literally have been. There must have been a point when the priest would raise his hands to pray, and they would be covered in the blood of the animals he had just sacrificed. So Isaiah takes this familiar scene and uses it as a metaphor, or a parable. ‘Your hands are covered in blood- but not just literally. You also’, says God, ‘have blood on your hands because of the way you live, and especially because of how you treat the weakest, most vulnerable people in society’. Because of the way they live, the people of Israel have blood on their hands.
And so Isaiah says on behalf of God:
When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves clean. Stop all this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right. See that justice is done- help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows.
The people of Israel has been caught red-handed.
Isaiah is remarkably precise in identifying what is wrong with his society. He claims that Israel’s troubles are down to their refusing to look after the most vulnerable in society. Because there are orphans begging on the street, because there are widows living in penury, because there are people who are discriminated against and oppressed, Israel cannot thrive. And no matter how much time and effort the people put into their worship, God will refuse to hear their prayers. Our worship cannot be genuine if, in the rest of our lives, we do not practice justice. If there’s blood on our hands, all our worship avails us nothing.
When Isaiah preaches like this he stand in an old tradition. Earlier, the prophet Amos had God say to the people:
The Lord says, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry’” (Amos 5.21-24).
If justice is not done, if we are not doing what we can for the poor and the oppressed, then our worship is not, cannot be, genuine, and God will not accept it.
A few years ago, I read an article about the famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people walk or cycle the ancient pilgrimage route to this small city in north-west Spain. But the author of the article was a bit cynical, to say the least, about the motives for today’s pilgrims- his article was headed, ‘The Pilgrim Way to Santiago is clogged by throngs of egos’. He wrote: ‘There’s nothing wrong with Santiago… It’s the pilgrims’ motives which are deeply suspect. Some want to prove their toughness, others to find an antidote to their dreadful, daily office-lives… Worst of all are those who get in touch with their inner selves…’ (Christopher Howse, Daily Telegraph, 6.8.2010, p24).
Like Isaiah and Amos, this writer was sceptical of people’s motives. Once, a pilgrimage had a spiritual meaning. Many people still see pilgrim journeys in a spiritual light, but this author had come across too many people for whom it was a fitness challenge, a self-help activity, a bucket list activity to tick off and boast to their friends. It’s about them- and not, as it was intended originally- about God.
For too many people, what they like to call ‘spirituality’ is a consumer item, and there is an entire industry devoted to serving their so-called spiritual needs.
And even the Church is tempted, I feel, to pander to that approach. Instead of challenging people with the real Christian faith, do we sometimes offer something lighter, something more palatable and less threatening? It is, of course, a Church that people end up in at the end of the pilgrim way to Santiago. I wonder how the Church authorities there manage to speak of the costly discipleship to which Christ calls his followers?
To a rich man seeking eternal life, Jesus once advised that he should sell all his belongings, give them money to the poor, and follow him (Luke 18.18-29). In today’s Gospel reading, we learn about why that is important. We are to be people who are not afraid, because we will not put out trust in material things. There are riches in heaven, says Christ, spiritual wealth which can never run out. The secret of life is finding security in the right place: ‘For your heart will always be where your riches are’, says Christ.
This is completely the opposite of what our consumerist culture teaches us. And it is the complete opposite of what much so-called ‘new age’ religion teaches. And it is, frankly, the opposite what how many of us think- even those of us who call ourselves Christian. As part of the consumerist culture, we too often find that our hearts yearn for physical, earthy riches. We, too, fall for the myth that we can be happy if we only have enough money, enough possessions, enough status, enough fun and entertainment. But the Gospel teaches us that we have to renounce that way of thinking. We are to rely on God and nothing else. Otherwise our hearts are in the wrong place.
Worse, we are complicit, too, in injustice and oppression. If we can buy cheap coffee, it’s probably because some African coffee farmer somewhere is not being paid enough to live on. Your bargain shirt might have been made by a child in an Asian sweatshop. Too often, we benefit from injustice and oppression. Inevitably, when we come to worship, we, like the people of Israel Isaiah first preached to, also have blood on our hands.
But even as Isaiah speaks of God’s condemnation, so he also speaks of God’s grace. Speaking on behalf of God, the prophet says
The Lord says, “Now, let’s settle the matter. You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool.
The Protestant reformers were suspicious of pilgrimage, for it looked like it was something which people did to earn God’s favour. But those mediaeval pilgrims were right about one thing. You see, you reach the end of the road when you arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Only God is able to clean our deep red stains as white as wool. Only God can offer us forgiveness.
New-age self-help is no good at absolving our sins. Self-help only makes us feel better about ourselves. Faith calls on us to change- especially to change the way we treat other people. Faith in God means obeying God’s will. People of faith will see that justice is done, that we care that the oppressed get their rights, and that the least of society are cared for, and not exploited. Faith call us to turn our lives around, and live as different people- people obedient to God, people who seek justice for all.
Turning to God means that we are reject the values of our consumerist, materialist culture. Our heart will always be where are riches are. If our heart is set on gaining wealth and belongings, at the expense of the poor, then we will have blood in our hands. But if we learn to do justice to walk relying on God alone, then our hands will be clean, and our worship will be acceptable God, for now our hearts will be in the right place.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo