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Sermon for August 7, 2022 (9th Pentecost, Year C) The Rev. Steve Sturgeon

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN

Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the very beginning of the book

of Isaiah. Of all the books in the Old Testament, Isaiah has had more influence down

through the centuries than almost any other portion. It has long held a place of honor as

the first book of the three major prophets (Jeremiah and Ezekiel being the other two), and

while it is not the longest book in the Bible, it is possibly one of the most widely read.

Isaiah could be described as the ‘Shakespeare of the Bible’ given the beauty of its

language, and it has influenced numerous artistic efforts with the most famous probably

being Handel’s Messiah.

One of the essential roles played by the prophetic books in the Bible was to offer a

critique of the failures and shortcomings of people in their relationship with God. The

book of Isaiah begins with God literally bringing an indictment against the people of

Judah. In verses 2–9, which are omitted from our reading, God calls for the heavens and

the earth to witness a lawsuit in which God, acting as the plaintiff (and judge), accuses

Judah “of continually rebelling against its divine parent.” In the section we heard this

morning, God lays out the specific charges and allegations. (Katheryn Pfisterer Darr,

“Exegetical Perspective on Isaiah 1:1, 10–20,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 319.)

God begins by criticizing the worship practices that take place in the Temple at

Jerusalem. It is hard for us to comprehend how central the Temple was to Jewish life

prior to its destruction in 70 AD. Significant portions of the Old Testament focus on

questions pertaining to the Temple and the specific ways in which worship was to be

conducted there. The Temple dominated the skyline in and around Jerusalem, in much

the same way the U.S. Capitol dominates Washington D.C. Even for Jews living farther

away the Temple remained the central focus of worship, and adult men were expected to

travel to the Temple at least three times a year. (Anna Case-Winters, “Theological Perspective on Isaiah 1:1, 10–20,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 318.)

If an anthropologist were to travel back in time to observe the operations of the

Temple, she or he might describe it as an industrial-sized slaughterhouse and giant

barbeque grill. The Temple operated 24/7, and there was a reason why they burned so

much incense. The scriptures, along with other Jewish laws and customs, provided a

lengthy list of various animal sacrifices required for all occasions—happy, sad, or in

between—and for routine events like the start of a new week or month. Christians,

unfortunately, have long misunderstood the role of temple sacrifices in the life of a

devout Jew, claiming that all temple sacrifices were intended to do only one

thing—placate God’s anger over sinful behavior. This line of thinking suggests,

erroneously, that if a Jew broke a commandment but went to the Temple and offered a

sacrifice, then everything was kosher again (so to speak). (Ibid., p. 320)

This misinterpretation suggests the idea that there was a contractual relationship

between a person and God, in which the act of offering a sacrifice somehow bought

God’s forgiveness. Jewish theology, however, made it clear that the only way for a

person to obtain God’s forgiveness for knowingly committing a sin was through genuine

repentance and amending one’s actions—a sacrifice alone was not going to do it. It is

worth noting that this false ‘quid pro quo’ notion of a sacrifice automatically leading to

forgiveness has had a corrosive impact on Christianity as well, by encouraging the false

belief that Christ’s death was simply the ultimate, once-and-for-all sacrifice to God,

which therefore bought us permanent forgiveness regardless of our sins. (Ibid.,)

Returning to Isaiah, this passage can be split into two parts. The first part contains a

list of things that God rejects, such as burnt offerings, blood sacrifices, festivals, and even

prayers, while the second part lists what God requires, such as seeking justice, rescuing

the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. We need, however, to

make it abundantly clear that Isaiah is not dismissing temple worship out-of-hand

entirely—rather what the prophet is doing is criticizing the detachment of temple rituals

from actions in the larger world. (Darr, p. 319; Gene M. Tucker, “Commentary and Reflections on the book of Isaiah, Ch. 1–39,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI, p. 57–58.)

We heard similar echoes of this argument in today’s psalm (50: 7–8; 23–24), which

read, in part:

Hear, O my people, and I will speak: “O Israel, I will bear witness against

you; for I am God, your God. I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices;

your offerings are always before me. Consider this well, you who forget God,

lest I rend you and there be none to deliver you. Whoever offers me the

sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me; but to those who keep in my way will I

show the salvation of God. The intention expressed here is not a total rejection of temple worship in favor of justice (a false either/or division), but rather a reminder that the two are bound together (both/and).

One of the Bible commentaries I read on this passage, written by Pastor Paul Duke,

noted that there is a strong irony when we hear and reflect on Isaiah’s denunciation of

worship practices while we are sitting in the middle of a worship service, and I want to

share an extended summary of his remarks. Duke points out that it was easier for Isaiah

to offer criticisms because he was not part of the temple-industrial complex in Jerusalem,

and while Isaiah was speaking to an eighth-century BC audience, his accusations are still

relevant today. To help bridge this cultural/historical divide, Duke suggests that we

rephrase Isaiah’s passage to read instead: “I hate your worship. Your prayers make me

sick. I loathe your music. Your sermons are a sacrilege. Who asked you for your

offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it.” (Paul Simpson Duke,

“Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 1:1, 10–20,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 317, 319.)

Duke continues by pointing out that Isaiah’s (and God’s) anger has been kindled by

“the bizarre disconnect of people praising God while desecrating God’s command to

love.” “Worship unconcerned with justice is obscene, [and] it may even establish

obstacles to justice.” If we think of God’s love and commandments only on Sunday

mornings, and not during the rest of the week, then nothing will change. As another

commentator puts it, “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and loathe one

on Monday?” “In this and other ways, evil’s favorite shelter is a house of worship.” Duke

does add that this is not to say that worship is worthless, but rather that right worship

brings us into “an awed and candid engagement with God that is life giving, community

transforming, and world altering.” “After all, worship makes it possible to hear this text

together; and worship’s communal confession may free us to go and do what this word

sends us to do; and worship’s communal praise may grant us perspective and strength for

obedience.” (Duke, p. 319, 321; Stacey Simpson Duke, “Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 1:1, 10–20,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 318.)

If all of this seems a bit heady and abstract, perhaps a specific example will help to

clarify the point Isaiah is trying to make. In our country every time there is yet another

mass shooting, what do our political leaders offer in response? “Thought and prayers.” I

cannot help but think that “thoughts and prayers” are the modern equivalent of the

liturgical malpractice that Isaiah is condemning. As God says in this passage, “[E]ven

though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” In the

case of mass shootings, this sadly is not a mere figure of speech. We often turn to

scripture in search of comfort, but there are times when it is necessary for scripture to

make us uncomfortable instead, as is the case with this passage. Paul Duke offers one

final thought on today’s reading from Isaiah. “There is, in fact, some hope [in this

passage], but we should resist an overly hopeful, or wrapped-up…conclusion. With this

text in particular, closure must not happen in [this] room.” (Ibid.) Amen.

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