Sermon for Sunday August 7th, 2016, the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
The Text: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
The Theme: God’s call to purity and righteousness
Seattle’s famed Kingdome — home of the Seahawks, Mariners, and at times, the SuperSonics — was destroyed in March of 2000. Maryland-based Controlled Demolition Incorporated (CDI) was hired to do the job of imploding the 25,000-ton structure that had marked Seattle’s skyline for two-dozen years.
Extreme measures were taken to ensure no one was hurt. CDI had experience with more than seven thousand demolitions and knew how to protect people. Engineers checked and rechecked the structure. The authorities evacuated several blocks around the Kingdome. Safety measures were in place to allow the countdown to stop at any time if there were any concerns. All workers were individually accounted for by radio. A large public address system was used to announce the final countdown. In short, CDI took every reasonable measure and more to warn people of the impending danger.
The Bible teaches of a final judgment on this sinful world. Like the engineers who blew up the Kingdome, our heavenly Father has spared no expense to make sure everybody can “get out” safely. He warns us through our consciences, through the prophets, through the Word of God, through the Holy Spirit, through the church, and through his Son.
— Jon Mutchler,
“Preparing for Judgment,”
In the opening chapter of the Book of the prophet Isaiah, God warns His people to cease from their sin and rebellion, and to learn to do what is right, or else destruction will follow.
Under King Uzziah, Judah and Jerusalem prospered and were militarily strong, though the rise of the Assyrian Empire threatened this. King Ahaz pursued a pro-Assyrian policy, but King Hezekiah, who succeeded him in 716 B.C., pursued a policy of spiritual reform, cleansing the Temple and establishing as a national priority the Law given by God to Moses. Perhaps Judah, the southern kingdom, felt a certain pride in God’s protection, even after the Fall of Samaria (the seat of the northern kingdom of Ephraim, or Israel) to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:5-18). Though Judah and Jerusalem were protected from an Assyrian invasion after King Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Kings 19:14 ff.), the sins of Judah and its rebellion against the Lord were leading it to sure destruction, which happened in 587-6 B.C. under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (2 Kings 25).
In this opening chapter of Isaiah, God shows us a picture of the nation of Israel as sick and burdened by their sins, a body that is diseased, and the disease untreated and worsening because the people continue to rebel against God (Isaiah 1:4-6). The consequence of this is a continuing devastation of the land by strangers (v. 7). In fact, as the prophet goes on to say, if the Lord had not left a “very small remnant” (v. 9), the nation would have been destroyed completely, like Sodom and Gomorrah.
ISAIAH 1:10-20: RELIGIOUS SERVICES AND FESTIVALS USELESS WITHOUT REPENTANCE
The fact that Sodom and Gomorrah were long ago destroyed makes God’s call all the more forceful, since He considers the sins of Judah and Jerusalem to be as bad as those of Sodom and Gomorrah.
People often assume that peoples and nations are much more enlightened than the ancient people of Judah who were judged by God and handed over to destruction because of their rebellion. After all, they say, we live in an age of grace, and are no longer subject to the Law of the Old Testament, as the New Covenant has superseded the Old. But grace, it must always be remembered, is for those who are turning away from sin, and have turned away from sin, not for those who continue in sin, with no shame and without repentance.
In any case, every part of Holy Scripture is inspired by God and has something to teach us. We learn from the Lord’s charge against Judah, that religious services, festivals, animal sacrifices, are all futile while the worshippers continue refusing to turn away from their sin. Even when such worshippers come to pray to God, He refuses to listen to their prayers, for “their hands are full of blood” (v. 15). The spiritual bloodstains from violent crimes remain, because there has been no repentance or restitution or genuine penitence. The expression “Your hands are full of blood” has had a profound influence on the perception of the enduring nature of the effects of sins in the lives of individuals, communities, societies and institutions. In fact, the more sinful habits and deeds have become engrained in people’s minds and lives, and even reflected in the laws of a nation, the more long lasting damage can be done. The fact that Jews were not the only ones with such sins appears plainly from St. James’s command to Christians:
Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.
(James 4:8, KJV)
St. James was probably alluding to this verse in Isaiah when he wrote that. He stands in the tradition of the Prophets of Israel, who declared God’s accusations against his people, and called on them to change their ways and purify their hearts.
Here the Lord commands His people to wash themselves, and make themselves clean by ceasing to do what is wrong. Evil is to be discarded, and removed from before God’s eyes. Because God sees all and sees through all (Hebrews 4:13), we cannot hide our sins from him simply by hiding them from the public eye.
Isaiah’s message is addressed to rulers and people, and so it is not a mere private turning away from sin that is required, but a public one as well. Repentance must be seen in the administration of justice, in relief for the oppressed, the orphans and the widows (Isaiah 1:17). Without the fair treatment of the poor and those on the margins of society, Israel’s repentance would be a sham, and the national exile resulting from continued rebellion could not be averted.
God calls his people to reason with Him and to accept this command to cleanse themselves, giving them the encouragement that though the stains of their sin are red and seem to be indelible, they can be removed, and they can become pure (“as white as snow”). If they are willing and obedient, they will remain in their land and eat its fruit (Isaiah 1:19), but if they rebel and refuse to turn from sin, they shall be “devoured with the sword” (Isaiah 1:20).
THE SAME CHOICE TODAY
For those who claim that much of prophecy is doom and gloom, this passage contradicts that. Prophecy as God’s message to his people offers a choice: obedience to God, or disobedience, but both choices have consequences, and in prophecy these are made plain. Let none of us think that God wants gloom or doom for any of His people! By no means! Christians will have their trials and times of gloom, and “dark nights of the soul” (to use an expression of St. John of the Cross), but we believe in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, and the joy of faith in Him sustains us.
As individuals, as a church, as communities, and as a nation, we all face the choice between willingly obeying God and rebelling against Him by persisting in sinful habits, attitudes and behavior. To turn from sin means that we must seek to do what is right and just in all our relationships, words and actions.
The writer to the Hebrews gives Christians this warning:
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.
(Hebrews 3:12-13, KJV)
Will you choose obedience to God and a life of purity?