July 26, 2020 – Worship With Your Whole Life – Missio Dei 4 – Isaiah 1
Fr. Jay Traylor

Worship With Our Whole Life
The Rev. Jay Traylor

Isa 1
Psa 51
1 Pet 3:8-15
Matt 13:31-33,44-50

GK Chesterton once said “The Christian ideal has NOT been tried and found lacking. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Which leads us to the prophet Isaiah. The biggest of the Major Prophets. Predicted the exile of the Israelites, predicted the birth of the Messiah, predicted the full and complete restoration of all things at the end of time, feasting together with the king. Like most prophets, Isaiah is God’s mouthpiece, God’s covenant lawyer, and he is here to prosecute and cross-examine God’s people. Isaiah wastes exactly zero time with pleasantries. Not a lot of, “hi, how are ya.”

Verse 2 – “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” That’s pretty direct. That’s verse 3 of the book of Isaiah, and it kind of sets the tone for the whole book. God is saying, “You were my people. You were MINE. And yet, you act like you aren’t.” You don’t seem to remember your training, you don’t seem to remember your PURPOSE. I don’t think it’s an accident that God, through his prophet Isaiah, uses two beast of burden metaphors, two working farm animals in describing his people. Because, to be honest, oxen and donkeys are not exactly known for being geniuses. God is saying, “Look, even the stupidest of these domesticated animals recognizes who its master is. Even the ox knows to act like an ox and plow the fields. Even the donkey knows to act like a donkey and… do donkey stuff… because even these dummies know enough to LISTEN TO THEIR MASTER. But my people, who I have called as my own, aren’t even that smart.

So what’s the problem? Verse 4: Sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, brood of evildoers, depraved children! They have abandoned the Lord; they have despised the Holy One of Israel; they have turned their backs on him.

The message so far in the Bible – I am the Lord your God who saved you. I saved you from slavery and death, I saved you for myself, and I saved you for the life of the world. And yet, here, God is saying, “Why do you keep doing this? Verse 5 – why do you want more beatings?! Why do you keep on rebelling? Your land is destroyed, your cities are rubble, and the foreigners are devouring your fields right in front of you. And STILL you keep on rebelling against me. What do I gotta do around here?

He then compares them to two of the worst cities in ancient Israel, back in Genesis, the cities of Sodom and Gomorroah. Two cities that were so wicked that God utterly destroyed them. He demolished these cities, the entire plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and whatever grew on the ground. GONE. And yet here, Isaiah is saying, “Do you realize how close you are to being Sodom and Gomorroah?” And what is God so upset about? Hypocrisy.

Verse 11 – “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. What am I supposed to do with all your sacrifices?” Now when you see Old Covenant people of God making sacrifices, think “Worship.” That was one of the ways that they worshipped the Lord, they would bring their sacrifices to the temple. There were animal sacrifices and grain sacrifices and wine sacrifices, sacrifices of praise for a good harvest or a prosperous year, there were sin sacrifices and atonement sacrifices to cover over sins they had committed. And there were various festivals and feasts – Sabbath and New Moon and lots of different specific worship services. And from verse 11 to verse 15, God bundles them all up and says, basically, “All your worship is meaningless to me. In fact, it’s worse than meaningless. I hate it.” Verse 15 – “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look at you; even if you offer countless prayers, I will not listen.” WHY? Here’s the kicker. “Your hands are covered with blood.”

Because God is pointing out their hypocrisy. But it’s an interesting kind of hypocrisy that God is talking about here. One that I think is becoming more and more relevant to the church in this current cultural moment.

Now, let’s be clear – God is not saying here, “You only worship me externally, you’re not worshipping me in your hearts.” That is bad enough, and that’s hypocrisy, but that’s more like “lying.” “I don’t really believe this stuff, but I’ll make a nice little show like I do, and the neighbors will be happy, and the town will be happy, and maybe it helps me get ahead a little bit, and what the heck, it can’t hurt.” That kind of false piety does not do anyone any favors. But that’s not God’s point. No, what God is saying here is, “You are sincere in your faith when you worship but you are not WALKING OUT your faith in your daily lives.” To give it a bit of a modern context, he’s saying, “You are great SUNDAY Christians, but you are not great MONDAY THROUGH SATURDAY Christians.”
God says, You worship me with hands held up and hearts on fire… great. But then you leave the temple, you leave the sanctuary, and those same hands you held up in worship look just like the hands of every other nation around you. Selfish. Greedy. Oppressive.

God says, “Your hands are covered in blood” and then goes on to show what he means by this. Verse 16 – Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Stop doing evil. “Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.”

Over and over throughout the Bible, God calls his people to do a few things – love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your… that’s right, STRENGTH or MIGHT. It’s the word “MAY-owed,” and a really wooden translation would be “with all your muchness, all of your abundance.” There’s a lot of bible scholars who would say that your MAY-owed, your muchness, your abundance, was really a way of saying: your estate, your resources, your power. So, basically, love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your wallet.

AND, love your neighbor as yourself. God called his people to use equal scales with everyone, to treat everyone fairly, and ALSO to give special attention to those who didn’t have enough, to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger within your gates. I mean, God said to treat everyone equally! Do you know how nuts that is, in the history of mankind? In Numbers 35, and again in Deuteronomy 19, God said that everyone, not just the rich and powerful, but EVERYONE could only be convicted in court based on the testimony of two or more independent streams of evidence. And God said to take care of the widows and the orphans, the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, and the stranger in your midst. And they all KNEW this. They knew it so well that when Jesus was telling the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the smartypants young lawyer correctly identified that the summary of the law was “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” He didn’t push back on THAT point. He didn’t say, “Wait a minute, what’s this “loving my neighbor” business?” No, he simply said, “Well, WHO is my neighbor?” And Jesus told a story that forced him to realize that the way God defines “neighbor,” it means, “ANYONE that you are in position to help.” Radical generosity of time and resources and energy. Radically giving of ourselves.

So, we are called to be a community that is so sold-out, so radically different, that people will look at us and say, “What on EARTH are they about?” This is not easy. It is hard. It requires commitment, ESPECIALLY in an economy whose organizing principles are more and more revolving around individual pleasure, comfort, and entertainment. It’s REALLY HARD.

I said that God wasn’t talking about one kind of hypocrisy, he was talking about another kind. He wasn’t saying “You worship me out loud, but inside you don’t really believe this stuff.” No, he was saying, “You seem to worship me really fervently, so how come your life doesn’t reflect what I’ve told you I find to be important?” And it’s that kind of hypocrisy that REALLY speaks to the age we’re living in. Let me explain.

People say all the time these days that we are entering a “post-Christian” age. Which isn’t true. It’s not a phrase that someone who understands the story of Jesus would use. Jesus said that he would build his church and that not even the gates of hell could prevail against it. If Jesus is who he said he is, there can never be a “post-Christian age” because this age will end with Jesus coming back and completing his work of redemption and the heavens and the earth will be remade and God’s people will live with resurrected bodies in his presence on a new earth forever. So, if the Bible is true, there can literally never be a “post-Christian age.” However, it MIGHT be helpful to think of us as entering a “post-Christendom” age. The idea of “Christendom” is almost the idea of a default national religion. If you live in the age of Christendom, you can assume that everyone you meet is at least nominally Christian in some way, that they at least share some of your core beliefs, values, and worldview. And that is rapidly becoming no longer the case. In a world of Christendom, the first kind of hypocrisy would flourish. “Yeah, I don’t really believe this stuff, but I’ll put on a nice suit and go to church and I’ll see and be seen and it might help me get ahead in my career.” There are still places in the country where that’s true, but far FAR FAR fewer even than when I was a kid.
No, we’re entering into a world that looks a LOT more like the area around Mediterranean Sea for the first 3 centuries after Jesus. Israel, all the countries surrounding it, into Asia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France. Back then, for 300 years after the time of Jesus, there was NO societal benefit to being a Christian. It was not a way to get ahead, it was a way to fall behind. It was not a way to get a leg up in the world, it was a way to go downward in the eyes of society. And so it took commitment. It took guts. It took a genuine belief that the stuff you were doing was based on TRUTH, on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God. Because there was NO benefit from a practical point. Zero. And that may very well be the world that we are heading toward here.

AND THAT’S OK. It just means that things are going to get New Testament hard. And it’s easy to think that means life is going to get harder for us (AND IT IS), and it’s easy to think “We’re going to lose our freedoms! (AND WE MIGHT), and it’s easy to say, “Well how are we supposed to live now?” The good news is that we ABSOLUTELY have a blueprint for how to do this. It’s a little something I like to call “The Bible.”

In the Old Testament, Israel is called to live differently from its neighbors, called to live in a way that is according to God’s pattern for human living. And it doesn’t always go well. The people turn away from God CONSTANTLY. And I think that this is, again, why God uses the metaphor of the ox and the donkey back at the start of this passage. Those are animals who would plow the fields, and it’s important to keep plowing in a straight line. In Deuteronomy 5:32, God tells his people “Consider carefully the path that the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not swerve to the left or to the right.” Proverbs 4:26 puts it this way: “Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”

God’s people here in Isaiah 1 had certainly NOT turned their feet away from evil. They worshipped God with their voices and with their sacrifices at the temple, but they did not worship God with their whole LIFE. They did not worship God with their Kavod, their “bigness,” their resources. Our whole lives are a worship of sacrifice and praise to God. This means that our actions flow out of our beliefs, and God uses both of them for his glory. And, we’re just like the Israelites; God had saved them from slavery and death in Egypt BEFORE he ever gave them these laws. He showed his love for them and THEN he gave them the commandments to live according to this law. And so, like them, we don’t take care of the poor and the marginalized and vulnerable in society IN ORDER TO get God’s love, we take care of the poor and the marginalized and vulnerable in society BECAUSE we have God’s love. Because he has showed us a way of living that is his pattern for how life works best. And because the kind of radical living that God’s people engage in are one of the ways that the Gospel is spread.

My father in law gave me a book this week by a pastor named Jon Tyson who pastors at Church of the City in Manhattan. Little thin book, easy read, all about the kind of “post-Christendom” world we seem to be moving into, and how it parallels the early church. And what Tyson spends some time talking about loose networks. Loose networks are LinkedIn. Loose networks are Facebook. Loose networks are transactional relationships, and when things get tough in transactional relationships, everyone pulls back into their private lives and personal space. But Tyson says what we need is authentic community over these loose networks. Authentic community is completely devoted to the well being of one another and of the group. And, authentic community is where HUGE changes come from. Tyson gives an example of a woman who was a theatre major at NYU, and read Isaiah 58, which reads a lot like Isaiah 1, and was convicted that her life did not match her worship. And she and some friends moved to the South Bronx, to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, and they started helping the children of the neighborhood. This grew into a house that provided holistic programs from birth to adulthood, all through being a faithful presence in that community and through laying down the life that the world offered them in order to take care of the neighbors that they found in their path.

My prayer for us is that we would start to be that authentic community. That we would have that kind of radical generosity the seeks the good of anyone we are put in a position to help. That we would do things that the world will see as utterly foolish. And when we don’t, when we fail, when we put ourselves before others, remember the words of God to his people through his prophet Isaiah. RUN back to God. Run back to God who will always forgive and redeem and restore. Run back to God and find that straight path to plow one again. Verse 18 – Come now, let us reason together – this is basically legal, trial language, it means “let’s settle this.” though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Even the evil that we do, even as furious as God is with his people, comparing them to Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities that were so wicked that God rained fire down on them, even ALL that evil – when we confess and repent and turn away from evil and turn back to God, God delights in forgiving. Our sins are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God, of Jesus, and our blood-red garments are made white as snow because of Christ. We are given life THROUGH him, and we get to live FOR him, and we are shown how to live BY him.