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08.07.11 Making it Count, Isaiah 1:10-26 Sermon Outline

by on August 8, 2011

Summary Points

  • The problem with Sodom and Gomorrah (and with us)
  • Understanding ancient Israel’s worship (and recognizing it today’s church)
  • What the Bible teaches about ritual (from God, Jesus, and Paul)
  • The bottom line (about worship and what God wants)

A lot of people approach Sunday worship with the assumption that it will invalidate everything that happened the week before. In fact, it’s the other way around: what we do this week could what we did in worship. The 8th century (before Christ) prophet Isaiah preached warnings to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, also called Samaria, was already a vassal to the Assyrians. If they didn’t improve their faithfulness, Isaiah warned, Judah and its capital Jerusalem would fall next.

To make his point, Isaiah compared the leadership of Judah to the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah. This refers to a story in Genesis 18-19 when, in the 20th century, God’s judgement of fire and brimstone fell upon the twin cities for their wickedness. Isaiah, as did other prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jesus, used “Sodom and Gomorrah” as a byword to refer to the wickedness of their contemporary audiences. What was the nature of their sins?

According to God in Ezekiel, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16:49). According our passage, Judah had to, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow,” because, “your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:17, 21-23)

Isaiah’s problem with Judah, and the reason for his prophetic warning comparing them to Sodom and Gomorrah, is that the people of Judah worship God without promoting justice. What did Isaiah see when he observed his contemporaries worshiping? What was worship like in ancient Israel?

In verse 11, God through Isaiah rejects Judah’s sacrifices. Sacrifices were made in worship for three primary reasons. (1) To accompany confession of sin. The idea behind this is a sacrifice of  payment to appease an angry God. (2) Various kinds of offerings, a thank offering, for example. This most closely resembles what we do in worship today. For some of us, what we give financially and in time and service to the church’s ministry are sacrifices. (For some of us, we give only our leftovers—no sacrifice. Isaiah doesn’t tell us what God thinks of these offerings.) (3) To accompany prayer in general, again in an attempt to win God’s favor.

In verse 13, God finds the burning of incense abominable. Incense were used for several reasons. (1) To mark off a holy place—wherever the incense traveled, that place was recognizably holy through the distinctive odor. (2) Incense were used to protect worshipers from God’s anger, something like a smoke-screen before God. (3) Incense represented human prayers, as in the vision of John in Revelation. (4) Incense represented the divine presence.

In verse 14, God dismisses New Moon, Sabbath, and special Convocations as burdensome. These refer to yearly celebrations, organized at the time around the agricultural cycle (planting, harvesting). Today we might refer to Christmas and Easter. Sabbath most closely resembles our Sunday worship services. Convocations refers to special assemblies like might spontaneously occur around national tragedies.

In all these instances of worship, God is unpleased with Judah. Is it because ritualistic worship is inherently wrong? Many Protestants believe so. Many of us have used this passage to dismiss worship that is full of ritual and liturgy. We like verse 12 in which God says, “Who asked you to do all these things,” forgetting that, in fact, it was God himself who demands all this ritual in the religious prescriptions throughout Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus.

“But that’s Old Testament religion,” we say. “Things changed with Jesus.” But we forget what Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23) Jesus’ critique here is the same as Isaiah’s. It isn’t a critique of ritual per se; it is a critique of the attitude that worship can be used as an excuse to neglect justice.

Even Paul, famous for arguing against the idea that our good works justify us before God, commends the observance of a religious diet and calendar so long as people are “convinced in their own minds” that God is calling them to it and if they do it “in honor of the Lord, with thanksgiving.” (Rom 14:5-6)

So what does God want? According to Isaiah and Jesus, God wants our worship to count for something, and that something is living in a just way, promoting a just world. Maybe you think it’s too late, or too hard, to live as God calls us to live in worship. There’s too much sin in your life and in the world to pursue justice. This is where God’s “closing argument” comes in.

In verse 18, God invites all of Judah, and all of us, into his judge’s chambers to “reason together.” This is a scene of negotiation, of talking through issues towards reconciliation. “It isn’t too late,” Isaiah is saying to Judah, and God says to us. Judgement is delayed through our time of reasoning together. Sin can be washed away and justice restored.

God desires that worship cleanse us (see Isaiah’s own cleansing encounter in chapter 6), and then that we lead a cleansed life. In Jesus’ words, a life that “loves God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” (worshiping God on Sunday), and “loving our neighbors as ourselves” (worshiping God Monday through Saturday). In the prophet Micah’s words, all God desires of us is that we “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8) In the words of Isaiah, we are to, “stop doing wrong, learn to do right, Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)

Thoughts for Further Reflection or Group Discussion

  • What rituals do you do, in church or at home? Why do you do them? Are you convinced God has called you to do them? In doing them, do you intend to honor God and give thanks?
  • If you can’t identify any rituals, what are some you can incorporate into your spiritual life, under the guidelines outlined above? How might the ritual routine of honoring God and giving thanks enhance your life?
  • In Isaiah God promises, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the best of the land” (:19). When you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, you are eating the best God has to offer. Do you come “willing” to be “obedient” to God’s call for justice in and through your life?
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