Scripture: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Me Likey Worship
I like worship. I like coming together as God’s people and playing music, singing songs, reading scripture, praying, and everything else. Well, sometimes the sermons can be a bit much, but you know……
When it comes to music, I like the BIG organ pieces and the lively pieces for brass quintet, the delicate string point-and-counterpoint and the booming rock melodies……
I even like the ancient stuff of worship that we don’t do that often as Baptists: responsive readings, praying the Lord’s Prayer together, singing the Psalms, foot-washing, gathering just for prayer, and the like.
I think many of us like worship, which is probably why we defend our worship practices like a mama bear protecting a cub.
Fiddle a little with worship, and a pastor could soon find herself in a pinch:
- Stray too far from a normal communion service and you’ll probably hear about it
- Choose unfamiliar hymns to sing and you’ll never stop hearing about it
- Do a little reordering or suggest a different service time, and it could well be the last thing you do
Sometimes, I fear, we worship our worship. I mean, we start to get tunnel vision to other ways of worship and think that this way is the only way something can be done. If (then) this is the only way it can be done, then it must also be the way God wants it done. And if it is the way God wants it done……well then, I’ll drive you out of town on a rail before I let you change it.
We can worship our worship. We can forget that worship is not about a fixed set of actions or rituals, but about praising the God who made us and gives us life. It is about dipping into the life-giving water of the Spirit as sinners seeking to be transformed by God’s presence and love.
We forget that worship—as some of you have heard me say before—is more jazz than classical. Worship is not about playing the notes on the page as perfectly as possible. It is improvisation. We move, and God moves. Or God moves, and then we move. And so on. Back and forth. Forth and back. Each adapting, each responding. Each playing a few more notes before switching off again to see what the other adds to the music.
This kind of improvisation can easily happen with any order of worship—But I do think it must begin with an order of worship of some kind.
Back many, many, many years ago when I was a trumpet performer and playing jazz regularly, we played off what are called lead sheets. These contained melody, lyrics, and harmony, but they must be transposed to the right key for your instrument. When we were learning new songs, these were where we started. But as we learned the song, its key changes, melody, and harmony, we would begin to deviate from what was on the page. Add a little riff here. Switch the lead back and forth there. Always listening to one another. Always adapting.
In this way, our order of worship is like a lead sheet. It tells us where we are going, what the major key changes are, and the basic elements of worship. But it doesn’t tell us what will actually happen.
Doing worship like this may not be popular, and I do know why: all this is hard. Because it takes more trust in the Spirit than most of us can muster up, even in our Sunday finest. Because it takes more trust in one another than we are willing to give, even among our church family. And because it takes us out of a position of control, and Lord knows we human beings like to be in control.
We like our worship. We protect our worship. We try to control our worship so it will be done right……right? And all that may explain why we continue to be so challenged by these words in Isaiah.
Isaiah’s message to his hearers cannot be missed: God hates our worship. God hates our sacrifices and our festivals, our offerings and our prayers—everything.
I think our immediate response to these words is the same as that of the original hearers: Geez. How is it possible for God to hate something so precious to us?!?
Sodom & Gomorrah
Now admittedly, these words are not addressed directly to us—they are addressed to another place, time, people, and religion. But yet they are found among the texts we claim to be inspired, and authoritative for faith and the practice of the Christian life. And they are just as edgy and cutthroat in exposing our misguided tendencies as they were for the original hearers.
Sodom & Gomorrah are long past by the time Isaiah speaks these words, so God is not speaking to those cities as much as about them. They frame an analogy that God is making—that ancient Israel is walking the same path as Sodom & Gomorrah, falling guilty of the same sins.
Now somewhere along the way we’ve gotten it into our minds that the sins of Sodom had to do with sexuality, but almost every reference to Sodom & Gomorrah in the OT has to do with sins of injustice: robbing the poor, taking advantage of the widow, mistreating the traveler, and so on. And such is the case here in Isaiah.
We read in v.15: “When you stretch forth your hands [that is, in acts of worship]…your hands are full of blood.”
The answer to how they got that way is found in the remedy prescribed by God: “Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (v.17). A failure to do these things is the cause of their bloody hands, and if they resume a practice of God’s justice, God will again accept their worship.
Here, God through Isaiah is saying that these are the offenses for which Sodom was judged, and (by analogy) these are the offenses that are keeping God from acknowledging the Israelites’ acts of worship.
And if we will read the Bible honestly, I think we have to recognize that these offenses will keep God from acknowledging our acts of worship as well.
Rejection of Worship
As with ancient Israel, the details of our worship are not as important as the lives we live. Isaiah tells his hearers that God hates our worship. But God doesn’t hate it because God doesn’t like it—like I don’t like canned spinach. God hates it because it is an offense to God when we are inhospitable to one another and then think we can be OK with God. It is impossible to be in a right relationship with God while taking advantage of people, ignoring those who are in need, and pursuing justice only for ourselves.
This is something that Jesus tries to teach us over and over. What do we do when we want to make an offering to God but we remember we have offended someone? Jesus tells us, “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:24).
Jesus also says that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21–23).
This emphasis on right living over right worship is found in other places in both the OT and NT. But as one last example this morning, consider this teaching from James chapter 1: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (vv. 26–27).
The Bible teaches all this quite clearly: Our worship is meaningless unless our lives are characterized by caring for others. Either we are a caring church or we are no church at all.
Walking It Out
Now that may seem harsh, but there is hope. There is always hope. Because God wants to walk it out and talk it out with us. That is actually closer to the Hebrew than most English translations of v.18. The Hebrew means something like: “Let’s go walk and let’s get our heads together.”
This reply seems to be God’s instinctual response when something goes wrong—something we’ve been seeing a lot of in the SALT group on Thursdays, as we have been reading through the first chapters of Genesis. A person sins, and immediately God is there—prompting conversation, willingly adapting, showing grace, and working to preserve the relationship.
So also here God emphasizes that everything can be worked out, if only we will work with God. Every time I botch things up. Every time I give up. Every time I fail to show love and compassion. Every time I respond with a harsh word. Every time I am judgmental. Every time I push God away.
Every time, God comes calling: Walk with me. Talk with me. We can work this out. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18–19a).
These verses are so amazing to me. They revel in and reveal the power of the resurrection—the idea that there is no one too far gone for God to breathe new life into them. But they also show God’s jazz musician side, as God invites us to walk it out with God, to talk it out with God. And to experience the beautiful music of relationship as we grow into new life.
May God’s endless patience and love break through the walls of our lives.
May God’s boundless creativity discover in us new footholds of faith.
May God find us caring persons and a caring church, and accept this: our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.