The message I have today could easily have been a sermon series. We’re going to be reflecting on five characteristics of true religion, as revealed in our scripture text and the psalm of our responsive reading. While I could spend a month going into depth with each of these, my hope is that the cursory presentation today leaves you hungering for more, and that you will read, pray, ask questions, and discover more as the seeds of this sermon bear fruit in your life and the life of this community of faith.
The scripture passage from Isaiah, like virtually every other text in the Bible, is spoken to deeply religious people. Though he calls them “rulers of Sodom,” Isaiah’s audience is in fact the Franklin Grahams and the James Dobsons and the Rick Warrens and the John MacArthurs of his world—those that the world looks up to as guides in the Christian life, those whose spiritual credentials most folk would say were impeccable, those whose version of religion is believed by many to be the only right way of faith.
The slanderous association with Sodom is purposeful—just as the sin of Sodom (made explicit in Ezekiel 16:49) involved participating in the oppression of the poor and needy, so God accuses these Israelite leaders of that same sin.
In doing so, what God suggests here in Isaiah 1 is the complete unraveling of virtually everything ancient Israel has ever known. In Christian terms, God’s scathing commentary might go like this:
Listen up, you friends of Satan!
God doesn’t want your prayers—God stopped listening a long time ago.
Your supposed worship is entirely self-serving, so God doesn’t pay it any attention.
Your songs grate on God’s ears; why would he listen to that?
You heap up words in sermons, yet without result.
All that bible reading is pointless, since you obviously don’t understand any of it.
Your “holy” buildings are monuments to your irrelevance; they stand for everything God hates.
Your sacrifice?—Ha! you don’t sacrifice a thing.
Look for God all you want, but you won’t find him—not while you have blood on your hands. They drip with the lives you have stolen and destroyed for your own selfish gain.
Repent, God says. Turn your life around.
As presented here in Isaiah, God’s remedy—as always—involves paying attention, wrestling with God and ourselves, changing our ways, and submitting to God’s transforming power.
Too often sermons do a good job of describing the wrong thing, but don’t present a very clear picture of the right thing. To rectify that, I want to take a few brief moments to suggest what true, real, life-giving religion and faith in God looks like.
First, there is a moral dimension—”cease to do evil, learn to do good,” as we read in vv. 16-17 of Isaiah 1. Every religion prescribes a system of morality—a way of knowing right from wrong. On top of that, every major religion has some version of the Golden Rule—”Do to others as you want them to do to you.” Even the seven tenants of the Satanic Temple begin with the instruction: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason” (http://www.wakingtimes.com/2015/12/23/seven-satanic-precepts-beat-ten-commandments-as-moral-guide/).
This is not, of course, to say that everyone’s sense of morality is the same, or right. But it does suggest that most people of all religions struggle to live up to the moral requirements prescribed for them.
The only true God Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ—that God requires we practice a certain morality too. Here in Isaiah, that morality is summed up as “cease to do evil, learn to do good.”
In a similar text in Micah, the prophet likewise suggests an insufficiency in the outward practices of religion. And just like in Isaiah, Micah tells us that God expects us to do what is good. He says:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 ESV).
2. Actively pursues justice
The second characteristic of true religion is that it actively pursues justice—”seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). Now a lot of justice is tied to what God considers a moral life, something that is obvious from the Micah 6 text I cited a moment ago. Over and over again, God exhibits concern for the poor and needy, for the marginalized and powerless, and for all those who are vulnerable.
What I want to emphasize this morning is not what God’s justice looks like. I trust that we’ve spent enough time over the past weeks touching on that. Instead, I want us to consider how the pursuit of that justice as an intrinsic part of true religion.
In Isaiah’s presentation—and that found elsewhere in the bible—it is not enough to “join” a cause. We must instead be agents of transformation. It’s hard as a pastor to provide examples about injustice needing correction without someone believing that pastor is speaking politically. Many times, I feel I must hold my tongue and not speak the truth God reveals to me because the Enemy has so effectively sown seeds of dissension and division among our nation and our churches. It has gotten a lot worse these past 18 months or so.
So think about it yourself. Pray about it. Ask God to show you where and how people are not being treated justly. It won’t take very long for you to come up with quite a long list. Just make sure you get your information from real sources instead of political spin-machines. Otherwise, like the Pharisees of Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself on the wrong side of justice.
Once you discover how someone or a group of people are being unjustly harmed, silenced, or treated as less than divine-image-bearing humans—then comes the courage part where you step out of your comfort zone, step into the fray, and actively work with God to change their situation.
With God, we lift up the downtrodden.
With God, we fight against those taking advantage of the vulnerable.
With God, we pursue fair and equitable treatment of your fellow humans.
With God, we are to be a healing presence to those who are ill.
The third dimension of true religion is that it is relational. While a common element elsewhere, this characteristic is a bit oblique in the Isaiah text. There, it is best revealed in two places. First, there is the instruction to “plead the widow’s cause” in v.17. One cannot “plead the widow’s cause” without knowing the widow, without being involved with the widow, and without being trusted by the widow—in short, you can’t do it unless you have a relationship with the widow.
We have a responsibility to (and for) each other. The Law code of Exodus-(through)-Deuteronomy is littered with instructions about caring for each other and how our sin affects each other. The early stories of Israel in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell story after story of how the sin or failings of one person have consequences that affect the whole. As Paul says in 1Corinthians “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:26).
But in addition to the horizontal dimension of relationship, true religion also has a vertical dimension. As I addressed last week, God has created us to be God’s friends. It is out of love and a deep commitment to that relationship that God acts with mercy over and over again. Here in Isaiah 1, I believe this is revealed in the beginning of v.18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD.” The word usually translated as “reason together” more directly means “dispute.” Even though Israel has done such injustice, even though God is so upset as to not pay attention to their worship any longer, God is still trying to hold the relationship together. In more colloquial language, God is inviting us to “duke it out” with God when our relationship breaks down. It wouldn’t be that far off base to remember the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32, last week’s text.
There’s a popular notion in our era that one’s faith is private and can be lived out and practiced in isolation from others. I frequently hear folks claiming they can read their bible and pray on their own, listen to a TV preacher, and live their life for Christ. I frequently want to respond that sure, they can do that—but that’s not the Christian life we are called to live. Life in community is messy; just like life with God is messy. As God challenges us, so do our sisters and brothers in Christ; God pushes us and exposes the darkness in our own hearts; our sisters and brothers push us and force us to come to terms with our own humanity and sin. Both are required if we are going to be true followers of Jesus.
The fourth characteristic is that true religion is confessional. As I mentioned a week or two ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that confession is the foundation of real community. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer suggests that it is only confession that strips away our false pretenses and forces us to be truly honest with one another.
The Psalm of our responsive reading—Psalm 32—paints a graphic picture of the importance of confession. The author says:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
This is as cut-and-dry as it gets. When we withhold confessing our sins to God and do not acknowledge our failings to each other, it harms us—deeply, inwardly, and physically. Though Psalm 32 doesn’t say it, there are plenty of other passages (like those in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) that describe how individual sin—when concealed instead of confessed—affects others in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening ways.
But when sin is confessed—when our weaknesses and failings are acknowledged in community—we are bowled over with a wave of forgiveness and grace.
5. Trusts God to see us through
Lastly, true religion trusts God to see us through. God is, the Psalmist proclaims, “a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7)
Virtually all the early stories of the bible—and most of the rest of them—emphasize that God is a God who can be trusted; God is a God who is faithful. But the kind of faith this produces is not passive.
Unfortunately, many of our era think that confidence in God’s faithfulness means that we have no role to play in fulfilling God’s desires for creation. Of late, I have heard all sorts of Christians throw up their hands in passive surrender to the will of the world because they believe God will somehow force God’s will into being, even if faithful Christians do not participate at all. This is not, however, the way of faith presented in the bible. Most of the time, God acts through people to influence and affect the circumstances of our world. As St. Theresa of Avila is famous for writing,
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
We must participate in God’s kingdom-advancing mission of love, and we must rest in the God who is faithful. These things are not at odds with one another. We don’t have the full picture; we don’t know all the details. Maybe all we know is that God wants us to smile and look someone in the eye. But we trust God enough to know that God is working through others as well. We trust God enough to know that the decisive battle has already been won. We trust God enough to know that God’s will will eventually be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
O God of mercy and love, revive us again.
Heal the divisions that we have so blindly created.
Forgive us for making our religion into an idol.
Bend our will to your own.
Open our eyes to injustice,
And move our feet and hearts toward compassion.
Teach us to find peace in your presence.
O God of mercy and love, revive us again. Amen.