The timing & era of Isaiah is a question scholars have dealt with for a long-time with no real consensus. Jewish tradition says that Isaiah died during the reign of Manasseh of Judah & that his career spanned more than 80 years. Evangelical Christianity holds that Isaiah may have prophesied for as much as 64 years (it all depends on when one begins counting). Some scholars believe that Isaiah can be divided up into several parts, some written by the historic Isaiah, others written up to 100 years later as commentary on the original sections. Being aware of the various ways the book has been divided provides a background for the entire work, but in this passage, the historic prophet Isaiah is writing a poetic reprimand to the people of Israel, not just during one king’s rule, but over a long period of time.
In verse 10, Isaiah equates Israel with the rulers of Sodom & the people of Gomorrah. In Ezekiel 16:49 the prophet says: This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She & her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, & enjoyed peace & prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor & the needy. While we tend to think of the sin of Sodom as being sexual, the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah & Ezekiel, equate the sin of Sodom as being neglect of the poor. In this vein, Isaiah opens with the comparison of Israel & Sodom & Gomorrah. In verse 11, he continues by discrediting their numerous sacrifices. Zebach is the Hebrew term used here, meaning sacrifices or offerings. It is worth noting that sacrifices are always offered up to God as part of our worship. Verse 13 uses a different Hebrew noun, minchah, which also means offering, but goes further into the idea of giving – it is from a root meaning ‘to apportion.’ It would appear the prophet is foreshadowing again the need to apportion, to sacrifice, to give to the poor & needy before giving worship to God. The word saba, translated here as enough, has the poetic connotation of being filled up or sated, which again plays on the idea of having enough to eat. Burnt offerings brings forth the imagery, the smell, of cooking meat. The festivals & feasts mentioned are religious, but all involve more burned offerings & food.
Then Isaiah becomes very pointed in his critique of Israel’s behavior. He says that their worship is not acceptable to God because they have not fed the poor. God doesn’t hear their prayers. He calls their worship an abomination – detestable. Back in v. 10 Isaiah asks the people to listen to the instructions being given to them & now, after telling them what they have done wrong, he begins to instruct them on proper behavior: Wash! Be clean! Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice; help the oppressed (or correct the oppressor).
Verse 18 is probably the most widely known verse in this reading. Though, in this context, the red as crimson & sins like scarlet serve to reinforce the imagery of the blood that is referenced in the blood of the sacrifices & the hands stained with blood of the Israelites. Isaiah will simply not let up; the Israelites are guilty. They are detestable. Their worship is an abomination. They are red with sin & blood & need to wash themselves clean. Verse 19 explains how they can do this – by being willing & obedient – while warning that if they refuse & rebel there will be punishment. Again, the imagery is of consuming food: willing & obedient = eating the good things of the land; resistance & rebellion = devoured by the sword.
Isaiah is not playing around. He is clear that God is not accepting the worship of, nor hearing the prayers of the people of Israel because they are not feeding the hungry & taking care of the needy. In 2015, the World Food Programme put out a startling statistic: Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five worldwide – 3.1 million children each year. Specifically, in the United States, the U.S Department of Agriculture reports that 15.6 million households struggled to obtain enough food to eat in 2017. Nearly 15.3 million of these are children, who are far more likely to suffer from food insecurity. While 12.3% of Americans live in food-insecure households, 21.2% of children have uncertain access to food. Feeding America, the largest organization in the United States to assist and track hunger and poverty, reports that the highest rates of food insecurity exist in Mississippi (22%), Arkansas (19.9%), & Louisiana (17.6). NC ranks 9th on this list at 16.7%. United Methodist Committee on Relief is working to alleviate hunger all around the world, including 4 projects in the US.
If we as a church are going to present worship to our God, we need to make sure that we are worshiping in a way acceptable to God. According to Isaiah, to be acceptable, we must take care of the hungry & the poor. The church should feed the hungry, not just through UMCOR, but on the ground, locally. It all goes back to that great holiness command that Jesus preached: “Love God & love your neighbor.” Without doing both parts, we do not fulfill the Great Commandment.
Isaiah is not playing around & neither am I. The fine theologians who selected the lectionary passage for today – for some reason – skipped verses 2-9. Hear them now. – read 1:2-9 –
Isaiah, whose name means “The Lord saves,” sees a vision. Like the author of Revelation, he is permitted a glimpse into heavenly realities, into God’s very presence. Down on earth, the year was probably 701 BC. After the stranglehold of the Assyrian juggernaut, Zion alone is left, & barely. The people foolishly saw its survival as a great blessing, as if God were pleased with them & not others. Always beware any theology that says I made it, they didn’t, God has sure been good to me.
Isaiah gives voice to God’s exasperated assessment of their worship. At our recent General Conferences, I wondered about this; it wasn’t hard to imagine, after our lovely, moving worship, overhearing God saying, “Remove from me the noise of your worship,” as we fought like cats & dogs once worship had ended. Isaiah’s God chides them for the futility of their sacrifices. It makes me shudder, as we don’t even bother with the sacrifices before we cause God to shudder.
God notices that their hands are stained with blood, thinking of their guilt. In Israel, worshippers' hands were not just metaphorically stained with blood — the animal sacrifices would have left bloody traces on their hands, a vivid image the prophet points to. Where else have we been pointed to blood-stained hands? Pilate tried to wash his hands of Jesus’ blood but could not. Jesus, the bearer of all guilt, died with his own blood all over his own hands.
With the numbing horror of repeated mass shootings, the hands stained with blood image makes you shiver. What can the church, what can we as followers of Jesus, say to our neighbors & our nation? It is futile to offer "Our thoughts & prayers go out to the families of the victims."
I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody has said that about these horrors, “Our thoughts & prayers are with them.” I’m a pastor; so obviously I’m an advocate of praying. But I’ve tried to get inside God’s head & heart, & I wonder what God makes of our “thoughts & prayers.” God is grieving, to be sure. But I wonder if God wonders what we are looking for.
Back in Bible times, the people were praying during national calamities. God’s response? These people… honor me with lip service while their heart is distant from me (Isaiah 29:13). The people gathered for special worship services & sang hymns – prompting God to say: I hate your new moons & your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. And why? If God didn’t want songs & prayers what did God want? Amos explains it all: But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I can’t know how God feels about our “thoughts & prayers.” But I am positive God would be far more pleased if we would open our eyes, lift our heads, get up off our knees, & go & do something. How pointless is it to continue to shudder over the news, & then ask God for comfort, when we aren’t doing anything to alter the conditions under which these killings continue to happen?
Why do these things happen? It’s no one thing. It’s a lot of things. But we get derailed, because somebody somewhere always has some vested interest in one of the things, so each one gets shot down (literally) & nothing changes. It is the whole toxic mess of woes that bedevils us. No one I know is optimistic things will change. But somewhere inside each of us, & in our collective national psyche, aren’t we prisoners of hope as Zechariah puts it? And what is hope anyhow? Not a naïve assumption that things will just perk up tomorrow, or the more naïve assumption that our prayers will cause God to do a little razzle-dazzle magic & fix things for us. St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Anger at the way things are, & Courage to see to it that they don’t remain the way they are.”
We prisoners of hope must end our prayers or find what the end of our prayers ought to be, which is deciding with great courage to do something. Something is profoundly wrong with regard to race in America. We can toss blame back & forth. But when will we engage in the long labor of listening, building trust, & insisting on equal treatment before the law? Something is terribly wrong about guns. Oh, the rights people leap forward & warn us society would crumble without even more guns! But what we’re doing now most clearly isn’t working.
Something is flat out crazy about the entertainment industry & our addiction to it. We are appalled by violence in the streets – but we clearly have a taste for it, since we flock to it in movies & stare dumbly at TV shows where the gunfire is constant.
Something is insanely wicked about government. ‘Gridlock’ is too nice a term for what we’re saddled with. Laws & policies need changing, but one side is hell-bent on destroying any good idea the other side might happen to have. Something is embarrassingly woeful about our political process. We vote for the loudest, most shrill people who feed our fears & prejudices. Isn’t it conceivable that we might say ‘Amen’ after our prayers & seek out leaders who are wise & good, who appeal to the best in us?
Something is out of kilter economically. Equal opportunity is a vain notion. White privilege is real, although whites can’t see it. Our mental health system is pretty much non-existent. Even folks who know they need help mentally & emotionally can’t find or get the help they need. And something is way out of sync with our education system. Educational equity is a pipe dream right now. We have settled for unequal education, & then we are surprised by the long-term results.
Something is killing us from the inside – & that is fear. Terrorists around the world try to induce fear. But we are clustering around fear ourselves quite well without their help. News media & pundits & politicians & just everybody fans the flames of fear. And there is a lot to be afraid of. But is it possible to stand up to our fears, to expose them & find ways to build a world that knows higher pursuits than security? Can we figure out that more & more force never resolves fear but only raises the stakes?
I could go on & on. Something is really wrong in America. Everything I have named is real. Each one is something that mortifies God. Pray if you wish – but God wants us to find the end to our praying & do something. With each one, something really can be done, & in a decade or two we really could have a safer society that would be more pleasing to the God we pray to for help. We can turn off any TV show where a gun is fired. We can resource our schools more equitably. We can elect different people. We could pass some gun law, any gun law, if only to make a statement. We could connect with people who are different instead of judging them. We could enthusiastically support our police & rebuild trust with them – but only if we also are willing to hold the small minority of them who exceed their authority accountable.
We can be different. We can be the people God uses to be the answer to our own prayers. That is, if we come to the end of our prayers, & do courageous things.
Want to live large for God? Do something courageous this week that furthers God’s kingdom & might bring change to our community & nation!