Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and we’re going to start in the beginning with chapter 1. This is the first sermon in a series through the entire book of Isaiah, which will take us through the majority of this year, 32 weeks, and even with that amount of time, we’re really only just skimming the book. Isaiah is vast There’s a lot here.
With a few exceptions, we’re going to take it two chapters at a time, so I would challenge you, if you’ve never read the book of Isaiah, to keep up with us, and read through it as we preach through it, because Isaiah is a beautiful book.
And I’m going to confess something to you—I’m coming into this series kind of nervous, for a couple reasons.
One reason is, Isaiah is another book, like Ecclesiastes, which, going to church throughout my life, I don’t ever remember spending a lot of time in Isaiah. I remember two or three verses that I’ve heard over and over again, about how Isaiah came to tell Israel about Christmas, but besides that, and reading through it a few times, I realized preparing to preach through the book, that I really didn’t know Isaiah, at least not like we’re going to know it by the end of this series.
And I’m not the only one—I had a conversation with one of our church members this week, I was just curious, I asked him what he remembered being taught from the book of Isaiah, and he really surprised me, he said, “I love Isaiah!” Which is not what I was expecting, so I asked him which part he loved so much, and he said he loved the part about wrestling with God, and I told him that’s not Isaiah, and he said, “oh, then I don’t know Isaiah.” But it’s not his fault!
We don’t typically teach Isaiah, which is a shame. Isaiah is a beautiful book, which gives us an astounding picture of the way the world is meant to be, what we as a people are meant to be. And when you look at who we are now, next to who we are meant to be, it’s heartbreaking. There is a distance between what the world is now, and what it is meant to be, what we as people are now, and what we are meant to be. That distance, between what we are and what we are meant to be—we call that sin.
But Isaiah is not only a book about sin, Isaiah whispers a promise of hope—all throughout the book, he never talks about sin without the assurance of our hope for being made right again.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 1, and I’m going to start in v.10. [Isaiah 1:10-20] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me. Father God, who desires mercy and not sacrifice; Christ, who fulfills every promise; Holy Spirit, who inspires the words of prophecy; please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
I want to give you some background, just so you know what this passage would have meant to the people of Judah, God’s people to whom Isaiah is speaking. Isaiah is writing about 640 years before Jesus is born. God’s people have been given the law, given the land of Israel, given judges to lead them, and now we are toward the end of the time of the kings of Israel and Judah. And the reason I keep saying Judah, is because the kingdom of Israel was divided at this time—Israel in the North, and Judah, which had Jerusalem as it’s capital, in the south—and already by the time Isaiah is writing, the northern kingdom of Israel has largely been conquered by the empire of Assyria, and Assyria was pressing down into Judah.
And I’ve learned at this church that if I spend more than five minutes on historical background, about half the room leaves to take a smoke break, so I timed myself, and I’ve got three minutes left, Tommy, so I’m gonna keep going.
The religious leaders of the day were preaching a message of invincibility. There is no possible way Jerusalem could fall, because they were God’s chosen nation. They would tell people whatever they wanted to hear. Any behavior could be justified, any activity accepted, any religion allowed. Confession was not asked for. If sin was mentioned, it was the sin of others—the sins of the people of Judah were not mentioned. In Bonhoeffer’s words, they poured out “rivers of grace without end,” cheap grace, that could be bought and sold for money or power or good PR. The priests of that day were preaching that Judah basically is God’s kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven, so of course God would do whatever he could to maintain it.
If you are not hearing similar messages from our society, even from our churches, today, you may have ears, but you can’t hear. We declare forgiveness without asking for confession. We excuse, even applaud many things the Bible calls sinful, and if we find fault in anyone, it’s never in ourselves.
My first point from the text this morning is this: Quit with the show; stop doing what’s wrong; learn to do right. Quit with the show; stop doing what’s wrong; learn to do right. When we approach the Lord, it is not because we have something to give him, or because we can impress him; Paul says our righteousness is like dirty rags, all we can bring him is our sins in confession, and ask for his mercy. He desires mercy, not sacrifice.
Isaiah says to his society, like ours, you have to remember what you were meant to be. We have to stop being so easily pleased with society the way it is, with the world the way it is, and remember what God meant for us to be. Because we are not yet living in the kingdom of God. There are things here that should disturb and unsettle you enough that when you come to God, you should come with confession, come asking him for mercy. And instead, we come to church, we worship him, thinking he should be impressed, like he should owe us something, like we don’t need his mercy; that’s for the sinners over there, whose lives and cities are already burning. We’re good. God’s on our side.
Isaiah gives two images to illustrate what he means. In v.12, he gives an image of people coming before a king and offering him gifts, which was a common custom for servants to honor their monarchs, but the gifts we keep bringing are empty, worthless. All of the pomp and circumstance of appearing before the court, and in the end we’ve brought nothing of value.
The second image Isaiah gives us, he says, it’s like you’re spreading your hands out in prayer, making a big show about reaching up to God, but your hands are covered in blood. How are you missing what’s so obvious? How do you not understand why God’s focus is elsewhere?
I was in a church service one time growing up, a few hundred people. It was a Wednesday night service, I remember, I was about sixteen, and the youth sat in the front row at our church—to keep us honest, I think. We sang some hymns, and the preacher gets up to start preaching, and about halfway through, one of the elderly ladies in one of the side aisles starts screaming. Everything stopped immediately; just fear and confusion. The pastor runs off the stage over to where she is, someone runs off to the church office, the pastor gets back on stage and announces to the room that her husband had collapsed on top of her, that he seems to have had a heart attack and they’ve called 911.
I never heard the end of that sermon. I mean, of course not. We spent the rest of the service praying for the couple, and the pastor went with them to the hospital that night; and scary as that experience was, what I want you to imagine is this: Imagine a woman in the service starts screaming, a man is dying, and the pastor just keeps preaching like nothing’s wrong.
Pastor calls the musicians back up for an invitation while he falls to the ground. That would have been horrifying. And Isaiah says of worshippers in his time, you’ve lifted your hands up in prayer, but they’re covered in the blood, because there’s no justice in Israel, no concern for the poor, no care for the oppressed. Orphans and widows are uncared for. God tells them, when all of that is happening, when people are dying around you, did you think I would be pleased with a festival? Do you think I’m not horrified that you don’t seem to recognize anything is wrong? Did you think I wouldn’t rather want you to stop whatever you were doing to worship me and go care for your dying brother?
Jesus says it this way in Matthew 5: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
For us, today, the practical implication of this is: when we preach the gospel from our pulpits on Sunday, if we have not also done what he has told us is right, our words will be empty and meaningless, not only to the people hearing them, but to God himself. You can have all the right theology, the best music, the most engaging literature; you can speak in tongues of men and angels, but if you don’t have love among the people gathered, outpouring into your community in practical ways, your worship is worthless and it’s horrifying that you haven’t noticed.
I love the forceful simplicity of what he tells us is right: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do what is right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” He’s saying, y’all, this is obvious. This is basic. How can you think you’re worshipping God if you’re missing this?
There are debates raging among Christians, arguments, church splits, about whether we should devote ourselves to preaching the gospel and discipleship or to enacting the gospel through holiness and justice—the answer is yes. Yes to both. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do what is right.
If you seek to do justice without devoting yourself to the preaching and teaching of the truth of God, your actions are empty and meaningless, like worthless gifts given to a king. If you preach the truth of God, and then don’t seek to enact those truths in the world around you through holiness and justice, your knowledge of the truth paired with a lack of concern for the people around you is horrifying, like bloodied hands lifted in prayer.
We need both in our churches, the truth of God inspiring the works of the kingdom, not one or the other.
I was talking with Phil this week—I know I joke a lot about liking Taylor Swift, but she’s not my favorite. My favorite singer/songwriter is probably Jon Foreman, and when he considers our society today in light of this passage, he writes:
Your eyes are closed when you’re praying
You sing right along with the band
You shine up your shoes for services
There’s blood on your hands
You turned your back on the homeless
And the ones that don’t fit in your plan
Quit playing religion games
There’s blood on your hands
Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show
Let’s argue this out
If your sins are blood red
Let’s argue this out
You’ll be one of the clouds
Let’s argue this out
Quit fooling around
Give love to the ones who can’t love at all
Give hope to the ones who got no hope at all
Stand up for the ones who can’t stand at all, all
I hate all your show
It’s good that you come to church, but only if before you come to church you go to the brother or sister you’ve been harboring bitterness toward and try to make peace; and it’s good that you sing along with the band, but only if your voice which you’re using to sing has also been used to speak in behalf of the immigrant, the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow; and it’s good that you lift up your hands to pray, but only if, when you lift up your hands to pray they aren’t covered in blood from fighting, arguing, and making brothers and sisters which God has adopted into your very family feel unwelcome in your church.
And don’t think because we have a ministry to people experiencing homelessness at our church that we’ve checked the justice box off our list. That would be too optimistic. Human beings are skilled enough at sin to welcome the drunken brother one day and turn to reject the materialistic brother the next; to give a cup of water with one hand, and cause pain to our family member with the other hand; to stand for truth one day and sit in the seat of scoffers the next; to preach a sermon about peace, and go home and fight with your wife or husband. We’re skilled enough, broken enough, to do both. Don’t assume the word of God today applies to others and not us.
My last point, briefly, is this: Trust in the mercy of God. Trust in the mercy of God, because the more we trust in the mercy of God, the more broken we can allow ourselves to be in front him, and we can finally get real.
I’ll speak for myself, but maybe you can relate. The scary part about quitting with the show, the front I put up to keep people at a distance, is that without the show people are going to start seeing the real me, and I don’t necessarily like the real me. You see, because I know myself pretty well, well enough to know the parts of me I don’t like, and I would prefer if other people didn’t get to know me that well. Like Keller writes, one of my fears is to be fully known and then rejected. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in anyone, even God, who could know me fully and yet still decide to adopt me as a child.
I know that I’m a real sinner, not just the mindless forgive-us-our-sins kind, but the kind Bonhoeffer writes about when he says, “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.”
In our relationships with God, and in our relationships with the people in his church, we feel like we have to keep up the show to avoid people being unimaginably horrifying, but Isaiah tells us, the horrifying part is when you come to worship and don’t even seem to recognize the blood on your hands. “Wash,” he writes, “make yourselves clean.”
But I don’t seem to be very good at washing myself, because even when I try, I’m still unclean. What I really need is for God to wash me, make me clean. My sacrifices really don’t seem to do much. I need his mercy. It’s a both/and, though. We do have to wash, and seek justice, even though he is the one who can accomplish justice and forgiveness.
I would invite you this morning to drop the show, and cast yourself on the mercy of God, because he is a God of mercy and steadfast love. Even if your sins and hands are like scarlet, covered in blood, they will be white as snow. Come, let’s be reasonable—this is going to be difficult; doing good is harder than it seems; we aren’t always going to know the best way—let’s argue it out, let’s struggle together to stop doing wrong, and learn to do right. To seek justice, encourage the oppressed, to defend the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow. Come. Pray with me.