Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
10Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
18Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
1The mighty one, God the | Lord, has spoken;
calling the earth from the rising of the sun | to its setting.
2Out of Zion, perfect | in its beauty,
God shines | forth in glory.
3Our God will come and will | not keep silence;
with a consuming flame before, and round about a | raging storm.
4God calls the heavens and the earth | from above
to witness the judgment | of the people.
5“Gather before me my | loyal followers,
those who have made a covenant with me and sealed | it with sacrifice.”
6The heavens declare the rightness | of God’s cause,
for it is God | who is judge.
7“Listen, my people, and I will speak: Israel, I will bear wit- | ness against you;
for I am | God, your God.
8I do not accuse you because | of your sacrifices;
your burnt offerings are al- | ways before me.
22Consider this well, you | who forget God,
lest I tear you apart and there be none to de- | liver you.
23Whoever offers me a sacrifice of thanksgiving | honors me;
I will show the salvation of God to those who go | the right way.”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
13All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
[Jesus said:] 32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove
I made a trip to Boise with a friend this week, shortly after I began preparing this sermon in earnest. She asked how I was doing and I blurted out, “I’m preaching on Isaiah chapter 1 and it’s a chance to name all the things wrong with Christianity right now.”
Reading through these verses reminded me of one of many conversations I had in July at Luther Heights with Jen, the camp nurse for the week. Jen is from American Falls and is a staff alum, but she now lives and works in Reno. In one conversation she told me how frustrated her high school daughter gets with the kids from her huge church youth group. “They have these long Bible studies and then get to school and none of it carries over.”
My dad always said the school playground just took on different iterations throughout life. A high schooler sees the inconsistencies between the youth group Bible Study and school. Adults who leave church see similar, sometimes deeper and more troubling, inconsistencies. People leaving the church often cite the hypocrisies of Christians as a chief reason for leaving. The sentiment goes, “What they profess on Sunday morning in worship seems to have no impact on their lives—how they spend their time, how they treat their family, who they vote for, what they do with their money.”
Writer and theologian Brian McLaren’s most recent book addresses all of this. The book is titled Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned. I’m leading a small group online discussion on the book starting mid-August and 11 people, some in the church, some on the fringes, are signed up so far.
Isaiah does in fact have much to say about inconsistencies, hypocrisy, better and worse worship practices. Despite the harsh words in chapter one, this passage also gives me deep hope for people of faith because of what it reveals about the God we worship.
First, I think it is very important to point out that unlike other scripture passages that speak of individual faith and practice, we need to hear these words addressed to an entire community. It would be easier to preach this text in the American South where they say ya’ll regularly. Hear the “you” as a “you all.”
The second acknowledgement is that we are reading a critique of worship while we are in the middle of a worship service—a bit strange. Pastors and church musicians often become the greatest critics of other people’s worship services. Couldn’t the musicians have prepared more? Why are we singing this hymn, which is too high for anyone here? The preacher seems to be phoning it in today—no real preparation. Who baked this communion bread, and this wine is too sweet.
None of those complaints make it into our reading from Isaiah today. First and foremost, Isaiah wants worship with integrity. Isaiah uses the strongest language possible, addressing the hearers as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah.” These cities are long gone. But Isaiah refers to them to call out the worst in the people he is speaking to. The two cities had become a byword for wickedness in the extreme and divine annihilation, but perhaps not for the reasons our Western ears and minds might assume.
The particular wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is a matter of their greed and injustice. When a prophet uses the word injustice, he’s not talking about punishing the deserving. Justice and injustice refer to fairness and equity, chiefly economic equity.
The fullest account of the “sin” of the Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament is in the book of 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. The two cities became bywords for injustice and so Isaiah implies that the southern kingdom of Judah, especially the leaders and people of Jerusalem, now mirrors their condition.
Isaiah calls his listeners and all of us to carry out acts of worship in ways that reflect integrity. On a first reading, Isaiah seems to say that God rejects the entire worship system. He says that God disregards and dismisses every type of worship act in which the people engage, ranging from sacrifice to prayer.
But the keys to Isaiah’s meaning are embedded in his words. First, the prophet quotes God as saying, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity” (verse 13). Second, he says that God declares, “Your hands are full of blood” (verse 15). So, it is not worship per se that God rejects. It is worship carried out with no regard for ethics. Acts of worship, even if performed correctly and abundantly, cannot compensate for the mistreatment of people, especially of the weak and oppressed.
Isaiah next calls us to practice justice. Isaiah has told his audience that their hands are full of blood (verse 15). On one hand, this may recall the many sacrifices that the people have been offering and that God has rejected (see verse 11). The people’s hands are indeed filled with the blood of sacrificed animals. But that is not the point that the prophet is making. The people’s hands are full of blood in the sense that they have been mistreating people. They have not been practicing sound ethics in their dealings with the oppressed and vulnerable.
It does not take much imagination to recall instances distant or nearer to our own time when the church has done all the right things in worship but has disregarded the oppressed and vulnerable. The Crusades, the Inquisition, Protestant-Catholic conflicts, condoning the slave trade and slavery of Africans in this country, facilitating church boarding schools where indigenous children were stripped of their families, languages, spiritualities, and heritage. And after the church took part in moving civil rights forward in this country for so many people, other parts of the church led the backlash, slowly trying to strip away gains made. I’ll admit to moments where it all becomes a little overwhelming to me and I simply want to walk away from it all.
But then I listen in as Isaiah summons the people to wash the blood of injustice from their hands. The prophet names general ways in which the people can do this. They can “cease to do evil” (verse 16), which has the sense of something that can be done immediately. They can also “learn to do good” (verse 17), which has the sense of something that takes place over a longer period of time. God, through the prophet, does not seem to be finished with this people yet. God has not given up hope for transformation.
The prophet names more specific ways that the people can “seek justice”—they can “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (verse 17).1 In so doing, they will turn away from the sin of Sodom (verse 10), which the prophecy of Ezekiel defines as having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease” while failing to “aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
As we listen in so many years later, Isaiah invites us also to turn away from unethical dealings and to turn toward justice. He now invites his audience and us to accept the good that can come if they repent. The verb translated “let us argue it out” in NRSV is rendered elsewhere as “let us settle the matter” (NIV) and “let’s settle this” (CEB).
Those alternate translations seem to better capture the sense, since what needs to happen is not up for debate or negotiation. The prophet calls the people to agree with and accept God’s evaluation of their situation, and to change in light of it. The imagery of sins that “are like scarlet” and that are “red like crimson” could reflect the previous statement that the people’s “hands are full of blood” (verse 15). Their sins becoming “like snow” and “like wool” (verse 18) could be the result of the people’s washing themselves (verse 16).
Even though Judah has been devastated and Jerusalem has been left isolated, the people’s repentance can lead to their experiencing the blessings of the land that God intends them to have. Failure to repent, on the other hand, will lead to further judgment.
One pastor wrote this past week about how it is inherent to Christianity to place trust in the notion of change. He goes on “When we pray for the heart of Vladimir Putin to soften, when we long for a person from whom we’re estranged to get back in touch, when we work to transform humanity’s relationship to our planet, we’re putting all our eggs in the basket of change. There will always be some kinds of science and some kinds of religion that maintain nothing ever changes. But change is in the character of creation, and sometimes situations and people can change for the better. Conversion is the name for the way a person’s heart and soul and actions can change for good when they encounter the embrace of God’s ever-loving arms.”
What is true for individual conversion and trust in the notion of change must also be true for an entire community of Christians. It is why I stay with this community of faith; I trust that the Holy Spirit is transforming us still, Trinity Lutheran, the ELCA—our church body, the holy catholic (small c, meaning universal) church. God is not done with the church yet. Repentance in the Old Testament meant to turn around. In the Gospels and most of the New Testament it means to have a new perspective. With the Spirits help, we are capable of both—turning back to God and the mandate to care for the vulnerable and oppressed and to experience the world with new perspectives. That should give us hope for present and future.
Prayers of Intercession
The prayers are prepared locally for each occasion. The following examples may be adapted or used as appropriate.
Trusting in God’s extraordinary love, let us come near to the Holy One in prayer.
A brief silence.
Let your lovingkindness be upon your church. Fill all who proclaim the gospel with your Spirit. Equip your flock to speak your word of promise and hope in the midst of fear and uncertainty. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Let your lovingkindness be upon your creation. Dwell among us and sustain our earthly home. In places of famine, provide nourishment. In places of plenty, fashion us to be good stewards of your bounty. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Let your lovingkindness be upon your world. Be our helper and our shield in places torn by strife and violence (especially). Raise up courageous leaders to govern with compassion and justice. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Let your lovingkindness be upon your children. Look upon all who wait for your steadfast love. Console those who grieve and embrace those who cry out to you (especially). Help us to trust your promise and not be afraid. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Let your lovingkindness be upon this community. Fashion our hearts to strive for the way of peace. Strengthen the outreach ministries of this congregation (specific ministries may be named) and all who care for those in need. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Here other intercessions may be offered.
With thanksgiving we remember all who have died in faith and now rest in you. As they placed their hope in you, so strengthen us to trust in your promise of new life. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Receive the prayers of your children, merciful God, and hold us forever in your steadfast love; through Jesus Christ, our holy Wisdom.