Sunday, August 7, 2022
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
The 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.
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What 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. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When 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.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come 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. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
When I was first diagnosed with chronic migraine in my late-twenties, I began to very seriously pursue getting well. But what I discovered in that process, and in all the years since then, is that sometimes the process of getting well has a pain of its own.
In the beginning, there were lots of dietary restrictions – the kind that a 20-something found onerous: bans on peanut butter and ice cream and pizza and chocolate. I was forced to cut back severely on caffeine and at one point had to give up coffee altogether. I began to drink an inordinate amount of water. I avoided all processed foods – including Ranch-flavored Doritos. I paid attention to sleep and exercise and stress. But despite my best efforts, the severe headaches continued. And so, I saw more doctors and had more tests and heard all kinds of opinions.
Eventually, I decided to try some alternative methods. Some people claim that acupuncture doesn’t hurt, but, trust me, needles between my toes – well, that hurt! -- I ate my weight in supplements every day. I put Ben Gay on my temples. I rubbed peppermint oil onto the roof of my mouth. Once, I even spent $600 on a contraption I wore on my head for twenty minutes a day that sent painful electric shocks throughout my skull, in an attempt to disrupt the spasming nerves.
And I bet you have your own stories about what you have endured because of the promise of getting well. Isn’t it ironic that this is how healing and recovery work? Sometimes you get worse before you get better. Sometimes, the cure hurts a little... or a lot. And what is true for our physical bodies is also true for our souls. The healing of our souls can be painful.
We don’t talk about soul-healing a lot in churches like ours, mostly because we don’t talk about repentance a lot in churches like ours. There are reasons for that, but one of the biggest is that the message of repentance has been so misused by so many, as a way to control and manipulate and accumulate power, that we don’t want to be associated with it. It’s understandable.
But it also has a domino effect. In our shying away from the message of repentance, of the need to examine ourselves and then change our ways, have we also, however inadvertently, discounted the concept of grace? And if repentance and grace have lost their meaning; if it all boils down to “I’m OK, you’re OK,” then what are we doing here? And what is the Gospel for? And what did Jesus mean?
The book of Isaiah is actually at least three books that scholars refer to as I, II, and III Isaiah. It was compiled over many years and reflects the political and religious realities of different people in different times. But these books are tied together by some strong, common themes that flow throughout the prophetic tradition of Israel, including the ministry of Jesus: things like justice, liberation, hospitality, peace, and plenty. The prophets were relentless in declaring that these things are God’s will for everyone. But what God wants and what humans get are often two very different things because sin gets in the way. And sin is not only manifested in individual lives; it is also manifested in any society in which the few are rewarded by denying the many. And so, the prophets called the people to repentance. They railed against these societal abuses. They reminded the people that they were indeed their sister’s and brother’s keepers. And then they warned the people of judgment if changes were not made.
And in this way, prophets are a bit like doctors. They examine the patient. Run some tests. Find the source of the sickness. Announce a treatment. And then say: You can get better, but it’s going to hurt a little.
And in Isaiah’s case, hurt it did. Isaiah attacked the thing the people thought showed their health: their religious institutions themselves. Isaiah attacked their public worship and displays of piety. He had the audacity to point out that their civil religion – that is, their religious nationalism – had nothing to do with true faith in God, because true faith in God will always elevate the lowliest members of society.
Now this was a tremendous shock to them because everything they did; everything they were so proud of, could be found in the Bible! Things like burnt offerings and incense and Sabbath celebrations and convocations and solemn assemblies and new moon gatherings and festivals. And it was all wrapped up in marvelous pomp and circumstance and music and processions and the swirl of vestments and a thousand voice choir. It was enough to thrill the crustiest cynic.
But, Dr. Isaiah said, God hates it. God hates it all.
And doesn’t that just rock our world? Don’t we also think of public displays of piety as somehow being ultimately pleasing to God? Wasn’t there just a case decided by the Supreme Court in favor of praying on a public-school football field? And wasn’t that decision celebrated by many of the faithful? Does God hate prayers on school football fields too?
Well, I don’t know about that, but I can tell you this – Isaiah was having none of it because he knew that their faith was divorced from justice in the real world. And that made their worship empty and meaningless.
“Your hands are full of blood,” the prophet thundered. “What you say you will do for the people and what you actually do are two very different things. You’re sick and you need a cure. And it might hurt.”
And it might – because doing the right thing in the world will always cost us something. True justice always has an element of sacrifice to it. To share the goodness of creation is about doing unto others exactly as you would want others to do to you. It’s very practical.
Isaiah described their cure like this: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This is not about a warm feeling or a beautiful call to worship. This is about making it real in the lives of real people. This is about justice as the fruit of true repentance – which simply means to turn around and go in a new direction.
Heavy stuff – Repentance is always heavy stuff. But it is always answered by grace. The Gospel of Jesus will not leave us in our sick beds - hopeless or helpless or wallowing in self-pity. It heals us and restores us and renews us.
Toward the end of the passage, Isaiah writes: “Come, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” This can also be translated as: “Come, let us correct the situation.” And isn’t that marvelous? Because if we are invited to correct the situation, then that means we can! And if we can, then there is hope. And that means that every day is a new beginning. For us. For this church. For this nation. For this world.
It might involve some bitter pills. There might be some radical surgery. The rehab might be grueling. It might hurt a little. It might hurt a lot. But good health is worth it.