Sermon August 11, 2019

“Shall We Mute the Voice of God?”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Isaiah 1
August 11, 2019

 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. – Isaiah 1:16 & 17i

The United Church of Christ has a slogan that it published on banners and quoted on mastheads: “God is still speaking” You just heard the words of the prophet Isaiah spoken between 750 and 700 B.C. — a long time ago in a place far away. Maybe they mean nothing. Perhaps they speak of a time so unlike our own that this Word from God is not God’s Word for today. If that describes your reaction to our reading this morning, then you are not troubled by the reality of the world we live in because Isaiah’s vision is outdated and out of place. I, unfortunately, cannot share your optimism. When I come to scripture I look for what I call the “Holy intersection.” It is the place where the will of God, expressed long ago, intersects with the world I live in. It is there, at this “Holy intersection” that God’s word comes alive for today. So I share with you this morning a deep feeling of discomfort and look for ways to respond to the calling of God.

Perhaps some historical background will help as we search for this Holy intersection. There are complications when studying the book of Isaiah. We don’t have the time to explore these complexities but should you decide to read the book in its entirety, know that at chapter 40, there is a second author speaking in a very different time than the first part of the book. With that said, the section we are exploring this morning saw turmoil on the international scene. In 722, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was threatened. So Isaiah, who prophesied in the Southern Kingdom would have been well aware of the threat posed by foreign powers. In spite of this external threat, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was prospering. From John Holbert:

The archaeology of the middle of the 8th century tells a clear tale: a few large and opulent homes and palaces on the heights of the capital Samaria and myriad one-room hovels in the valley below. The gaps between rich and poor were wide and growing wider. Amos and Hosea rail against this gap and against the unseeing and unfeeling rich who care not a fig for their poor brothers and sisters who are below them, physically and metaphorically, as far as they are concerned. That comfort ended forever in 722 at the points of vast numbers of Assyrian swords.1

The Biblical scholar, Stan Mast, adds:

“…Judah was enjoying a boom time.  James Limburg describes it this way.  ‘Jerusalem just past mid-eighth century BC was a place where the economy was booming, the elite were basking in the prosperity of the Uzziah years, and ecclesiastical institutions were buzzing was sacrifices and songs.  But beneath it all, something was wrong.  A terrible sickness was eating away at the heart of the nation. Isaiah had seen it and tried to warn his people before it was too late.’  If that sounds like a not-so-subtle criticism of the current administration in the United States, you should know that Limburg wrote those words in 2001.”2

You can draw your own comparisons. The central point is this: at a time of national prosperity when the religious apparatus of the nation was running both efficiently and with precession, God was not pleased with the observance of religious feasts, the blood of sacrifice, the collection of offerings, the observance of high holy days and the trappings of the clergy. There was a sickness that burnt offerings could not burn away.

In a time when civility languishes on the sword of political expediency, when national leadership seems incapable of stemming the spread of assault weapons and the madness of white nationalism goes largely unchecked, the question put forward by our reading is now our own. Is God pleased with the worship we put forward in God’s name? Does God turn a blind eye to our treatment of the strangers in our midst? Is God indifferent to the violence we embrace in the name of liberty? Is God still speaking or must we mute the voice of God? Let us pray…

i 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.

10 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 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.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 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. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 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. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

18 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. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.