“May it please the court.” Though not in every case, these words often begin courtroom proceedings. Throughout high school and college, they were part of a standard for the mock trial teams I was on as we addressed the fictitious courtroom in competitions. They established a rhythm and guided us into the argument. This morning, as we approach our text from Isaiah, it’s appropriate to parallel it with the patterns of our legal justice system, for the verses we find in this chapter are just that: a courtroom scene.
Isaiah 1:1 is essentially the “May it please the court.” It is the introduction that locates this prophet within a certain place and time. Namely, that this is a vision given to a particular person from Judah, the southern kingdom of God’s people, during the reign of particular kings, making the historical timeline around the 8th century B.C.E. From this we know a bit more about how to locate this text among the first hearers of its message:
The Assyrian campaign of 701 BCE has left Judah devastated. The nation is sick. From head to toe, the body does not have a single healthy, sound spot. . . Only Jerusalem is left, and that city’s condition is tenuous[i].
To these people of God comes Isaiah, whose name is a combination of the root words in Hebrew for God and salvation, and can roughly be translated to mean “God has saved” or “God will save.” From the start, we get a sense that his prophecy will include a recurring theme of God’s saving sovereignty over history and all the nations. And indeed it does. These parallels are why it is such a meaningful book in the Hebrew scriptures for us as Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecies for the coming of the Messiah. What might seem just a cursory introduction verse for us actually tells us quite a bit about what we will hear next. The verses that follow are like the prosecutor’s opening statement, telling us what to look for in the evidence that will be presented. They illustrate the prophet’s passion for God’s message of salvation as well as God’s concern for justice, laying the groundwork for the beautiful and challenging poetry that will come.
With the stage set, the prophet launches into the brutal honesty of the facts. Verses 2-9, which are skipped in the lectionary, present some harsh evidence about what my study bible labels “the wickedness of Judah.” The charges are read, if you will. A courtroom parallel might be that these are pre-trial stipulations. That is, that both sides have agreed that a certain set of statements are true. In the case of God vs. the people of Judah, the picture looks pretty bleak from the start.
Verses 10-20 unleash God’s response. To get a sense of what he’s saying, hear again part of this passage as it’s relayed in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:
Quit your worship charades.
I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody [ii].
Yikes. This is a tough message to swallow. This, in some ways, is the point. Isaiah presents a powerful and scathing message, meant to jar listeners to change their behaviors. And for those of us sitting in the sanctuary for worship this week, with no less than THREE committee meetings on our calendar of events, we might be shifting in our seats in a bit of uneasiness or even outright shock, wondering if we have parallels with the 8th century BCE after all. Those places of uneasiness, I think, are the Spirit that encourages us to examine and critique our own lives, so that we might grow to be more faithful.
As we consider this text in relation to our lives today, though, we might get hung up on one of the things that Isaiah identifies as being particularly problematic – the unworthy sacrifices being offered that God rejects. As Christians, we tend to not have a good understanding of their role in ancient Jewish practice, so Anna Case-Winters offers us a quick summary to catch up. She notes that:
There are different kinds of offerings. Some are understood purely as gifts to God. Peace offerings are meant to signal a reconciled relation with God. Other offerings are intended as expiation for breaches of ritual committed in ignorance. Forgiveness of other kinds of wrongs or wrongs done knowingly is never related to sacrifice, but is dependent upon repentance and confession. There is no understanding of divine forgiveness being “purchased” by sacrifice (propitiation)[iii].
In other words, the sacrifices and offerings that the people were making comprised a majority of the same components that we address with our acts of worship: our offering of praise and thanksgiving through hymns and affirmations of faith; our reflections on the Scripture, and yes, the admission of our shortfalls with confession. The issue here is not that the people of God have missed something they were supposed to be doing in order to receive God’s favor. God doesn’t work on a system of quid pro quo. Forgiveness is always the gracious act of God, even in the Hebrew scriptures. However, it seems that God’s people have tried to make it this way.
The priests in Jerusalem had been highly successful in increasing religious display. They apparently taught the people that the more sacrifices they made, the greater the chance that their desires would be grated. The fatter the animal, the better the reward[iv].
The people of Judah have been attempting to manipulate God’s goodness and favor with sacrificial offerings, as if God could be bought or bribed. And when this becomes what happens, the sacrifices become less about God, and more about the self-centered people who offer them.
We hear similar messages in Psalm 50, and also in Amos, Hosea, and Micah. All push against the offering of sacrifices or other worship rituals done for show or simply done out of obligation. They insist that they are idle exercises unless true change happens within. Put quite simply, the prophetic witness tells God’s people, over and over again, that our faith is not just about going through the motions and doing all the right steps or saying the right things. It has to be about something more.
Isaiah is calling out the people of Judah’s hypocrisy. What he has observed is that even those claiming to be the most pious have gotten caught up in the pageantry and display of worship, or of going through the motions, and have lost sight of the relationship that their worship has to their lives and their hearts. What really is “on trial” here, then, is not so much the methodologies of sacrifice and worship practices, but the hearts of the worshipers themselves. Isaiah is not suggesting that we not worship. But rather, that we pay better attention to our lives outside of the sanctuary; because what happens in the world shouldn’t be separate from what happens in our worship. That separation is what is so offensive to the prophet and to God.
We can’t simply go through the motions and assume that everything will be magically right with the world. Our worship, in order to be pleasing to God, must be linked with the lives we live. When it isn’t, our faith is emptyhanded. In the wake of yet another round of mass shootings, there has been sharp critique for those who offer “thoughts and prayers” to those experiencing tragedy in El Paso and Dayton. Every time I hear someone blow off genuine expressions of sympathy I get pretty cranky. After all, as a Christian, I believe we are indeed called to pray for those who are struggling. Last week, I heartbreakingly read the names of countless cities who had been impacted by gun violence with multiple victims; a staggering list in just one week’s time, with 2 major stories in the 24 hours preceding our worship. In times of tragedy and fear and terrorism, sometimes the only thing we can think to do is pray. And that is a good and faithful response. But the thing is; prayer can’t just be the only thing we do. If we truly take Isaiah’s words to heart, we must consider that our prayers beckon us into real, tangible action in the world. Otherwise, they are offered up almost in vain and leave us emptyhanded with a hollow faith.
This text convicts the parts of us that try to separate our lives to the point that we end up with “Sunday morning selves” and “rest of the week selves.” Not good enough, says the prophet. If we want to truly worship and offer ourselves to God, we have to do the work outside of these walls, too. This is the work of the people of God. In our communion prayers we ask that we be living and holy sacrifices. That means we are committed to being a part of God’s work in the world, not just thinking or praying about God doing it. Fortunately, Isaiah gives a pretty good listing of ways in which we can marry the two. As The Message puts it:
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless[v]
It is when we do these things that we live into the covenant God created with us.
When it comes to a trial, the general advice is that the attorney should always end by asking the judge or jury for the verdict they desire, so that is the final thought. In Isaiah 1, God’s final word is not one of condemnation, but one of grace. “Come, let us argue it out,” God says, inviting us into reconciling conversation. The verb in this verse even:
comes from the language of the law court, and it refers to the kind of discourse that results in the disclosure of the truth[vi].
But rather than a dramatic trial in which God takes all of our offerings and shows how flimsy they really are, God offers words of promise and reconciliation. Nothing is beyond God’s redemption. In fact, God can and will transform everything into its pure state. Here, God shifts from prosecutor into arbiter, offering a path to forgiveness. God offers grace. It is not a cheap grace, but grace offered in the midst of our mess, from one who longs for us to be rehabilitated and restored once again.
This passage puts our lives, even and especially our spiritual lives “on trial” from start to finish. Isaiah deftly navigates the complexities of the lives of the people of Judah, and us today, with a beautiful poetry that weaves together a tight and concise case. The evidence is overwhelming; the offenses made clear. His words should prompt, then, a sharp examination of ourselves up against the vision God has for us as God’s own people, during which we likely discover the many ways in which we fall short and screw things up. But then comes the final offer of proof and request not for a punishment, but for reconciliation and the opportunity to turn things around. God is not finished with God’s people yet. Would we dare to accept this as the verdict?
That is the question left to the people of Judah, and to us today. Knowing of God’s displeasure with some of our choices and simultaneous desire to be in relationship with us to right these wrongs into a new way of living, how will we respond?
~Sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, August 11, 2019
[i] Gary W. Light, Isaiah, Interpretation Bible Studies, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
[ii] Eugene Peterson, The Message.
[iii] Anna Case-Winters, “Theological Perspective: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20,” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
[iv] Gary W. Light, Isaiah, Interpretation Bible Studies, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
[v] Eugene Peterson, The Message.
[vi] Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, James D. Newsome, “Proper 14” Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV – Year C, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)