God is not afraid to be absolutely honest when he speaks to his people. Often his prophets were given messages in very strong language. In the passage from Isaiah assigned to 11 August he explains in no uncertain terms just how displeased he is with the worship offered by his people. We could fall into the same trap as they did.
The readings for Sunday 11 August were I saiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 23-end, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40. My reflection is given below:
When I looked at what one of my commentaries stated about today’s passage from Isaiah, it certainly used strong words!
“Of all prophetic outbursts at religious unreality this is the most powerful and sustained. Its vehemence is unsurpassed ..”
It’s certainly powerful stuff which we read here near the beginning of Isaiah. God is telling his people just what he thinks of them. First he calls them rulers of Sodom and people of Gomorrah. Those two towns were the epitome of evil and godlessness yet here the people of Judah are accused of being just as bad. In mounting distaste God explains what the problem is:
He’s ‘had enough’ of burnt offerings.
He does not ‘delight’ in the blood of the sacrifices animals.
The movement of the feet of worshippers he calls ‘trampling’.
The offerings are ‘futile’.
Incense is ‘an abomination’.
He ‘cannot endure’ the various assemblies.
He ‘hates’ the appointed festivals.
They are ‘a burden’.
God is ‘weary of bearing them’.
The system of sacrifices was initiated by God when he instructed Moses. New moon festivals were held at the beginning of each month with special sacrifices and feasts. We know about some of the appointed annual feasts such as Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. There were also offerings which could be made for sin and to give thanks. Making these various sacrifices was part of Israel’s ritual which affirmed the covenant between God and the people. God would hardly do away with something he had put in place for such an important purpose. In fact in Psalm 50 he says: ‘I will not reprove you for your sacrifices, for your burnt offerings are always before me.’
The problem was not with the sacrifices themselves but with the attitude of the people making them. They were carefully making the correct sacrifices but their hearts were not faithful to God. In Psalm 50 we witness a court room scene as God prepares to make the case against his people. He makes it plain that he is not going to be silent, explaining himself through some action that they may misinterpret. He will speak. God is the judge, his people are the defendants and heaven and earth are called as witnesses. When the covenant between God and Israel was renewed by Moses on the plains of Moab Moses called heaven and earth to be witnesses of the covenant. Now God is calling them to testify as his people are brought before him and called to account in accordance with his covenant. Those who are called are supposed to be his faithful people, devoted to him and beloved by him. God is still keeping his part of the covenant, and still calls himself ‘your God’.
God accuses the people of having hands full of blood and of forgetting him. Their sacrifices are outward signs only with no inward faith, making their offerings empty and meaningless. God challenges his people to wash themselves of all that makes them unclean, to remove their evil actions. Instead they are to get their hearts right and their actions right. They are to do good, to work for justice, to rescue those who are oppressed in some way, to defend the marginalised in society, here represented by the widow and orphan. They are to offer thanksgiving as their sacrifice and to follow God’s way. In the psalm God warns that time is running out and punishment awaits those who don’t listen to him. In Isaiah he warns that they will be devoured.
Courtroom language is used in Isaiah as well as God urges the people to reason together with him. Then suddenly the accusations cease and God once more offers salvation, even at the eleventh hour. Scarlet and crimson, the colours ascribed to sin, were not only glaringly bright but also fast colours, which could not be removed. Yet God states that he can do the impossible. All sin, however apparently indelible, can be removed by his power. Salvation is still offered to those who want it. The choice is theirs.
It would be easy to look with disdain from this distance at the foolish people of God, but as Paul told Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Hence, what we have read today applies to us also. We too could fall into the trap of engaging in meaningless ritual, putting more faith in it than in the God we profess to worship. For several of us who attend the regular services in the chapel, that meeting together for prayer and reading the bible is essential to help us live out our faith day by day. However, we should never be complacent and believe we cannot fall into the trap of attending out of habit, when our heart is not in it.
There have been several conversations recently about the low numbers at services here on a Sunday. It is a cause of concern of course, something we talked about at the last Conversation & Cake and which I shall be discussing with the Leadership Team shortly in a meeting. However, if we look at things from God’s point of view, perhaps the problem is not as it seems. If those who come here do so out of a wish to praise and thank God and to remember all he means in their lives, I am sure that is pleasing to God. If we had every seat filled with an avatar but most were coming here out of habit or to just do the ‘right’ thing, I don’t think that would please God at all. Likewise, if someone is not here for this service but is getting on with the actions God wants us to do, as listed in Isaiah, that seems to me to be an equally good use of time. Ideally of course we would have every seat filled with people who are worshipping God from the depths of their hearts and who would then go out and serve other people and spread the gospel. There are certainly plenty of opportunities to do this in SL.
Whatever happens about attending worship services either here or in RL, the important issue is to make sure that we do not lose sight of the one we worship and serve who is the whole purpose of our gathering. Let us honour God with a sacrifice of thanksgiving, today and every day and so demonstrate where our treasure lies.