In a devotional written for Holston Conference, Paige Wimberly of Newburn and Mountain View UMCs in Dublin, VA, wrote: “In Psalm 50, God’s people are on trial. God is the judge. The earth and the skies are the witnesses. But in an unusual turn of events, God testifies against God’s people. While God’s people have perfected the art of faithful sacrifice, they have completely disregarded the art of faithful living. Their sacrifices no longer represent humility and thanksgiving before the Lord. Instead, their ritual observances serve as masks for their wickedness. And God doesn’t want anything to do with their hypocrisy. What God does want is for God’s people to embody the true meaning of ritual sacrifice in the way it was intended: with thankful hearts and humble lives.”[i]
Psalm 50 parallels the passage from Isaiah. In contemporary language of today used by Peterson in The Message®, God’s frustration and witness against the People in Isaiah is abundantly clear: “I had children and raised them well, and they turned on me. The ox knows who’s boss, the mule knows the hand that feeds him … But not Israel. My people don’t know up from down. Shame! Misguided God-dropouts, staggering under their guilt-baggage, gang of miscreants, band of vandals — My people have walked out on me, their God, turned their backs on The Holy of Israel, walked off and never looked back. …”
Clearly, God is beyond the “somewhat displeased” stage and downright angry with His people.
In The Message® version, the Psalmist tells us God is angry with them because they’ve been quoting His laws, dropping His name like they’re His best buddies, and then treating His words like trash, pal-ing around with liars and philanderers, their speech has become vile, they’ve become expert liars themselves, and they’ve treated their brothers and sisters badly.
In both passages, God also calls the people out for their worshipping habits. In the Psalms, He’s okay with their acts of worship and that are making offerings to him, but He points out those things they’re sacrificing are already His. In Isaiah, He’s unhappy with everything about their worship … Listen to it again from The Message®:
“Why this frenzy of sacrifices? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that — all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
“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.”
You know, at this point the irony of my naming this series Joy is not lost on me. These are some harsh words coming from God, wouldn’t you say? But, let’s go on …
In the devotional I mentioned when I started, Wimberly explains a bit about the situation surrounding the people in these passages. Isaiah was prophesying to the people of Judah who probably sat there hearing all this, shaking their heads and thinking, “Poor fools to the north … just listen to God laying out charges against them for their wickedness. Wimberly goes on …
“Their wickedness, which led to their destruction, was like a fire that gorged on everything in its path. The fire spread to the people themselves so they became fuel for the fire, attacking and devouring each other with an insatiable appetite for power and control.”
Isaiah doesn’t stop there, though. “Isaiah declares to the southern survivors: “For all this [God’s] anger has not turned away; [God’s] hand is stretched out still.”
In other words, Isaiah is warning the southern kingdom fails to learn a lesson from this that they’re not off the hook, that God intends a full reckoning.
And the thing is, the southern kingdom has even bigger problems. Wimberly writes: “Their judges are corrupt. They bear the name of justice but they are not just at all. They use their power and control to oppress the vulnerable and enrich themselves, which goes against everything the Lord has taught them. And the people are not doing anything to stop it.”
Isaiah warns the southern kingdom to wake up and get their act together. If they refuse to come clean with the Lord, they’ll be left on their own – God will turn His back on them. “In God’s eyes, their power and wealth mean nothing when used as tools of injustice.”
This should be starting to resonate with you at this point. The times of Judah are not so different from what goes on around us every day. Everywhere we look from our own communities outward to the state and nation and all around the world, we can see power struggles happening with all sides claiming that they, alone, are God’s favored.
Avarice, extreme greed for wealth or material gain, was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember that in the passage from Isaiah, God calls the northern kingdom out as being “rulers of Sodom” and students of Gomorrah. You only have to watch the news or read the paper to see what lengths some people will go to, who and what those same people are willing to sacrifice or do in order to both protect and increase their existing wealth.
With regard to God’s taking offense with how people are worshipping him, I see that in today’s world as well. Some churches have become all about the show … rock bands, pyrotechnics, shallow hymns, and shallower theologies, that once saved, always saved, salvation gets you your ticket to heaven, don’t worry about this world, just focus on the next. Still, others have become more like private clubs, focused on the doings within their own walls, balking at trying new things or welcoming new ideas or people, and making sure that anyone new who might want to join them are “people like us.”
So what is the good news in these texts? Where is that elusive joy? What can we do to avoid being judged like Judah and the northern kingdom?
God gives us the answer Himself in the passage from Isaiah: “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.”
God goes on and gives us the choice of two outcomes: “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 … and it’s a pretty big BUT … “if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
I don’t know about you, but being devoured by swords is not on my bucket list. That leaves me with washing myself; making myself clean; removing the evil of my doings from before God’s eyes; ceasing to do evil, learning to do good; seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.
So how do we go about that? Those nine things alone are a pretty daunting to-do list. The first two aren’t so bad … washing and making myself clean … those are confession and repentance …
How do I remove the evil of my doings from God’s eyes and cease to do evil, though? That’s a little trickier. It requires some heavy soul-searching to determine what we’ve done that God would consider evil, atone for those things if possible, and stop ourselves from doing them again.
Many of us might sit and struggle with whether we’ve truly done anything … evil … though. We’ve been basically good our whole lives, we’ve been good, we haven’t been in trouble with the law … what does God mean by evil?
He gives us clues in the rest of His to-do-or-be-devoured list. If we’re to seek justice, we have to search our souls for those times we were guilty of committing an injustice. Injustice is unfairness, inequity, or inequality.
Before we can rescue the oppressed, we have to identify whether we’ve ever been guilty of oppressing someone else, of holding others back or treating them as less than, of preventing someone from having the same opportunities we have enjoyed.
Before we can defend the orphan or plead for the widow, we have to look back at ourselves and admit where we might have done things that caused the orphan or the widow to need defending.
A good example of an evil act we might want to look for would be discrimination for any reason. Discrimination takes many forms, but some common forms are racial, gender, religious, physical ability, financial, or lifestyle. While we may not be guilty of personally discriminating for any of those reasons, we need to remember that … if we were silent when the discrimination was proposed or was enacted or occurred … if we didn’t make our disagreement with it known, didn’t speak out or up, didn’t do something to try to intervene or prevent … our silence has made us accessories to the evil that was done.
Once we’ve identified and corrected these things in our own lives, we need to “learn to do good” so that we can seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. That means we must learn to look out with compassion.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
I would add that compassion means no more saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” and that compassion requires embracing and supporting equality even for those we don’t approve of or like or want.
And, by the way, there is joy in this … In the Psalm, God says, “Spread for me a banquet of praise, serve High God a feast of kept promises, And call for help when you’re in trouble— I’ll help you, and you’ll honor me.” God promises to be there for us, with us, and to help us.
In Isaiah, God tells us, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;” By heeding His warning to Judah and the northern kingdom, by learning from their misdeeds, and by being obedient to Him, we find both joy and reward.
Carrying these things out are hard work, constant work, and not necessarily popular work,
Steven Charleston reminds us, “I have lived through times of historical struggle. I know many of you have too. The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the impeachment of President Nixon. Riots, assassinations, natural disasters. I have lived through them all. I know many of you have too. You and I are veterans of these kinds of struggles. We pray to never see another one, but we are not panicked if we do. We are veterans. We are not faint of heart, not easily shaken when we see trouble on our horizon. We are veterans of living our faith. We are ordinary human beings who have lived through extraordinary times. We are still here, still standing, still believing. We are the core of what makes history: everyday people whose own life experience has taught them something they never forget: come what may, love is always stronger than hate and faith is always stronger than fear.”
In Hebrews, God tells us to have faith in things unseen, and that He will be pleased and proud to call us His own.
And in Luke, Jesus tells us to not be afraid because God wants to give us the kingdom.
In her devotional, Wimberly wrote, “… the deepest love that we long for is the sacred love of God. Sometimes, though, we look everywhere but to God for the love we really need. We look to friendship, romance, marriage, parenthood, vocation, wealth, pleasure, creativity, entertainment, adventure, success… While we can experience God’s love in all these things and more, sometimes we forget that they can never be substitutes for God’s love. Sometimes our search takes us down destructive paths where we feel far from God’s love. And when we gorge on empty promises and devour each other’s worth, like Isaiah’s community did, we are never satisfied. We are unable to break the chains that bind us. When we prioritize power and control over everything else, we are always searching for something more or better or different. We are looking for love in all the wrong places.
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas describes the insatiable emptiness we sometimes feel as a “holy hunger.” It is our deepest, most primal need. It is a spiritual hunger that runs deep within all of our cravings and desires. When our holy hunger is not met, we will never be satisfied. When we look for love in all the wrong places, we are really running from the deepest love of all. When we devour spiritual, emotional, or tangible trash, we drown our deepest need and choke our true hunger. (Holy Hunger: A Memoir of Desire, 1999)
Like our tribal ancestors, we are in danger of self-destruction. When we realize that we have fallen into this trap, we can follow Isaiah’s advice. We can relinquish our need for power and control. We can return to God with thankful hearts and humble lives. We can discover our holy hunger, partake of the Living Bread that fills our every need, and drink from the Living Water that never runs dry. That is the history I hope we repeat together, over and over and over again, until the end of time — when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
There’s the joy, folks … finding our holy hunger and returning to God with thankful and humble lives, seeking His help to “do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.” There is joy.
Let’s pray …
Jesus doesn’t dominate the other, avoid the other, colonize the other, intimidate the other, demonize the other, or marginalize the other. He incarnates into the other, joins the other in solidarity, protects the other, listens to the other, serves the other, even lays down his life for the other. Lord, in your mercy, molds us, shape us, guide us, lead us to be Christ-like to all we meet, to stand up and stand in the gap, to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow at ever opportunity presented to us, and to become Your examples of kingdom builders.
In Jesus’ name,
[i] https://holston.org/about/communications/inspirational-resources/lenten-resources/, August 9, Paige Wimberly
Scripture readings (Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40):
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.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.
By 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.
By 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.
By 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. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
By faith he received the power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore 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.”
All 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, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But 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.
Luke 12:32-40 – “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be 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. Blessed 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. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“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. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”