God Wants More Than Lip Service

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, August 7, 2022
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

    In college, I had the opportunity to travel to India for a month-long January-term class, and of course a highlight of the trip was going to the Taj Mahal.  Like many places, I had an image of what it would be like in my head and then actually being there was a little different.  Of course, there were so many tourists it was hard to take a picture without a stranger photobombing.  What was more disturbing were the number of children hawking trinkets, begging, and outright looking to pickpocket, as well as the heaping mound of trash in the river that runs behind the Taj Mahal.  On the one hand, it’s a beautiful place to visit, and I am blessed to have had the opportunity. On the other hand, when I think of “injustice,” this is the picture that comes first to mind from that travel experience:  a great display of wealth and power that those who have the means all over the world want to see juxtaposed with extreme poverty and environmental degradation.  
This is what it means to live in the world today, isn’t it?  On our summer vacations we hopefully have had a glimpse of God’s beautiful creation, time for rest and relaxation, but also we’re confronted at least on the news if not in real life with the realities of income inequality, climate change and natural disasters, corruption and misuse of power and wealth.  We know how the world is, and we dream about the world as it should be.  As we move from the prophet Hosea to the prophet Isaiah, we see God confronting the world as it is and offering a picture of God’s dream of what the world could be through Isaiah’s words to us this morning.  How might God’s dream for the world become our dream, and how can we partner with God to help make that dream a reality?  This is the work of the prophets in a nutshell!
    We’ve been looking at the role of prophets throughout scripture this summer, and as a brief recap, a prophet’s job is to tell the truth; to tell the word of the Lord even when it’s hard.  This means most prophets say things that are not easy for us to hear, as we see in our first reading from Isaiah 1 this morning.  God’s judgment is often harsh in the prophets, but I hope as we continue to look more closely that we see a promising pattern – God’s mercy always has the last word. God’s judgment is always balanced with good news about God’s salvation.  Hosea confronts two problems God has with the people of Israel:  their unfaithfulness in following after other gods, and their disobedience or rebellion against God.  Like a faithful spouse, like a merciful parent, we hear Hosea’s assurance that God will stick with us despite our infidelity and offer us forgiveness as children of the living God.  
This week, Isaiah confronts another widespread sinful behavior:  our participation in injustice; our ethical failures, so to speak.  When we look at the state of the world and why things like extreme poverty exist, it’s not God’s fault, Isaiah would argue.  The blood is on our hands – Isaiah does not mince words.  If we are not troubled by the state of the world and the fate of millions who live hand to mouth or who are horribly oppressed, we ought to be, Isaiah forcefully reminds us.  
One of my favorite parts of the worship service really since childhood has been the end (and not just because it meant worship was over!).  We say, “Go in peace, serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!”  And to me, these few words have been a simple teaching tool for what the Christian life is about – we gather to worship God; to strive to be faithful and obedient as Hosea calls us to do – but our life as Christians doesn’t end when we walk out these doors.  God does not only need “an hour on Sunday,” as I have actually heard some people suggest.  The work of the church does not just happen in these walls.  We worship God with our lives by seeking to serve God 24/7.  We go to serve the Lord, giving thanks to God.  This is not a suggestion, this is a responsibility for every person of faith.
So when we look back at this passage from the first chapter of Isaiah, it might sound at first to us like God doesn’t want us to worship at all or that rituals, festivals, “solemn assemblies” are rejected by God.  That’s not exactly what God is saying.  Isaiah himself regularly worshipped God – we find him praising God in the temple in chapter 6, after all, and his book contains songs of worship.  Instead, the Lord is grieving over our participation in injustice and evil.  The people’s worship life and rest of their lives are not matching up.  “Learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” the Lord says.  This is the mission statement that God gives to the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time.  Jesus himself repeats this mission when reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the gospel of Luke.  In the gospel for today again, Jesus asks people of faith to sell their possessions and give alms, remembering what true treasure is that no one can steal or destroy.  
When we go in peace to serve the Lord, as Christians still today we ought to be concerned about the oppressed, the orphans, and the widows – those who are most vulnerable in our society.  God does not want lip service.  God would rather us not worship at all if we go through the motions of worship on Sunday morning and do nothing else to care for the least in society.  For people who live in and around Syosset, a fairly wealthy place, these words of judgment can be difficult to hear.  We can hear them as the Lord’s harsh warning OR as a new opportunity!  How can we as individuals and as a church serve the oppressed and strive for justice and peace?  Certainly, the opportunities abound.
As people of faith who DO strive to live out our faith in our daily life and not just at church, it can also be good news for us to hear that God cares, deeply, about the state of the world.  The problems we face can be so overwhelming, it can be reassuring to know that whatever situations we can’t remedy ourselves, God can.  When you think about injustice, what issues do you most worry about?  Hunger, climate change, inflation, government overreach, rights of women and children, crime and public safety – reflect on what concerns you most often think about and name those concerns to God in prayer.  As Isaiah inspires us to do, then take the next step of praying about what you might do to work for justice in that area of concern.
Our words and actions in worship ought to inspire us for serving God in the world.  We confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. We pray for all kinds of situations.  We hear the word of the Lord and strive to listen.  We contribute a financial offering to sustain ministry that happens here and around the world through our connections to the global church.  At Holy Communion, we have this beautiful picture of everyone coming to the Lord’s table – young, old, rich, poor, speaking different languages and having different colors of skin – there’s enough bread and wine for all and more left over to share with those who cannot be with us on Sunday morning.  All are fed – physically and spiritually – with good food.  God does not expect perfection, thanks be to God.  The Lord promises to remove our scarlet sins and make us like snow – in our striving to be faithful, obedient, and just.  Like Isaiah himself, may we not only listen to God’s word but live those words out with our lives.  Amen.