Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
By the time that Isaiah is writing his prophecy, the much despised cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have long been gone. In fact, they have both been gone for centuries. There are no living rulers of Sodom, and there are no living people of Gomorrah. But like in our day, so it was in Isaiah’s day. Neither city had passed out of memory. These infamous cities remain in our memories as perhaps the most sinful, most vile, and most God-forsaken cities in all of the Scriptures.
And so when Isaiah cries out, “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!” and, “Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” he hasn’t lost his mind, he’s holding up a mirror. And in that mirror, Isaiah sees the corruption and evil and sinfulness of the rulers and people of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah reflected in the lives of his own people. And in that mirror, Isaiah sees no difference between his people and his rulers and the people and the rulers of these two despicable cities. And the insult that Isaiah flings at his people and at his rulers is doubly severe, because Sodom and Gomorrah were not only evil cities, they were also Gentile cities. They did not worship the God of all creation, nor did they have any regard for him whatsoever. For God’s people to be compared to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah was the ultimate insult.
I have long believed that people get the leaders that they deserve. And this is certainly borne out in the Scriptures. When God’s people were faithful and obedient to God’s commands, they received good and righteous kings. But when they fell into disobedience and unfaithfulness, they received evil and corrupt kings. The leaders of people always reflect the current state of the people. This seems to be a universal principle.
But when leaders and people become corrupt and sinful, God often sends a prophet. And the prophet’s task is to warn the people of God’s coming judgment and to offer the possibility of repentance and restoration. And this is how Isaiah sees his task in our passage this morning. His call to his corrupt people is to repent of their evil ways and to turn to righteous living. And particularly pressing on Isaiah’s mind in our passage today is the heartless and meaningless worship of his people. In short, God is nauseated by their acts of worship.
Apparently, even in their corrupt and sinful state, the people of God have decided to continue in their acts of worship. And this is a bit of a mystery to me. Why bother? Why would a sinful and corrupt people continue in their acts of worship, especially if they had no regard for the God they were worshiping?
And yet according to Isaiah, they are still offering a multitude of sacrifices. Verse eleven lists a pile of them: burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts, blood offerings of bulls and lambs and goats; all of this is still going on with meaningless regularity, and God says, I’ve had enough of this, give it a rest. I have no delight in your perfunctory acts of worship, you have no heart for me, why bother to go through the motions? Nothing is accomplished, nothing is changed, there is no transformation of your souls when you gather for worship, all is hypocrisy.
And all of those festivals that you continue to observe, worthy festivals indeed. But this trampling of my courts with your soiled feet and hearts, who asked you to do this? I can’t take it any more. Incense is an abomination to me, I hate your appointed festivals. Even your solemn assemblies, which once focused your hearts on repentance and forgiveness of sin, are nauseating to me because you arrive filled with iniquity and you leave filled with iniquity. This hypocritical worship has become a burden to me and I am weary of bearing it.
It’s no secret that the State of Maine is one of the most un-churched States in the union. And most recently, we’ve seen that borne out in our own congregation. Just look around. And yet as frightening as it is to have fewer and fewer people in worship, and of course we are not alone, at least there is a bit of integrity in those who no longer attend worship. It is misplaced integrity, but it is integrity nonetheless. God’s people in Isaiah’s day continued in their worship even though they had no intention of repenting of their sins or of having their lives transformed. In that, they deepened their sin by falling into hypocrisy. God detests ritual separated from repentance and transformation. The purpose of worship is to have our lives and our souls transformed by the power of God’s love. Otherwise, we remain out of relationship with our God, and worship becomes meaningless. Those who have found worship to be meaningless and who have abandoned worship, do so at their own peril.
To me, the most frightening part of this passage is God’s refusal to hear the prayers of his people. I am terrified by this. But unfortunately, it is the logical consequence of a people who have abandoned their relationship with God. The people are no longer communicating with God
through their worship, and so God is under no obligation to communicate with them, or to hear their prayers.
God says, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.” It is one thing for God to be repulsed by our meaningless acts of worship. It is quite another for God to have the same reaction to our prayers. If worship is an act that calls us into relationship with God, then prayer is the epitome of the absolute intimacy of that relationship. Prayer is the communication of the soul with the creator of the soul. When we pray for ourselves, we are earnestly entreating God to interact favorably in our lives. Implicit in our prayers is the understanding that we are willing to have our sins forgiven and our lives transformed. Prayer is nothing to be trifled with. If we dare to communicate with our creator, we had better be prepared to have our lives changed. We had better be prepared to deepen the relationship.
And when we pray for one another, the intimacy of the relationship is deepened even further, because when we pray for others, we are indicating to God that the people who are important to God are also important to us. Those who offer up meaningless and perfunctory worship cannot understand this, and that is why God is threatening to refuse to hear their prayers. That is why God is threatening to shut off communication with his people.
But there is deep irony in this passage, is there not? At the very moment that God is threatening to shut down all communication with his people, God is also very busy at work communicating with his people. God has sent a prophet. God has sent a prophet to call them to repentance and to encourage them to engage in acts of worship that stem from the heart, and most importantly to engage in acts of worship that have meaning to God. People who abandon worship often indicate that the worship is meaningless to them, as if the primary target and beneficiary of worship is the one who is worshiping. Unfortunately, that’s just backwards. Worship does not flow from God to us. That would be idolatry. Worship flows from us to God. When we offer up righteous worship to God that flows from our hearts, and when God is pleased with that worship, we receive a blessing in return. Perhaps we are confusing the adoration of God that must come from our hearts, with the blessings of God which come to us as the result of our adoration.
And so in spite of God’s threatening posture, there is also an invitation. There is always time for an invitation, no matter how corrupt or evil God’s people or God’s leaders have become; God always extends an invitation so that hearts can be reformed. “Wash yourselves”, God says,
“Make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good.”
In one word, Isaiah, speaking the words of God, says repent. Leave behind your evil ways, set them aside and find a right relationship with the God who created you and continues to love you. And then having repented of your evil doings, engage in some righteous doings. Care for the people for whom God has a special place in his heart, and learn to do good, instead of evil. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Jesus would say, do the work of the Kingdom of God, that I have not only established in your midst, but have also have taught you to observe. That’s the “learn to do good” that Isaiah is championing.
Verse eighteen is an awesomely memorable verse. Many English translations begin it with the words “Come now, let us reason together.” I like that better than the way that our pew Bibles put it. Even as messed up as things are in the people’s lives, God is still saying, we can work this out. We can do this together. Though you have wandered far from me, we can still get it together. I can still be your God, and you can still be my people. We’ve just got to get back into relationship. We’ve just got to get you to rediscover the awesome love that I have for you, and that you can have for me.
So, “Come now, let us reason together”, 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!
Isaiah presents an amazing play on words in this verse, and he presents us with an amazing challenge. But still, the choice is ours: eat the good of the land or be eaten up by the sword. Let us choose to be willing and obedient. Let’s come home to God.