“Worship Charades”

~ Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 ~

I’m eight years old and I’m at worship in the little white Pentecostal Church in our town. It’s the prayer-time part of the service and I’m on my knees next to my mom. All around me I hear the rumbling of prayer. It is a cacophony of sound as many of the parishioners are praying in tongues. After about an hour of this—OK, I was eight years old and it felt like an hour—after about fifteen minutes everyone stops praying and the service continues, the woman minister preaching about being filled with the Holy Spirit.

I’m a teenager sitting in the last row of pews in the large Baptist church. My head is tilted back and I’m counting the holes in the acoustic tiles on the ceiling as the preacher goes on and on. Forty-five, fifty-minute sermons punctuated with pounding the pulpit and loud yelling. And then, finally, comes the invitation. Six, seven, eight verses of “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.” If that didn’t produce results, the preacher would ask everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes as he asked people to raise their hands for prayer. “I see that hand,” he said.

It’s four o’clock on Sunday afternoon in South Central Los Angeles. Linda and I and the kids are at church for the second time today. The Black gospel choir sings for an hour before the preacher even shows up. Then things get serious – singing and preaching for another couple of hours. Afterwards the feelings of the church folk could be expressed in that old gospel song, “I went to church for a blessing, and I got mine!”

And then there is our Presbyterian way of worship, with written-out liturgies and prayers, singing from the hymnal and relatively short sermons.

Ah, the varieties of religious experience, the varieties of different ways to worship God. So many different ways one might wonder if God accepts all of them. They can’t all be acceptable, can they? Aren’t there right ways to worship God and wrong ways to worship God? Is our worship here acceptable to God, we might ask? Is my worship acceptable to God? Or are we merely playing worship charades?

We might ask these questions because, according to the prophet Isaiah, it certainly seems God has fairly strong opinions about such things. Through the words of the prophet Isaiah God had some incredibly harsh things to say about the way the people of Judea worshipped.

So, over the years people have tried to figure out what God was so upset about. Why wasn’t the worship of the chosen people of God acceptable? Some have suggested the problem was the form of worship—or more to the point the formalism of the worship. They say that God doesn’t like highly liturgical, highly sacramental formal worship. Too confining for the Spirit to work, they say. Busy, yet empty, forms that have lost their meaning. But formalism—busyness—in worship is not really the issue here in Isaiah’s prophetic utterance. The people in worship were doing precisely what had been laid out for them in the Law of Moses. The types of sacrifices; the times of meetings and festivals—all carefully laid out in the Law. So God’s indictment is not about their forms of worship.

Some have suggested the problem was one of sincerity. The people were not sincere in their worship of God; not heartfelt enough. They were just going through the motions and didn’t really care. Going out of obligation and not sincere motives. And on the face of it that would seem like a very reasonable critique. Sincerity certainly is important in worship. God certainly doesn’t like insincere worship. But I don’t think sincerity is the issue. I’m a bit uneasy about judging the sincerity of someone else’s worship of God. That’s a slippery slope of judgment that is not helpful. Sincerity is so individual—what looks sincere for one is insincere for another. No, Isaiah’s prophetic indictment of worship was not about sincerity. What was it then? Why was God so upset? Isaiah spells it out:

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’s wholesale rejection of the worship of the people of Judea was social and it was political. A little history.

         Isaiah was a giant among the prophets. For fifty years he counseled kings and guided the nation of Judea through some of the most tumultuous times in its history. Remember the nasty boys of the Middle East we talked about last week—the Assyrians and their bad-boy king Tiglath-pileser III? They are the ones who wiped the northern kingdom of Israel off the map in 722 BC. Well, the southern kingdom of Judea faced the same dilemma. Instead of openly rebelling against Assyria, as Israel had done, King Ahaz chose the path of appeasement. King Ahaz turned his country over to Assyria as a vassal state. This meant paying a huge tribute that ends up devastating the economy of Judea. Now things were already pretty bad for the peasants of Judea. Now, with the Assyrians needing to be satisfied, the taxes on the poor became overwhelming. Appeasement to Assyria resulted in the poor getting poorer while the rich were still able to maintain the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.

But the issue just wasn’t just political and social. It was religious as well. You see, King Ahaz, despite Isaiah’s presence, didn’t really have much regard for the worship of Yahweh. He could take it or leave it. So when Tiglath-pileser invited him up to Nineveh for a visit and, “oh, by the way, bring your tribute with you,” King Ahaz was taken in by the religious practices of the Assyrians. So he had an alter built and installed an alter to honor the Assyrian gods next to the alter of Yahweh right there in the Temple in Jerusalem! Talk about an affront to God!

Unfortunately the priests in charge of the Temple did not see it in their best interests to question the king’s actions. Because they were so embedded with the political structure of the king they could not see it to question the king’s actions. Isaiah, though, stands apart. He is the prophetic voice that dares to question the national agenda. He dares calls the king on his pagan dalliances with the Assyrian gods. He dares to expose the injustice the king’s policies have inflicted on the nation, particularly to the poor. And he dares to blast away at the religious practices that justify such a despicable turn of events. Because the Temple leaders have capitulated to a corrupt and unjust national agenda God condemns their worship, says Isaiah. Worship must be accompanied with doing justice or it is not worship.

OK, we are not Judah. But, also, we are not the United States. We are not the city of San Francisco. We are one, small church in a particular neighborhood called Noe Valley. Given that, Isaiah’s agenda, God’s agenda, can be quite daunting. “Do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

The bottom line? Worship leads to justice. Worship is not just a private affair; not just about Jesus and me. It is about making a difference in the world we live. Granted, that is not easy. Engaging in the political, economic, racial and cultural of our world is fraught with pitfalls. It would be easier to just be us in the comfortable confines of this sanctuary. But as you all go forward into the future, yes without me, may you be the people of faith venturing forth to continue doing justice. To help the down-and-out, stand up for the homeless, go to bat for the defenseless.

“Come now; let us reason together,” God tells the people of Israel, they who had messed up this worship thing so badly. It’s as if God is saying, “I forgive you. Now, let’s get to work doing what you need to be doing – doing justice.” That is acceptable worship. Amen.

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