Imagine a world where your everyday life
perfectly aligns with the right worship of God.
I want Good News, my Buddy Jesus that I can have a beer with…not the guy who comes down on a cloud of fire with an army of angels. And I certainly don’t want to hear that, “God hates our worship” and doesn’t listen to our prayers.
I’ll admit these passages are not for the faint of heart. But it might do the church a world of good to wrestle with the tension that these verses offer. “Communities need tension, if they are going to grow and deepen…for it’s only when tensions come to a head like a boil that we can treat the infection at its roots.” (Vanier 2016)
The tension in Isaiah is obvious. God is not happy with the way we do church. The reason is simple: There is injustice in the world, and within the church. Social and political justice is the main theme of Isaiah and perhaps God’s greatest concern, then as it is today.
So it ought not surprise us that Isaiah goes after those who’ve been called to be the change makers. He harshly compares the religious leaders, (and perhaps religion itself) to the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah. Contrary to popular assumptions, the guilt of these two places rest on their practices of greed and injustice.
As it’s written in Ezekiel, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Jesus also had harsh words to the powers that be. He too proclaimed with great fervor that the way to the Kingdom is not found in saying many prayers or offering many sacrifices but in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the prisoners.
The way I see it, God longs for a just world, and wants us to live with the same hunger and thirst. To be a meaningful church means to be a church committed to God in the world. And we show that commitment through each other, and with one another.
Our perpetual problem however, is the disconnection between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside. To put it another way, who we are as Christians and what we’ve been called to do in our community are often at odds. So too is our worship. How can we love the grace-filled God of the New Testament, and yet ignore the God of the Old? Have we forgotten that the God of mercy and justice is also the God of judgment?
The same God who sent his Son… is the same God who said, “Who ever gave you the idea that it’s okay to act like this, running here and there, doing this and that—all this sheer commotion in the place I have provided for worship?”
This is the Divine who says flat out, “I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings. I hate them! You’ve worn me out!”
And yes, this is the same God who cries, “I’m sick of your religion, your pageants means nothing as long as you go 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 will not be listening.” And do you know why?” asks God, “Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.” Ouch!
These are difficult words to hear. I can only imagine how God must have felt to say them. These are emotionally charged words, spoken by a God who loves us deeply, and wants the best for all his children. These are the words of a broken heart, spoken with passion and purpose. Why? Because God wants us to know that worship without justice is not only meaningless, but obscene to God’s divine righteousness. What does this say about us, and the importance we put on our rituals? Where do our real treasures and purpose lie?
A poster in a homeless shelter asks “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday, but completely ignore one on Monday?” We cannot lift up our hands to God in prayer if we refuse to extend our hands out to the most vulnerable as well.
Now, I don’t want you to leave here today believing God thinks religion is worthless or that our worship is bad. In fact, both are essential to making our relationship with God grow. Through communal worship we hear the Word together; through communal confession we are free to do what this Word sends us out to do; and our communal praise strengthens us for our obedience to the Word.
But as you leave here, take time this week to imagine a world where your everyday life perfectly aligns with the right worship of God. Maybe the world wouldn’t be in the political or social mess that is today.
So what is the right worship of God? For me, it’s following the ways of Jesus, who stood up to the powers and principalities that crippled God’s people. It means to turn the world upside-down, by loving the loveless and caring for the weak, the widow and the orphan. It’s about giving up selfish ambitions to do what is right for the whole.
Jesus not only preached the words of Israel’s past, but he lived them out as well. In doing so, he ushered in the Kingdom of God. Well, guess what? God has invited us to be a part of that kingdom. And has even given us nine ways to jump start our ministry: “Wash yourself,” says God, “Clean up your act, toss out your evildoings. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.”
These powerful commands tells me that God does not want to reject us, but instead desires to make this relationship work. “Come. Sit down,” says the Lord. “Let’s talk about it, and argue this out. Let’s turn your blood-red sins, snow white.”
These are not the words of a God who wants to ignore us, but of one who deeply desires to save us, cleanse us, and empower us to do the Kingdom work. And...“If you willingly obey,” God promises, “you’ll feast like kings.”
This is the good news, the true prophecy of Isaiah and the great promise of Jesus Christ. If you seek justice and peace, show compassion and mercy to others, then God’s divine and righteous judgment will show you the same, and more!
“Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to animals, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we eat of the good of the land, and make the vision of the Kingdom of God a reality.” (Nouwen 2009)
It’s imperative we keep our eyes on Jesus, whose divine authority is expressed in justice and compassion. These two actions embrace in the very being of God. Likewise, they allow us the freedom to be fully human, fully accountable and fully trusting. And more importantly, they offer us true freedom to worship God fearlessly, faithfully, and flawlessly, not just on Sunday…but every day.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Bible. Isaiah 1:10-20; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12.
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. New York: Harper Collins. Kindle Edition, 2009.
Vanier, Jean. Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants For His People. Edited by Charles E. Moore. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2016.