It’s hard to listen to Isaiah. It’s hard to listen to the words he has given to his vision, to what the Lord has spoken. Calling on heaven and earth as witnesses, he pours out God’s indictment of God’s people, in a whirling blend of anger and disbelief, tenderness and disgust, accusations and commands. And we didn’t even hear the chapter’s opening verses as part of our reading where God calls God’s people a sinful nation, rebels, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, estranged children who deal corruptly, a people who have forsaken the Lord and despised the Holy One of Israel. There is so much pain in those few lines, so much grief. We can almost see the prophet standing on the temple mount, looking across the land, as he paints with just a few strokes a scene of devastation:
Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land… And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field (Isaiah 1:7-8).
Some in the city are listening and they say,
If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:9).
The names of those cities are shorthand for violent sin and violent retribution. Some in the city are listening to the prophet and they are relieved, because the devastation isn’t complete. “It could have been worse,” they say to themselves. “If the Lord had not left us a few survivors,” they say, “we would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah.”
But now the prophet roars, “Would have been? Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” and he’s not addressing cities that were destroyed in the ancient days of the patriarchs and matriarchs; he’s addressing them – their cities, their rulers, their people. And part of us wishes we could keep it that way – their cities, not ours; them, not us.
But we are part of the prophet’s audience. His words have been passed on, written down, and read, from generation to generation, because in them the character and will of the Holy One of Israel are revealed. We assume that our worship is pleasing to God, mostly because it is pleasing to us. “Of course the Lord does not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats,” we can almost hear ourselves say, mostly because the mere thought of it makes us squeamish. “Perhaps that was proper worship in less enlightened days,” we are tempted to say, forgetting that every detail of temple worship, every sacrifice, every instruction for the proper slaughtering of the animals and what goes in the fire and what doesn’t - everything is rooted in God’s commandments. Our brothers and sisters with an anti-Catholic or an anti-high-church bias will gladly hear and affirm that “incense is an abomination to [the Lord]” – because we’ll do anything to let these hard words be meant for any other community, just not us.
It’s hard to listen to Isaiah. It’s hard to listen to the prophets; their words can make us dismissive and defensive. But perhaps we listen with just enough interest and attention to understand two things that are indeed one:
God doesn’t obsess about proper worship nearly as much as we do; and we aren’t concerned about justice and righteousness nearly as much as God is.
“I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity,” says the Lord while we, well, we make do. We like solemn assemblies and we like happy assemblies, we like our assemblies with praise choruses or chanted prayers, with fog machines and big screens, or with hefty hymnals and fancy robes, but we like our assemblies, we need them.
“Our tragedy begins with the segregation of God,” said Abraham Heschel, “our tragedy begins with the bifurcation of the secular and sacred. We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.” Our tragedy begins with the segregation of God, the separation of worship and what we like to call real life. We like our assemblies and we worry about them while our God, with great passion and patience continues to call us to make worship the heart of our life, and not just a part of it.
Isaiah, in this opening chapter, looks around the temple area and he sees how much attention is given to the proper handling of the sacrificial blood of bulls and lambs and goats, and he cries out, giving voice to the passion and pathos of God, “But your hands are full of blood. Your hands are stained with the blood shed daily on your streets. Your hands are defiled by violence and abuse. When you stretch out your hands in prayer, I turn away; I don’t listen. I don’t know whom or what you think you are worshiping, but it’s not me.”
We may think of worship as the things we do in the sanctuary at the appointed times, but our God desires to be worshiped in all that we do. The prophet cries out for the desegregation of the everyday.
In a speech in 1963, Abraham Heschel said,
The major activity of the prophets was interference, remonstrating about wrongs inflicted on other people, meddling in affairs which were seemingly neither their concern nor their responsibility. A prudent man is he who minds his own business, staying away from questions which do not involve his own interests, particularly when not authorized to step in – and prophets were given no mandate by the widows and orphans to plead their cause.
No, the mandate doesn’t come from the widows and orphans, or the strangers and the imprisoned, the mandate comes from the God who made them and loves them. The prophet is a person who cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity, because God cannot. And so Isaiah directs his urgent plea to every member of the community:
Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed. Establish justice for the orphan. Plead for the widow.
Heschel said, “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. … The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference [and] all prophecy is one great exclamation: God is not indifferent to evil! [God] is always concerned, [God] is personally affected by what [one human being] does to [another].”
I read about a conversation Will Willimon had with a man about his father. It sheds some more light on the necessity of overcoming the common segregation of God from the everyday and vice versa. His father, the man told Willimon, was a remarkable man. He did not have a huge amount of education, but by staying up late nearly every night, he self-educated himself in certain aspects of the law. During the Great Depression, a bank in his native Anson County (North Carolina) hired him to receive and to dispose of the many farms that the bank was foreclosing on, as a result of the bad times. His father had always been deeply concerned about the plight of African American farmers in his community, most of whom were sharecroppers. Their situation was little better than slavery. They lived and worked on land that wasn’t theirs. During the winter, they had to borrow from the landowner to buy food and fuel; loaned at high interest. In the summer, when the crops came in, the first money, taken off the top, went to pay back those debts with interest. And there was never enough money. Each year these sharecroppers sank deeper and deeper into debt. His father would meet with these sharecroppers, and together they learned to advance their farming methods and keep careful records of their crops and negotiate a good price for their work. By the time he died, in that community, 200 black farmers and their families, who had never owned land or home, were landowners, eating the good of the land, their land and enjoying the fruit of their labor.
But the story doesn’t end there. They had his father’s funeral at home, the man said, rather than at their church. They knew that most of the folk at the funeral would be black and would know that they were not welcome at the white church. “My dad almost never attended church,” the son said. “Couldn’t stand to sit there and watch ushers pass the offering plates on Sunday, knowing how those scoundrels conducted their businesses during the week, knowing the way they treated people when they weren’t all dressed up and playing church.”
Solemn assemblies with iniquity. Now we could of course sit here, shaking our heads and wagging our fingers, feeling good about ourselves, but we’re not playing church. We remember that the prophet’s severe indictment is not the last word. The tone changes dramatically as the vision moves from accusation to invitation:
“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.”
It sounds almost like certainty, this possibility of forgiveness, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” The “maybe” sounds almost like “this is how it’s going to be.” Perhaps the promise, the possibility of forgiveness, has the firmness of certainty, because the One making the promise is essentially gracious and merciful, not wrathful and vindictive. The final word is the invitation to enter God’s salvation through repentance. Yes, our injustice and our indifference have and will have destructive consequences, but God’s will is not simply to get even or to punish. God wills to set things right: Wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice. All these imperatives invite transformation and culminate in the last word, “Come now, let’s settle this.”
God’s arms are wide open. “Come now, let’s set things right.”
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion and Race, January 14, 1963