For those who want a change from the Gospel
Kingdom 1 / 4 before Advent – Isaiah 1:10-18
Remember the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Thanksgiving service? Remember the then almost totally disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson being booed by the crowds as he arrived? And remember the irony of him having to read from Philippians during the service ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable …’? One letter afterwards in a newspaper said that ‘Whoever was responsible for this deserves to be top of the Queen’s next honours list’, but went on to suggest that ‘Even God must have chuckled.’ Isaiah would disagree. The first chapter of his book is in the form of an introductory statement by the prosecuting barrister in a trial, setting out the case for the accused’s guilt. It hinges around a very clever piece of Hebrew writing in v.15: ‘You spread out your hands in prayer … Your hands are full of blood.’ There is a detailed account of how tiresome and wearying God finds their worship, which is echoed in other OT passages such as Amos 5. But the problem isn’t the worship being offered, but the people offering the worship. To use the right words while living the opposite is the great crime of Israel, and God was certainly not chuckling: he was outraged.
The crime is all too familiar: as a nation they were not seeking justice, and they were not caring for the most vulnerable in society. In the parallel book of Amos the problem was that the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. And in both cases this was being done (or not done) by people who turned up to worship. This, in God’s eyes, was not a cause for chuckling, but rather for turning his back on those who so failed to understand what he wanted of them. It wasn’t about impeccable music and liturgy: it was about 24/7 behaviour which reflected his character as a God of righteousness and justice.
God doesn’t quite pronounce sentence in this passage, but he does hint at what it could be. The references to Sodom and Gomorrah in v.10 is obviously to two cities which were totally destroyed by God because of their wickedness. If this passage was written around 701 BC when Jerusalem was being besieged by Sennacherib of Assyria the threat of total destruction must have seemed a distinct possibility. There is real menace in the prophet’s allusion to this part of their history, with the suggestion that it could well happen again, which of course it did around 100 years later.
And yet there is still hope. v.19-20 set out a choice which confronts the nation. Let’s talk about this, says God. If you want, the red stains on your hands can be washed clean, and you’ll eat again and prosper, a great possibility when you’re under siege. But if not, that’s it. The swords of the enemies will get you. And that’s that.
What amazes me is that this seems like a no-brainer. And yet people consistently chose, and continue to choose, death rather than life, cursing rather than blessing. History shows that it was usually only a remnant of the nation of Israel which remained faithful to God, while the majority pursued false worship and the evil behaviour which flowed inevitably from it. And of course we live in a nation which has almost dispensed with God altogether and is bearing the consequences. We have neither the will nor the humility to turn to him for forgiveness. And yet through this passage shines the light from a God of supreme patience. We have a God who looks at sinners and says ‘Can we have a chat about this?’
Whilst all this refers to a corporate situation, a nation which has lost its way, and whilst this application of the passage seems particularly apposite to Britain in 2022, it is worth remembering that God deals in a similar way with individuals. It provides, therefore, an invitation for us to examine our hands, both as they are stretched out in prayer, but also as they conduct our business in the world. Is there anything there about which God might like to have a chat with us?