Text: Isaiah 1
She’s looks as if she has been the victim of a vicious mugging. She has been beaten within an inch of her life. Her body is covered with terrible wounds, but they are uncared-for, untended. Her condition is deteriorating. She needs help, quickly. And yet her pain and misery are self-inflicted. She’s brought it upon herself, and she’s doing nothing to put a stop to it.
That’s the picture that is drawn for us in Isa 1:5f. But who is this? V7 tells us that we are looking not at an individual, but at a nation and a city. That nation is Judah, and that city is Jerusalem.
The year is 700 BC, or thereabouts. The northern kingdom of Israel has already been invaded and conquered by the mighty power of Assyria. And now the southern kingdom has been coming under attack. God’s special people, to whom so much had been given and from whom so much had been expected, were being threatened with obliteration.
V7 spells it out – ‘Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.’
And what of Jerusalem, ‘the Daughter of Zion’? She ‘is left like a shelter in a vineyard,’ v8. Jerusalem is like a hut that was built in the field during harvest-time, but is now derelict, with nothing left to protect.
V9f – Note the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those two cities were by-words for utter godlessness, and complete destruction. To mention Judah in the same breath as them would have shocking.
These, then, are the symptoms.
What is the diagnosis? What has gone wrong? Why has Judah fallen on such hard times? Is this a case of bad luck? Is it that poor little innocent Judah has been overwhelmed by an evil and aggressive neighbour? No.
V4 – They are a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!”
At the heart of this is a breakdown in relationship. V2,4 “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me… They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.” But it’s even worse than that. They are not only children who have rebelled against their father. They are also a wife who has been unfaithful to her husband. She has become a harlot, a prostitute, v21. We sense not only the damage they have caused to themselves, but the pain that God feels.
The breakdown in their relationship with God has led to a breakdown in their relationship with one another.
V21 – the city that once was filled with justice is now teeming with murder.
V23 ‘Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.’
Under these circumstances, their religion serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Their sacrifices give him God pleasure, v11. Their visits to the temple are just a ‘trampling of his courts’, v12. Their offerings are meaningless, v13. Their meetings are detestable and their holy days are a wearisome burden, v14. Their prayers, be they never so many, fall on deaf ears, v15.
That, then, is the diagnosis. They have forsaken God, and in doing so they have ceased to be a decent, fair, just society and their religion has become a sham.
If the root of the problem, v4, was that they have ‘turned their backs’ on the Lord, then they need to reverse this, they must turn back to him.
There must be a change of behaviour
V16f “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
In other words, purify yourselves before God. Re-order your personal lives. And set about the transformation of society.
In order for there to be a change of behaviour there must be a change of mind
See how the divine judge appeals to the accused:-
V18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
They have been accused of ignorance and stupidity, of not ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’, v3. Even ‘the ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger’. Now God pleads with them to think, to reason with him, to come to their senses.
V19,20 – the stark choice. “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
V25 Judgment still looms. The surprise here is that judgment is described in terms of purification, not destruction. A menacing act – “I will turn my hand against you”, becomes an act of mercy, “I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.”
The prospect of justice restored, 26f. “I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counsellors as at the beginning. Afterwards you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness.”
And the chapter ends on a note of uncertainty. Will they or won’t they?
And so we look forward to the rest of Isaiah, with its wonderful prophecies about the Suffering Servant, and the ultimate hope of a new heaven and a new earth. But there is already, here in the very first chapter, much for us as God’s people today. Let me just pick out one thing.
Sunday activity and weekday accountability must go hand in hand.
Christian discipleship is defined by our attitudes and behaviours towards others at least as much as it is defined by our doctrines and our liturgies.
James 1:27 ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’
This is why we have decided to go no further with our service this evening, until we have dealt with this issue. No amount of coming to church, singing God’s praises, saying prayers, offering of gifts, giving time, attending meetings, studying the Bible, reading Christian literature can take the place of this. These are all worse than useless if our hearts are not right with God and if we do not show in our actions that we are learning to hate what God hates and to love what God loves. Our heavenly Father has a particular concern for the poorest, the most oppressed, the weakest, and the most vulnerable. And he requires the same concern in his children.
So, when we make our confession, will we do so with a realistic sense of our many failings before God – even outright rebellion against him? But also with a deep sense of his unspeakable love and grace? More willing to forgive us than we are to ask for his forgiveness.
When we sing our praises, will we seek to do so with hearts aglow with love that longs to express itself in acts of justice and compassion?
When we offer our prayers will we do so with an attitude that says, ‘Lord, bring your love and joy and peace to bear on this world, this church, and these individuals for whom we pray. And may we ourselves be part of the answer to those prayers.