Some of you no doubt have heard about George Tiller. You may better know him as Tiller the Killer. Up until recently he was America’s most notorious abortionist. That is not true of him anymore though. This past year Tiller himself was executed. He was gunned down in cold blood on Sunday morning at his church.
Neither do we delight in the fact that one of the most vile men of our time has been brought down in such a way. But it is interesting to note where this shooting took place. It was in his church.
Tiller was a member of Reformation Lutheran Church (ELCA), and an active member at that. As a matter of fact, at the time he was shot he was serving as an usher.
So here was a man who was serving in an official capacity within a church. A man who says, “Sure, it is OK to slaughter children by the masses.” Is the same man who will welcome you as you enter through the doors, greet you with a smile and say, “Isn’t it wonderful to be in the house of God together today? Isn’t it a joy that we can come before the Lord and sing his praises?”
That, my friends, is just one example of the crisis that is occurring in the church today. We are facing a crisis within the American church. We live in a day where people can go out and live horrendously vile lives—they can defy God all week long, but then they think that they can enter into their church on Sunday mornings, take their place in their pew, and participate in the worship of God like a good little Christian. And they think that the songs that they sing and the prayers that they pray during that hour are going to please God.
The crisis in the church today is that we have pagans filling the pews. You might even say that the crisis is that we have developed a new religion in America. I would like to call it the Evangelical cult. The motto of this American religion is “Praise God and do as you please.” People don’t think that they have to let their lives be governed by God. They don’t think that they have to let his word direct the way they think and act.
That’s what real Christianity is. Real Christianity is defined by the fear of God. That is to say a true worshipper of the Triune God will so love and revere God that he will seek to put every aspect of his life under the dictates of God’s Word.
But this form of Christianity (this whole fear of God thing) is virtually non-existent in our culture today. We have what you may call “Church-ianity.” People love to go to church. People love to take their place in their pew each week. But they are not people who fear God. They are self governed. They are a self directed people. They are people who are making up their own ethical standards as they go along. They could care less about how God tells us we must live.
Of course, as we see from our passage this morning, this is not an altogether a new religion. It is one that is at least 3000 years old. It is the form of religion that appeared in Isaiah’s day within Israel. It is the form of religion that Isaiah denounces right here in this passage.
What stands out in this passage is that the problem in Isaiah’s day was not that people were skipping church. The problem was not that people were absent. The problem was that churches were full. You see it was cool to go to the services of worship. Praising God was the thing to do. The problem was that they praised God and did as they pleased. They didn’t care about the law and what God wanted them to do.
That is the exact same thing we have going on today. A recent survey revealed that, even though fewer people understand the faith or live by the principles of God’s word, church attendance has remained relatively the same. This may surprise you, especially since I said last week that people are leaving the mainline churches in droves. But the reality is that the overall church attendance in America has not changed all that much.
So the words here are extremely contemporary. In this passage God is not just contending with Israel and their cultic practices, God contends with the Evangelical cult of today. And the message he has is twofold: Pagan worshipers must stop their abominable worship and change their miserable lives.
“Stop worshipping God?” What do you mean, “Stop worshipping God?” Can’t you hear someone saying that? I can hear the outrage by some because I made that statement. As Deanna said to me the other day, “That will get you some hate mail.”
I. “Stop your abominable worship!”
But verses 10-15 make it very clear that God despises worship of people who are, for all practical purposes, pagans. As a matter of fact, this passage makes it clear that it doesn’t matter how orthodox, sincere or lavish your worship may be, God still hates it.
A. Despite its orthodoxy
One thing that may strike you as odd in this passage is that these people, who absolutely disregard God and his law 6 days a week, are upholding the prescriptions regarding worship without any sort of deviation. Their worship was incredibly orthodox.
You know that the OT prescribed exactly how, when and where people were to worship God. Well, it looks as if these people are upholding the letter of the law perfectly when it comes to those commands. They are holding holy convocation on the New Moon, Sabbath and any other prescribed date. So they are not missing church at all. They are there when they are supposed to be. And then they are offering their sacrifices. They are making sure they are sacrificing not just the right animals (lambs, bulls and goats), but they are making sure that these are the best of the herd. And they are not the gaunt, defective ones. They are the well fed, pretty beasts. They haven’t even forgotten to light the incense! Of all things they could have done, they might have missed this minor element. But no, they fulfilled every jot and title of the law. They were completely orthodox in their form of worship.
But God hates bare, external orthodoxy. It doesn’t matter how lawful your worship is by outward standards. If you are not abiding by his standards, if your heart is not right with him, what you do on Sunday morning is not going to be pleasing to God.
So it doesn’t matter if you are singing psalms and hymns. Somebody can say that. They can make a big deal that they are not singing those fluffy contemporary choruses. I don’t approve of those dramas in worship. But it doesn’t matter if you bow your head, or even if you get down on your knees when you pray. If the rest of your life is unorthodox, it doesn’t matter how orthodox your worship is. You could even have the best voice in the world, but it is like nails on a chalk board to God.
You will also notice that it doesn’t matter if you are really giving your worship from the bottom of your heart either. God wants it to stop, even despite its sincerity.
B. Despite its sincerity
When you read this you can’t help but see that these people who were coming to the temple to give their sacrifices and offer their prayers really meant it. These are people who are not just “going through the motions.” They genuinely are trying to worship God from the bottom of their hearts. You can just see them singing with all their might, lifting up their hands, praising God. But that just makes it all the more putrid!
And there are a lot of people like that out there like this. They go to church and earnestly petition God. They can’t wait to get there and worship. They want to give their offerings. They really want help out in the nursery. They truly have a desire to participate in the life and worship of the church. They don’t have a clue though that what they do makes God gag.
I want you to know that you can come in here and your heart may have the best of intentions, but if you are not giving due consideration to God’s word in your life, your worship is repulsive to God. If you are not loving your wife and cherishing her, it doesn’t matter how happy you are that it’s Sunday. If you are out there lying to your parents on a regular basis and couldn’t give a rip what they say, it doesn’t matter how sincere you are when you open those doors. God sincerely despises your even dawning the steps of this place.
And just as it doesn’t matter how orthodox or sincere your worship is, it doesn’t matter how lavish/extravagant it is.
C. Despite its bounty
This passage makes it clear that God hated their worship, even despite its bounty. You can see that the Jews of Isaiah’s time spared no expense when it came to their worship. In verse 11 it says that there was a multitude of sacrifices. Their offerings were prolific! Moreover, it was the fattened bull that they were offering. That was the most expensive offering that you could make. There were other things that you could have substituted if your bank account couldn’t afford it. But no, they splurged. No matter how lavish it might have been though, God couldn’t endure it. It would have been much more preferable that they spent no money at all and stayed home!
Today we might say it doesn’t matter how much money you put in the offering box. It doesn’t matter what bricks you helped to lay in the building project. If you are more a friend of the world than a friend of Christ, take your money and go home. You could be dropping a roll of cash in that box that would suit out this church with everything it needs. We could support ministries that we could never have dreamed of doing before. But you know what? I rather you stuff it down your throat and choke on it rather than make God gag by putting it in that box.
God hates any kind of worship that comes from someone who lives like a pagan. You have to understand—and the rest of America has to understand—that what you do in your Sunday services cannot be divorced from what you do the rest of the week. God will not accept your worship unless it is accompanied by a pious life.
And God makes that clear in the last two verses of this passage. What God really wants you to do is change your wretched life.
II. “Change your wretched lives!”
In verse 16 he uses 4 negative statements to covey the idea, “Wash yourselves and make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil.” Then in verse 17 it is put in a more positive fashion, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
These statements are terse and are almost like multiple stabs with a knife. As a result, these words are even more piercing that the previous ones. But that’s exactly what Isaiah is calling these people to do. He wanted these people to kill the sinful life that these people were leading.
Jesus reiterated this in his day too. The Pharisees were chiding him because he was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus said to them, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.”
Again, the notion is that we have a moral responsibility that goes beyond the 10:00 Sunday service. God will not accept your worship until your life becomes more acceptable to him. Daily repentance and a life of obedience are what God requires. These are the keys to God honoring worship.
Now, I know that some people have taken this and said, “Well, God would rather us cancel our Sunday services and go out and help people instead.” This has been done. Their reasoning is that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, so let’s just cut the worship services altogether.
This is perhaps the worst interpretation of Scripture I have ever heard of. God is not saying that he doesn’t want any worship at all. Neither is he saying that one day of so called “good works” is going to make up for the other 6 days of apostasy. What he is trying to say is that a reformed life is necessary for God honoring worship.
As a matter of fact, during the Reformation (a period where they struggled with much the same issue) they had a saying that went along with this. The Reformer’s motto was, “Reformata et semper reformanda.” Reformed and always reforming. They understood that every day required repentance and renewed energy to conform to the Scriptures.
Now don’t be fooled here either by simple externals. God is not simply talking about living an outwardly moral life. That is only a part of it. Ceasing to do evil is more than refraining from wrong acts. It means ceasing all things that are evil in the sight of God. That includes not just sinful habits, but also sinful thought patterns and motives that give birth to evil acts. These are to be grieved and mortified too.
You may remember that the Pharisees were accosted by Jesus because they were like whitewashed tombs. They were pretty on the outside, but inside they were filled with all sorts of evil. When God calls us to wash ourselves and make ourselves clean he is calling for us to cast off all that defiles.
I like how this passage stresses the negative and the positive too. You are not just to “cease to do evil,” you are to “learn to do good.” To use the language of the New Testament, after you put off the evil you must put on Christ. In place of malice, there needs to be compassion. In place of bitterness, there needs to be forgiveness.
Now, I’m not promoting perfectionism. When God calls us to reform, He doesn’t expect us to get 100%. What he does expect is that we start moving in the right direction. So don’t think perfection. Think motion. He expects us to show that we really do fear Him by loving the things that he himself loves and abhorring the things that he abhors. God will not accept our worship, until that happens.
And as you think about moving in the right direction, I want you to focus on what Isaiah says in the last part of verse 17. While the passage is rather general, he gets very specific at the end and mentioned the fatherless and the widow. While these people were out doing everything they could to worship God passionately and elaborately, the fatherless and the widow were being abused.
It’s funny how contemporary this is. We have amazing worship centers, don’t we? (It is actually funny that we call them that now. They used to be called sanctuaries—i.e. a place of refuge. It’s telling that we do not consider the church a place of refuge!) While we have been concentrating on what we can do to enhance our buildings and our worship music and our worship services, we have grossly neglected the ministry of mercy. The average church spends a pittance to meet diaconal needs. This is far short of what the early church did. The early church designated between 20-25% of their budget to care for the poor and needy. It would be rare in our day to see a church giving even 5% of their budget to diaconal work.
This is just one place where the Evangelical cult needs to change. Instead of going out and buying another bull to sacrifice, maybe we should think about supporting the local pregnancy center—and helping them do some wider advertising or getting the equipment they need. Maybe the best thing to do is keep the pews, and not replace them with chairs. Maybe we should have the deacons create a healthcare fund. Or maybe invest that money in one of the members who is unemployed, so that they can get some new job skills and make them more viable in the marketplace. Perhaps that would please God a bit more than what we’ve typically been doing on Sunday mornings.
We love our worship. We love to bring our sacrifices. But— if I haven’t made this clear yet—God doesn’t want any more of our religious rites. He wants us to right our religion. James had it right when he said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
We have to get it in our minds that God is not one who gets all excited about worship for worship’s sake. When our weekly worship is divorced from our daily lives—when we do not have a life of worship, God finds our Sunday observances putrid.
So let us remember the Sabbath day: to keep it holy. That means remembering to keep every other day of our lives as holy as we can. Preparing for worship is not just something we do on Saturday night or Sunday morning. It is something we do Monday morning through Saturday afternoon. Real worship does not consist in praising God and doing as you please. It consists in striving to praise God and do as He pleases.
Kindled Fire is dedicated
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.