I find the reading from Isaiah irresistible right from the very start with its reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. Our collective understanding of the sin of Sodom is an interesting thing. A great many people over the years have assumed it was a sexual sin. More recently others have begun to understand it as a violation of hospitality. Three things are sure: Sodom was a really bad place – filled with really bad people. And things ended really badly for those nasty folks.
The problem with limiting our notion of the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah – though we never seem to disparage Gomorrianders as much as Sodomites) … to any particular sin is that this becomes a way to let ourselves off the hook.
Isaiah puts us right back on the hook. “You rulers of Sodom! You people of Gomorrah!” He isn’t talking to the people of long-lost cities from long gone civilizations. He’s talking to his neighbors and the leaders of his day… people who were probably his good friends up until this conversation… And while the words are coming from Isaiah’s mouth, they are God’s words. Through scripture Isaiah is still speaking God’s words to us.
Greeting to us – rulers of Sodom and people of Gomorrah… It would be unremarkable if someone who fancied themselves a prophet began a prophetic witness today with “You people of Sodom…” and then went on to lecture us about the dangers of sexual misdeeds. I could tune that out in about one heartbeat…
But Isaiah doesn’t relate this reference to Sodom and Gomorrah to any type of sexual immorality. The problem, it seems, is that people are worshiping too much, offering too many sacrifices, too many fat beasts, lambs and goats… too many festivals, too many assemblies… they are wearying God.
Now there is conventional wisdom stood on end… the sin of Sodom wasn’t too much sex, but too much religion…
“Trample my courts no more… Bringing offerings is futile… incense is an abomination to me” says God. “I cannot endure solemn assemblies… they have become a burden to me.”
Does God get tired of our prayers? When we gather in this church are we tiring God? … annoying God? … angering God?
I think of that scene from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when the clouds part and God appears. Immediately everybody drops to the ground… and God shouts “Don’t Grovel… if there is one thing I can’t stand, its groveling.” So up they get and at once avert their eyes… And God thunders “look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Of course, it would be absurd or worse to suggest any equivalence between Isaiah and Monty Python… but both give us ways to question how we relate to God… how we honor God.
“Your appointed festivals… My soul hates. They have become a burden to me…” Monty Python might fidget with the deck chairs of our religious tradition, but Isaiah is sinking the ship. Worship and prayer are central to our lives as followers of Jesus – but Isaiah seems to be saying that God is weary of listening, or worse, that God is actively annoyed with our worship. “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you… your hands are full of blood.”
George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community and primary re-builder of the ruined abbey on that little Scottish island, was fond of saying that heresy, in his opinion, was praying for the recovery from ill health of poor, old Mrs. So-and-so, but failing to do anything about her substandard housing that was making her sick.
Praying for justice, but accepting the privilege that injustice brings us, is offensive. Praying that God will heal the sick, but systematically depriving large portions of our society of access to sound medical care, is abominable, that is to say inhuman. Praying that God will make peace when we live in a way that requires the world to be at war, is hypocrisy.
It is as though our prayer was something like: “Dear God – please make all these good things happen so that I don’t have to sacrifice… so that I don’t have to change my life…” And God answers: “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.”
That, it would seem, is the sin of Sodom with which Isaiah is concerned. Proclaiming our love and devotion to God while living our lives in a way that dishonors God and frustrates God’s purpose.
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean… Learn to do good. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” Isaiah seems to have caught wind of the Gospel… Jesus doesn’t call us to be saints – just to learners of what it means to be saints.
Look at the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector in this morning’s reading from Luke. Remember that tax collector is code for big, bad sinner. If Isaiah were relating the story, he might well have said “Zacchaeus was a chief Sodomite, and he was rich.” Nasty, wicked, bad…
So naturally Jesus becomes best buds with the sodomite tax collector. “Hurry – I must stay at your house today…” you wicked, nasty tax collector. Jesus seeks out the lost. The tax collectors, the sodomites, the poor, the oppressed who have no helper, the diseased, the despised.
It would be very convenient if Zacchaeus had come under Jesus’ influence and then decided to give away half his wealth and write all his past wrongs… and then Jesus said now I must come stay with you as some sort of reward.
But it’s the other way round. Jesus says I’m coming to be part of your life – ready or not… and Zachaeus says OK… and I must put things right in my life – start to undo the injustice I have participated in… help those who have no helper.
Sanctification is the response to grace, not the prerequisite for grace. Ready or not Jesus is with us – and our response must be like Zachaeus. We must learn to do good. But none of this is what brings us grace – we start as recipients of grace. Sanctification of life is a grateful response.
Does God really detest our worship? I hope not, because as a monk I have racked up a lot of Godly resentment if it’s true. But we also have to keep in mind that in the grand, Godly scheme of things, God does not have need of our worship – with it or without it, God is God. The value in our worship is not that it makes God’s life better. It makes our lives better.
Isaiah is not all doom and gloom. “Wash yourselves… make yourselves clean” he tells us. “Learn to do good”
Our prayer and our worship are wonderful and powerful tools to help us to learn to be followers of Jesus, to give us vision and strength. Just as Zacheus is transformed, we can be transformed. Our sins, though they are blood read, can be washed completely clean. We can learn to do good.
But if our prayer and worship are not leading us to follow Jesus – not leading us to learn to do good, to build God’s kingdom – then they are futile. Worse still, if we are praying and worshiping in place of building God’s kingdom, that is hateful to God.
Jesus comes to seek out and save those who are lost, so we have nothing to fear. Isaiah calls us to cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Or as Jesus might put it, to feed his sheep.
God’s patience is vast – though as the folks of Sodom and Gomora learned, it is apparently not infinite. But while God’s patience may not be infinite, God’s forgiveness is. The Gospel is ultimately good news for sinners… for us.