Text: Isaiah 1:10-20

When we think about Old Testament worship, most of us probably picture the elaborate system of sacrifice described in Exodus and Leviticus. We picture the Tabernacle set up by Moses, and the Temple set up by Solomon. This picture is, of course, a correct one. Worship under the Old Covenant was indeed centered on the Levitical Sacrifices. Today’s Epistle passage from Hebrews 9 shows us how our Lord’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross in which Jesus is both the High Priest and the Sacrificial Lamb is indeed a superior sacrifice. After all, the Levitical sacrifices were a type that points to the greater Sacrifice that was to come. Among the passages of the Hebrew Scriptures that point to an expected superior sacrifice is the today’s First Lesson from morning prayer, assigned for Passion Sunday.  Please open your bibles to Isaiah 1:10:

Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? Saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.

For the original Israelite audience, this would have been a puzzling prophecy indeed! God asks in verse 12, “who hath required this at your hand.” One could easily point back to Leviticus and Exodus and reply, “Lord, YOU did!” The sacrifices, sabbaths, assemblies: these are things that God commanded his people! So why is God saying that he is fed up with them? Why does he hate his people’s sabbaths? Well, as we just read, their “hands are full of blood.” They thought they could treat their neighbors poorly while keeping up their religious practices and be fine with the Lord.

Yet, this kind of attitude doesn’t stand up before a Holy God. He calls the leaders of Israel “ye rulers of Sodom.” The Israelites themselves are called “ye people of Gomorrah.” God’s chosen people are compared to the worst folks in Genesis, folks who were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their wickedness. Reading the rest of Isaiah 1 we see that the prophet had been called by God to tell the Israelites that they’re on the same path as Sodom and Gomorrah. If they don’t repent, Israel and Judah will be destroyed just like those wicked cities in Genesis.

From the rest of the Old Testament we discover that this is indeed what happened. First the Assyrians came and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. A generation or so later, the Babylonians came and destroyed the Southern Kingdom of Judah as well as Solomon’s Temple. And Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets are clear: these pagan conquerors were God’s agents of judgement. God used these cruel heathen empires to punish his people for their idolatry and their mistreatment of each lather, the very things we read about in our Lesson.

By the New Testament era, God had brought his people back, as he promised. The Temple was rebuilt. Many Jews were once again living in the promised land. Yet, the exile never fully ended. For all the Jews, both those who returned to Israel and those who remained in the East or set up other diaspora communities throughout the Greco-Roman world, they never forgot that the Exile (in its original form as well as in its ongoing partial form) was due to their idolatry and disobedience. Extra care was needed to make sure this didn’t happen again.

Enter the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the two major groups of Jewish leaders in the 2nd Temple period. The two groups had different, yet equally understandable, approaches as to how the Jewish people could keep from falling back into exile-worthy sin.

The Pharisees approached their faith via what we sometimes call “orthopraxy.” They would be extra-scrupulous about keeping the Law of Moses to the point of setting up extra traditions as “fences” around the Law. You might break the tradition, but those layers of legal and traditional fencing would protect the actual Commandments of the Old Testament. Yet this didn’t solve the root issues. It didn’t do anything to understand God’s heart or the spirit behind those laws. Throughout the Gospels Jesus often points out common practices among the Pharisees where they used loopholes in religious laws in hypocritical ways. For example, we read in Mark’s Gospel that the Pharisees made it so that someone could use religious dedication as a kind of trust fund to shelter their wealth from being used to take care of their elderly parents. And how often when Jesus heals on the Sabbath are the Pharisees indignant at supposed Sabbath breaking rather than rejoicing in the miracles Jesus did for the halt and the lame?

The Sadducees, on the other hand, focused on the Temple worship. If they could protect the Temple from idolatry, they reasoned, they could stop the root cause of the exile. Yet, they missed a key part of the Prophetic warnings. The Sadducees’ focus on the Temple Sacrifices showed misplaced priorities. For example, they often compromised and collaborated with the Roman government or the wicked Herod family in order to keep their protected status as the stewards of the Temple. They often ignored the poor or other regular folks in order to keep the Temple institution running. In fact, the reason Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables in the Temple was because the Sadducees allowed the money changers to use the Temple as a money-making scheme to cheat the faithful! And as long as they could be in charge of the Temple, the Sadducees were happy to make the priesthood about politics and money rather than faithfulness to God.

So, God’s people found themselves back in the same place as they were in Isaiah’s day. Through our Lord Jesus, God says to the Pharisees, “Your [Sabbaths,] new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth . . . when ye make many prayers I will not hear.” To the Sadducees the Lord says, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? … I delight not in the blood of bullocks, of lambs, or of he goats.”

Could the same be said of us Christians? Passion Sunday heralds the coming of Holy Week and Easter. We’re a week away from the most important season in the Church calendar. Yet are we remembering that our faith is to be more than religious ceremonies? Are we remembering, as Jesus said, the “weightier matters of the Law”? Or are our hands full of blood? Perhaps not literal blood, but perhaps in how we act towards other folk online. Or perhaps towards family members with whom we’ve been fighting. Or perhaps towards those who support the other side politically? While there are certainly times when we must be firm or even tough, let us do so with Christian love and charity. Let us not fall into the pattern of mistreating or ignoring those around us who need our love.

There is good news in that the have the opportunity to repent. Verse 16 of our lesson from Isaiah 1:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

A significant part of repentance is turning away from our sins and turning toward God by doing what he says to do. Part of why Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees was to change that hypocritical behavior. Part of why we have the often-negative example of the Old Testament folks as well as that of the Pharisees and Sadducees was so that we would act differently than them. Unlike ancient Israel, let us flee the idols of our surrounding culture, whatever form they take. Let us cleave to God as our Father to whom we owe total allegiance. Let us cleave to the Lord Jesus who is the bridegroom of the Church. Unlike the Pharisees let us see the Spirit of the Law as well as its letter. Let us look to the heart as well as to the outward obedience. Unlike the Sadducees, let us embrace all of God’s Word and let us use our religion for more than means to an end.

In order to do this, we need more than behavior modification. We need a true heart change. We need cleansing from our sins so that we might be new creatures. This is where our Isaiah passage hints at the coming Messiah and his ministry. Verse 18:

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.

True obedience comes from the heart, for God judges the heart as well as the actions. A clean heart is something that only God can give us. As we saw in the beginning of our lesson, that is something that the Levitical Sacrifices could not give. That is why our Epistle says that Christ is a better high priest than the Aaronic priesthood in the Old Testament. That is why his tabernacle is a more perfect one. That is why his sacrifice by his own blood is better than the blood of goats and calves. As our Epistle says, our Lord Jesus “obtained eternal redemption for us.” As our Epistle says, while the Old Covenant sacrifices “sanctifieth to the purifying of flesh … the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge[th] your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

It is only when we are washed by the blood of Christ that we can perform good works that are pleasing to God. It’s only when we have been redeemed and given Christ’s righteousness that we can act with righteousness. This is what Isaiah was hinting at when he spoke of the stain of sin being like scarlet or crimson being washed whiter than snow and wool. This is why Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Sometimes folks think that our Reformers taught that good works have no place in the economy of Salvation. But this isn’t so. Rather, as you can read in our Articles of Religion and in the 1st Book of Homilies, our Reformers taught that our sins are too great for any good works on our part to wash clean. Our good works cannot earn God’s favor. However, they all taught that our good works are the fruit of being cleansed by God. By his grace, Jesus’ blood is applied to our sins and we are washed clean. The good works that are indeed necessary in the Christian life are thus the result and fruit of that cleansing. Our Justification before God is due to his grace, not our good works. But good works always result from our Justification.

That Justification comes from Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. The ministry in the heavenly Temple by our true High Priest is what brings about our cleansing. That is why Holy Week and Easter are so important to traditional Christianity. This is the time we remember that pivotal event. This is the time we celebrate what Jesus has done for us. His death and resurrection are the true sacrifice that leads to the true worship hinted at by the Law and the Prophets. The Old Covenant could not change hearts, and thus it could not result in true righteousness. But by Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, we truly become his people. We truly are made into his image. We no longer are like the Israelites of Isaiah’s day, spiritual heirs of Sodom and Gomorrah who bring vain sacrifices to an earthly Jerusalem. No, by Christ, we are citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem, partakers of his one true Sacrifice, partakers of our great King and High Priest, who follow his ways, both now and evermore.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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