Sermon: Sunday, August 7, 2022

Have you ever asked yourself why you come to church week in and week out? I once asked a group of adults this question and their answers were as varied as the people in the room. I wrote their answers down, and I still have the list:

It is just something I have always done, so it would feel weird not to do it.
Because God wants me to.
I love the music and the language of the worship service. It is comforting.
I will go to hell if I don’t.
I like seeing my friends.
It recharges my spiritual batteries.
I want to deepen my relationship with God.
My wife makes me.
I want to be a better person.
I need a weekly reminder of what this following God stuff is all about.
I can’t be a Christian all by myself. I need to join with others to be part of the Body of Christ.
It is what Christians are supposed to do.
It is the only way I can make sense of the world.
It inspires me to do good things when I leave here.
It reminds me that I am not the center of the universe, God is.
To be changed into the person God would have me be.

If you listened closely, you probably noticed that nobody said we gather in worship each week because God needs our worship. That is because God doesn’t need our worship. Worship is something we need to do. To be human is to be in relationship both with other humans and with God. Our whole existence is bound up with others and with God. We gather week in and week out because we need each other, and we need God. We gather so that together we can enact in ritualized ways the actions and attitudes befitting those who follow Jesus—praise, listening, learning, lamenting, repenting, making peace, sharing at the table, and, last but certainly not least, being sent into the world to care for those who are in need.

Worship is not a performance. It is not where we get our ticket punched so we can get into heaven. It is not entertainment or a time of spiritual edification. Worship can recharge our batteries and be comforting. It can be a place of fellowship and friendship. It can be a place we go to out of obligation or routine. But these are not the primary reasons for worship. Primarily worship puts God at the center of our individual and corporate lives and forms us to be God’s people in the world.

And what does it look like to be God’s people in the world? Well, to be God’s people in the world we need to be like the God who made us in the Divine Image. We need to love justice and hate injustice. We need to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need to care for those who are powerless and live on the margins of our world. The word justice means “to make right.” It is first and foremost a relational term—people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation. Worship should lead us to be people who seek justice. And seeking justice, should lead us back to worship. Both worship and justice seeking together should create kingdom space in the here and now, giving witness to the ultimate just society that God has promised us is to come.

But worship and justice are not always linked in this way. It can be very easy for people to forget that both are needed for a full and healthy relationship with God and with each other. This is what has happened to the people of Jerusalem being addressed by Isaiah in our Old Testament reading for this morning.

In verses 7-8 of chapter 1, verses that were not read this morning, we hear of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Assyrians:

Your country lies desolate;
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
And daughter Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.

Jerusalem is still standing, but barely. Those left, particularly the wealthy and powerful, continue to carry out their ritual worship in the Temple in the hope that God will restore them and their city to their former glory. But the prophet Isaiah has only harsh words for them, and shares God’s words with them:

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation–
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood. Isaiah 1:12-14

They wanted God’s blessings, but they did not want to change their behavior. They were not caring for the widow and the orphan and for all those who had no power in their world. The wealthy and privileged believed that all God wanted from them was worship, ritual, sacrifice and songs. Isaiah reminded them that God wanted none of these things if they didn’t first take care of those in need. God was reminding them that their worship was meaningless if they continued to perpetuate systems that harmed those who were vulnerable and without power.

We too frequently come to worship to meet our personal spiritual needs, forgetting that we are here to meet the needs of our community. We forget that we are praying to a justice-seeking God. As we worship together today, who is God calling us to be concerned about? How are we complicit in the systems of the world that harm our neighbors? How is God calling us to use our power, privilege, and resources to change these systems? How will our worship today bring us into right relationship with our neighbors and with God?

I leave you with some more hopeful words from Isaiah 58:6-9

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.” Amen.