Our worship is worthless if we are not living toward holiness and working toward justice.
Our worship is worthless. Our worship at North is worthless. Our worship here at Arbor House, the liturgy, prayers, and songs, is worthless. Our worship is worthless… If. Israel heard this message quite often, although rarely took it to heart. Worship is worthless… If. Worship is an abomination if it is not also accompanied by right living. And it is this right living that is either missing or misunderstood. We get how to do worship. Israel got how to do worship. The prayers, the scripture readings, the holidays, and in their case the sacrifices. We get that. We get how to do a service on Sunday morning. The problem is when that worship on Sunday morning doesn’t match the life of the worshipper on Monday morning or Friday night, in the workplace, in the home, at a political rally.
Their lives did not reflect the covenantal community that they were a part of.
Isaiah told the people, “What is YHWH going to do with a mound of sacrificed rams?” The sacrifices, which are apart of the worship they were commanded by YHWH to do have become nauseating. The festivals that remind the people of YHWH’s great acts in history have become something that his soul hates. Their acts of worship are futile because their “hands are full of blood.” Their lives did not reflect the covenantal community that they were a part of.
Our music and prayers have become worthless noise. Our celebration of the eucharist has become nauseating. Our celebration of the holy days of the church year have become useless. Our worship is futile if our hands are full of blood.
But as with any prophetic critique there is hope. There was hope for Judah, although they chose not to listen. And there is hope for us, for Arbor house and the whole of the modern church. The choice is set before us as it was set before Israel countless times, “If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” And so the question that remains is, what does it mean for us to be willing and obedient? I know this will come as a huge surprise but Isaiah helps us out with that one.
Isaiah points to two areas of day-to-day life that the Israelites needed to address, and we need to address as well if our lives are going to match our worship.
The first is holiness. Despite Free Methodists being in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition we don’t talk much about holiness because it is a churchy word that scares people. It’s one of those old-school church words that isn’t cool anymore. And we also misunderstand what it means for us today. We talk about holiness in reference to God’s perfection, and that is naturally an unattainable goal for us. But what if we understood the task of holiness in a different way. Holiness, for us, is not a state of being, but a direction of living. Holiness is the recognition that our day-to-day lives matter and not just that we attend the right church. Isaiah says in v.16 “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes, cease to do evil.” Holiness is the task of making ourselves clean. Of taking all the things that drag us down and letting them go. We often hear about Christ’s power to break the chains that bind us and that is certainly true. There are things that we can only overcome with the help of God and he is working toward setting us free. But quite often there are things that we have to make the choice to let go. They are not chains that bind us but baggage we hold on to. There is a saying that goes, “two trips is for the weak.” If you ever see me bringing in groceries it will make sense. I’m carrying nine bags, with one clenched in my teeth, and two tied to my belt and I’m opening the door with my feet. Because I would rather throw my back out than make two trips. Sometimes we just need to set some stuff down. Have we been holding on to bitterness, anger, resentment for too long? Is there a relationship we need to let go of because it is not healthy?
Holiness is looking inward and seeing what it is that we need to have removed from our lives and living in that direction. Holiness will not be an end goal but instead a process. Isaiah tells the people to wash themselves to make themselves clean. But we know that washing once doesn’t make us completely clean forever. If that were true the kids at camp wouldn’t have smelled so bad at the end of the week. We must continually wash ourselves clean through confessing and forgiveness and a change in living.
Holiness will not be an end goal but instead a process.
Personal piety, living toward holiness in our thoughts and actions is good but it is only half of what Isaiah listed. Set aside doing evil, but we must also learn to do good. The second area of life that we must address, both individually and as a church, is that we must also do justice. Unfortunately it has become common to favor one over the other and fail to recognize the necessity of both. Some have emphasized the need for personal piety but have chosen to ignore the orphan and the widow. They need to help themselves. At the same time some have turned outward toward justice and failed to examine the inward. Caring for the poor but casting aside any concern for holiness. One without the other is as useless as worship without right living.
It is unfortunate that the term “justice” has recently become a loaded term. The phrase “social justice warrior” gets thrown around as if that were an insult. We have set justice aside because we separate it from the gospel. Justice is no longer the task of the church, only preaching and handing out tracks is. Dr. Esau McCaulley wrote,
“‘If you stand commended to the guidance of the word of God,’ said James Pennington, a black pastor and abolitionist, ‘you are bound to know its position in reference to certain overt acts that crowd the land with curses. Take the last and greatest curses that I named above. I mean slavery. Is the word of God silent on this subject? I, for one, desire to know.’ In other words, it is not enough for a pastor to preach doctrines without applying those doctrines to the issues of the day.”
It is a twisting of the gospel to separate out doing justice as if it were outside of the mission of the church. Doing justice is an integral part of what it means to be a covenantal, Gospel centered community. One of the commentators I read wrote the following: “Our generation still needs the summons of Isaiah. Too many still need to be rescued from the oppression of racism. The depraved continuation of human trafficking cries out for justice. Refugee crises present new opportunities for the church to pursue good in a world haunted by evil. Violence, disease, and the affluents’ abdication of responsibility present an ongoing stream of orphans. Though widows are not legally powerless, race, poverty, and disability nonetheless regularly place persons in situations of hopelessness to which the church must respond. We seek justice in personal relationships, in financial support of assistance programs, and in community action. All three possibilities lay before the congregation that desires not a weekly opiate but the daily bread of Christ-like living.”
It is the job of the church and of the christians who make up the church, to speak out for the cause of justice. To stand against racism, the kind of racism that walks into a shopping center in El Paso and kills 22 people, to comfort the poor, to protect those who suffer violence. This is in big acts of helping a family escape domestic violence, and in the small acts of helping pay for someone’s groceries and taking a family member aside and explaining why a joke or comment was inappropriate.
I would be remiss if I did not say that it is the mission of the church to stand against the treatment of migrants, especially children, along the southern border of this country. Of course, this immediately becomes a partisan issue, but when children, some only a few years old are being held for weeks without a tooth brush, or soap, or their mother and father. Are being sexually assaulted by guards, and dying for easily preventable reasons, it ceases to be a partisan issue. It is a human rights issue, it is a gospel issue. We can have differences in opinion in how immigration policy should be shaped but we must also be able to call evil what it is when it stares us in the face, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office or Congress. In many places the church has chosen to remain silent while young children are suffering and it makes our worship seem self serving and hollow. When the church lives out the call for justice, “the world will truly receive the fullness of the good news.” They will not just hear the gospel that we preach but also see the gospel lived in the world.
Isaiah invites us to remember that it is not only what happens in this space on Sunday morning that matters. It also matters that we live toward holiness and toward justice when we walk out those doors. “The church that goes out from worship emerges not only relieved of sin but also empowered to do the work of justice.” My hope and prayer is that may be true of me. I pray that I would see the ways that I have failed to live towards holiness. That I would set aside the things that are dragging me down, the things that I have held on to for too long. And may I also recognize the hurt and need in the world and act towards justice. If I choose to remain silent then I am complicit. I can say great and elegant things but if I do not act the words are meaningless. Arbor House must continue to be a place where we worship honestly, cultivate an awareness of holiness, and act for justice.