Grace Presbyterian Church
August 11, 2019, Pentecost 9C
Let Us Argue It Out
The Civil War on what was then the western frontier of the United States was characterized as much by violent operations by what might be called “irregulars” – not official military personnel – as by more organized or formal operations. The Union Army in that region was vexed by such guerilla operations, whether they favored the Confederacy or the Union. One such raid, a massacre against the city of Lawrence, Kansas, finally pushed the top Union general in the region to the breaking point and led to the issuing of General Order No. 11.
That order directed that four counties in Missouri, south of Kansas City, be completely evacuated, cleared out altogether, under the belief that Confederate-sympathizing guerillas would be deprived of civilian support if they were deprived of civilians. Those who could prove Union loyalty were granted more lenient terms of relocation, but otherwise the area was emptied. In the effort to do so, much of the region was overrun and trampled, and in many cases homes or other buildings were burned to the ground – giving the effect of a “scorched earth” policy. Eventually those areas, though ruined, would be repopulated, but they remain to this day less populated or developed than comparable surrounding areas.
Now take that, multiply it by about a hundred thousand or so, and you get what came to the mind of the average Judean at the mention of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Hebrew scripture, such as in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah.
As recorded in the book of Genesis, during the time of Abraham, the two cities were utterly destroyed by God in return for their great wickedness. We heard a few weeks ago how Abraham bargained with God for the cities to be spared if as many as fifty, or ultimately as few as ten, righteous people could be found in those cities. The cities, to be clear, were not spared.
As a result those cities had become code names, of a sort, for scenes of total and utter destruction, as in Amos 4:11. Zephaniah 2:9 refers to them as “a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever.” In Isaiah 13:20 and Jeremiah 49:18 and 50:40, they are noted as still uninhabited, even all those centuries later.
So, seeing those two cities invoked as Isaiah invokes them here in verse 10 – not merely recounting a history but using them as direct address to his audience – carries a force Isaiah’s readers probably weren’t expecting. It’s “you rulers of Sodom!” and “you people of Gomorrah!” It isn’t about the past; it is an accusation here and now.
“Accusation” is a pretty good word, indeed, for much of this first chapter of Isaiah. After the introductory first verse, most of the next eight verses are accusation against the people of Jerusalem and Judah. Not only are Jerusalem and Judah accused of forsaking the Lord or rebelling against God, they are named as continuing to rebel against God despite the suffering they have endued for doing so – see in verse five the almost playground-like taunt “why do you seek further beatings?”
In the face of this accusation the Judeans are seen responding in verse 9, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.” And that’s when Isaiah springs God’s condemnation on them in the starkest terms possible: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teachings of your God, you people of Gomorrah!” You can almost imagine the response of hearers or readers to that: “…uh-oh, we’re in trouble.”
What follows is a type of diatribe found in a few of the prophetic writings in Hebrew scripture, in which the people’s offense against God is so great that God is now revolted by their religious rituals. Perhaps the most famous example of such a diatribe is found in Amos 5:21-23, in which God proclaims to his faithless people:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not
And the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
We don’t practice sacrifices, but I still suspect you can understand the thrust of this condemnation. I hate, I despise your worship services, and I take no delight in your congregational lunches … you get the idea.
Now there are some who would like to take this as a blanket condemnation of all religious ritual, but the broader range of scripture makes it pretty clear that this, like today’s chapter from Isaiah, is a condemnation of religious ritual carried out in the face of some great rebellion or wickedness on the part of the people of God; no matter how solemn or sincere or powerful the religious practice may be, God will not accept it as long as this disobedience continues unrepented.
So we have so far God’s displeasure with the people of Judah and Jerusalem, to the point of invoking the ruin of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judah and Jerusalem; we have the very strong condemnation of the ongoing solemn practices of the people despite some kind of rebellion or wickedness (from the first nine verses), to the point of rejection of the worship of the people of Jerusalem and Judah altogether. What we don’t have, yet, is exactly what this rebellion or wickedness is.
We might think we do, because of that Sodom and Gomorrah reference, but we probably don’t.
You might remember in that sermon a few weeks ago, in which Abraham was bargaining with God for the sparing of those cities (in which his nephew Lot lived, remember). In that sermon I suggested you might go look at Ezekiel 16:49-50 before you decided you knew what it was that brought on God’s condemnation. So, what exactly does Ezekiel say?:
This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease; but did not aid the poor and needy. (emphasis mine)
They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
The “sin of Sodom” was that they “did not aid the poor and needy.” Apparently they even did abominable things to them. Can you imagine?
Let that sink in.
God’s anger was so provoked against Sodom because they “did not aid the poor and needy” and were “haughty” and behaved abominably. Let that sink in.
Oh, and by the way, that bit from Amos goes in a similar direction, in 5:24: “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
And look at how this passage from Isaiah ends up. If anything, the charge is even more elaborate:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
If it feels like this theme has been coming up a lot lately, well, it has. And there’s a good reason for that: this theme, the basic mandate of how we as God’s people care for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the “orphan and widow,” the neighbor, the “alien” or stranger in the land does come up a lot in scripture. It is the basic core of the two great commandments named by Jesus as he is about to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Abraham and Sarah’s encounter with God, the hospitality of Martha and Mary to Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer itself, and the accompanying Parable of the Friend at Midnight, just to note those scriptures that have been invoked in recent weeks in the lectionary. I promise you I didn’t plan this: I’m not that clever a preacher at my best, and in the weeks leading up to being back up here I was far from my best. But scripture keeps coming back to this basic command, all these variants of “love your neighbor as yourself” that so confound us with their boundless definitions of “neighbor.”
Pretty clearly the people of Jerusalem and Judah had resources. All of those rituals of sacrifice and offering did not come cheaply. Not only was the animal itself costly, but the fattening required to make that animal worthy of sacrifice was even more expensive. Clearly the people of Judah and Jerusalem could do justice for the oppressed, the poor, the widow and orphan, but they just don’t. And for that God is as angry at them as God was angry at Sodom and Gomorrah. Even the lavishing of expenses upon the act of worship could not make up for the failure to live up to the commandment to love the neighbor, care for the poor, release the oppressed, to do justice.
With the evidence presented, God turns prosecutor – “let us argue it out,” he says. The old King James Version was so much tamer – “come, let us reason together” – but tameness is not an appropriate mood here. God is ready to get into it with the people.
Even with all of this, though, there is still promise. Blood-red sin can still be cleansed. The thing about repentance, though, is that it is so much more complicated, so much more demanding than just saying you’re sorry. Repentance demands change; confronting evil and getting rid of it, not just saying we don’t like it. “If you are willing and obedient,” God says through Isaiah – “If you will do these things I have commanded you over and over, these things that are inscribed in the Law and proclaimed by just about every prophet I have” – “you shall eat the good of the land. But” – and this is a very ominous-sounding “but” – “if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” God won’t even need to bring down fire from heaven; Judah’s enemies can do the deed just fine as soon as God lifts any protection from Judah.
For God to invite us to “argue it out,” then, is our hope. We can still repent and change and stop doing the evil and start doing the good. The people are not doomed yet. But failure to repent and continuing to do evil…that has consequences, no matter how sincere or spectacular our worship. Let us not test God to find those out.
For the God who calls us to “argue it out…” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #749, Come! Live in the Light!; #13, The Mighty God With Power Speaks; #—, Let Us Argue It Out; #739, O for a Closer Walk With God
I’m not going to guess who’s who here in relation to the scripture…