Isaiah is angry. He is let-it-fly, take-off-the-gloves, pull-no-punches, damn-the-torpedoes angry.
“You’re coming to worship for the wrong reasons!” shouts Isaiah, two and a half millennia ago.
“You’ve come to visit friends, not to wrestle with God. You’re going through the motions!” he charges. “You’re singing without soul, praying for the poor but not taking them into your home, confessing without repenting, passing the peace without practicing reconciliation, speaking love while holding onto hate, begging for mercy but merciless in your judgments of others.”
Here’s what I think: I think that when he was growing up, the ladies in his neighborhood said about the young Isaiah, “Oh, that boy has a tongue.”
From the portion of the text read this morning, you may not have fully sensed just how angry Isaiah is … just how biting his criticism. That’s because you didn’t hear the worst of it. I edited the worst out … protecting your tender ears and sensitive souls from the harshest of Isaiah’s complaints. After all, it is Annual Meeting Sunday. Who wants the searing, seething critique of an angry prophet on Annual Meeting Sunday? Not this senior minister.
And yet, we are obliged to listen … to hear him out … in part because it is the assigned reading for today, but mostly because Isaiah has earned the right to our attention. Not to mention that he is staring down at us, right now, as he does every Sunday, from his perch, behind and above you, from the tall window in back the corner of the sanctuary.
Sometimes, like today, can’t you feel his eyes burning a hole right through you?
For today Isaiah is let-it-fly, take-off-the-gloves, pull-no-punches, damn-the-torpedoes mad.
“Your worship is insincere!” he trumpets. “Hollow. Empty. Your rituals are meaningless exercises!”
I hasten to assure you that Isaiah isn’t speaking to us. It is not we to whom he directs this blistering critique. Not at all; he is railing at his contemporaries.
Isaiah’s complaint—not with us, but with his contemporaries—is this: it’s like going to a gymnasium every week for several hours. You’ve got the outfit—the Capri pants and the Lycra top—but you never break a sweat. You don’t sweat out an iota of toxins, or increase the oxygen flow to your brain by even a tittle. You depart as you had entered: unchanged … no stronger or fitter or leaner or more limber than when you arrived.
It’s like this, says Isaiah: you’re inside God’s house—eating God’s food, experiencing God’s hospitality, enjoying the company of others—but you never seek a private word with your Host … never position yourself to encounter, or to be encountered by, the Living God.
This was the burden of Isaiah’s complaint. He figured the best way to get the attention of his contemporaries was by shouting, raising his voice like a trumpet.
The Guinness Book of World Records credits the organ as the largest and the loudest musical instrument ever constructed. The loudest stop on the loudest instrument: the trumpet stop. Isaiah chose the loudest sound he could imagine to call his people to holy attention.
Josiah Franklin had the same complaint about worshippers in his day, but he employed a different technique.
While Isaiah favored a trumpet, Josiah fancied a feather.
Josiah Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s father, was an early member of this church. He owned the covenant in the late 1600’s. Although of humble station, Josiah was held in the highest regard … so much so, that the gentlemen of the church appointed him to an exceedingly delicate post: that of Tithing-man.
Tithing-man was a paid position in a Puritan community. He enforced rules related to the Sabbath day. On Sunday the Tithing-man walked from home to home making sure no one was AWOL. Anyone caught skipping church, or working or traveling on Sunday—anyone without a good reason—could be fined. He also collected the taxes paid to the church.
You can see why only a person of great discretion and honor would be chosen to serve in this delicate capacity.
During worship the Tithing-man stood in the back, much as Isaiah is positioned here. From his perch he kept a close eye on the worshippers. He held in his hands, the tool of his trade: a stave up to ten feet in length. On one end was a rabbit’s foot or brass knob and on the other, a feather.
Should a man nod-off or a child misbehave, they felt the knob end of Josiah’s stick.
Should a woman doze-off during a two-hour sermon or an hour-long prayer, Josiah employed the feathered end, tickling her to wakefulness and attention.
To our 21stcentury sensitivities, this practice appears something between comical and outrageous … the stuff of slapstick, an invasion of privacy, or simply an embarrassing rudeness.
But Josiah Franklin and the prophet Isaiah were both in deadly earnest: Isaiah with his trumpet call and Josiah with his feather. They saw themselves as guardians of the souls of those whom they dearly loved. It was their intent to provoke those under their care until they strained and trained all their attention on God.
When your ministers plan worship—ministers of the word and ministers of music—we don’t (generally) employ Isaiah’s urgent, pull-no-punches rhetoric and it’s been over two centuries since Josiah’s stick was used.
We are, however, in equally, deadly earnest. We try our level best, in our own way … to keep you awake, to awaken your spiritual senses. We undertake to design worship that invites us away from hollow motions and into deep engagement.
In the end, your soul is in your hands. Just as it is possible to be in the gym without breaking a sweat: so it is possible to be awake but indifferent; present but disengaged …a guest who fails to acknowledge her Host.
Your ministers provide the equipment and opportunities for coaching: the sacraments and rituals, the summons to prayer and study, the invitations to engagement with the poor and with the structures that oppress.
That’s as far as we can go. It is up to you to do the rest … to seek out a private word with your Host … to encounter and to be encountered by, the Living God.
But beware. There is yellow tape around this building. You have entered a work site: Christians here are under construction.
Beware. Upon entering God’s house you cross over into time that is deep, beautiful, charged, dangerous, thrilling and sacred.
Beware. For all around you are ones singing with their souls, practicing reconciliation, caring for the poor with their own hands, learning mercy with their lives, doing justice, pursuing peace.
Beware. For deep, authentic worship will radicalize you … changing and forming you into justice-making, self-sacrificing, courageous followers of Jesus.
That, Church, is what Isaiah was on about. That is what made him so desperate. Such were the stakes. That’s what explains his let-it-fly, take-off-the-gloves, pull-no-punches, damn-the-torpedoes, urgency.
But not to worry. Isaiah wasn’t shouting at us.
Or, was he?