28 November 1999

Nothing Else Matters

1. Introduction

From our first reading: "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."

Something's a bit odd somewhere. After all, God had ordained that sacrifices should be carried out in the Temple - and, come to that, only in the Temple. It was all God's plan - so what had gone wrong?

What went wrong?

So what went wrong? Why is God suddenly saying not to bother with sacrifices? I reckon we need a bit of context here.

The beginning, of course, of Isaiah. Scholars faff about over whether there were one, two or three Isaiahs, but this bit is definitely written by No 1, or Isaiah of Jerusalem, as he is commonly referred to. We know his name, which is more than we do of the other ones (unless they were also called Isaiah, which is possible), and his father's name, that he was married and had children. We know, I think, that he was a Temple prophet, a professional, as it were. He was certainly part of the community of prophets, and associated with both the court and the Temple. Some folk even say he may have been an aristocrat of his day, but there's no real proof of that.

And they also think they can date him fairly accurately, because of some of the events he refers to, especially the death of King Uzziah, which happened in 746 BC, so I'm told. And that, of course, was the key turning-point in Isaiah's life, as it was the year that he met with God in a real way. He tells of this meeting in Chapter 6, you remember:

"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple." Isaiah became aware of God's presence, and God's holiness, in a very real way. And, of course, his reaction was to see his own unholiness, his own impurity, and he was afraid. And God cleansed him, sending a seraph with a burning coal: "The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.'"

Isaiah was God's person from that moment on, if he hadn't been before, but that wasn't true of Judah as a whole. I gather it was going through a serious political crisis at the time: the Northern Tribes, or Ephraim, and Syria had allied together to repel the Assyrians, and they wanted Judah to join them. Well, the King, Ahaz, had said no way, but instead he had appealed to Assyria for help. And Isaiah, or God, or both, disapproved of this, because not only did Ahaz have to pay quite a lot of money to the Assyrians, he also brought the nation into political subservience. Which was not a good idea.

And meanwhile, the people weren't really believing in God. "The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." God should be enough for Israel. They are in bad trouble, and it's their own fault. They should have trusted God, not allied themselves with Assyria. It's all very well them rushing to the Temple and making sacrifices; it's all very well them keeping their holy days and holidays, BUT.....

The thing is, they were acting. Their hearts weren't in the right place. All the sacrifices in the world don't matter if it's just going through the motions. Instead, God says, through Isaiah: "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. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool."

Of course, it never had been a matter of just doing your sacrifices. David had known that, long ago. Remember what he wrote after he had committed adultery and murder? "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

3. Wrong in the New Testament

In the Gospel reading, too, something had gone badly wrong. Jesus takes up a whip and drives the moneychangers and sellers of doves out of the Temple, complaining that "My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers."

Now, some people think that Jesus meant that doing business in the Temple courtyard was a bad idea, and chunter about gifte shoppes in our Cathedrals, and even Tear Fund stalls and so on at the back of a church. I don't actually think that was the problem. After all, you don't have to patronise Cathedral gift shops, nor Tear Fund stalls, if you don't think that it's right to do so.

But the people who went to the Temple didn't have that choice. The merchants were ripping them off. The moneychangers changed everyday currency into the special Temple money, and charged horrendous commission, never mind dreadful rates of exchange. And they also ripped off the poorest members of the community, who could only afford two doves, by selling the doves at vastly inflated prices, too. In fact, I'm sure I remember reading somewhere that if you had bought a lamb or something, the inspectors tended always to find something wrong with it, so you couldn't sacrifice it, you know the tiniest blemish that nobody else could see anywhere, and then rip you off when you bought a pair of pigeons to sacrifice instead....

The trouble was, they'd got the whole idea of sacrifice and worship wrong. The rip-off merchants were out to make a good thing from the local religion, which is never a good idea. But the authorities, who allowed the stallholders to be there, also had the wrong idea. Now, it's quite possible that at least some of the authorities were "on the take", too, and took their cut of the stallholders' rent, but I don't suppose all of them were. But where they were mistaken was in seeing the need for such people. There was no real need to change money - the merchants were accustomed to handling a wide variety of currencies and it would never have been a problem. And even though Scripture calls for the animals offered to be without blemish, they should have been able to buy them in the local markets for the going rate. To have special "guaranteed pure" temple doves sold for as much as the merchants could wring out of the punters was not the way God wanted it done. The ripping-off was bad enough; that they should have felt the need for such stalls, even if there had been no rip-off at all, was even worse, since it meant they were mistaken about God's purposes for his people.

4. What does it mean for us?

Well, okay. But what has all this got to do with us, here on the eve of the third millennium? After all, we haven't made sacrifices in the Temple for well over a millennium!

No, we haven't. But we do sometimes try to use our church-going to be right for God. We think that because we go to Church every Sunday, or twice on Sundays, or whatever, we are somehow better than the person who doesn't. We think, perhaps, that because we - oh, for instance - don't spend money on Sundays, or don't eat meat in Lent, or whatever, we are a better person than the one who does.

Now, don't get me wrong, please: there's nothing wrong at all with any of those things, in fact rather the reverse. But it is why you do it that matters. If you are doing it because it brings you closer to God, and to God's people, then terrific. If, however, you are doing it because that's what you've always done, or because you think that is what Christians should do, then beware! You don't want to get into the state that the people to whom Isaiah was speaking got into!

The point is that we need to be walking with Jesus. It's not about blind obedience to the commandments, nor is it about how we behave or the subculture we live in. It is, to a very large extent, about justice and fairness and not letting people be ripped off. But even that, important though it is, is secondary to our relationship with Jesus. Because it should come from our relationship! I think it was C S Lewis who says the trouble with "Christianity and" - the "and" being things like social justice, or anti-war, or even vegetarianism or one of those - is that the "and" can often end up being more important than the Christianity!

Which is, of course, where we came in! With God saying, through Isaiah, "I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats." Or with Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple.

The Temple sacrifices are obsolete now, of course. Even if there were a Temple, we wouldn't need to make sacrifice there, it was all sorted as part of the Atonement. Part of what Jesus did on the Cross. And it's that which matters. It's not what we do that matters, it's what Jesus did. As long as we are walking with Jesus, determined to be His people, going His way, then nothing else matters. Amen.

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