(Isaiah 1:1, 10-20)
Have you noticed that laundry detergent technology continues to change? A hundred years ago, the charlady had a tub, washboard and bar of soap (which she might have made herself). The mechanization of laundry advanced quickly. Kids in the 1940s and 1950s might remember helping their moms with the laundry by feeding the wet, clean clothes through the wringer – a device with two revolving rollers that squeezed every last drop of moisture from the clothes as it passed through the rollers. You didn’t use a bar of soap, but instead threw a cup of white soap powder into the churning water. Sometimes it had green flecks in it that did wonders with dirt. To get whites whiter, you added bleach.
Today, the panels on many automatic washing machines look more complicated than a hi-tech microwave oven, connect to your Wi-Fi and can be controlled from your smartphone. Most suggest using the latest in washing technology: pods of liquid detergent encased in a membrane that dissolves when it comes in contact with water.
When you were a kid, it’s quite possible that you had an aversion to bathwater. It wasn’t that you thought you would dissolve like a laundry pod. Washing just didn’t seem Important. You didn’t see the need.
The Lord God, speaking through Isaiah, has strong opinions about washing. This text almost sounds like a parent admonishing their child to wash their hands before dinner or take a bath, whether the child sees the need or not.
In fact, God makes it abundantly clear in today’s text that Israel is in dire need of a scrubbing. God’s concerns take up the first six verses of the passage, which introduce the three themes of the book: sin, the need for redemption and the hope of a coming new kingdom.
Here, in verses 10-15, it’s a grim picture. Israel is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, and as biblical metaphors go, you don’t get much harsher. God is tired of the emptiness of rituals, sacrifices and burnt-offerings – all of which involved the slaughter of lambs, goats or bulls. Being a good Hebrew was a bloody affair, as it had been since blood was applied to the lintels of Israelite homes in the land of Goshen some 500 years earlier. God through Moses had even laid out in graphic detail how these bloody sacrifices were to happen (see Leviticus 1-7, for example).
But there was a catch. When these sacrifices were made, the supplicant was supposed to imbue the action with faith, believing that through his obedience, the wrath of God against sin would be mitigated. This indeed was the spirit in which “burnt-offerings” were offered for many years.
Then, the thrill was gone. The spirituality of the ritual was jettisoned from the ritual itself. Worship became routine and mundane. People forgot why they were doing what they were doing. And the purity of their worship was sullied. Now, God has had enough. “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (vv. 12-13). God is tired of dirty hands and faces. “I cannot endure … my soul hates … I am weary … I hide my eyes from you … a burden to me … I am weary … I will not listen” (vv. 14-15).
Does God feel this way about us today, more than 2,700 years after the prophet Isaiah spoke in the courts of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah?
Perhaps. The question is: To what extent has our religious observance become mere ritual, and without spiritual content? Answer that question and you might have an idea of whether God is pleased with the religious life of Christians in America these days. Is God happy with the way politics has extended its talons into the flesh of the religiously observant, making them captives – if not at times a bit reluctantly – of political ideologies that do little to lift up the poor and downtrodden? Maybe God finds this to be “a burden.” Perhaps God can no longer “endure” this falderol and is completely “weary” of it all. Is God happy with the sectarian spirit of our day? Does it not grieve the heart of God to see that brothers and sisters can no longer dwell in unity (see Psalm 133:1), or live without “selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better” than themselves? (Philippians 2:3).
What, then, does God suggest?
Here is God’s word to us today: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” (v. 16).
If we didn’t know the importance of washing our hands prior to early 2020, we certainly do now. In the food service industry, state and federal laws require signs in bathrooms reminding employees that they must wash their hands before returning to work, or risk dismissal. Since the coronavirus outbreak, however, there can be no doubt about the importance of the biblical advice of Isaiah 1:16. Yes, we must “wash ourselves,” and do so on a regular basis.
This is so important that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now promotes a Global Handwashing Day (October 15) to emphasize the importance of this little ritual, the need for which should be little more than common sense. The CDC recommends a five-step system – wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry – to ensure that one’s hands are so fresh and pink, that even your mom would approve. (The scrubbing part should be at least 20 seconds – recite the Lord’s Prayer twice, or the 23rd Psalm once.)
God, speaking through the young prophet Isaiah, recommends not a five-step process, but a six-step one. The directions are found in vv. 16-17:
- cease to do evil (discipline and will)
- learn to do good (education)
- seek justice
- rescue the oppressed
- defend the orphan
- plead for the widow
These six steps can be accomplished through three primary actions. When God says, “Wash yourselves,” the meaning is clear. Three things must happen, and if they don’t, we cannot consider ourselves clean, righteous, pure or holy.
- Stop doing bad things. “Cease to do evil,” God says. To stop doing something that is habitual takes discipline and will. Unfortunately, the bad things we do are often bad habits. Perhaps this is why Isaiah rewords this imperative, changing it from “cease” to “remove” – as though evil existed with us as a putrid, cancerous tumor that, for the sake of the patient, had to be removed, as in surgery. Excised. Cut out. Hacked and chopped. “Remove the evil of your doings before my eyes,” God says (v. 16).
- Start doing good things. “Learn to do good,” God continues. To learn requires a teachable spirit, the willingness to receive an education. To do good, the Bible seems to suggest, means that we may need to learn how to do it. But there’s something else. Take Tom Brady, for example — the G.O.A.T. if you’re talking football, as you probably are around NFL preseason time. A football analyst not long ago provided an insight as to how Brady achieved greatness. There are many factors, of course, but two things stand out. First, he was coachable. Teachable. Willing and eager to learn. Second, he was able – especially in the middle and later years of his career – to unlearn things. Mediocre players don’t unlearn the bad habits that accumulate in the early years. Brady did. And it set him apart from his peers. This is what God is saying: learn, then unlearn. Learn to do good, then unlearn the evil. Simple as that.
- Always take the side of the powerless. To be clean, one must actively oppose injustice. Throw out a lifeline to those sinking in the waves of oppression and advocate for orphans and widows. Although orphanages are rare in the U.S., millions of children are living on the streets and almost 500,000 children are in foster care – the functional equivalent of the 19th-century orphanage. As for widows, the need for advocacy in the U.S. might not seem as relevant because women today have more independence and resources than they did in 700 B.C. But there’s still work to do, and when the scope is widened globally, the plight of widows approaches dire biblical proportions. What is it like to be a person who is obviously clean, showered, scrubbed and germ-free? The sentiment of the prophet comes down to this: A righteous person will take meaningful action on behalf of the needy and helpless – whether they are widows, orphans, poor or homeless.
You probably expect kids to wash up before meals – and you’re proud of them if they do it without being told. If your child, or grandchild, washes their hands many times throughout the day, you could think they’re showing off, or possibly developing a compulsive behavior.
But the CDC might disagree. According to their website, children and adults alike should wash their hands:
- before, during and after preparing food
- before and after eating food
- before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
- before and after treating a cut or wound
- after using the toilet
- after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- after blowing one’s nose, coughing, or sneezing
- after touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
- after handling pet food or pet treats
- after touching garbage
The CDC seems to suggest that it’s stupid-easy to attract germs and be a carrier for disease. You’d think that we can’t wash our hands enough. Like Adrian Monk of “Monk,” we should always be asking for a wipe. We can’t be too clean, too pure, too scrubbed. Does God want us to be as ritually clean as a surgeon who uses a brush and antimicrobial soap, and then puts on gloves before stepping into the operating arena? A surgeon sets the gold standard for clean. Is this the level of moral cleanliness God expects from us?
You be the judge. “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” (v. 18). Our failure to stop doing evil and start doing good and our failure to advocate for the helpless and needy are sinful! We hesitate to use this language, but the Bible is unambiguous about the sinful nature of neglecting injustice, the poor and needy.
Frederick Lewis Donaldson (1860-1953) is not remembered too often in studies of the “Social Gospel Movement” of the late 1800s and first quarter of the 1900s. He was an Anglican cleric and at the peak of his career, he was Archdeacon of Westminster in London. Wikipedia reports that he was an early member of the Christian Social Union and sat on the council of the Industrial Christian Fellowship. In 1905, he was a leader of a march of unemployed workers from Leicester to London. In 1913, he led a deputation of Church of England clergy to the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, demanding women’s suffrage. Being passionate about world peace, he was the president of the London Council for the Prevention of War and chairman of the League of Clergy for Peace (1931–40).
In a sermon delivered in Westminster Abbey, London, in March 1925, he identified what he called the “Seven Social Sins.” Mahatma Gandhi would later publish this list in his newspaper Young India, thus ensuring a world-wide readership. Note that Donaldson identifies these social concerns as moral issues. He calls them sins.
- wealth without work
- pleasure without conscience
- knowledge without character
- commerce without morality
- science without humanity
- worship without sacrifice
- politics without principle
Sins like these alienate us from God.
But God says there is a remedy. Although we have blood on our hands, this stain can be removed. God invites us to reason and argue it out. In other words, God invites us to look at this logically. If we do, we cannot fail to see that God has a point.
You want to be clean and whole again? You will not find this in ritual hymn-singing, almsgiving or communion-taking. This stuff bores God to tears – unless we have stopped doing bad things, started to do good things, and are advocating for the powerless. Amen.