13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16 Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
17 learn to do good.
help the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.
Baseball player and evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935) famously made this observation about worship attendance: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
It may surprise you to learn that one of the most frequent targets of the prophets’ words was worship. Over and over again they made the same case Billy Sunday did: worship alone won’t save you. Sacrifices, offerings, pious words, and careful observation of the “rules” cannot be the sum total of faithful living. Otherwise, where is kindness, grace, and forgiveness? All of us probably can think of someone we know who attends church every week but never seems to be any better for it: who instead is constantly bitter, judgmental, and unforgiving.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the way the prophets spoke was that they most always phrased their critiques as coming from God’s own lips. The mark of prophetic speech was to begin with the statement: “Thus says the LORD” (see verses 2, 10, 11, 18 & 20).
Faithfulness requires us to see worship as a means and not an end. The point of worship isn’t simply to “put in our time” or “pay our dues” before God. Instead, it’s meant to be a time to refresh and renew our spirits so we don’t grow weary in doing the things God cares about: seeking justice, helping the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow.
I’m not saying worship doesn’t matter. It does. But to turn worship into the sum total of faithful living invariably twists it into something unrecognizable, even something repulsive to God. To worship without working for good is to miss the point entirely. It simultaneously overstates and understates its importance. We can’t live without worship – we need God’s presence. But what Isaiah says to us is that we can’t separate God’s presence from the work we do on behalf of God’s people! Worship is a means and not an end.
by Joe Monahan
For Pondering & Prayer
Take a moment now and re-read the scripture above as though God is speaking. Do you feel the impact differently?
Prayer: God, thank you for meeting me here. Remind me that the time I spend with you in prayer and praise is meant to strengthen my soul for doing the work of justice in the world. Having met you here, help me to choose the right today, even when it’s hard. Amen.