February 18, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
This Lent we will turn our attention towards the evangelist of the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah. The first four midweek Vespers services will focus on each of the four Servant Songs of Isaiah. The last midweek service is the observation of the Feast of the Annunciation and Isaiah’s prophecy that the Virgin will conceive and bear a Son. Today for Ash Wednesday, our text will not be one of the appointed Ash Wednesday texts, but a parallel passage of sorts from the first chapter of Isaiah. It’s God’s call to repentance for His people, and a prologue the promises contained the prophet’s great work.
The Prophet Isaiah writes, Hear what the LORD says, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the Word of our God, you people of Gomorrah: “Of what use to Me are your many sacrifices?” asks the LORD. “I’ve had enough burnt offerings of rams and enough fat from fattened calves. And I don’t delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, and male goats. When you come to appear before Me, who asks for this trampling of My courts? Don’t bring any more worthless food offerings. I detest the incense, your festivals on the first of the month, your Sabbaths and calling of assemblies. I can’t stand ungodliness with religious festivals. I hate your festivals on the first of the month and at other appointed times. They’ve become a burden to Me, and I’m tired of putting up with them. So when you spread out your hands, I will cover My eyes so I won’t see you. Even when you pray a lot, I will not listen — your hands are full of blood. Wash, get clean! Put out of My sight the evil you’re doing. Stop doing evil, learn to do good, try to be fair in judging, straighten out the oppressor, bring justice to orphans, and defend widows.
Oh, come, let us reason with one another!” says the LORD. “Though your sins have become like scarlet cloth, they will turn white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land. But if you refuse and rebel, you will eat famine food.” The LORD has said it (Is 1:10-20).
British comedian and actor Stephen Fry, who is also an avowed and militant atheist, recently gave an interview where he opined about Christianity. Several times he used the word “capricious” in describing God, meaning someone who is prone to quick shifts of mood, or sudden changes of mind for no apparent reason. The New Atheists are particularly militant in their own form of evangelism; not only are they content to believe in no god, but they want to make sure that you know it and will go to great lengths to show how ridiculous and unreasonable your faith is.
Which is why New Atheists like Stephen Fry love passages like Isaiah 1. God certainly appears to be the very definition of capricious. He detests the incense, the festivals, the Sabbaths, the worthless offerings, the sacrifices and burnt offerings. The only problem is that He is the One who instituted incense, festivals, Sabbaths, food offerings, sacrifices, and burnt offerings. There’s a whole book dedicated to that and more in the Pentateuch. Leviticus is paragraph after paragraph of regulations for the religious life of Israel, and now God calls them Sodom and Gomorrah because they do the very things that He commanded them to do.
The New Atheists love these passages because they confirm their preconceived notion that the Bible is full of contradictions. And they prove a thorn in the side for Christians, who desperately try to reconcile these apparent contradictions so they don’t look stupid in front of those who present themselves as academic superiors.
And so a typical Christian response—especially from protestant believers—might be that God didn’t really want a ceremonial religion in the first place, but rather wants a spiritual religion, a devotion of the heart apart from external ceremonies. But in trying to reconcile the contradiction, Christians end up creating a god who doesn’t exist, a god of internal inconsistencies, a god who is exactly who the New Atheists what him to be—a false, imaginary god. And if this god isn’t consistent within himself, why should I be beholden to his laws and demands and whims, which might change tomorrow?
Here’s something to try if anyone ever tries to drop the claim, “the Bible’s full of contradictions,” on you. Say, “Oh yeah? Name 10.” Chances are good you’ll end up getting a goofy look because your skeptical opponent is not likely to have read the Bible in any great detail. And if he is able to get to ten contradictions, then you’ve got some good theology to talk about; the best theology is in the contradictions.
The contradictions of the Scripture are not a result of God’s internal consistency, and they don’t need to be reconciled. The key to realize what God says to Samuel when He chooses the youngest and smallest son of Jesse to be the champion and king of Israel. God does not see as man sees, because a man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7b). If you judge by the outward appearance, the ceremonies commanded by God in Leviticus are exactly the same as the ones that He despises in Isaiah. But this is not because there’s a contradiction with God, not because He’s capricious. The contradiction is with man.
The difference in acceptable sacrifices and detestable sacrifices is evident in the first sacrifices offered by the sons of Adam. As the book of Hebrews says, By faith Abel brought to God a better sacrifice than Cain and was declared to be righteous, when God approved his offerings. He died, but by his faith he is still speaking to us (Heb 11:2). Outwardly, the sacrifices of Cain and Abel were no different from each other; the difference was inward, hidden under the outward work. Cain trusted in his sacrifice to justify him, and his sacrifice was rejected. Abel trusted in the One two whom his sacrifice pointed.
That’s the difference between an acceptable sacrifice and a detestable sacrifice. No sacrifice of bulls or beasts or food or Sabbaths or praise or thanksgiving has the power to reconcile God with man. None of those sacrifices have the power to wash you clean of your sin and rebellion. No one can approach God by virtue of an outward work, no matter how virtuous or pious, not even should God Himself institute it.
It’s not the ceremony or the sacrifice that God covets, as if He’s an eccentric collector of odd religious works. He doesn’t hoard sacrifices. The sacrifices and ceremonies that He institutes—be they Old or New Testament—are like a canteen of water in the desert. It’s not the canteen that gives life, but the precious water that it holds. And so it’s not the outward work that pleases God, it’s what the ceremony, what the sacrifice points to and communicates. Without the inward stuff, without faith in the one Sacrifice, the outward shell becomes detestable before God.
Isaiah’s prologue prepares the faithful for the waterfall of Gospel that is to come. Amid the sound and fury of God’s wrath and judgments and condemnations for empty sacrifices and false piety, there is a promise—a promise of a pleasing Sacrifice. This Sacrifice will be unlike all the others. In the later chapters of Isaiah, He is called a Suffering Servant. In this title, we see that this Sacrifice will combine both outward obedience and inward faith, both active and passive righteousness. Outwardly He takes the form of a servant (though He is Lord of all); inwardly, He suffers the chastisement for sin (though He Himself had no sin). His sacrifice is the Sacrifice—once and for all. Again, Hebrews says: Christ didn’t go into a holy place made by human hands and just a copy of the real thing but into heaven itself, now to appear before God for us. And not to sacrifice Himself over and over again like that high priest going every year into the holy place with blood that is not his own. Otherwise He would have had to suffer many times since the world was made. But as it is, He appeared only once at the end of the ages to get rid of sin by His sacrifice (Heb 9:24-26).
The New Atheists find this unreasonable. But the reason of man is not the reason of God. Oh, come, let us reason with one another!” says the LORD. “Though your sins have become like scarlet cloth, they will turn white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will become like wool.
Jesus is the Resolution of the contradictions. He is the pleasing Sacrifice to whom all pleasing sacrifices point. He is the One communicated by the ceremonies instituted by God. His blood for your sin.
The Pleasing Sacrifice before God Is the Crimson Sacrifice of Christ that Makes Sins White as Snow
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard