Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here. For the nerds in the know, this is Proper 26, Year C, Track two, and here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 30, 2022.
For the full audio-only sermon, click here! Or just read the full text, below.
Good morning! This morning’s reading from the Old Testament is one of those beautiful turning points in our spiritual history and you know, if you blink, you could miss it. So let me set the scene for you.
Twenty-five hundred years ago – two thousand, five hundred years ago, the people of Israel, our spiritual ancestors, hit a massive turning point. But going two and a half millennia back doesn’t gives us enough context, so let’s go further back!
Thirty-two hundred years ago (now we’re talking in the mid-1200’s BCE, which was the reign of Ramses II of Egypt, who yes, was raised as the brother of Moses), the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt. And then they wander for a solid generation in the Sinai Peninsula until Moses dies. Then his successor Joshua leads them for a bit, and they make some forays into the land they were promised. Then Joshua dies. And then we’ve got roughly two hundred years (or so) when the Israelites lived a more or less lawless and chaotic existence, and this is roughly depicted in the book of Judges, which our bible study is digging into right now. Then in the years 1020 BCE, so that would be more or less three thousand and three years ago, Israel established a monarchy which worked kind of okay for the second and third generation of it and then it was more or less a disaster. The country split in half, and all the kings that followed were, honestly, bad kings and slightly-less bad kings, right up until the monarchy fell three to five hundred years later. The northern kingdom fell to Assyria first around 722 BCE, and the southern kingdom (which contained Jerusalem and the Temple in Jerusalem) fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. And when the Babylonians carried everyone who was anyone off into exile, they also destroyed the Temple before they left.
So what we have here, starting a little over three thousand years ago, is Israel experimenting with different kinds of government and realizing that each one has its limitations. But the thing about Israel’s government, is that it’s all tied up with God, and religion.
It was God who sent Moses to go rescue Israel from slavery, and it was God who gave Moses the ten commandents on Mount Sinai, plus all the other hundreds of rules later. So God had chosen Moses to rule, and then God have given Moses laws to rule by. Moses, and his chosen successor Joshua, were the first single rulers of Israel. But after Joshua, the tribes spread out, settled in, got comfortable, stopped following God’s laws, started worshiping other Gods, and then the entire society descended into dystopian chaos. (For references, see book of Judges.)
So then we have a bunch of local tribal heroes that try to help, and do, for the length of their lives, but as soon as that charismatic leader dies, all is chaos again. And so finally the people apply to the last of those heroes, Samuel, to appoint a king for everybody, all Israel. This happens three thousand years ago, to mixed results. Five hundred years later, everything is destroyed again and all is chaos; the northern kingdom is fallen, the souther kingdom is fallen, the temple is in ruins, and there is no Jew on earth who can properly worship God or be a good person because by this point in time, all their worship and all their sense of ‘how to be a good person’ in the rather brutal and merciless time they’re living in, all of that revolves around making sacrifices at the temple and following rules of ritual purity.
And suddenly, all these faithful Jews can’t do 90% of what they want and need to do to be faithful Jews. And the last ten percent is also iffy and not looking good.
And this is the time that this beautiful passage from the very first chapter of the book of Isaiah is being written.
Now, Isaiah is a prophet of God, and right now, Isaiah is speaking in the voice of God. And the amazing turning point here, is that God is throwing out 90% of the old way of being a Jew in one fell swoop! Not all the festivals are being trashed – passover is still fine, among others. Not all the ways of being ritually pure are being trashed – keeping kosher is still fine, among other things. But the huge, the overwhelming focus the religion had on offering grain, oil, wine, incense, and animal sacrifice at the Temple, which no longer exists (and you can’t just build another smaller one somewhere else – the actual center of the Temple, the holy of holies held the Ark of the Covenant which held the tablets of stone which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai with God’s commandments etched on them (which you may be somewhat familiar with if you’ve seen the Indiana Jones movie) and that was God’s footstool on Earth and you simply can’t recreate that somewhere else) and so just when the Jews could actually hear that something needed to change, God changed things.
God changed things.
God said, ‘I’m not impressed with your sacrifices, actually they make me sick. Try being good people, instead.’ And then we have a list. Stop doing evil things! Learn how to do good things! Seek justice! Rescue the oppressed! Defend the orphan! Plead for the widow! And then, then! Then you may approach me and argue for yourself, and though you have done other things, I will forgive you because you have learned how to do good.
This, friends, is a massive ethical turning point in our religion. It inspired countless of generations, including Jesus. And it was as if God had said, ‘the Temple is destroyed? Good! It was becoming a hindrance anyway! Time for something new, so listen up!’
And that’s the thing. God was waiting, then, for them to be ready to take the next step in being good people, the next step in being in relationship with God, and they became ready in the midst of tragedy, because let’s face it: when we’re comfortable, we rarely want to change. (Things are going well! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!) But when things are going wrong, even if change might have been helpful earlier, when things are going wrong, we can finally see that something needs to be different, that change needs to happen.
And this beautiful passage from the first chapter of Isaiah is a historical records of a moment when humanity was ready for something more.