Old Testament: Isaiah 1:10-18 (Pentecost 21: Series C)

Reading Time: 6 mins

No efforts to create worship as a delectable dish to attract people to our services will ever work, because it is only what God gives to us in His Word and Sacrament that can satisfy the hungry and thirsty soul.

What a precarious text to preach at a public worship service! In Isaiah 1:10-18, the people worshipping in Jerusalem are corrupt. Their “iniquitous” (verse 13) worship is something God “hates” (verse 14) and He “hides His eyes from it” (verse 15). As Isaiah says later: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Isaiah 29:13). It is for this very reason, though, we should not shy away from preaching this text but take it seriously and recognize the “press of the text” on our public worship services. We are called to heed the prophetic Word and see how it points to salvation in Christ. This is an excellent text to develop for your hearers on the importance of the theology of worship. One possible homiletical direction is to give a catechetical sermon on the third commandment. Though catechetical in its teaching, it would be important for the sermon to not lose the text on which it is based. Remember, it is the text which drives the sermon, centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for the benefit of the hearer’s faith and/or life. The catechetical teaching is just one thread whose development will deepen the devotion of the hearers understanding of the text and lived implications in their lives.

In these verses, Israel thinks the Law which God gave through Moses was only practically about rules and performing the elements of worship correctly. They were to “do worship” with the same care and attention to detail someone would give to baking a cake. To their shame, they have too quickly forgotten it is also and chiefly about faith in the God who saves. He is the God who shapes His community through faith and worship to produce justice and righteousness in a world filled with sin. In verse 18, God begins with what Dr. Reed Lessing names “the covenant lawsuit invitation.” It says: “Come, let us reason together.” The scarlet or crimson mentioned in the verse was the color of a deep-red permanent dye, and its rich coloring was impossible to remove.[1]

The coloring in red is an allusion to blood which will shape our Gospel proclamation in the sermon. The red blood mentioned twice in this reading serves as the image we will use to turn from Law to Gospel. At the end of verse 15 it says, “Your hands are full of blood.” This double entendre refers to the physical blood on their hands from their literal sacrificial offerings but also alludes to the guilt they have for their sins. Their bloody hands contrast with what happens later in verse 18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Their hands in guilt are full of blood from the many vain sacrifices of bulls, goats, and lambs (verse 11) which could never take away sin. Their misunderstanding is how God would be appeased by their act of sacrifice, instead of believing “faith in God alone to save” is all that was needed. It was never about the sacrifices (as if God needed a snack to make Himself less hangry about our sins). They treated the Lord like any other pagan deity who needed to be sated in order to be open to the suggestion of their prayers.

The red blood mentioned twice in this reading serves as the image we will use to turn from Law to Gospel.

The sacrificial system was never about mutton though. It was about the cost of sin and the need for a covering and atonement. They wrongly supposed they paid the cost for their sins by showing up and doing the right prescribed behaviors. They inferred that by this they would have paid sins penalty and can now enjoy God’s favor. All the while their neighbors suffered injustice and unrighteousness by their bloody hands and/or neglect. Their lack of love for God bore fruit in a lack of love for their neighbor. But God rejects any such forms of worship as self-serving, vain, and deserving of judgment. In contrast, God from the beginning (see the article on Genesis 4:1-15) provided the sacrifice for humanity to show His mercy for our sin. By this act, He covered over Adam and Eve’s shame and guilt as a promise that the cost for sin would be paid for by God. Every sacrifice after Genesis 3:21 was a memorial to the sacrifice God made for Adam and Eve to pay for sins penalty and provide atonement. Every sacrifice since Genesis 3:21 also pointed forward to the once-for-all sacrifice God made concerning sins on account of Christ alone (1 Peter 3:18). In Christ’s final sacrifice for us, He paid the price for all sins and fully atoned for humanity before God. God made the first sacrifice and the final sacrifice. So, the notion that we can even possibly make a sacrifice to “pay for our sins” and to “cover ourselves” is completely foreign to the Bible’s narrative and the basis for the problem in our reading.

Though many misunderstood the point of the sacrificial system in Israel’s day, and many well-meaning people misunderstand the place of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament today, it must be emphasized how it has never been the case that sins were atoned for by an act of butchering an animal and offering up its blood to pay the price for your own sins. It has always been about faith in the God who saves and trust that He will accept the cost for atonement graciously without holding our sins against us until the day when He would accept the ultimate sacrifice for sins from the hands of Jesus Himself on the cross. This is the Gospel turn from Isaiah 1:18. The crimson blood from our hands has been washed away and cleansed by the blood-filled hands, feet, and side of Christ for you. God’s hands make pure the soul and cleanse us from all sin and unrighteousness through the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Though our sins are as scarlet, they have become washed clean from every stain of sin by the blood of Christ shed for you. Saint Paul testifies that, “We have redemption (price for sin) through His blood” (Colossians 1:14). Also, the Apostle John testifies, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). In the end of all things, we are pictured as having our robes “washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). Jesus alone is the one who suffered on the cross, with nailed hands full of blood, in order to “sanctify us with His own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). Compared to what we can give for our own sins, our attempts at self-redemption are miserably laughable and miss the mark. God has masterfully and completely done what we can never do.

Beginning in 2018, Netflix created a majorly successful baking show series called “Nailed It,” which is now on its ninth season. Nailed It is about three home bakers who have a poor track record in the kitchen and now have a shot at redemption by competing against each other to create edible masterpieces. Of course, they have to base their “masterpieces” off of the work of renowned pastry chef Jacques Torres. Jacques Torres is a master in his craft and makes true works of art such as an edible Mount Rushmore or Romanesque sculptures or even edible cartoon characters. It is truly amazing to see what he does. These contestants have to try and copy what Torres has done and it is in their efforts that the show has its success. Because their attempts are so laughably, horribly, and seriously failures, the show is like watching a culinary disaster step by step. You just cannot take your eyes off it. If you have not yet seen an episode it is worth the research for this sermon. You can catch a trailer for it here.

The point in using this in the sermon is not to serve the Law (though it is readily apparent), but actually to serve the Gospel. Here, no half-baked attempts of ours to concoct a sacrifice worthy enough to be accepted by God will ever suffice. No efforts to create worship as a delectable dish to attract people to our services will ever work, because it is only what God gives to us in His Word and Sacrament that can satisfy the hungry and thirsty soul (Matthew 5:6; John 6:35).

It is utterly amazing to see what God has done for us in Christ to redeem us from sin. Only God can make the salvation we need, and He did it when He nailed His son Jesus Christ to the cross on our behalf. This was no game we are meant to take enjoyment from. This was God’s serious and sin fulfilling work on our behalf. Our scarlet sins are made white when Jesus took our sins and nailed it to the cross. That is how He won for us an eternal salvation. He nailed it to the cross and rose again, not to critique us in shame for our efforts, but instead to provide for us a glorious feast of salvation with the richest of fare (communion opportunities homiletically abound here). Isaiah says it best in 25:6-8: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”

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Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 1:10-18.

Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 1:10-18.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 1:10-18.

Lectionary Podcast- Rev. Ryan Tietz of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Isaiah 1:10-18.