Just Can’t Win..
Many of you probably don’t know this, but in high school I was a starting player on my school’s Varsity soccer team. Not only that, but I was the sweeper – the lead defensive player on the field. The last line of defense before the goalie.
I don’t mention this a whole lot – not because I don’t want to brag – but because there really wasn’t a whole lot to brag about. Our team was not the best. In fact, I’m pretty sure we had the worst record of all of the schools in our league. Over the span of 3 years, we only won 2 games. Which means there was a whole season in which we didn’t win a single game at all.
Part of this was because we were such a small school that we had trouble fielding a whole team. There were some games we played without any substitutes at all – which meant that while we were dragging ourselves up and down the field in the second half, the other team was bringing in their second and third string teams, all fresh and ready to go. But no matter the reason, we just couldn’t seem to win. It was demoralizing being on a team that didn’t win a single game in a whole season.
Eventually we just got used to losing. We walked onto the field expecting to lose. Which probably means that, if what Yogi Berra said about baseball is also true of soccer – that the game is “90 percent mental. The other half is physical,” then we probably lost every game before we even stepped foot on the field.
I have to wonder if this is how the people of the Kingdom of Judah felt during the time of the prophet Isaiah. It just seemed that no matter what, they kept failing. In battle, in matters of morality, and in many other ways, they just couldn’t seem to pull it together.
There had been a time when their nation was great. Back when they had been part of the United Kingdom of Israel, their King Solomon was known around the world for his great wealth and wisdom. But after King Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into a northern kingdom, which retained the name Israel, and a southern kingdom called Judah. Both nations struggled with corrupt leadership. New leaders would come into power promising great reform, but they would end up falling into the same moral failings of their predecessors. The history of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which we find in the books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, reads like a Shakespearian tragedy. One long downward spiral into moral degeneracy, until the nations are finally overtaken or dispersed or taken into captivity.
A Downward Spiral
Here in Isaiah chapter 1, we see that the prophet Isaiah lived and prophesied during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. King Uzziah reigned for 52 years, so most likely Isaiah began his prophetic ministry a few years before Uzziah’s death.
King Uzziah had been a child prodigy. He was only 16 years old when he began to reign. And in 2 Chronicles chapter 26, we see that he had a strong start. He went into battle against the Philistines and won and built new cities in the Philistines’ territory. He even won against the Ammonites – their constant nemeses – forcing Ammonites to pay him tribute. He built fortified towers in the city of Jerusalem, dug wells for farmers, had a huge standing army, and utilized the latest technology to protect his people. The Bible says that “in Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers, on the towers and the corners for shooting arrows and large stones. And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped until he became strong” (2 Chronicles 26:15). The Bible says that “when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he acted unfaithfully toward the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 26:16). When Uzziah acted unfaithfully, a disease broke out in his body, and he spent the last few remaining years of his life in isolation, unable to govern his people.
Uzziah’s son Jotham came along – and seemed to avoid the mistakes of his father, and yet the Bible tells us that the people still followed corrupt practices” (2 Chronicles 27:2). Although Jotham seemed to be a morally upstanding person himself, he seemed incapable of gaining control over his people and making them do the right thing.
Jotham’s son Ahaz came along, and there was nothing morally upstanding about him. He introduced the worship of the false God Baal, and even led his nation into practicing human sacrifice, making his sons “pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the people of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:3). Other nations came and attacked them, and Ahaz became so desperate he turned to the Assyrians – the absolute worst enemy of his nation – for help. The Assyrians demanded so much tribute from him that he had to take some of the ritual objects of worship from the temple and sell them in order to pay off the Assyrian king.
And so it seems, that just like my high school soccer team, the people of the Kingdom of Judah just couldn’t seem to win. They just couldn’t pull it together, they couldn’t do the right thing. They were losing strength. And they seem to have given up all hope that they would ever win. And so when I hear the voice of the prophet Isaiah saying to the people of Judah, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17), I hear the sound of my high soccer coach, Mr. Gray, saying to our team: “C’mon guys. Let’s just try to win for once! It’s not that hard. All you have to do is get the ball in the net. It’s not that difficult.”
Right? Isaiah is saying, Just wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean. Stop doing bad stuff, and do the right thing for once. It’s not that difficult. And Isaiah even says, look: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:19-20).
But I can hear the people of Judah now, saying, “Look, we’re trying our best! We’re doing all the sacrifices you told us to do, we’re practicing all the festivals and religious rituals you commanded. But look at the corrupt leaders we have! Look at the enemy nations that keep attacking us. Look how much stronger they are than we are!”
But God is not buying their excuses. In fact, we see here in Isaiah chapter 1, that God didn’t really care whether they got the sacrifices all completely right. God wasn’t that concerned about their rituals or temple worship – at least not if they were turning around and practicing wickedness and committing injustice at the same time. We hear God saying, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats….bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me…When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:11-15).
And then God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 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” (Isaiah 1:16-18).
What God really wanted from them – more than the ritual sacrifices and offerings – more than becoming great conquering military heroes, more than impressive building campaigns – was for the people of Judah to put their faith in God and be loyal to God alone. And we see here that faithfulness to God involves doing justice. Rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphans, pleading the cause of the widows. Loving God, and our neighbors, particularly those who are most in need.God wanted them to care for the powerless and those who were most marginalized in their society. God just wanted them to do the right thing.
But in the end they just couldn’t pull it together. As a society they couldn’t stop doing evil. There were individuals who were faithful. And we see examples of them throughout the Hebrew Bible. As the book of Hebrews reminds us, people like Abraham and Sarah trusted God – even though they weren’t perfect and made mistakes – were loyal to God, and they are counted among the righteous. Others too, throughout the Bible. Prophets like Isaiah and Amos and Micah. Even many of the kings sought to do the right thing. And God saw their faithfulness, and God was faithful to the promises God made to them.
Victory in Jesus – Our Star Player
But ultimately God had mercy upon humanity. God saw that the people of Israel and Judah, and indeed all of humanity, was in need of a Savior. God sent God’s only begotten son, Jesus, to live among us, to show us the right way to live. Jesus lived a sinless life – a life of justice – one that was indeed marked by care and concern for widows and orphans, and all of those who were oppressed. In so doing, Jesus did what the nations of Israel and Judah could not – he always, no matter what, did the right thing. And although he was innocent, and undeserving of punishment, he was sentenced to death – crucified on a cross – the punishment for rebellion against the empire. In his living, Jesus lived the life that we should have lived, and in dying, he died the death we should have died. In his crucifixion and resurrection 3 days later, Jesus conquered sin and death and hell and the grave, reconciling humanity to God and to one another.
And so Jesus does for us what we could not possibly do for ourselves – he washes us and makes us clean. The blood which Jesus shed on the cross cleanses us. Jesus takes our sin-stained lives and makes us clean, like freshly-fallen snow, to use the image from Isaiah 1.
And now, through the Holy Spirit, all of us who have pledged our loyalty to Jesus, who have placed our faith and trust in him, are empowered to live a life of justice and righteousness. We will still make mistakes, we will not reach perfection on this side of heaven. But because the blood that Jesus shed for us on the cross covers our mistakes, we can move forward in confidence and boldness, clinging to the promises God has given us, looking forward to the heavenly city that awaits us, even while we seek to live lives marked by justice and righteousness here on this earth.
To go back to the image of my high school varsity soccer team, it’s as if a new star player came to our game when we were in the second half of the game, when we were down and out, and dragging ourselves up and down the field. We had given up all hope, we knew we had lost. The star player said, “Why don’t you all take a break and rest for a while?” And then proceeded to single-handedly score repeatedly against the other team, bringing the score back up to even, and then proceeding to gain so many points against the other team that there was no way the other team could even win.
And then it’s as though the star player turns to all of us, and says, “when you’re ready, come back out on the field and join me!” And we get to go back out on the field, and just play the game as it was meant to be played. Working together as a team to move the ball down the field, scoring points left and right, because the star player is setting up the perfect shots for us. All we have to do is just kick the ball into the net. We no longer have anything to worry about, because even if we’re not the best, and even if and when we make mistakes, the star player will have our back. Because we know that because of the star player, the game has already been won.
This is the power of Jesus at work in our lives – this is what it is like to live a Holy-Spirit-filled life pursuing justice, and righteousness, and mercy. Let us give thanks for God’s mercy upon us. Let us give thanks for the cleansing, renewing power of Jesus at work in and through us. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we learn to do good, to seek justice, and to live lives marked by faith and faithfulness to God. Amen.