Isaiah 1:10-20. Leadership fail

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts? 
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. 
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The people are guilty but who is responsible? The word is addressed to ‘the rulers of Sodom’ as well as ‘the people of Gomorah’. Sodom and Gomorah were the cites in Abraham’s day that had become a by-word for sin and debauchery of every kind. Their transgressions had so outraged God that he acted in judgment immediately, raining down fire and brimstone and wiping out all the people. But now God is calling his own people ‘Sodom’ and ‘Gomorah’. Something has gone badly wrong.

So who are these leaders that have so failed their people? Possibly the four kings listed in Isaiah 1:1, but verses 11-15 also insist that the religious leaders share  the responsibility for Judah’s and Israel’s failure. Their religious activities– rather than impressing God– are detestable to him. They are disgusting in his eyes; a joke. When the priests and religious leaders spread out their hands to pray, God blocks his ears and turns away. Why? Because those very hands are covered in blood.

There is no point trying to impress God, or ‘buy him off’, or placate him, with sacrifices, acts of worship, religious zeal or pious talk; there is no point when sin stains our souls, when justice is ignored, when wrong-doing oppresses the fatherless and the widow (v16-17).

This condemnation throws the Christian onto the horns of a dilemma. Does God mean that he won’t forgive me until I improve my life? Do I have to become ‘good enough’ for God to take away my sins? No more church until I stop lying, lusting and law-breaking… After all, verse 16 calls me to ‘wash and make myself clean’. Certainly, I must own personal culpability for my sin. I own up to it before God. Further, the call to repent requires a personal act of the will. I do choose to participate in God’s process of forgiveness and restoration. I respond to his invitation to, “Come now, let us settle the matter” (v18).

God promises that though our sins are like scarlet– brazen, public, red, gauche and shameful– he will make them like snow. Not just ‘white’ but blazingly white. Pure snow in bright sunshine is so dazzling that we wear protective sunglasses or goggles so that the reflection doesn’t harm our eyes. In the same way, God’s desire is that his righteousness and glory would shine through his purified people. He wants to remove our sin so that his true nature is revealed by his image bearers to a marvelling creation. God wants to forgive us because he loves us, but also because in this way his greater glory is revealed.

Continuing our meditation on verse 18, we notice that the tense is future. God promises that we will be white as snow. Though crimson, we will be like washed pure wool. The prophecy looks forward to the day when Jesus Christ will shed his blood, will take responsibility for our sin, and will bring forgiveness and reconciliation. We can look back on that event at Calvary. And we also look forward to its final consummation, at his Return, when we truly will reflect God’s majesty to all of creation. Bring it on.

For this reason, the New Testament holds religious leaders to a higher standard than their flocks. It matters not whether we are Small Group Leaders, Sunday School teachers or Archbishops. The Christian leader must embody the character of Jesus Christ with authenticity and transparency. Who is worthy of such a calling? No one. Except that God himself qualifies us by his gracious work of forgiveness, transformation and commissioning (2 Cor 5:18-21; 1 Thess 2:3-6).

Dear Lord and Father, please forgive all my sins. Turn scarlet to snow, the blood of your Son into purity for sinners such as me. By your grace at work in me, grant than your righteousness and goodness would shine through me for the benefit of others and glory of your name. Amen.