People love to wash things. We wash our clothes, our hands, the dishes, and our cars. We’ll even power-wash the deck. But when are we truly clean?
Have you noticed that laundry detergent technology continues to change? A hundred years ago, the housewife had a tub, washboard and bar of soap (which she might have made herself). The mechanization of laundry advanced quickly. Kids in the 1940s and 1950s might remember helping their moms with the laundry by feeding the wet, clean clothes through the wringer — a device with two revolving rollers that squeezed every last drop of moisture from the clothes as it passed through the rollers. You didn’t use a bar of soap, but instead threw a cup of white soap powder into the churning water. Sometimes it had green flecks in it that did wonders with dirt. To get whites whiter, you added bleach.
Today, the panels on many automatic washing machines look more complicated than a hi-tech microwave oven, connect to your Wi-Fi and can be controlled from your smartphone. Most suggest using the latest in washing technology: pods of liquid detergent encased in a membrane that dissolves when it comes in contact with water.
When you were a kid, it’s quite possible that you had an aversion to bathwater. It wasn’t that you thought you would dissolve like a laundry pod. Washing just didn’t seem important. You didn’t see the need.
The Lord God, speaking through Isaiah, has strong opinions about washing. This text almost sounds like a parent admonishing their child to wash their hands before dinner or take a bath, whether the child sees the need or not.
In fact, God makes it abundantly clear in today’s text that Israel is in dire need of a scrubbing. God’s concerns take up the first six verses of the passage, which introduce the three themes of the book: sin, the need for redemption and the hope of a coming new kingdom.
Here, in verses 10-15, it’s a grim picture. Israel is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, and as biblical metaphors go, this is strong language. God is tired of the emptiness of rituals, sacrifices and burnt-offerings — all of which involved the slaughter of lambs, goats or bulls. Being a good Hebrew was a bloody affair, as it had been since blood was applied to the doorpost of Israelite homes in the land of Egypt some 500 years earlier. God through Moses had even laid out in graphic detail how these bloody sacrifices were to happen.
But there was a catch. When these sacrifices were made, the supplicant was supposed to fill the action with faith, believing that through his obedience, the wrath of God against sin would be mitigated. This was the spirit in which “burnt-offerings” were offered for many years.
Then, the thrill was gone. The spirituality of the ritual was jettisoned from the ritual itself. Worship became routine and mundane. People forgot why they were doing what they were doing. And the purity of their worship was gone. Now, God has had enough. “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (vv. 12-13). God is tired of dirty hands and faces. “I cannot endure … my soul hates … I am weary … I hide my eyes from you … a burden to me … I am weary … I will not listen” (vv. 14-15).
Does God feel this way about us today, more than 2,700 years after the prophet Isaiah spoke in the courts of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah?
Perhaps. The question is: To what extent has our religious observance become mere ritual, and without spiritual content?
Answer that question and you might have an idea of whether God is pleased with the religious life of Christians in America these days. Is God happy with the way politics has extended its talons into the flesh of the religiously observant, making them captives of political ideologies that do little to lift up the poor and downtrodden? Maybe God finds this to be “a burden.” Perhaps God can no longer “endure” the new Trinity of God, Guns, and country and is completely “weary” of it all. Is God happy with the Christian Nationalism spirit of our day? Does it not grieve the heart of God to see that brothers and sisters can no longer dwell in unity (see Psalm 133:1), or live without “selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better” than themselves? (Philippians 2:3).
What, then, does God suggest?
Here is God’s word to us today: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” (v. 16).
If we didn’t know the importance of washing our hands prior to early 2020, we certainly do now. In the food service industry, state and federal laws require signs in bathrooms reminding employees that they must wash their hands before returning to work, or risk dismissal. Since the coronavirus outbreak, there can be no doubt about the importance of the biblical advice of Isaiah 1:16. Yes, we must “wash ourselves,” and do so on a regular basis.
This is so important that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now promotes a Global Handwashing Day (October 15) to emphasize the importance of this little ritual, the need for which should be little more than common sense. The CDC recommends a five-step system — wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry — to ensure that one’s hands are so fresh and pink, that even your mom would approve. (The scrubbing part should be at least 20 seconds — recite the Lord’s Prayer twice, or the Nicene Creed once.)
God, speaking through the young prophet Isaiah, recommends not a five-step process, but a six-step one. The directions are found in vv. 16-17:
These six steps can be accomplished through three primary actions. When God says, “Wash yourselves,” the meaning is clear. Three things must happen, and if they don’t, we cannot consider ourselves clean, righteous, pure or holy.
A football analyst not long ago provided an insight as to how Brady achieved greatness. There are many factors, of course, but two things stand out. First, he was coachable. Teachable. Willing and eager to learn. Second, he was able — especially in the middle and later years of his career — to unlearn things. Mediocre players don’t unlearn the bad habits that accumulate in the early years. Brady did. And it set him apart from his peers. This is what God is saying: learn, then unlearn. Learn to do good, then unlearn the evil. Simple as that.
Is this the level of moral cleanliness God expects from us?
You be the judge. “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” (v. 18).
Our failure to stop doing evil and start doing good and our failure to advocate for the helpless and needy are sinful! We hesitate to use this language, but the Bible is unambiguous about the sinful nature of neglecting injustice, the poor and needy.
In a sermon delivered in Westminster Abbey, London, in March 1925, Frederick Donaldson identified what he called the “Seven Social Sins.” Mahatma Gandhi would later publish this list in his newspaper Young India, thus ensuring a world-wide readership. Note that Donaldson identifies these social concerns as moral issues. He calls them sins. We had them on the bulletin board in the narthex.
Sins like these alienate us from God.
But God says there is a remedy. Although we have blood on our hands, this stain can be removed. God invites us to reason and argue it out. In other words, God invites us to look at this logically. If we do, we cannot fail to see that God has a point.
You want to be clean and whole again? Stop doing bad things, start to do good things, and advocate for the powerless.