Worship and the Prophets
May 10, 2011 Length: 48:56
The Prophets in the Old Testament had a lot to say about sacrifices that are unacceptable to God. Fr. Thomas explores how they relate to our worship of God today.
We want to reflect today, as we prepare ourselves to comment on the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, we want to prepare today by very simple and superficial, but nevertheless very important reflection on worship in the Prophets, the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. What we find in the Prophets—in all of them, literally all of them… Of course, we have the major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel… We Christians add, of course, Daniel to the prophetic books. It’s interesting that in the Jewish tradition, Daniel and his story in Babylon with the boys in the fiery furnace actually belongs to the collection of the Writings, the section of the Writings. They don’t put Daniel among the Prophets, but we Christians do, and we’ll speak about Daniel another time.
You have the great prophets, the most famous of the prophets that we know of: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, which of course are collections of different prophetic writings, most likely, it seems to be the case. Then you have the other prophets. You have Hosea and Amos and Malachi and Micah and Jonah and Joel, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Nahum, Obadiah, Habakkuk. In all of these prophets primarily what we find is the same thing with different intensity, but if we would take them all together and just try to make a little bit of a reflection on the prophetic writings generally relative to worship, I believe that we could probably make the following points in all of them, and I will read some representative passages, some important passages that make these points.
First of all, of course, you have the fight with the idols: the Baalim, the Ashteroth, the Canaanite gods, and then later on it will even be the Babylonian gods, Nebuchadnezzar’s idol and so on. But the big issue is idolatry, and here I think we have to repeat again and again and again that in the Bible, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the real debate, the real issue there is not atheism; it’s idolatry. It’s not no god; it’s the false gods. Or it’s all the false gods that are in fact no gods.
But at that time, and some writers would say even up to this present day, there’s really no such thing as atheists. Everyone has a god. Maybe their own self is their god, but whatever valorizes their life, whatever turns on a person, whatever gives meaning to the life of a person, whatever a person worships, adores, and lives for, that is the idol. Here the main thing of the Old Testament is that there’s one true and living God, that there’s the only God that there is, and that God is Yahweh, that God is the El-Shaddai, the High God, of Abraham, Isaac, Israel-Jacob, the God of Joseph who saved him in Egypt, the God of Moses, and then the God of the faithful kings like Asa, Jehosaphat, especially Hezekiah, Josiah, that they are totally dedicated to the one true and living God, and all the other gods are no gods at all.
You have this theme repeated again and again and again in the writings of the prophets. In Isaiah, especially the second part of Isaiah, you have: “I am he. I am the only one that exists. I am the Creator of heaven and earth. All the other gods are no gods. There’s no other god beside me. I am the one who has created all things.” And then in the prophets you always have: “I am the one who casts down and raises up. I am the one who governs all things.” This God is the only God, and this God alone is the one to be worshiped.
In this, of course, the prophets are upholding the Mosaic Torah law which says, the very first commandment of which is “I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods beside me. And you shall not make for yourself graven images.” You shall not make up your own gods. Here again you find this in the prophets again and again. Isaiah, for example, says: The people, they take a piece of wood and they cut it in half, and with half of the wood they cook their lunch, they barbecue their whatever, their lamb or whatever, and then with the other half they make themselves a god and then they worship that God.
The thing about an idol is it’s created by a creature. Here the great clash between: The one true God to be worshiped and alone to be worshiped, the one to whom alone is due all honor, glory, and worship; that God is the God who made us, in his image and likeness, to glorify him, to praise him, to share his life, to keep his commandments, and to live in the total bliss and happiness of sharing the very life of God himself. That God made us. But the idol is the god that we make, and that’s the basic clash. Is God the God that made us, or is the god or the many gods that [are] the gods that we make up ourselves? The gods which, as it’ll say in the prophetic lines of the psalms, “who has eyes but doesn’t see, who has a mouth but doesn’t talk, who has ears but doesn’t hear, and is completely and totally helpless, and he’s just like the person who made it”? Or they will say: Let the person who made it be just like it.
You have this clash, even in the New Testament. I always am struck by the end, the very last sentence of the first letter of John in the New Testament [which] is: “Little children, keep yourself from the idols.” Then, of course, the Apostle Paul speaks about idolatry quite a bit. He’ll speak about people whose god is their belly, or he’ll say: “Flee avarice which is idolatria, which is idolatry.” So there are many things that people can worship, and as one writer, Chesterton, wrote once—he wrote a book called Orthodoxy, actually was about the Roman Catholic faith, Christian faith—but he said, “When people no longer worship the true God, the real God, they don’t worship nothing; they worship anything.” But all those anythings are really nothing because they have no existence in themselves and they are incapable, they are impotent, to act. They cannot hear. That’s why, in the prophets like Isaiah again, God is often referred to as “the one who hears prayer”: “Thou art the one who answers prayer.”
The basic issue is still idolatry, and probably the most famous clash in Scripture or among the most famous, of course, is the quintessential prophet, who is Elijah. Elijah, of course, has no writing attributed to him as such. There’s no collection of writings attributed to Elijah. He’s in the Book of Kings and he’s in the Chronicles, but there’s that famous contest that Elijah has with the prophets and the priests of the Baal and the Ashteroth at Jezebel’s table, that takes place on Mount Carmel, the famous Mt. Carmel contest.
Elijah comes to the people and he says, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, if Yahweh is God, follow him. But if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only am left, a prophet of the Lord. Baal’s prophets are 450 men.” Then he says, “Let’s have a contest. Let two bulls be chosen, one bull for them and one for us. Let’s cut it in pieces, cut it on the wood, but put no fire on it, and I will prepare the other bull, and I will lay it on the wood and I will put no fire on it. And you, priests of Baal, call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” Then all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal: “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call on the name of your god, and put no fire on it.” So it says they took the bull which was given them, they prepared it, they called on the name of the Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us,” but there was no voice; no one answered. And they limped about the altar which they had made, and at noon Elijah mocks them, it says. It’s terrible how he taunts them.
He says, “Cry aloud, for maybe your god… He is a god, maybe he is musing. Maybe he’s taking a rest. Maybe he has gone aside”—which actually means: “Maybe he’s going to the bathroom, he’s relieving himself somewhere”—“Maybe he’s on a journey. Maybe he’s sleeping. Maybe you have to wake him up.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after the custom, with swords and lances, blood gashed out upon them, and midday passed. They raved until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, and no one answered, no one heeded.
Then Elijah says, “Come near to me,” to the people. The people came near to him. He prepared the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob. (You have these twelve stones everywhere: in the Jordan River, at the sacrifices, at the places of offering. You have those twelve stones.) Then it says: To whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be mine,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. He put the wood in order, he cut the bull in pieces, he laid it on the wood.
Then he says, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” They did it a second time. He said, “Do it a third time.” They did it a third time, so much that water ran round about the altar and filled the trench also with water. Then, it says, at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant and that I have done all things at thy word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back.” Then it says the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked it up and the water that was in the trench.
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and they said, “The Lord Yahweh, he is God! The Lord Yahweh, Adonai Yahweh, he is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of the Baalim. Let not one of them escape.” They seized them and brought them down and they killed them.
So you have this top of Carmel contest. I can’t resist saying here on the radio a little joke I heard once where at a church school class, when Elijah was pouring all the water on his offering, he kept pouring water, one time, two times, three times. The teacher asked the children, “What was he doing that for?” And one of the kids said, “I think he was making gravy.” Haha! He was making gravy for the burnt-offering that he was making by pouring the water on it. But of course, he was adding insult to injury. Here you have this kind of contest, and this is the point that is made again and again: Only Yahweh is the Lord. Only he is God. The other ones are no gods at all.
Ezekiel the prophet, for example, if you read Ezekiel, you’ll see that this kind of contest, this kind of preaching, this kind of insistence that only Yahweh is the Lord God, he alone is to be worshiped, the idols are no gods, that it says 65 times, I counted in Ezekiel, that all of this is done so that you may know that I am God. God orders these things that you may know that I am God.
So that’s the basic clash, and that’s the basic condition of human life on earth until this day, that basically human beings have this fundamental choice: God as God really is or the multiplicity of gods that human beings make up and contrive and worship. All those idol-gods are all projections of one’s ego, one’s own self, one’s own nothingness. That’s why they are nothing, because without God, we are nothing, but made in the image and likeness of God and worshiping God, then we become divine and we have all the powers of God himself. This is what the prophets are insisting upon, and this is what will be ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant, in Christ, and certainly in the worship in spirit and in truth that is done within the Christian Church.
Also in the prophets—all of them, virtually—you have this issue: The people are worshiping idols, but they’re also worshiping Yahweh. They mix it together. We saw that in the kings, that they would have sacrifices to Yahweh, you might say “just in case, ‘cause he’s our God,” but then they would offer some offerings to the Canaanite gods as well, “just in case” also, that maybe they could get something from those local gods, the fertility gods, the agricultural gods, the feminine-type of gods that have to do with growth and fertility and food.
Here again this is something that is universal among human beings, and it certainly exists still within the Christian tradition, the Christian people, where the Christians will worship Christ and he is alone the Lord—but they will also never forget these other things that just might be helpful. Like, for example, Christians who would read and believe in reincarnation or Christians who would believe in astrology, Christians who would consult the horoscopes. In the Book of Revelation, it will say how—I even saw a fresco of this in a Serbian late-medieval church—where you have Christ, throned in heaven as the Lord of heaven and earth, and around him are all the signs of the zodiac, and they’re backwards and they’re upside down to show that the Lord is God. He is the God over the elemental powers of the universe.
But you have always that temptation that you worshiped God among the other gods; you keep other gods around God. There are some people who… It’s called syncretism, where you just put all the gods together. That’s one of the things that the Romans wanted the early Christians to do. They said, “Okay, have your Christus, but put him in the pantheon with all the other gods. Let him be one of the gods.” Hinduism has that, too: multiplicity of gods. Well, one of the—what do they call it?—avatars could be Jesus; Christ could be one of the gods among the gods, so you are kind of dealing with all of the possible gods.
Here that’s very popular in our time, too, claiming that there are many different religions, they’re all basically good or bad, maybe some are more advanced, maybe some are more primitive, but they’re all different revelations of the one God who’s above them over all and somehow shows himself within all the different religions. So they would say you could do it a Christian way, a Jewish way, an Islamic way, Hindu way, this way, that way, pagan way. Even Constantine the emperor at the beginning wanted to do that. He wanted to make the Most High God of Christians somehow the one supreme sun god of the Roman pagan pantheon also.
But here the prophets are violent against that; they’re just violent against mixing the Lord God, Adonai Elohim, the Yahweh, the one God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the one who raised up David, the one whose temple is in Jerusalem—that God alone is God, and there are no other gods beside him. Of course, in the later Christian era, Muslims will say, “Yes, that is the only God there is, and he has no Son, he has no consort, he does not beget. He alone is God.” It’s a radical monotheism, even a miatheism, we might call it, a monad-theism. Well, the Christians are going to say, “Yes, that is the one Lord God, but that God has his Word, his Spirit, who are divine with him.” So the Godhead, the divinity, will be God, the Father of Jesus Christ; Christ himself, the Son of God, the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the power of God; and the Spirit of God, the breath of the Almighty. So we will have the Trinitarian worship in the New Testament.
But this is not polytheism, and as the holy Fathers will point out, the Christian way is against Judaizing—and they didn’t know there would also be Islam-izing—where there is one monad God and there’s no Trinitarian God at all, there’s just the one God only, unitarian, unitarian God. But biblically, following the prophets and so on, the psalms, the Christians will say, “Yes, there is the only one God, but his Word and his Spirit are divine, and they are different hypostases. They are of God and they act on their own.” Even the Prophet Isaiah will say, “God sends his Word. His Word comes into the earth, it brings forth fruit, it returns to God.”
The prophets will speak about the Spirit of God. Joel will speak about God pouring out his Spirit on all flesh, to give them the proper worship in spirit and in truth, and Christ will be that truth and the Spirit will be the spirit of truth. So you have prefigurations in the prophetic writings and in the Old Testament generally of the most-Holy Trinity, of the one God and Father; the one Lord Jesus Christ who is the Son and Word and Image of God, uncreated, who becomes human, born of the Virgin; and then you have the Spirit who is the one vivifying and inspiring all true worship.
In the prophets, you will speak about how the prophets are really following the Spirit of God and they are worshiping by the Spirit of God, where the others are worshiping by alien spirits, demonic spirits, elemental powers, and not really the power of God, the breath of God, the life of God, which is always his Word and his Spirit acting within the people. So there’s a kind of a theological problem here in the prophetic writings. You can’t mix the one true living God with his Word and his Spirit, with the other idols, with the idols who are not gods at all. There’s many things that we could quote in the prophetic writings about that.
Also in the prophetic writings, you have this teaching: that the people can come and offer their sacrifices and burnt-offerings to God just to con God, to get God to do what they want, to think that if they just make their sacrifices and kill their bulls and pour out their blood and burn their wheat or whatever they off, that then God is somehow then obliged to act on their behalf. This is, of course, the essential, quintessential sin of sacrificial worship. Here we’re going to see, and we have seen already and will see again—we saw it even in Cain and Abel—that those who believe in the true God do not offer sacrifices to him to con him, to get him to do their will, to appease the deity, to make sure that God makes them win in fights over their enemies and all that kind of stuff. You can’t con God.
And worship is not conning God. Worship is not “naming it and claiming it.” Worship is not telling God what God ought to do. Worship is recognizing the acts of God, the sovereignty of God, the power of God, the truth of God, the commandments of God. It’s offering the sacrifices as thanksgiving, as praise, as an offering that stands for one’s personal repentance. There are sacrifices offered to be… so that we would be forgiven sin. There are sin-offerings, guilt-offerings, purification-offerings, healing-offerings, but they are not offerings to con God. They are offerings to show honor and glory and worship to God who is God, entreating him that his will would be done, not our will. You have that already in the prophets. Worship is so that we would do God’s will, not that he would do ours. The idol will do our will. The true God very seldomly does our will, but you can’t come to God asking our will. You can’t ask anything you want and then say, “God will get this.”
We’ll take a closer look at this when we speak about the prayer of the Three Youths in the fiery furnace, but what we want to see here now is that these sacrifices have to be pure. They have to be holy, they have to be for the sake of glorifying God, thanking God, recognizing the sovereignty of God, and not treating God as if he were one of the idols. You might say you can’t paganize the real God. Here that’s going to be a problem for Christians, too, because it does seem to me that, especially after Constantine and through history, there was a certain paganization of Christianity, where services were offered, worship was made, Divine Liturgies were served—to try to get God to do what we wanted God to do, and we’d offer a whole bunch of Divine Liturgies, I don’t know, to get the right candidate elected metropolitan or something, or offer a whole lot of Liturgies so that there would be a healing, or a whole lot of Liturgies that we could win in a war or something like that, as if worship is that activity that compels and forces God, through sacrificial acts and reading words and saying prayers and so on, that that would make God act.
Together with this, of course, in the prophets, you also see that there are people who are doing the sacrificial offerings to Yahweh himself, to the true God himself, maybe even to the true God alone without the Canaanite gods and the idol gods, but they’re offering those sacrifices thinking that, as long as they offer the sacrifice, everything will be okay. They don’t have to live according to the commandments of God. And that’s one of the great, great points that the prophets make: You cannot be making solemn assemblies and having offerings and doing worship while at the same time you are cheating people, you are lying, you are taking advantage of the poor and the needy, you’re stealing their things, you’re not giving a just wage, you’re not treating others as you would have them treat you, you’re not loving your neighbor as your own self, you have no care for the poor, for the needy.
In one word, in prophetic words, you would have no mercy. You’re not showing eleos, because God is eleemosyne; God is the eleimon; God is the one who shows mercy. So you’ll have the prophets like Hosea—and this is quoted in the New Testament saying, “The Lord God says: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. Do you think that I care about blood of bulls and cows and so on?” Well, if you offer them as thanksgiving, as modes of communion, you offer the sacrifice and you consume it and you eat it with gratitude and thanksgiving in praise, then that’s a laudable act. It’s even an important act, because it keeps you remembering God. That’s why sabbath worship is so important. That’s why festal worship is so important, because it makes you remember God and do God’s will.
But you can’t be keeping those feasts, following the rules of sabbath, doing the external activities, and, as Isaiah would say, honoring God with your mouth and your lips, “but your heart is very far from me.” The Lord says through Isaiah, “You honor me with your lips, but your heart is very far from me. Your activities are not together with the sacrifice, therefore I hate your sacrifices. I don’t want your sacrifices.” Here there’s some really, really powerful words on this in the prophets, [of] which I would just like to read you some. The Book of Isaiah, the collection of the writings of Isaiah, attributed to the Prophet Isaiah—this is the very first reading for Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. By the way, in Isaiah, he says not only can you make prayers and offer sacrifices, but you could even fast. It’s in the end of Isaiah, in the 50th chapter, 58th chapter.
You fast only to fight and quarrel. You fast only to steal from the poor. You fast, hiding yourself from the needy that you do not help. You fast just to get your own way. This is not the fasting that God wants, and this is not the kind of worship and prayer that God wants.
So you have, for example, the very first chapter of Isaiah, this is what he says:
Hear, O heaven; give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: Sons I have reared and brought up, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, the ass its master’s crib; Israel does not know, my people do not understand.
By the way, that image is on the icon of Christmas. When Jesus is in the manger on the icon of the Nativity of Christ, there will be an ox and an ass in there, and they symbolize the people who do not know the Master. Then Isaiah continues:
Ah, sinful nation! A people laden with iniquity, offspring of evil-doers, sons who deal corruptly. They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel. They are utterly estranged. Why will you still be smitten, that you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, the whole heart is faint; from the sole of the foot even to the top of the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds. They are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.
Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire. In your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by aliens, and the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors we should have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.
Then this is what is said about worship:
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. 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 he-goats.
As it says in the psalms, the Lord says, “I will accept no bull from your house.”
When you come to appear before me, who requires of you the trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings. Incense is an abomination to me.
Actually, it literally says in Hebrew, “Your incense stinks. It’s a stench.”
New moons and sabbaths and calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates, says the Lord God. They have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth 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.
In fact, in Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s going to say several times: Don’t even pray for this people, because I will not listen. They are too wicked, they are too unmerciful, they are too selfish, they are too carnal, they offer all their sacrifices—in Jeremiah, the seventh chapter, it says: The temple! The temple! The temple! God says: This temple you trample! Isaiah says the same thing. It’s Isaiah that provides the words that Jesus uses: My temple shall be a house of worship for all people, and you have made it a den of robbers. Of course, Jesus cleanses the temple in the New Testament.
But you can’t have the temple, you can’t have the altar, you can’t have the incense, you can’t have the blood of bulls and goats when you are, yourself, evil, when, as it says, “Your hands are full of blood.”
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. Even when you make many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood. 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. Correct oppression. Defend the fatherless. Plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord.
Then, of course, you have the promise of God, and that’s something that we find in all the prophets also.
Though your sins be like scarlet, they’ll be white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall be white like wool. If you become 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.
This is also very much among the prophets. You have the inveighing against the activities of the people. And then in Malachi you have even a further insult to God, where the people are not only offering very nice animals and bulls and singing songs and making hymns and honoring God with their mouth while they are acting wickedly and evilly and not doing justice and righteousness and mercy to the people, but according to Malachi, the lazy, no-good priests… And boy, the priests really get it in the prophets! I mean, read Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel about the priests of God, how they sell everything and they just tool the widows and they just eat the sacrifices themselves, they take the best part for themselves, and then it even says, in Malachi, that the priests are performing blasphemous sacrifices. They’re offering—the gluttonous, lazy priests are offering maimed animals, sick animals, defiled animals, diseased animals, blind animals. They’re not offering the best gifts to God at all. They’re offering what is really no good, absolutely atrocious. You find this in Malachi.
But this is what is, through the prophets. But in every single one of them, it prophesies that the time will come when there will be worship in spirit and truth. There will be a time when the perfect offering is offered. There will be a time when Yahweh himself will come and shepherd the people as the Good Shepherd and offer the perfect sacrifice. The time will come when the temple will be cleansed and there will be the perfect worship. A restoration of the temple: you have that imaged in the end of Ezekiel with the measuring of the temple. The prophecy for the final age, for example, Jeremiah 31:31, which is read at every feastday in the Orthodox Church: every major feastday we read Jeremiah 31, where it says:
The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
By the way, in all the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, especially Hosea—the people are treated like the one whom Yahweh loves like a wife. He’s the husband; Israel is the bride, but the bride becomes adulterous and goes after all the false gods on all the high places. We’ve heard about this before.
But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach man and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord. And I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.
So all the prophets are, in fact, predicting and prophesying the coming of the final new covenant. Christians believe that’s the covenant in Jesus, and that’s where everything is fulfilled, the Holy Spirit is poured out, like Joel predicted in those days, the Spirit would be poured out, and there would be really the true worship of God as it is supposed to be.
These are the kinds of teachings that you find in the prophets, and in the prophets, of course, like Isaiah, he has a vision in the temple, of the Lord God sitting on the throne, of the angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” And this, of course, will enter into the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, and it’ll become the very heart of Christian worship. Also, it’s important just to notice, or it can be noticed among this very superficial presentation here, reflection, that what Isaiah is saying you find almost word-for-word in Amos. This is what Amos says:
Seek good, not evil, that you may live. So that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you as I have said. Hate evil, love good, establish justice in the gate. It may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
But then the prophet continues:
You ask for the day of the Lord. The Lord’s day is going to come, but if this is how you are, the Lord’s day is going to be a day of judgment; it’s not going to be a day of glory and celebration and victory.
By the way, Isaiah says that when the Lord’s day comes, even an altar will be set up to the true God in Egypt. That is read in the Orthodox Church on the feast of the meeting of the Lord in the temple, when it says that Jesus is the light to the nations, the prophecy is read about how an altar to the true God will even be in Egypt, and there will even be Egyptian Christians. They exist to this day, the Copts, who really worship the true God in spirit and in truth, as they can in Christ. But then the Prophet Amos says:
But if you are living this way—idolatrous, slovenly sacrifices, no mercy to the people, trying to con God, doing whatever you want to do, and not living according to justice and righteousness—then that day for you will be a day of darkness and not light, as if a man fled from a lion and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it for you?
Then you have Amos saying the same thing as Isaiah:
I hate and I despise your feasts. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream. Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
Well, what I really want is righteousness, mercy, justice: this is what God wants. Tzedakah and hesed, these are the words in Hebrew. Of course, none of the prophets will say, “You don’t need the temple.” None of the prophets will say, “You don’t need to offer sacrifices.” None of the prophets will say, “You don’t need to worship God by offering your goods of your land and your tithing, your tithes of your possessions and your offerings to God.” That’s what keeps you human; that’s what keeps you connected to God; that’s how you show that you love God. But you can’t do those external ritual activities without keeping the moral commandments. If you do, these actions simply condemn you.
We’re going to see that the same thing is going to be taught in the Christian tradition, the Christian worship. You can’t just offer Divine Liturgies. You can’t just take bread and wine and put it on the altar and remember Christ and then go about your business, in an evil and unjust and immoral way. The Apostle Paul says if you do that, you participate in the holy worship and in holy communion unto condemnation and judgment, because you’re not discerning the Lord’s Body, and that doesn’t simply mean that you know that it’s really the Body of Christ; it means you’re not discerning what the worship in spirit and truth really is.
In the eleventh chapter of the first Corinthian letter, the Apostle Paul says that’s why many people of the Christians already in the first century are sick, and some even have died, because they have blasphemed the holy offering of the Christian tradition, although they are keeping the external activity of Christians—remembering Jesus, remembering the crucifixion, offering the bread and wine—but they’re doing it when their heart is far away, they’re doing it only with their mouth and with their hands and with their external activities, and they are not living according to the commandments of God, whom they are worshiping. St. Paul will even quote Isaiah in the letter to the Romans, where he says to the people: If you know the Law and you don’t follow it, what good is it? The Gentiles who don’t have the Law, if they are following justice and mercy, they are really acceptable to God in keeping the Law, and not you.
Circumcision would be the same thing. The prophets will say: Circumcise the heart. Hosea, Isaiah, they’d say: Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, not of your body. Circumcision is an act of dedication and surrender to God and the keeping of his commandments. It’s not just some kind of act that automatically makes you holy. The same thing will be said about baptism. It’s not just that you get dunked in the water in the name of the Trinity and you turn into holy—no! It’s got to be real. You’ve got to really die with Christ; you’ve got to really rise with Christ. It’s not enough to have oil put all over your body in chrismation or confirmation. You have to really receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and live by the Holy Spirit and call God, “Abba, Father,” and call Jesus, “Kyrios, Lord,” because the Holy Spirit is praying and worshiping within you, with sighs too deep for words.
That is the ultimate worship of the New Testament, but that’s already prefigured in the prophets, because Isaiah will say: You’re not following the Spirit of God. It’s not God’s Spirit in you. You prophets are speaking, but it’s not God who’s inspiring you. You say, “Peace, peace”; there is no peace. So the reality of the thing has to be there; that’s what the prophets are saying all the time, that the reality of what this is all about has to be there. And it has to be done properly, it has to be done decently and in order, as the Apostle will say about Christian worship. Same thing in the Old Testament. It has to be done according to the Mosaic law, it has to be done in the proper manner. The proper worship and sacrifices for the sabbath, for the feasts, for the Passover, for the various feasts of Booths and Tabernacles and Lights and dedication. All this is critically important.
The temple is critically important in the Old Testament, and we will see that in the New Testament there is no physical temple any more. The Gentiles are brought in and the temple becomes the people themselves. The people become the living temple of God. They constitute the place of divine worship. We’ll get to this when we comment on the Divine Liturgy, about where the Liturgy is celebrated, the space and the place for offering the true worship in spirit [and] in truth. But the prefiguration was the Jerusalem temple, and Jesus cleanses that temple, but then he destroys it. He speaks about the temple of his body, and of course the temple was destroyed in the year 70 of the Christian era, the common era as they call it now.
But the temple is still holy and good. Isaiah has his vision in the temple. Isaiah, Ezekiel speak about how the temple ought to be, how it should be cleansed. Ezra and Nehemiah, after the Babylonian captivity, they rebuild the temple and they rebuild it according to the instructions of God. So that prefigurative worship of the old covenant involved a temple very importantly, but on the other hand, as Jeremiah said, as I already noted, you can’t just say, like in the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, “The temple! The temple! The temple!” Well, if you can say, “The temple! The temple!” and you think that’s going to make you holy, it’s not going to make you holy; it’s actually going to condemn you if your life is not according to the teachings of God. Let me just even read that part in Jeremiah, where this is what he says:
Amend your ways and your doings, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” for if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the temple, and in the land that I give of old to your fathers forever.
Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. You cannot say, “The temple! The temple!” Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to the Baalim, and go after other gods that you have not known—and then still come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, “We are delivered,” only to go out again among all the abominations of the abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the Lord.
This is what we find in the prophetic writings. This is what we find: worship of idols, mixing idolatry with the worship of Yahweh, thinking that we can con God to do our own will by making some kind of offerings of bulls and goats and cereal and so on, offering even maimed sacrifices to God. I should read a little bit about that point in Malachi, about the maimed sacrifices. This is what it says in Malachi:
O you priests, says the Lord of hosts, who despise my name! You say, how have we despised your name? And I say, the Lord God of hosts: by offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, how have we polluted it? By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? When you offer those that are lamed or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor. Will he be pleased with you or show you favor?
In other words, if you wouldn’t do that to the earthly governor, why do you do that to me? says the Lord God of hosts. So he says:
And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. O that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain. I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts. I will not accept an offering from your hand.
Then you have a sentence that’s in the psalter as well, and other parts of the Bible, that’s used in Orthodox worship today, which says:
For from the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and pure offerings to my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it, when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, for the food for it may be despised.
So he goes on and on about the priests. The lips of the priest should guard knowledge. They should seek instruction, but they stumble and are instructed by such priests. And boy, do the priests get it and the prophets get it in the prophetic writings. I could read that, too, but you could read it for yourself, and you could see. This is what we find in the prophetic writings.
But we should end today like the prophets all end. A good time is coming. God will visit his people. The perfect offering, the perfect sacrifice will be made. And lo and behold, it will be offered by the great High Priest, who is the Messiah himself, God’s own Son in human flesh. And the perfect sacrifice will be made, and lo and behold! It will be the body and blood of the Son of God himself upon the tree of the Cross. And it will be the all-perfect worship of the Father, the all-perfect sacrifice. It will be the worship of God the Father in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, by the real Spirit of God, by faithful people who follow the will of God in the final covenanted community in the Messiah.
That’s the prophecy, that’s the hope, that’s what the prophets say will take place. And there will be the heavenly Jerusalem, that will shine, shine forever. And we Christians believe that this is the Church in which we live.
However, we can be as apostate, as blasphemous, as double-minded, as double-hearted, as ritualistic, as evil and wicked and even morally dead as the people of Israel. Of course, we identify with those people when we read the prophets. And we pray to God: O God, preserve us from this! Let our sacrifice, which is acceptable to God, the broken and contrite heart, as it says in Psalm 51, let our sacrifice be pure. Let it be holy. Let it be real. Let it be right. Let it be in the right spirit. Let it be for the right intention. And this is what we are wanting to comment on when we comment on Christian worship, the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the holy Eucharist: that it would be right, right order, right ritual, right purpose, right words, properly understood, for the proper purposes, together with a life of virtue and righteousness and mercy, without which our worship condemns us.
This is what we find in the prophets, and it prefigures, of course, what we come and see in the most perfect form when the Lord Jesus comes to the earth and when he himself is on the earth and all things are fulfilled in him. Then when all things are fulfilled when he is crucified, then there enters into the world nothing surpassing what he brings. What he brings is the perfect worship of God the Father in spirit and in truth, in him, through the Holy Spirit, in the most perfected form possible, to human beings on the planet Earth. And that is the worship of the new covenanted community in the Messiah Christ, the worship of the Christian Church.
We will continue our reflections on all of these things, but we have to take [into] heart, into mind, with fear and trembling what the prophets are saying, because what they are saying applies not only to the people of old, but it applies to us today also, in the 21st century, even to us who call ourselves Christians, even to us who call ourselves Orthodox Christians. All of this word of God, it applies to us. May we hear it and may we heed it and may we follow the word of God so that our worship would indeed be the worship of the Father in spirit and in truth, that the Father is seeking to find for himself among his human creatures, which he has found in his Son, Jesus Christ, and hopefully will find in those who belong to him.