When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
This is a very awful text; one of those which terrify us -- or at least ought to terrify us -- and set us on asking ourselves seriously and honestly -- 'What do I believe after all? What manner of man am I after all? What sort of show should I make after all, if the people round me knew my heart and all my secret thoughts? What sort of show, then, do I already make, in the sight of Almighty God, who sees every man exactly as he is?'
I say, such texts as this ought to terrify us. It is good to be terrified now and then; to be startled, and called to account, and set thinking, and sobered, as it were, now and then, that we may look at ourselves honestly anti bravely, and see, if we can, what sort of men we are.
And therefore, perhaps, it is that this chapter is chosen for the first Advent Lesson; to prepare us for Christmas; to frighten us somewhat; at least to set us thinking seriously, and to make us fit to keep Christmas in spirit and in truth.
For whom does this text speak of?
It speaks of religious people, and of a religious nation; and of a fearful mistake which they were making, and a fearful danger into which they had fallen. Now we are religious people, and England is a religious nation; and therefore we may possibly make the same mistake, and fall into the same danger, as these old Jews.
I do not say that we have done so; but we may; for human nature is just the same now as it was then; and therefore it is as well for us to look round -- at least once now and then, and see whether we too are in danger of falling, while we think that we are standing safe.
What does Isaiah, then, tell the religious Jews of his day?
That their worship of God, their church-going, their sabbaths, and their appointed feasts were a weariness and an abomination to him. That God loathed them, and would not listen to the prayers which were made in them. That the whole matter was a mockery and a lie in his sight.
These are awful words enough -- that God should hate and loathe what he himself had appointed; that what would be, one would think, one of the most natural and most pleasant sights to a loving Father in heaven -- namely, his own children worshipping, blessing, and praising him -- should be horrible in his sight. There is something very shocking in that; at least to Church people like us. If we were Dissenters, who go to chapel chiefly to hear sermons, it would be easy for us to say -- 'Of course, forms and ceremonies and appointed feasts are nothing to begin with; they are man's invention at best, and may therefore be easily enough an abomination to God.' But we know that they are not so; that forms and ceremonies and appointed feasts are good things as long as they have spirit and truth in them; that whether or not they be of man's invention, they spring out of the most simple, wholesome wants of our human nature, which is a good thing and not a bad one, for God made it in his own likeness, and bestowed it on us. We know, or ought to know, that appointed feast days, like Christmas, are good and comfortable ordinances, which cheer our hearts on our way through this world, and give us something noble and lovely to look forward to month after month; that they are like landmarks along the road of life, reminding us of what God has done, and is doing, for us and all mankind. And if you do not know, I know, that people who throw away ordinances and festivals end, at least in a generation or two, in throwing away the Gospel truth which that ordinance or festival reminds us of; just as too many who have thrown away Good Friday have thrown away the Good Friday good news, that Christ died for all mankind; and too many who have thrown away Christmas are throwing away -- often without meaning to do so -- the Christmas good news, that Christ really took on himself the whole of our human nature, and took the manhood into God.
So it is, my friends, and so it will be. For these forms and festivals are the old landmarks and beacons of the Gospel; and if a man will not look at the landmarks, then he will lose his way.
Therefore, to Church people like us, it ought to be a shocking thing even to suspect that God may be saying to us, 'Your appointed feasts my soul hateth;' and it ought to set them seriously thinking how such a thing may happen, that they may guard against it. For if God be not pleased with our coming to his house, what right have we in his house at all?
But recollect this, my dear friends, that we are not to use this text to search and judge others' faults, but to search and judge our own.
For if a man, hearing this sermon, looks at his neighbour across the church, and says in his heart, 'Ay, such a bad one as he is -- what right has he in church?' -- then God answers that man, 'Who art thou who judgest another? To his own master he standeth or falleth.' Yes, my friends, recollect what the old tomb-stone outside says -- (and right good doctrine it is) -- and fit it to this sermon.
When this you see, pray judge not me
But if a man, hearing this sermon, begins to say to himself, Such a man as I am -- so full of faults as I am -- what right have I in church? So selfish -- so uncharitable -- so worldly -- so useless -- so unfair (or whatever other faults the man may feel guilty of) -- in one word, so unlike what I ought to be -- so unlike Christ -- so unlike God whom I come to worship. How little I act up to what I believe! how little I really believe what I have learnt! what right have I in church? What if God were saying the same of me as he said of those old Jews, 'Thy church-going, thy coming to communion, thy Christmas-day, my soul hateth; I am weary to bear it. Who hath required this at thy hands, to tread my courts?' People round me may think me good enough as men go now; but I know myself too well; and I know that instead of saying with the Pharisee to any man here, 'I thank God that I am not as this man or that,' I ought rather to stand afar off like the publican, and not lift up so much as my eyes toward heaven, crying only 'God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
If a man should think thus, my friends, his thoughts may make him very serious for awhile; nay, very sad. But they need not make him miserable: need still less make him despair.
They ought to set him on thinking -- Why do I come to church?
Because it is the fashion?
Because I want to hear the preacher?
No -- to worship God.
But what is worshipping God?
That must depend entirely my friends, upon who God is.
As I often tell you, most questions -- ay, if you will receive it, all questions -- depend upon this one root question, who is God?
But certainly this question of worshipping God must depend upon who God is. For how he ought to be worshipped depends on what will please him. And what will please him, depends on what his character is.
If God be, as some fancy, hard and arbitrary, then you must worship him in a way in which a hard arbitrary person would like to be addressed; with all crouching, and cringing, and slavish terror.
If God be again, as some fancy, cold, and hard of hearing, then you must worship him accordingly. You must cry aloud as Baal's priests did to catch his notice, and put yourselves to torment (as they did, and as many a Christian has done since) to move his pity; and you must use repetitions as the heathen do, and believe that you will be heard for your much speaking. The Lord Jesus called all such repetitions vain, and much speaking a fancy: but then, the Lord Jesus spoke to men of a Father in heaven, a very different God from such as I speak of -- and, alas! some Christian people believe in.
But, my friends, if you believe in your heavenly Father, the good God whom your Lord Jesus Christ has revealed to you; and if you will consider that he is good, and consider what that word good means, then you will not have far to seek before you find what worship means, and how you can worship him in spirit and in truth.
For if God be good, worshipping him must mean praising and admiring him -- adoring him, as we call it -- for being good.
And nothing more?
Certainly much more. Also to ask him to make us good. That, too, must be a part of worshipping a good God. For the very property of goodness is, that it wishes to make others good. And if God be good, he must wish to make us good also.
To adore God, then, for his goodness, and to pray to him to make us good, is the sum and substance of all wholesome worship.
And for that purpose a man may come to church, and worship God in spirit and in truth, though he be dissatisfied with himself, and ashamed of himself; and knows that he is wrong in many things:- provided always that he wishes to be set right, and made good.
For he may come saying, 'O God, thou art good, and I am bad; and for that very reason I come. I come to be made good. I admire thy goodness, and I long to copy it; but I cannot unless thou help me. Purge me; make me clean. Cleanse thou me from my secret faults, and give me truth in the inward parts. Do what thou wilt with me. Train me as thou wilt. Punish me if it be necessary. Only make me good.'
Then is the man fit indeed to come to church, sins and all:- if he carry his sins into church not to carry them out again safely and carefully, as we are all too apt to do, but to cast them down at the foot of Christ's cross, in the hope (and no man ever hoped that hope in vain) -- that he will be lightened of that burden, and leave some of them at least behind him. Ay, no man, I say, ever hoped that in vain. No man ever yet felt the burden of his sins really intolerable and unbearable, but what the burden of his sins was taken off him before all was over, and Christ's righteousness given to him instead.
Then a man is fit, not only to come to church, but to come to Holy Communion on Christmas-day, and all days. For then and there he will find put into words for him the very deepest sorrows and longings of his heart. There he may say as heartily as he can (and the more heartily the better), 'I acknowledge and bewail my manifold sins and wickedness. The remembrance of them is grievous unto me; the burden of them is intolerable:' but there he will hear Christ promising in return to pardon and deliver him from all his sins, to confirm and strengthen him in all goodness. That last is what he ought to want; and if he wants it, he will surely find it.
He may join there with the whole universe of God in crying, 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory:' and still in the same breath he may confess again his unworthiness so much as to gather up the crumbs under God's table, and cast himself simply and utterly upon the eternal property of God's eternal essence, which is -- always to have mercy. But he will hear forthwith Christ's own answer -- 'If thou art bad, I can and will make thee good. My blood shall wash away thy sin: my body shall preserve thee, body, soul, and spirit, to the everlasting life of goodness.'
And so God will bless that man's communion to him; and bless to him his keeping of Christmas-day; because out of a true penitent heart and lively faith he will be offering to the good God the sacrifice of his own bad self, that God may take it, and make it good; and so will be worshipping the everlasting and infinite Goodness, in spirit and in truth.