Scripture: Isaiah 1:15-18
It is inevitable that every year is going to have a number of celebrity deaths, and it is likely that many of those deaths are going to resonate with the people who really connected with their work. Looking back it seems that 2020 had more of those than normal. On more than one occasion last year my social media timeline was filled up with people grieving the loss of a public figure who had meant something to them. One of these times was at the end of October when actor Sean Connery died at the age of 90. A lot of the posts memorializing Connery that I saw were something along the lines of rest in peace James Bond. While James Bond is easily Connery’s most well-known role it is not the one that I first think of. Probably because I saw Indiana Jones before I even knew James Bond was a character, I always first associate Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr., Indiana Jones father. However, my other favorite role of Sean Connery’s comes from one of his lesser known movies. In 1996 he played Draco a dragon in the movie Dragonheart. This movie received mixed reviews upon its release, but went on to become something of a cult classic. The movie relies on some well-established movie tropes where a former knight and dragon both with big chips on their shoulders start off as enemies, find themselves having to partner up, and then along the way they help each other rediscover their true selves, and then save the day from an evil king. The movie is probably a little dated today, but Roger Ebert’s review still holds true. He wrote that Dragonheart, “recalls the days when movies were content to be fun. . .It isn’t great cinema, but I’m glad I saw it.”
The reason why Dragonheart is not viewed as good cinema is because of its simplistic presentation of morality. It is a movie that portrays good and evil in stark black and white terms, with little shades of grey. However, this is one of the primary reasons why this movie has retained a number of fans. One of the reasons why this movie has become a cult classic outside of Sean Connery’s performance as a dragon is because one scene in particular. This is true for me, because it is the scene from the movie that really sticks with me. In this scene Bowen, the knight character, remembers and reclaims who he is supposed to be. This happens when he recalls and recites the old code that he had pledged himself to. In the Dragonheart universe the knight’s old code goes like this: “A knight is sworn to valor, His heart knows only virtue, his blade defends the helpless, his might upholds the weak, his word speaks only truth, his wrath undoes the wicked.” It is such a good summary of what makes an archetypical hero the good guy. More than though it almost sounds scriptural. The knight’s old code sounds a lot like Isaiah’s writings from this morning: “learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed.” In Dragonheart a true knight defends the helpless, uphold the weak, and oppose the wicked. In our world, I am confident that the according to the Holy Scripture a Christian is supposed to do the same thing.
This morning’s scripture comes from Isaiah, but a scripture with a similar theme could have come from Amos, Hosea, Malachi, or several of the prophets. This morning’s scripture deals with a common theme in the prophets and then echoed by Jesus in the gospels. Through the prophets God often declares that the actions of God’s people outside of worship are more important than their acts of worship. We see this plainly in this morning’s scripture. We started with verse 15 which has God harshly declare, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers I am not listening.” That seems drastic, and honestly it feels a bit out of character from what we are told about God. After all, we teach kids at a young age that they can always talk to God and that God always hears our prayers, but here God states when you pray I am not listening. God then plainly states the reason for this: Your hands are full of blood.
Again this scripture is similar to a number of others found in the prophets. We get the idea that there is a behavior that the ancient Israelites kept repeating. Namely, they acted however they wanted and then expected that because they faithfully observed religious rituals they were in good standing. They acted with the mistaken belief that as long as they made the required sacrifices, observed the appropriate holy days, and recited the standard prayers then they could be considered in God’s favor no matter how prideful, greedy, or selfish they acted. After all, this is the way that the cultures around them worked. Religion was treated like an economic exchange. If someone wanted the favor of the divine they worship them, make the sacrifices, and in return for the time and resources put in they get the blessing. However, God makes clear through Isaiah and the other prophets that is not how God works. God does not want empty worship that is going through the motions. God does not require sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice or songs of worship to stroke God’s ego. As the God spoke through the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you: Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
This morning’s scripture has a similar message, but personally I appreciate how much more blunt it is stated in Isaiah: Stop doing wrong, learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed. I also appreciate that in this morning scripture it specifically states how we do that: “take up the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” The culture of antiquity was highly patriarchal, so that the husband and father was solely responsible for providing for a family. The widows and the fatherless of this culture were the most vulnerable members of society, because the culture did not have space for them to provide for themselves. They had little means, little cultural currency, and less liberty. They were the easiest groups of society to oppress and take advantage of. For this very reason, they are the ones that God had special care for, and again this is found throughout the bible. In fact, this is clear from very early on. In Exodus 22:22-23 God declares as part of the law “do not take advantage of the widow and the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” The bible is crystal clear on this point, God is on the side of the disadvantaged, the powerless, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. Knowing this is true, should cause us to ask ourselves how are we joining God in seeking justice and defending the oppressed?
Because our world is fallen and broken there are no shortage of predators who seek to take advantage of the vulnerable and oppress the powerless. For instance tomorrow January 11th is Human trafficking awareness day. The facts that there needs to be an awareness day for modern day slavery and that human trafficking continues to increase really reflect the sinful nature of the world. The majority of the people who are victims of human trafficking today are women and children in vulnerable positions. In fact it is estimated that there are 40 million active victims of human trafficking right now and fourth of those people are children. It is also easy to think that this is a problem that effects other places, but it is also an issue right here. Just a few days ago the Indiana Attorney General office released a new report about the issue in Indiana. This report revealed that in 2019 157 human trafficking cases were reported in our state, and that is up from 2018. In announcing the publication of this report attorney general Curtis Hill stated, “It is reasonable to suspect that human trafficking in Indiana is a much more widespread problem than available data demonstrates.” It is likely that the kind of exploitation, oppression, and evil that this morning’s scripture speaks strongly against is happening even in our neck of the woods.
I understand the desire to want to find out where this is going on, and kick down doors with a wrath to undo the wicked. However, that path of thought may not be the best response when hearing of true evil that happens around us. I believe that many of you, hopefully all of you, if given the opportunity would take direct action to stop evil. Placing ourselves in that hypothetical position though still puts the spotlight on us, it keeps our focus on ourselves as we think about how we would be a shining king of the old code. The starting point for the way that we learn to do right, seek justice, and then eventually defend the oppressed is to put others first. We do not think how we are going to save the day, but we think about how to put the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized above our own. This is a little harder than wanting to save the day, as illustrated by a story I read this week. There is an organization called Beauty for Ashes that focuses on addressing the issue of human trafficking in Northern Africa. One time they made their major initiative to create and fund a safe house for at risk women that provided assistance with job training, housing, and education. The whole idea was to get these women to a place where they were at a reduced risk of getting caught up in human trafficking. The organization saw a sharp decline in their number of donors, when a former-donor was followed up with the person replied, “Why should we help people who haven’t been trafficked yet?”
I believe this morning’s scripture has an answer for that person, why should we help people who at-risk, marginalized, and vulnerable? Because God said to take the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow. God told us to care for the people who are the least privileged among us. In order to do this, the starting point is to start focusing on self-less. Instead of always asking, “What’s in this for me?” or “what will this cost me?” we should be seeking to put others first. Our motivation should not be how can we keep what is ours, but it should be how can we lift up those who are down trodden. It is not about protecting our privilege but it is about leveraging that privilege so that we can provide for those who are in need. The starting point to justice is changing our starting point. Instead of starting with ourselves in our thoughts, we start with putting others first. This is the message of this morning’s scripture and it is the example that Jesus gave us. When we put others first, then we love them the way that God loves us. When we love others with the love of God, then we are performing the type of worship that is most pleasing to God.
Today, even in this virtual format, we gather to worship God. But may our worship may not be confined to just Sunday morning. May we worship God throughout the week. May we worship God not just with our words but with our actions. May we take this scripture to heart, may we follow the old code, God’s code. May we learn to do right. May we seek Justice. May we defend the oppressed. And may we take up the cause of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our midst. May this be the code that we live out so that they know we are Christians by our love.