“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, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:16-17 NRSV
In the opening verse of the Old Testament lesson for next Sunday, we have the vision Isaiah has of Judah. Although not part of the appointed text, I think it’s helpful to realize some of the context of the situation Isaiah is speaking into: “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4)
Isaiah then confronts the empty offerings and rituals the people have brought to the Lord. You have most likely heard the phrase going through the motions, and I imagine this is the kind of stuff Isaiah was calling out with the folks in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Going through the motions of worship, doing it but not really feeling it, and not allowing themselves to be the people called had called them to be.
The harshness of Isaiah’s words are loud in Eugene Peterson’s translation of verses 5-6: “Why bother even trying to do anything with you when you just keep to your bullheaded ways? You keep beating your heads against brick walls. Everything within you protests against you. From the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, nothing’s working right.”
Maybe you’ve been in this place before. Maybe you’re struggling in this place right now. When our routines become monotonous, when our rituals are unfulfilling, when we become so focused on ourselves we forget to see others around us.
It’s been a frantic summer for us, as we have attempted to balance supporting my father who was recently admitted to a skilled nursing facility and celebrating the wedding of our youngest son. Last week, I was fortunate to attend part 2 of DS Orientation at Lake Junaluska, meeting colleagues from across the connection, learning about adaptive leadership and emotional intelligence. After the training ended Thursday, we took a couple days to catch our breath in Maggie Valley, where our family was able to travel in to share the weekend with us.
One of our excursions was Soco Falls, shown in the photo above. “Soco Falls is a part of the very important Soco Gap that today, sits inside the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Its significance is due to the geological formation that the tribe used as the reservation’s main entrance from the North and the East.”(1)
This double waterfall is located just off route 19 between Maggie Valley and Cherokee, where a small parking lot provides a spot to leave your vehicle. You could hear the falls as soon as you opened the door, but you couldn’t see them. An arrow pointed the way to the trail, and as soon as you turned right after a break in the fence, you knew this was not going to be a routine hike.
It was a narrow path descending pretty quickly, and there was a family of six coming up as we started down. We paused before entering the path, so that their momentum would not be interrupted as they came up. (For those unfamiliar with hiking rules, whenever you are on a trail, those coming up have the right of way!) This family covered what appeared to be three generations, and it was fun to see the smiles on the little ones, the anxiety on the parents’ faces, and the determination on the elders’ faces. Smiles took over their faces as they reached the top, sharing thanksgiving for a beautiful journey.
We made our descent, being careful with our footing after an evening rain the night before created some slippery places, especially compounded by the heavy foot traffic that had already been on the path that morning. So far so good, as we all made it to a platform overlooking the falls, where we could snap a few selfies and catch our breath.
After stepping off the overlook platform, we all watched people in front of us grabbing onto the ropes that had been connected to the trees along the path, leading us closer to the base of the waterfalls. Without question, the path became more treacherous, as large rocks were now included as additional obstacles to overcome and small talk ended, as people were so focused on holding the rope, making sure their footing was secure for each step. No longer were we on a routine hike.
Yet in the midst of all this increased anxiety around us, there was a sense of calm, as everyone helped each other out. Words of encouragement were shared, “Here you go,” as folks held out the rope for the next person. Words of affirmation were offered when someone may have looked scared, “You got this.” Words of celebration were communicated when you made it over a particularly difficult stretch, “Way to go.” Hands of help were extended by total strangers when a rope was not present, and those hands didn’t feel strange at all. They felt strong and supportive, extended in compassion and concern for a neighbor along the path.
What an amazing break in routine for all of us, as we left our daily work and school, and experienced a morning of adventure and pushing ourselves beyond our normal comfort zones. The culmination of journeying down the path led to a few moments of absorbing the sights and sounds of the waterfalls. We squatted down near the waters to wash our hands of the dirt and mud from holding so tightly onto the ropes during our descent, and we were refreshed by the mist covering the area around us. Water washed and spirit born, I thought as we all took a moment and observed the beauty of this double waterfall.
As these days after Pentecost continue, where might you need to hear the words of Isaiah, challenging you to step out of your empty offerings and rituals? When might you wash yourself and make yourself clean? Where do you need to remove the evil of your doings and cease to do evil? How will you learn to do good?