“Why doesn’t God listen to us? Why doesn’t He respond?” It is the cry of all who suffer in every generation, and the plaint that begins this day’s reading from Isaiah. The response of God is hard, even harsh; because those who cry out to Him for deliverance have ears that are deaf to the suffering of others—others whose sufferings they have the power to alleviate. In fact the situation is worse than that; the pious acts they appeal to as evidence of their faithfulness are in reality but a cover for their iniquitous activity.
Haven’t we seen this in the church? How about the person who disguises their gossip as upholding community standards, or the one who covers their failure to act in the face of evident evil with witless epithet, “Well… we’re all sinners, aren’t we?” The moralist and the purveyor of what Bonhoeffer famously referred to as “cheap grace” are united in the condemnation of this passage, for by their piety, they both enable violence. Bonhoeffer understood faith as that which immediately responds to the voice of Christ with obedience, looking neither at its own righteousness by works nor upon its own righteousness by faith, but attending only to Jesus. (My thanks to the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Sorum for the clarity on this point of Bonhoeffer’s theology.)
This passage from Isaiah agrees with Bonhoeffer’s assessment, and the image that jumps out is that of nakedness; the Lord’s assessment strips naked the religious pretensions of his interlocutors, and he instructs them to cover the nakedness of those without resource. For those whose foundational story is that of Eden, the image has resonances of judgment and shame as does the end of 58:7, “[do] not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” The exhortation is not to hide, as did Adam and Eve, but rather to stand up and be accountable.
And standing up to take responsibility is precisely what God does at the cross. As He did in the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21), God makes Himself accountable for fulfilling humanity’s half of the eternal covenant; the grace of God is not revealed so much in the resurrection of Jesus as in His crucifixion, which is why Paul decides to know nothing among the Corinthians but “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” To try to explain the mystery of God by any other aspect of Old or New Testament revelation will inevitably draw the listener to try to understand God from within the fallen human categories of power, reason (wisdom), or glory. At the cross, God inverts those categories, making clear what last week’s reading said: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
Frustrating our expectations in this regard opens us to what Paul calls today “a secret and hidden wisdom of God.” This wisdom is not concepts of any sort, but communion with a Person—the Holy Spirit—who alone knows the thoughts of God and can hence impart to us “the mind of Christ.”
Now, that’s an evocative image; the mind of Christ. How would we see the world, particularly the people in our immediate vicinity? In his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis exhorts us “to have this mind among us:”
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
It is the gravity and grandeur of such vision that lies behind the words of the Sermon on the Mount in our culminating reading from Scripture, which draws together the earlier themes. Perhaps here is the source of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of faith, for there seems to be little distinction between faith and obedience in Jesus’ teaching. In the words used by Lutherans to mark the important Ebenezers of faith, Holy Baptism and Confirmation, the Christian disciple is to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
But if we are to be busy “doing” to prove our faith, how can our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who earnestly failed in the same endeavor?! If it doesn’t, Jesus assures us that we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The answer is that we do not focus our attention on our works, we do not focus our attention on our faith (paltry as that is if we stop to scrutinize it), we focus our attention upon Jesus, and the indwelling Spirit of God, to whom we have been united, will produce in us a righteousness we are incapable of producing for ourselves.
When that happens, we will be salty, enhancing the flavor of whatever human endeavor we engage because we will bring to it the unquantifiable savor of holiness. We will be a city set on a hill, shining a light we do not possess into the surrounding darkness. Then we will be able to keep the commandments and teach others to do so, not as the means to pleasing God, but because they are fulfilled in Christ, upon whom our attention is fixed.