A sermon given in 2007 in Stellenbosch.
This morning we come as lovers of god. Lovers have no ifs or buts, but lovers simply love. Lovers want to do what is right towards the one they love. Lovers of god want to be righteous. Love and righteousness create a mystical dialectical logic of which we learn more in Isaiah 51. Before entering the text, a prayer from The Cloud of Unknowing:
Everlasting wisdom without beginning, who is in Yourself the first cause, transcending all being. The transcendent Godhead and the transcendent Good. The Inward Beholder of the divinely created wisdom of Christians: I beseech You to raise us to a capacity that accords with the transcendently unknown. The shining height of Your dark, inspired utterances, where all the secret matters of theology are concealed and hidden under the shining darkness of wisest silence, making that which is bright shine in the secrecy of the greatest darkness; and, in a way that is always invisible and intangible, to fill all those souls that do not rely on intellectual sight full of beautiful brightness. And because these matters are beyond understanding, we desire with love beyond understanding as best we can, to gain them for ourselves with this prayer.
Indeed, as the unknown writer of this beautiful 14th-century text reminds us, the logic of faith is less one of learning and more of unlearning. Our notions of righteousness are often, however, readymade, fresh for implementation. Each one of us, for example, has an image of righteous people; names who distil what to love and the right way to love. Secular saints like Nelson Mandela may come to mind or more religious figures such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Even if we are Uber critical, our notions of righteous always have a face, some final embodied form. When their attributes become disentangled from the whole, however, some traits might seem more important than others. The writer of Isaiah 51 challenged the Israelites living in exile to reconsider their idea of righteousness. Rather than just fixating on the present to stretch their imagination to a future which draws from a rich past.
A Past One Should Love Into Redemption
1 Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him, he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many. 3 The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
Abraham and Sarah’s saga repeat throughout the Hebrew Bible often with slight nuance shifts. Throughout the years you may have heard different interpretations of their stories, not only by preachers but also by the biblical writer and redactors themselves. Is it not incredible that such simple stories can produce such an interpretive myriad? Although some see such variety as intimidating, for me, such richness tell of characters with all the intrigue of a close friend. I’ve learned to love them as friends, because these pursuers of righteousness, rarely cut it. I’d like to think Sarah and Abraham would have liked the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who said he doesn’t read the New Testament, but the Old Testament and Shakespeare. In the latter’s stories, he says, you don’t find perfect people; you get people that still know how to sin; knows how God comforts the unrighteous. Abraham and Sarah just don’t cut it as righteous people. God has to dig them out, every time, they almost ruin the covenant, with their improvised plans. If it weren’t for God, the writer of Isaiah 51 reminds his readers, Abraham would still have been one.
Exilic Israelites, those for whom the text was composed, might not all have been pleased with painting the mythical patriarch and matriarch of Ancient Israel over their bleak existence. In exile, all cheap speak of digging out, and promises of comfort, while Jerusalem laid dry like a dessert must have struck a nerve. Here we must remember that Israel was a small, young nation vulnerable to geopolitical shifts beyond their capacity to fathom. And, yet, the Isaiah writer would remind them, once Abraham was but one, and now you are many. If something like a brittle nation can come from just one, then,
We are, also, cut from the same cloth as Abraham and the exiles. As humans, we don’t cut it. God cuts us. We have all our plans lined up, all our ideas neatly packaged. We learned lots of technics, but the world does not always conform to our technics. God does not always subscribe to our plans and ideas. We need cutting, hewing — never a pleasant exercise. But, if God forms us, what can we do? Must we remain passive observers? Righteous people are cut out to be different because God cuts them.
Righteous know how to look and listen
4 Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. 5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. 6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever; my righteousness will never fail.
Righteous people are cut out to be different because God cuts them, but how are they different? We have to understand how to use our faculties in different ways. We have to learn to be different, listen with more care. Lifting our eyes and listening to God, we begin seeing God’s righteousness drawing near, his salvation on its way, and his arm that will bring justice to the nations. Such eyes lifting almost always seems impossible in a world of constant hopeless chaos where all our old certainties vanish like smoke and wear out like the clothes we wear. But then again, our calling as righteous people is as a people of the impossible.
The hopeless chaos in the world, the uncertainty of everything, is the place we see the righteousness of God that never fails. John Caputo puts it: “The kingdom of God is a community without community, a city without walls, a nation without borders, unconditional hospitality without sovereign power, where the decision procedure for admission is based on a holy undecidability between the insider and the outsider. For the world, it looks like all hell has broken out, the holy hell that we have been insisting all along is the stuff of a sacred anarchy.”
In this anarchy the righteous cannot possess righteousness, they can only point to it. To borrow a metaphor from Jacques Derrida, we can feel the tremors of the earthquake, but we can never produce one. We can only aim in the direction from where it came. Pointing to God’s justice that will become a light to the nations, we must open our eyes, and ears, sensing what is happening in the world. Detecting God’s salvation that will last forever is never easy. In fact, it is impossible. But, then righteous people are people of the absurd. To our advantage, the text does not stop here. The faithful person, we who want to do what is right towards God, we who are cut out to be people of the impossible, need guidance to hear and see, and to point in the right direction.
They have the law in their hearts
7 Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults. 8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.
In this hopeless chaos of the world, we are not cut out to see and to hear on our own. God, thank God never leaves us empty-handed. He gives us his law in our hearts to help us to see and hear in the right way. We must draw on his word; we must draw it into us. Lovers of God, those who want to do what is right, aren’t people who dig into the economy of ideas. They are individuals who are dug out by the love of God. They draw into their fibre the word of God. It is not something they read to get useful information out of, but it’s something that changes the way our bodies are wired.
They draw the Word into them by meditating on it day and night, living it. Testing it. Like Blaise Pascal a brilliant mathematician of the 15th century did. Story. After his death, they found a piece of parchment in sewn into his jacket pocket, that he carried with him at all times. It read:
The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November, from half-past ten in the evening until half past midnight: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars…Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy…’This is life eternal that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ…May I not fall from him forever… I will not forget your word. Amen.
When you think about your life, a call to righteousness might sound scary. If we didn’t read Isaiah today, it might still be. But, to be righteous, is to experience the full spectrum of life. We humans called out as righteous, we are those cut out by God. Seeing and hearing the impossible — God’s hope in the world — when there is none to see. Part of our fibre is the Word of God, and we must draw it into us more and more. This morning we come as lovers of God. Lovers have no ifs or buts, but lovers just love. Lovers want to do what is right towards the One they love. Lovers of God want to be righteous.