We’ve got a lot going on today—both in the world around us and in the world of the scriptures—so we’d better get right to it.
First, you might wonder what in the world is going on with Isaiah. “Shout out, do not hold back!” he declares at the top of his lungs. “Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” Maybe you can’t tell, but those are fightin’ words. God is picking a fight, and he means to win.
His beef is with the people of Israel and Judah, for despite all their religiosity and pretense, it seems they have missed the point of their faith entirely. “You fast, you pray, and you keep the Sabbath,” he says. “You do all the stuff religious people are supposed to do, but look around you. While you’re being perfectly pious, perfectly religious, perfectly good, the poor among you are oppressed, the hungry have no food, the naked have no clothes, and the homeless have no place to sleep.” It’s as though God is saying to an entire people, “REALLY?! Is this really what you think I want? You call this a fast? You call this a day acceptable to the Lord? Boy, have you missed the point.”
As it turns out, even in the Old Testament, God was never a big believer in the idea of worship solely for worship’s sake. Fasting and praying just so you could say you had fasted and prayed? That never impresses God. Back then, even as now, God was always far more interested in changed hearts and lives:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong.
The injunction to the people of Israel and Judah is crystal clear. They’re supposed to be joining people together, not ripping them apart. They’re supposed to be lifting people up, not forcing them down. They’re supposed to be setting people free, not consigning them to violence, bondage, indifference, and fear. “Such,” says the Lord, “is your true worship.”
Fast-forward, then, about seven hundred years. Centuries have passed; Jesus has come and gone; the Church has been established; and the Apostle Paul is writing one feisty letter to the church in Corinth.
It doesn’t take gifted analysis to discern that Paul is writing to a sorely divided congregation in 1 Corinthians. Early on, he says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you. . . . For it has been reported to me . . . that there are quarrels among you.” It seems the Christians in Corinth are already forgetting the basics of their faith. They are looking at it this way and that way—tossed about by every competing idea—and they cannot even agree on whom to follow. (So much for the example of the early Church.)
So, what does Paul do? He says, “Listen up, y’all. There are countless ways to look at the world. Lens after lens is available to you with which you can choose to see, interpret, and engage the world in which we live. But in truth, I have only one lens. You have only one lens. When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
For us, O Christians, Jesus is the lens. The one thing through which we see and understand all other things is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Of course, Paul knows this is not what the Corinthians want to hear. They want answers. They want wisdom. They want razzle-dazzle. “Preach to us, Paul, and make us feel something. Settle our disputes and give us something we can understand.” But all Paul has—all we have—is the Cross. You almost get the feeling that for some of those early Christians, the cross was not good enough. Not flashy enough. Not answer enough. To that end, Paul reminds them that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Everything we ever need to know hangs on that singular moment in history. How quickly—how easily—we forget the crux of our faith.
* * *
So, let’s talk about what’s going on in the world today. People are divided now more than they have been in a long, long time. Listen near and far, and you cannot help but hear a need for the call of Isaiah, a need for the teaching of Paul, a need for the guidance and grace of the Gospel.
The most obvious issue to point to this week is the ban on immigration, including refugees, from seven predominantly Muslim countries across the sea. People are passionately divided and cannot agree. Some are saying, “This is too much. This is too far. We must let in the lost and the least among them, lest they be destroyed.” Others are responding, “No, this is too little. This doesn’t go far enough. We must protect the least among us, lest we be destroyed.” Both sides have valid points. Both sides are mired in politics. Neither side can hear the other, nor do they wish to.
What, then, is the Christian response?
Well, I keep hearing people say, “Hey Christians, don’t you see: Jesus was a refugee.” Yes, that’s true, and there is something to be said for the fact that our own infant Lord was hustled and smuggled across Middle Eastern borders under the protection of angels and the cover of night just to safeguard his young life from the powers that be. Our own Jesus does know something about being a refugee, and we ought not to forget that.
But somehow, that argument does not stand on its own. As a lens for understanding the world around us, it falls short and offers only a partial picture.
No, if we Christians are going to talk at all about refugees—if we’re going to look through our faith as the lens for understanding any of this—then we have no choice but to stop, to peer deep within ourselves and our Christian story, and to remember the most crucial element of our Christian DNA. Do you want to know the Christian response to this or any other issue in this broken world? Then stop, and look up: take your eyes to the Cross and remember that before that singular historical event two thousand years ago, we were refugees, too.
It’s easy not to remember. It’s easy to forget, especially when our comfortable, modern lives tend to go mostly as we would have them go. Perhaps it has been a while since you’ve thought about it, but don’t you remember? Don’t you know there once was a time when you, too, were hopeless, helpless, and on the run? . . . not from armed militants in war-torn countries but from the power of sin and death itself? Don’t you remember? As Peter says in his own first epistle, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Folks, Jesus is not the refugee.
By the power of the Cross, JESUS. IS. THE REFUGE.
So while everyone else is arguing over politics and patriotism, over feelings, facts, and fears, the truth remains that on a hill far away (where no one’s paying any attention at all these days) the God of the cosmos has snuck into our world and is paying the full price for the rescue of us all. Your God, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, has crossed all the borders—including the borders of heaven and hell—and he has set you free. Not by might, not by power, not by force, not by wisdom, not by words, not by order, proclamation, or decree . . . but by his willing sacrifice on the Cross. He chose what was foolish to shame the wise. He chose what was weak to shame the strong. And we who were spiritually homeless, lost without a country or a cause, are now citizens of the Kingdom of the living God. Of all the things that matter most to us in this world, that is the one thing we had better not forget.
So what does it all mean, and what are we supposed to do?
For starters, Isaiah is right: Compassion is the thing. Our best worship—the worship God craves, the worship God demands—has nothing to do with perfect prayers, postures, or piety. No, the best worship we offer to God is the compassion we offer to our fellow man. That is straight from the Good Book, both the Old Testament and the New. You may not like it, but there ain’t no way around it.
And let’s take that a few steps further to be sure we’re clear. Compassion is not tolerance. Compassion is not condescension. Compassion is not cheap charity. Compassion costs something, for the very word itself literally means “to suffer with.” Exhibit A: the Cross of Christ.
Such compassion is admittedly difficult for us to muster, and it’s probably only by the grace of God that it ever manages to come through us at all. But whether you’re offering compassion to those across the world of whom you are vigilantly suspicious, or offering compassion to those across the pew with whom you vehemently disagree, God has been clear: this is the worship he demands.
* * *
Like the Apostle Paul, I’m afraid I simply cannot tell you how to reconcile these complex issues through the politics, powers, or perspectives of this world because, frankly, those politics, powers, and perspectives are far too human, too fallible, and too easily broken.
But like the Apostle Paul, I can and do implore you, whatever side you’re on, to look up. Look up from your arguments and your feelings. Look up from your facts and your fictions. LOOK UP and SEE the fullness and foolishness of the Cross of Christ. LOOK UP and SEE the freedom you have received in the rescue of your soul, and THEN and only THEN, offer the worship of your heart to the living God, the compassion of your soul to the fracturing world.
Brothers and sisters, we know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
For our sake, he’s on the hook.
For our sake, he’s got skin in the game.
For our sake, he has crossed the border and has set us free.
How then, for his sake, shall we follow?
 Isaiah 58:1
 Isaiah 58:4,6-7, paraphrased
 Isaiah 58:5, paraphrased
 Isaiah 58:9b-11a
 1 Corinthians 1:10-11
 1 Corinthians 1:20-23, paraphrased, and 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, emphasis added
 1 Corinthians 1:27
 1 Peter 2:10, emphasis added