When God is weightless - Isaiah 44:9-24
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by putting something to you: namely, that one of the greatest threats to the flourishing of the Christian faith is not unbelief but belief. It is not that our country is full of unbelievers- atheists- the likes of Richard Dawkins are in fact few and far between; rather there are many of believers. You see, you have to ask yourself: what marks a believer? Well, there are three things: first, a believer worships, this is not just a matter of adoration and praise, but whatever a person gives themselves over to as the centre of their world, in short-what they live for. Secondly, the believer serves so that what you see as your ultimate goal in life is what you give yourselves over to working for. And thirdly, a believer proclaims or if you like- advertises, there is this compulsion to tell other people about what gets your juices going, and now with the rise of social media the power to do that is unprecedented in the history of the human race.
And when you take those three features of a “believer”, someone who worships, someone who serves, someone who proclaims it becomes pretty obvious that our country is made up of believers alright, but not Christian believers. It is composed of what the Bible calls idolaters, people who believe in things, maybe in a ‘god’ usually of their own making, other than the one true God. And let me say that idolaters are to be found as much within the church as outside it. And this has always been a problem for God’s people. It is clearly there in Isaiah’s day amongst Jews who with their mouths would recite daily their ‘creed’, the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” But who by their lives showed that they worshipped anything but the Lord their God. And it is not insignificant that the apostle John writing to Christians in his own day ended his first letter with the terse command, ‘Keep your lives free from idols’. From beginning to end idolatry is seen as the besetting sin of the human race. Indeed it defines sin; because sin is an attempt to dethrone God, and put ourselves or something else in his place –it lies at the heart of our rebellion.
The word used in the Old Testament translated ‘idol’ at root means something which is ‘empty’ or ‘weightless’. This stands in sharp contrast to the term which appears over and over again to describe God, which is ‘glory’ (kabod)-which denotes something of immense weight, overwhelming fullness. So when we turn away in our hearts from the one true God we engage in a cheap exchange, swopping the one who is of infinite weight and worth for something which is empty, so light it could be blown away like dust from a shelf. And that is what is happening in our society today. We are in danger of having lost God. Not that God has been lost as when you misplace a set of keys, but rather that the truth about the real God is disappearing fast. And when God is lost from sight, we become lost too. A lost God results in a lost world. For in terms of purpose we never find satisfaction. In terms of morality, we have no fixed points. In terms of human life, it loses all value. That is where we are today. And the only way that is going to be changed is by the Gospel, which brings us face to face with God who alone can turn our lives around in the right direction.
So what does it look like when ‘God becomes weightless’, that is, replaced by idols? This is the way Professor David Wells puts it, ‘It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable…Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgement no more awe inspiring than the evening news, his truth less compelling than the advertisers sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness.’ Isn’t that so? And maybe that is a pretty good description of the way God rests on your life if the truth be known or perhaps you are in danger of drifting in that direction even as a Christian. Well, if so this is where Isaiah 44 comes to our aid.
The first thing we see is the futility of idolatry, v9, ‘All who make idols are nothing and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant to their own shame.’ When it is claimed that those who make idols are ‘nothing’ it is another way of saying that they haven’t a clue about the purpose of life and are therefore pretty clueless about how to go about finding it. And the things they treasure, or as one translation puts it, ‘their little darlings’ is proof of that. What they invest their time and energy in making for themselves to give them some sort of meaning are ‘worthless’-‘empty’ they simply doesn’t deliver the goods. And those who are promoting these things should have known better, but in fact they just show up their own ignorance. That is the gist of what the prophet is saying.
So what are the ‘little darlings’ people have bought into believing that at the end of the day they will fill the God-shaped vacuum in our souls? Well, the list is endless. This is the way the Christian thinker Harry Blamires puts it, ‘‘We live in what is, in effect, a polytheistic society (that is a society with many gods) in what we give ourselves, with varying degrees of what can only be called idolatry, to the service of money making, career making, power grabbing, food, drink, fashion, entertainment, cars, gambling, sex and so on. This assertion does not imply that no man can give attention to these things without guilt. There is a due degree of attention that such things merit. But in fact they are getting excessive attention. As objects of concern they are attracting the kind and degree of human response more proper to the religious sphere. They have become objects of devotion.’ Isn’t that so? And at the centre of them all is ‘self’ the self who wants to be satisfied and the self which thinks he has the power to do it all by himself. And this comes out clearly in the the foolishness of idolatry- vv 10-19.
Did you notice that it is all about human effort? V12 ‘The Blacksmith takes a tool and works it with coals’; v 13, ‘The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker’; v 14 ‘He cuts down cedars or perhaps took a cypress or oak’ to make the idol Man by his own ingenuity and skill is able to produce (so he thinks) something which is going to give him value and worth and indeed, according to verse 17, ‘salvation.’ What can people look to, which they can produce which will, in some way, ‘save’ them?
Well, some look to philosophy- man’s reason to make sense of life without God. One person who tried this was Bertrand Russell. In 1910 he wrote a book which, as an atheist, he called ‘his gospel’. The title of the book was ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ which was to become the manifesto of humanism in the 20th century. But having argued that we are nothing but ‘the outcome of an accidental collection of atoms’, came to this bleak conclusion, that ‘all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.’ That really puts the mockers on things doesn’t it? Everything, all our achievements, our families are going to disappear into the black hole of nothingness one day. That’s it! And given what happened four years later with the Armageddon called ‘The Great War’ you could be justified in thinking Russell had a point. But of course World War I and World War 2 might be given a different interpretation, namely, that that is precisely where you end up when human beings reject God and run after idolatries- a ‘feeding on ashes’ v20.
But while some serve philosophies to find purpose, others serve possessions. Churches may be empty but the DIY stores are full. Cathedrals may be falling down but multiplex cinemas are going up. Chapels may be shrinking but sports stadiums are expanding. Don’t get me wrong, home improvement, entertainment and physical fitness are fine in themselves but become twisted when they receive the devotion rightly reserved for God in consuming our time and money and being seen as filling the God-shaped gap in our hearts. That’s the point.
You see, the folly is in thinking that it is possible to make from things which are less than human something which is more than human in order to give us the power we need to make it through life without God-v 13, ‘The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the form of a man, a man in all his glory.’ When God has been shunted into the sidelines of our thoughts, becoming ‘weightless’, then the highest thing man can think of is himself for what else is there? But then what he attempts to make as an object of worship is in the end less than himself and so in giving himself over to it he debases himself—v15b ‘he makes an idol and bows down to it.’ It just doesn’t make sense to think that it is possible to make from mere ‘stuff’, something which is going to provide supernatural power- v 19, ‘No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” ‘Look’ he is saying’- ‘God has given us lots of good things in life to enable us to live- like wood from which you can make a fire to warm yourself and cook your food. But it is stupidity in the extreme to then try and make from the leftovers, something which only God can give you.”- value and worth. Now we may not be into carving out statues to worship from pieces of wood, but we do the same thing in other ways. For example, God has given us families in which we are meant to learn how to relate to each other as human beings and so flourish. But when those children or grandchildren or even parents, become the things which we live for and from which we feel we gain our significance, our reason for existing, then we have made them into idols just as surely as a pagan in Babylon made a god out of an oak tree branch. And then it becomes corrupt and corrupting. That is when you get the manipulative mother who will not let her children grow up or leave the nest, but will always be ‘feeling ill’ so that the children will be forever tied to her apron strings and be perpetual spinsters or bachelors. I have seen it. A good thing which God has given becomes a bad thing when we abuse it because the self wants to be in control rather than allowing God to be in charge.
And the same can happen in churches. This is when appeal is made to self and felt needs being King rather than God and his truth. Let me tell you that it is quite possible to have church growth which is not Gospel growth. All you have to do is to take that which is good, marketing strategy in business and apply it to where it shouldn’t be applied, namely the church, and you will get growth. Here the maxim is, ‘give the punters what want’. Here is an actual quote from a church growth book: ‘The church is a business. Marketing is essential for a business to operate successfully. The Bible is one of the world’s great marketing texts.….Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency—an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs. …It is critical that we keep in mind the fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.’ This means that if people don’t like talk of ‘sin’, then such talk must be cut out. If people want to be told that God is always for them and makes no demands upon them, then all challenge has to be removed from the Bible. And some churches have decided to go down this route, replacing exposition with entertainment. I have a friend who is a Vicar who was recently served a writ under the Church of England’s Clergy Disciplinary measure, because he had the temerity, when preaching on the cross, to describe crucifixion which some people in the congregation found disturbing. They thought such things were distasteful and had no proper place in church and so they complained to the Bishop and now my friend may have to appear in court. That is what happens when the audience and not the message is sovereign. God is weightless.
Which brings us to the fatality of idolatry- v20, ‘He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my hand a lie?”’ The Bible testifies, and experience confirms, that to put anyone or anything in the place of God always results in disaster. Our hearts are so misguided that we genuinely think that we can find satisfaction, morality and purpose without God, but at the end of the day all we are left with is the nasty taste of ashes in our mouths. For decades now our young people have been fed with so many different idols whereby they can ‘achieve their potential’- through fashion, career, fame, sex but the social experiment has been seen to have failed except by the most die hard liberals. The gods we have been so busily pursuing and offering to our children have failed us. The sense of well being promised is not lasting and the idols are exacting their price with a vengeance.
Let me give one example; psychosocial disorders amongst young people. A number of years ago, Sir Michael Rutter, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in London and David Smith, Professor of Criminology in Edinburgh, published a massive study which focused on disorders that are increasing in teenage years- crime, suicide, depression, anorexia, bulimia, alcohol and drug abuse. What was striking was that a major increase in these problems occurred in the golden era of low unemployment and rising living standards between 1950 and 1973. In Britain recorded crime amongst the young had increased tenfold from 1950- 1993. So had alcohol consumption and alcohol related behaviour problems, as well as depressive disorders. What are the causes? The authors agreed that those amongst the poor and those living on the ‘sink estates’ are more likely to be criminal, depressed etc., than those in more comfortable surroundings-yet it can’t account for the rise in these problems amongst young people in general, because the rise was the most marked during the period of prosperity. You see, we have been fed the lie that material well-being equals spiritual/ social well-being -it does not. We are made for something more, indeed, someone more and that someone is God. Not the god of our imagination, the God of Walt Disney but the God of glory, so powerful and so personal he is able to save us and put us back on track towards him.
That is the conclusion in v 21ff, ‘O Israel I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the mist of the morning. Return to me for I have redeemed you.’ Isn’t that wonderfully reassuring? We may forget God, but he will not forget us. When God occupies his rightful place, when we realise he has dealt with our sins by removing them from his presence through His Son’s death on the cross (Isaiah 53) , when we return to him and he becomes the centre of our thoughts and his goals become our goals in life, then everything else begins to fall into their rightful place too. The things he has made, the stars in the heavens, or the trees in the forest which were never meant to be worshipped-suddenly testify to the one who is to be worshipped-v 23, ‘Sing for joy, O heavens for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory (weight) in Israel (church).’ Now do you see the freedom which the true God gives in contrast to the slavery of idolatry? The Christian can celebrate the joy of sex, not as an end in itself but as a God given gift for the mutual enrichment of husband and wife within marriage. Music can be enjoyed not as a mindless master but as a gift of the Creator who causes the heavens to sing. Food is not to be greedily consumed but received with thanksgiving. These are truths the redeemed know and are to proclaim, and as they do, with Jesus Christ being the centre of their lives, the weight of the Lord is then displayed amongst his people.
 David F Wells, God in the wasteland, p 88.
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