Living amongst the idols - Isaiah 44:6-23
Did you know that eight out of ten cats prefer whiskers? That every third child born into the world is Chinese? Some people are fascinated with statistics. Of course, sometimes the statistics can be misinterpreted as with the case of the man from Dublin who, upon hearing that by using a certain gas heater he could cut his heating bills by half, decided that by having two of them he would never have to pay another heating bill in his life! But not only can statistics be misinterpreted, they can be misleading. We are told that over 75% of the population of Britain believes in God. But what does that mean? Just think of the word believe for a moment. What would that involve for a Christian? At least three things.
First, the Christian worships the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. This is more than singing hymns and saying prayers, it is a matter of what you give your heart to as the centre of your world. Secondly, he or she serves God, which is more than professing allegiance, it is about what your ultimate ends in life are in the way you occupy yourself. But thirdly, belief involves proclamation or, if you like, advertising what you believe by what you say and do. So with this idea of belief in mind, when Joe Bloggs says I believe in God and his main thought and overall direction in life is to climb up the ladder of promotion and maximise personal pleasure which includes promiscuous sex, surely it is a lie. But supposing the answer we get from Bill Bates is No I dont believe in God and yet what he passionately believes in is making money, racing cars and gambling on the horses. He too is lying, because he believes in several gods - money, cars and horses. In fact there is no real difference between Joe and Bill. So the question which our pollsters should be asking is not Do you believe in God? but Which gods do you believe in? The Bible calls this idolatry. And we are a nation full of idols and they are tearing us apart. So turn with me to Is 44 as we learn what it means for Christians to live amongst the idols today.
First of all, there is the reality of idolatry. There certainly was nothing unreal about idolatry for these Jews when this prophecy came to them afresh as they were exiled in Babylon - the place was stuffed with them. Not only did you have the ornate wooden statues of their gods - Bel, Nebo, Marduk(46: 1) - but the great city of Babylon was one huge idol - a glorious self tribute to the power and might of the greatest Empire the world had ever known. And of course the temptation for the Jews was to accommodate - to integrate these new gods into their religion, which was one reason why they were in exile in the first place. From the golden calf onward they simply couldn't resist having love affairs with idolatry and God had to teach them a painful lesson. So God, as it were, rubs their noses in it - v12 - 13 (read). This is going on all around them and it is enough to make their stomachs turn.
Now, the temptation to idolatry is just as real for us living this side of the NT as it was for the Jews their side of the OT. The apostle Paul broadens the prohibition on idols to include greed and immorality (Eph 5,. 5 and Col 3. 5). The very last words of the apostle John in his first letter are : Dear children, keep yourselves free from idols. Now, he wouldnt have said that if it were not a real threat. You see, idolatry isn't just a matter of making statues and bowing down to them, it is a matter of having faith in the wrong things, putting other things where God alone should be. The writer Harry Blamires describes it like this: We live in what is, in effect, a polytheistic society 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. You see, whatever we think is worth living for, worth sacrificing for, worth advertising to others - that is our idol. Now tell me that some of us Christians do not cherish idols.
All idolatry involves some form of infatuation. In v 9 we see the infatuation of the emotions: All who make idols are nothing and the things they treasure are worthless. They are things they treasure or delight in. Someone has translated it as their little darlings - the things they get excited about. In vv 18 - 20 it is the infatuation of the mind which is the target of Isaiahs taunt, people think such idols are full of knowledge and understanding, the sure road to enlightenment. They are of course nothing of the sort, they are sign of dim thinking, for how can that which one moment is used to light an oven to bake bread be venerated the next moment as a god? It is stupid.
And so we too have our idols which excite the emotions and capture the imagination, all a function of a world on the run from its Maker - Babylon. We may not have our temples devoted to Marduk but nonetheless we have our temples devoted to Mammon. The 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. Dont get me wrong, entertainment and home improvement are fine in themselves, but become twisted when they receive the devotion rightly reserved for God consuming our time and money.
But the evidence of idolatry can be more subtle than that, and it is in its subtlety that its power lies. For instance Nancy Clark has suggested that for many the contemporary interest in physical exercise is not simply a way of achieving health but is a kind of secular religion. She writes: As churches empty, health clubs flourish; as traditional fervour wanes, attention to the body waxes. In other words, as the baby boomers reach middle age, a yearning towards perpetual youth flares up and denial of the biological takes the form of aerobics. Again let me stress, keeping fit is good, but what is the motivation? Is it that as good stewards we should care for the body which God has given us and not abuse it, or is it because all our thoughts are on this world, for we really don't think there is one beyond worth denying ourselves for, we have to do all we can to extend this life for this is the only shot we have? The physical matters more than the spiritual? And if you dont believe me, do a mental reckoning on how much we are willing to pay out for health club membership or cinema attendance, or a season ticket compared to what we are often willing to give to the church. The former has less of a sting to it somehow doesn't it?
So why the lure? What is the attraction of idolatry? Well, the first and most obvious reason is that we think it means we are not accountable to God because we have made the idol and so we feel we can control it. Notice the emphasis on who does the making in vv 12 - 15 - it is man who does the shaping or fashioning, a phrase which is repeated three times. They are safe, predictable, controllable, there to serve us rather than we serve them - why in v 17 the plea to the idol is save us. In short the idols reflect the self which is on the throne of our hearts. We may want power and status - why? It makes us feel important - its our idol. We may move from one sexual conquest to the next. Why? Because it makes me feel good - it's our idol. All the time it is self which is central.
But the second reason why idolatry is so attractive is because it seems to work. That is certainly how it would have appeared to these Jews and why God through the prophet has to go to such lengths to disabuse them of that thought. The Babylonians where top dog nation and they attributed all their success to their gods. So why couldnt these Jews simply wake up and get real? How could they, humiliated as they were, continue to insist that the LORD was supreme ruler and their gods were nothing, didnt the facts speak for themselves? And as we look out on our world and the relative ineffectiveness of the church dont we feel the same? Of course we do. That is why some churches have decided to play the world at its own game. Credit cards allow us to have without having to wait, some evangelists offer divine results without having to wait, indeed without having to think. One church in Phoenix Arizona has been built like a country club and has an attendance of 10, 000 on a Sunday. The secret? The church is drama. And I quote, The preacher punctuates his sermons with eye - catching antics such as his own personal flight to heaven on invisible wires and the use of a chain saw to topple a tree to make a point. The church has become a circus. But it works, that is people are drawn in. But to what? A christianised version of Disneyland. God is sidelined as he is in the rest of society and the self is pandered to. Talk of sin is out, that makes people feel bad. Talk of affirming the self is in - that makes people feel good and that is what they want to hear - the idol speaks the words the worshipper want it to say. We think we have domesticated God.
But at the end of the day, the idols cannot come up with the goods, hence the failure of idolatry which is the main burden of this passage. The futility of idolatry beginning in v 9 leads to its pathetic climax in v 20 (read). His heart, which has manufactured the idol in the first place, has mislead him. He thought it would bring him satisfaction, feeding him, when in fact it has left nothing but the taste of ashes in his mouth.. The idolater cant save himself, or help himself, with regards the idols, he is totally hooked. He cant even see the thing to be a lie, he has been blinded. He is unable to think straight (v19). Some wood was used for fire, some for making a god, but both the ash and the god are products of the same thing. You might as well pray to dead embers. He thinks he holds the idol but in reality the idol holds him and he is its slave. He is slowly becoming like the idol he has made - v 18(read).
And does that not describe perfectly the situation of many in our society today? The gods we have been so busily pursuing have failed us. The sense of well being promised is not lasting and the idols are exacting their price. Let me give one example, psychosocial disorders amongst young people. A few 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 and 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. So in Britain recorded crime amongst the young has increased tenfold from 1950 - 1993. So has alcohol consumption and alcohol related behaviour problems. So has drug abuse, suicide - especially amongst young males, and depressive disorders. What are the causes? Well, the authors agree 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 cant account for the rise in these problems amongst young people in general, because the rise was the most marked during the period of prosperity. We have been fed the lie that material well - being equals spiritual wellbeing - it does not. That the more you have the happier you will be. The humanistic dream of the likes of Polly Toyobo is turning into a nightmare; so last week in the Radio Times she was still churning out the same old tired cliché that the answer to teenage pregnancies is more abortions, and free contraception to be doled out at school like dolly mixtures at school. We have never had so much sex education the in the last few years (that is as far as technique is concerned) yet we have never had so many sexual problems - why? Because no moral framework is on offer, except the principle of enjoy yourself and be careful - the idol of pleasure again.
As hinted in v 13, to try and make an idol which is less than man is to devalue man, it is a grotesque thing to do(read). Yet we are the image bearers of God in all his glory, and that cannot be transferred to some lesser thing, without our self - worth being damaged in the process and God himself being offended. You see, we were made to be more than pleasure animals and work machines - we were made for a loving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Idols always let us down, especially at the moment we need them most. tell, me when you are on your death bed facing eternity, what good will that big house do you then? What effect will that career for which you have sacrificed everything benefit you? They cant save you. But Christ can.
So lets finally look at the alternative to idolatry. Idolatry is living a lie. The lie which puts self or some ideology in the place of God. Which sees this life as the be all and end all and offers a thousand and one ways of attaining it. It inflates human pride while destroying the human soul. And the only way to counter the lie is with the truth v21 - 22 (read).
This whole section begins in v 6 with a reminder of who God is - the first and the last - eternal, no one made him, and yet as Israels King, he made them(v20). You can call on the idols to save until you are blue in the face and they will not be able to lift a finger - how can they? Yet this is the redeeming God who can wipe away every sin and guilt (v22)These idols know nothing, but this the God who foretells what is to come, even the future is open to him (v7 - 8). The idols are so unreliable - made of wood which can topple, this God is the Rock which is immovable (v8) and upon whom you can depend entirely.
And notice that when God occupies his rightful place, when we return to him(v22) and he becomes the centre of our thoughts and goals in life, then everything else falls into their rightful place too. The things he has made, the stars in the heavens, or the trees in the forest were never meant to be worshipped - they were meant to testify to the one who is to be worshipped - their Creator (v23 - read). 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 despised or greedily consumed but received with thanksgiving. These are truths the redeemed know and are to proclaim, and as they do, with Christ being the centre of their lives, the glory of the Lord is displayed amongst his people.
We live amongst idols but we do not have to be their slaves. Even more than Israel we have been set free to serve the one who put all idols clearly in their place, Jesus Christ, when he said Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other things will be given to you as well. (Mt 6: 33).
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