If you went around the community of Rosenort and looked at the buildings, where would you say the heart of the people is? What would the buildings reveal about our priorities - the Credit Union - the arena - our homes - our churches?
If we did a survey this morning and asked how much time people spent on different activities, what would that reveal about what they value? In which order of importance would the following work, play and church appear?
If you did a survey of how people used their money, what would that reveal about what they trust? Although we do not worship idols made of wood and stone, idolatry can still be a part of our life in the sense that there are things other than God which we value more, trust and have confidence in.
As we continue our study of Isaiah, we find that there are numerous passages which speak to the issue of idol worship. For some reason, idolatry was a temptation for Israel, but as we will see, the root concern is not far from our life. Last week we learned that God is Lord over all the nations. As we look at the passages that speak about idol worship, we learn that God is the one and only God and are challenged to examine our lives for any places where we might realize that we worship something other than God. This morning, I invite you to look at Isaiah 44.
On vacation, I read some stories by Stephen Leacock who is known as a humorist. A good humorist is able to take things that seem ordinary to us and helps us see the humor in them. Leacock has one story about opening a bank account and it tells of how nervous he is so that in the end he takes his money with him and never goes in a bank again. It is a very funny story because it reveals what is inconsistent or ridiculous in us. You know who another good humorist is? Did you ever think that God is a good humorist? I enjoy Isaiah 44 because it is so funny. In this chapter he reveals, in a humorous way, how ridiculous idol worship is.
The first statement that looks ridiculous is to realize as Isaiah 44:11 says, “craftsmen are but men.” What follows is a further description of the incongruity of a person making the thing that they worship. In verse 12 it says that the blacksmith “shapes an idol” and verse 13 talks about the carpenter who “shapes it in the form of man.” Doesn’t it strike you as ridiculous that a person makes the thing that he is going to bow down to and ask for help? Idols are created by the people whom the idols have supposedly created!
The humour continues in verse 14 where we continue with the story of the carpenter who has taken a tree - a cypress or an oak - which has grown in the forest as the rain fell on it and made it grow. Such a tree, such a created thing which has been made to grow by the forces of nature(or from Isaiah’s perspective by God), is taken and formed into an idol which is then worshipped as something great and worthy. The existence of the idol depends on the tree, which depends on whether it rains or not!
The really funny part is found in the next section. In verse 16, Isaiah mocks that the person who worships this idol takes part of the tree and uses it to make a fire to cook his supper with it and warms himself with it and the other half is used to make an idol which he then worships. What makes half the tree holy and worthy of worship and the other half only good for fuel for the fire? How hilarious!
The folly continues in verse 17 where this god that is formed from half the wood suddenly becomes a god by the words of the maker who takes this piece of wood that he has shaped and suddenly says to it, “you are my god.”
If we weren’t in church, we should be rolling in the aisles by now. We are right with God here. We can see how blind, how foolish these people are. Isaiah declares it in verse 9, “Those who speak up for idols are blind…” The folly of it is revealed again in verses 18,19, “They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 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 I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
The comments, in verse 20, on such folly are instructive. People who rely on them feed on ashes, are mislead by a deluded heart, cannot thereby be helped and worship what is a lie.
But as much as we see this as utter folly, Israel did not see it as such. Why would Isaiah even have to say something if it was so obviously foolish? What reason, what logic would make them even consider such a temptation?
The first reason they faced this as temptation is because they were so alone. As they looked at all the nations around them, they saw that every other nation had idols. Even though they were all different idols, they had in common that they all had visible gods to worship. Israel alone worshipped an invisible God. Israel alone had no image of their God. You know how it is when you are alone. Even though you may have strong convictions, if you are alone in those convictions, pretty soon you begin to wonder if perhaps you are wrong. Even if you don’t think you are wrong, it is hard to stand alone in a way of living.
Furthermore, at this time, Israel was facing defeat from some of the nations which surrounded them. The common understanding of that day was that the nation who won a war had a stronger god. It was understood that each nation’s god helped it in battle. If a nation won, it was because their god was stronger. If a nation lost, it was because their god was weaker. Israel had lost many wars and were being decimated. It was a short step to believe that they had lost because God was not as strong as the gods of the other nations. If that was the case, perhaps it was time to begin to worship some of these other gods and make images of them to try to get their help.
To them, the worship of these idols was not such a foolish thing. To them, it presented itself as a very powerful and reasonable option.
That is why God so strongly mocks the folly of such idol worship. That is why God so powerfully must make known to them that He is God alone. The point of the passage is not to poke fun at the folly of idolatry, but to invite them to follow God. Five reasons are given for the strong appeal.
In verse 6, we read that they are invited to follow God because of who He is. Unlike idols, God is King, Redeemer, Almighty, the first and last. He is over all and greater than all.
In a number of these verses, God invites comparison. Verse 7a says, “Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it.” This is the context in which the folly of idolatry is presented and the conclusion in verse 19 and 20 is that an idol is a detestable thing and ashes and nothing. None of the gods of the nations or their idols can compare with God. Israel had life in their hands, they had a relationship with the one and only true God and they were prepared to throw it all away, for something as useless as a dead idol.
The superiority of God is also shown because of what He knows. In verse 7, God reminds Israel that he alone has had a hand in all history. He has shaped not only history past, but history yet to come. He asks any of the idols to reveal “what is yet to come.” Only God knows that.
In verses 21-23, he reminds them of what he has done. He has made a covenant with them so that they have become his children and he has redeemed them, forgiving their sins. These acts of God are a further presentation of why God is a far better option than idols. As Spurgeon writes, “Why should pardoned sinners live at a distance from their God?”
They are also invited to follow Him because he promises much more than any idol. Although Israel was facing devastation, they had the promises of God that he would yet restore them. These promises are contained in verses 24-28.
“If only they could accept how special they are in the eyes of God…” If only they realized that they were in danger of choosing what was nothing, what was dead and empty. The humor in the passage and the strong statements invite them to see that all other gods are nothing and that God alone is God and, therefore, to choose to follow Him.
We laugh with God at the folly of idols. How ridiculous to bow down to a block of wood! How foolish to trust what is nothing. But…what would God poke fun at in our world? What equally ridiculous things do we trust? How do we put confidence in things that will not satisfy or give life? In verse 20, he indicates that those who trust in idols “feed on ashes.” Are there ways in which we are feeding on ashes? Examining our lives further with the words of Isaiah 44:20 ringing in our ears we need to ask, “how are our deluded hearts mislead?” “Where do we look to be saved?” “What are the lies we have come to believe?
Those of you in high school are working hard to get a lot of credits. Some of you are going to university and working towards a degree. Why are you doing that? If you are depending on a good education to get you a good job so that you can have a happy life, I would like to challenge you to ask yourself if perhaps you are not grasping for something that will not satisfy. Instead of grasping for the self centred goal of a happy life with lots of money, I want to challenge you to study hard and get a degree so that you can eat the real food of service to God. A good job or lots of money are just as empty as pieces of wood carved into the shape of idols.
I know that there is a debate among some people about whether it is OK to drink or not. If that is what occupies you, you are wasting your time on emptiness. Do you know what the Bible says about alcohol? Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Instead of debating whether drinking is OK or not, why not get a drink of something really intoxicating? Why not be filled with the Spirit? In the debate and in the participation with alcohol, you are eating ashes. Why not instead experience the amazing life of the Spirit of God!
One of the temptations that faces people in middle age and beyond is realizing that they have a growing fortune. One day, after years of struggle and desperately trying to provide for your family, you suddenly realize that you have a fair number of assets. The burden of payments isn’t as heavy as it once was and there is a little money left at the end of the month. As ridiculous at it may seem, it is at that point that we are tempted to begin to rely on those assets. There is enough in the bank account and the investments to live quite comfortably. There is nothing wrong with that, but, the problem is that we begin to believe the lie that we can trust our possessions. I was reading I Timothy 6 the other day and was reminded in verse 17, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to …put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Relying on our assets is just as foolish as worshipping a block of wood.
Just as for Israel these idolatries are so subtle and seem so reasonable that we don’t even realize that we are worshipping them. We live eating ashes. We are mislead, we look for salvation in a place other than God. Is that where you want to live?
One writer says, “Idolatry is thus the external manifestation of a spiritually impoverished mind.” How does your mind manifest spiritual impoverishment?
So just as God invited Israel to choose Him and the fullness of life he could give instead of the emptiness of idolatry, I would like to make the same invitation.
Choose God because of who he is. In verse 8 it says, “there is no other Rock; I know not one.” I was swimming once and had found a rock in a deep area that I could stand on. I would swim around for a while and then come back to the rock to rest. One time when I had been swimming for a while and was getting tired, I returned to the rock and it wasn’t there. I was in a bit of a panic until I could swim closer to shore and stand up. Relying on a job for satisfaction, any entertainment for real value in life or our money for security is like relying on the rock I couldn’t find.
God is not like that. He is always solid, always to be found, always to be relied on. So choose to rely on Him. God says to Israel and to us in Isaiah 44:21, “Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you.”
Furthermore, I would like to invite us to choose God because of what he has done. In verse 22 Isaiah says, “I have swept away your offences like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Do we have a strong enough notion of the wonder of redemption. What was true for Israel is known so much better by us. Through the blood of Jesus that truth is even greater now. Do we know the love of God in forgiving us? Do we know the wonder of sins forgiven? Do we realize how great it is that we are cleansed? Charles Spurgeon asks, “Why should pardoned sinners live at a distance from their God?” So Isaiah invites, “return to me.”
The promise of restoration for Israel was a great thing. In the context of utter devastation, God promised that he would use Cyrus, the king of the Medes and the Persians to restore his people. When Cyrus became king of Babylon, he developed a policy of returning people to their homeland and allowing them to renew their forms of worship. He did so as good political policy, but we know better. We know he did so because he was God’s servant to bring Israel back from exile. This promises in verses 24-28 were a great hope and they happened. In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah Israel returned and rebuilt the walls and the temple.
How much greater is our hope. We are looking forward to a restored kingdom. We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness lives and in which we will live in peace in the presence of God forever. Just as God fulfilled the promise to Israel, so he will fulfill his promise to us. That is a good reason to put our confidence in God. Every time I stand at a graveside and pronounce the words of committal for a believer, I realize that we lay the body to rest, but we do so in hope of the resurrection. Don’t we want to fully live in that hope?
With a God like that, why settle for less than the best? Why do we not fully trust Him and follow His way?
Bring ashes and some great food and invite them to choose what they want to eat.
C. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening : Daily Readings (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995). February 10 PM.
G. W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001, c1979-1988). Vol. 2, Page 799.
C. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening : Daily Readings (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995). February 10 PM.