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Monday, January 26, 2015

God Expects Justice

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Isaiah 45:8 (CEV)
Tell the heavens to send down justice
    like showers of rain.
Prepare the earth for my saving power
to sprout and produce justice
    that I, the Lord, create.[a]

Isaiah 45:8 (NRSV)
Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,[
    and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
    I the Lord have created it.

          God created the world, the universe, you, me.  A few atheists have sold a lot of books rejecting the existence of God.  By far most scientists, even those who aren’t at all religious would not claim science does away with God or the idea of creation.  That’s not territory covered by scientific research.  Church goers agree that God created everything.  We may debate the mechanisms by which God created, but we can agree God is the creator.
          Anyone who studies the Bible knows God creates intentionally.  God had a vision in Eden.  The culmination of God’s work came in creating one in his image, the human, the woman and the man. 
          God creates.  God creates with a plan.  God sees humans as His greatest creation and the center of his plan.  We know God as Father, Son, and Spirit, three in one.  The trinity exists in relationship as God is relational.  Human to God, human to creation (nature), human to human, and human to society; we live as God intended when we construct our lives around relationships.  We do our everyday work with relationships in mind.  When we live in humility, peace, and most importantly in love, then things are the way God wants them to be. 
          Look around the world.  Are things the way God wants them to be?  In some cases, yes.  Overall, no.  So what does God do?
According to Isaiah in the exile, God makes it rain. 
Tell the heavens to send down justice like showers of rain.”
“Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness.”
Prolific writer and preeminent scholar Walter Breuggemann cites Isaiah 40-55 as the foundational word of God that comes out of the exile.[i]  Any people utterly defeated in battle on their homeland and then dragged to slavery 1000’s of miles away would be overwhelmed and disoriented.  In 586 BC Israel was. 
Israel had, prior to the fall at the hands of Babylon, been guilty of systemic idolatry and systemic injustice.  The wealthy few prospered while the most vulnerable of society suffered.  The prophet Amos and the earlier chapters of Isaiah both take up this point. God’s response to his own people’s generational, systemic disregard of his way was to allow Babylon to rise in power and crush Israel.  The prophet interpreted Israel’s pain as coming not from Babylonian cruelty, but from God’s punishing hand.  Babylon was God’s instrument.
The exiles perceived themselves to be defeated and by extension, their God, the God Abraham had been defeated by Babylon’s gods.  No, Isaiah said.  All the horrors are a result of turning from God.  And, now, the punishment is over.  As bad as things look, God is bringing a new day.
This is Isaiah of the exile.  This is the word from the exile on which all other words from that time stand.  Isaiah comes onto a scene of depression, despair and rage, and into that he speaks hope that transforms and praise that recognizes who God is.
          Brueggemann calls Isaiah’s prophetic poetry ‘invitational.’[ii]  Isaiah calls Israel to a new hope, a hope for a new reality.  The Holy Spirit animates Isaiah’s message as we read it.  In Isaiah we are invited to be washed in the rain God sends.  But what is it exactly that falls on us when we are the rain God sends?
          In two English versions of Isaiah 45:8, we see a word in the original language translated in two different ways, once as ‘righteousness’ and once as ‘justice.’  Which is it?  Is this a matter of one translation being correct and the other wrong?
          Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance says this Hebrew word, ‘tsedeq’ means righteousness.  However, The New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance in a more expanded definition says the word can mean ‘righteousness’ or ‘rightness,’ and it belongs to a family of meanings that includes ‘fairly,’ ‘just cause,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘vindication’ in addition to the definitions already noted. 
          Just as the best way to construct our reality is in terms of relationships – to others, to God, to creation, to human society – the best way to take in these Hebrew words and concepts is in how they relate to other concepts and in how they are lived out.  It is not a matter of a precise definition so much as in the idea lived out relationally in the world as God created it and intends it to be.
          I offer a few other Hebrew terms.  First ‘mishpat.’  This term is used three times in Isaiah 42 and is translated ‘justice.’ One commentator describes is as God’s absolute divine right, true religion as lived out in everyday life.[iii]  Next, ‘Hesed,’ which is God’s loving kindness.  Throughout the Old Testament, God is known by ‘hesed.’  It is this loving kindness that drives God to rescue his people from exile even though their sins of inequality and ill-treatment of the poor, widow and orphan are what got them in trouble in the first place.  And finally, ‘shalom.’  This can mean peace but a fuller meaning is life in which all is in harmony and all is well.  This is life that prospers. 
‘Tsedeq,’ ‘mishpat,’ ‘hesed,’ and ‘shalom;’ in the way these terms play off each other in describing God and God’s expectations for human life, we see justice, mercy, love, peace, and hope. 
Please note, whatever this means for our activity, justice does not come because we work for it.  We should.  We should be advocates for justice.  But it originates with God.  God brings justice.  In Isaiah’ terms, God rains justice down.  Also note, in Isaiah’s day, God did this through human agency, not by way of miracles.  The agent of God’s justice was the Persian emperor, Cyrus.  He led the defeat of Babylon and he freed the exiles to return home.
Some Israelite did not appreciate that God would accomplish God’s purposes with a gentile pagan.  God responded, “Woe to you who strive with your maker, earthen vessels with the potter.  … I made the earth and created humankind upon it; I stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.  I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness and I will make all his paths straight” (45:9, 12-13).  How awful!  Will God do this by way of some Persian who doesn’t even pray?
Today, are we ever opposed to works of justice because we don’t like the people at the microphone?  I don’t know how you feel about Al Sharpton.  As the story of unarmed Michael Brown being shot by Officer Wilson unfolded, the dominant theme was the horrific trend of African Americans being killed by police instead of protected by those commissioned to protect and serve.  Add to that the alarming reality that African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for crimes where whites are likely to get off with no prison time for the same crime.  We have injustice – systemic injustice. 
But, I hear many Christians I talk to say they don’t like Al Sharpton.  I don’t know why he’s the voice at the microphone.  I am not hear to defend or criticize him.  But when a white guy gets community service for a crime and a black guy gets 6 months to a year for the same crime and it happens all the time, that’s injustice.  When there is a trend of unarmed young black males getting shot by white policeme, we have a problem.  When one of those killed is the same age as my 12-year-old white son and he was shot doing the kinds of things my boys does, I get scared.  I have a black son who will be 12 soon.  We who follow the God that insists upon human beings living in peaceful and loving relationships with each other cannot bicker about our distaste for the voice at the microphone. 
This is not about Al Sharpton or Bill O’Reilly or whomever.  Nor is it about recent tension in the United States.  That is one of our current signs of rampant worldwide injustice.  Racial inequality is an example but not the only one.  And it is not even about injustice.  This is about God.  God demands justice as a norm among the people He created. 
In describing the concept of justice in the Old Testament, Brueggemann says that it recognizes that “the well-being of the community requires that social goods and power to some extent be given up by those who have too much for the sake of those who have not enough.”[iv]  The very first Christians did this in sharing resources so everyone in the church could flourish (Acts 2:44-45). 
A core New Testament value is generosity.  The book Philemon takes this to an extreme where the Apostle Paul subverts an accepted first century practice, slavery.  He tells the slaveholder, Philemon, ‘Your man, Onesimus, is no longer your man.  He is God’s.  He was a slave, but now, you, he, and I are all in one family, brothers in Christ.’  Paul did not condemn slavery as an institution in and of itself.  He envisioned something grander.  In Paul’s view everything in life is re-imagined in light of Christ.  When we are in Christ, racism, slavery, poverty – these are all unthinkable.  The God who rains down justice and righteousness, peace and harmony has no place for suffering and hunger and inequality.
So, if we say justice is from God, not a result our works, then where is it and what are we to do?  Where was God when Michael Brown was shot, when Eric Garner strangled?  I read this that the richest 10% of the world’s population owns 87% of the world’s wealth.  Maybe that doesn’t bother you.  When I think of the Old Testament concept of distributive justice and when I think of the core value of generosity in the New Testament and when I hear Jesus saying that when we share with the poorest of these his children we are sharing with him, I am deeply troubled by this reality.  A few people are ridiculously rich and seemingly without concern for the billions who struggle with malnutrition, lack of educational opportunities, and inadequate housing.  Where is God?  Where is the God who rains down justice?
And if justice comes from God, what do we do? 
First remember that our understanding of ideas like justice is in terms of relationship.  We are connected to the orphans in Ethiopia, to the immigrants lacking documentation who are expelled from America, to Michael Brown’s mother.  In God’s view, human beings are connected to one another in relationship.  So, our first action is to see how one person’s pain is an injury to God’s creation. 
Second, as we read Isaiah, and imagine his words of hope as words for us, we remember that God is present in the world today in Spirit – the Holy, and in body – the body of Christ which is the church.  So, yes, justice is a work of God, and God does His work through the people who make up his church.  Our prayer life has to be one that moves from silence before to the action of love and compassion given to women and men. 
This becomes specific when a disciple’s life is full of relationships of compassion that are based in volunteer efforts.  We don’t just sponsor an orphan in Ethiopia.  We write letters.  We send pictures.  We pray for the child by name.  As much as we can we enter the child’s life relationally.  We don’t just volunteer to help build a ramp on someone’s home who cannot afford to hire contractors.  When we go, we talk to that person.  We hear her story.  We are blessed by sitting with her.  We don’t just enter protest movements, walk in marches, or sign petitions.  We befriend people whose lives are different than ours.  We enter their stories and take them into ours. 
We think about injustice relationally, and this includes the complete elimination of “us” and “them” language.
We follow God from prayer to action.  In this our action is always based on relationship more than project completion.
Third, we think of justice with an eye toward human flourishing.  A few years ago, the youth group was in Atlanta helping underprivileged inner city kids improve their reading.  Our partnership with the CBF missionaries there helped a multiple levels but one persistent theme is that if these kids master literacy and comprehension, they will be able to succeed in school.  If they succeed in school, they might be able to get good jobs that enable them to shed the label “underprivileged.”  Instead of surviving, these kids, today called “poor,” having learned love and developed academic skill may be able to thrive professionally and relationally.  The justice and compassion works that fill our lives and connect us to people are carried out with an eye toward human flourishing. 
 We won’t bring justice to world, not even as the body of Christ doing the work of God.  When Jesus was present, the world did not change.  But those around him did.  The world continued to sink in sin, but he was present, offering a new hope, just as Isaiah offered a new hope.  Now, we lived between the resurrection and the final day when God will set everything right.  Now, we are the voice that points the world to God.  We who believe in the resurrection God and the glorified future he promises are “unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.”
Justice will always be a dominant theme in the prophet’s words and a defining characteristic of the church.

[i] Brueggemann (1978), The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.70.
[ii] Brueggemann (1997), Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p. 46
[iii] K. Keil (1890) in Commontary on the Old Testament in 10 Volumes, translated by James Martin (reprinted 1973), William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids), p.175.
[iv] Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.737.

[i] Brueggemann (1978), The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.70.
[ii] Brueggemann (1997), Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p. 46
[iii] K. Keil (1890) in Commontary on the Old Testament in 10 Volumes, translated by James Martin (reprinted 1973), William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids), p.175.
[iv] Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.737.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

God's Servant in the 21st Century

            Think of the most important news stories in the world right now.  I don’t mean your favorite stories although the most important could be a good, positive story.  What I am getting is the stories that are significant for humanity.  What issues or stories are the big ones?  Concentrate on the one or two that come to mind.   Think on the first one or two stories that came to mind.
            Now, raise your hand if the story you thought of is negative.  If it would be “bad news,” just raise your hand.
            Some that came to my mind as example of the most significant current events include the following:
-         Race relations in the United States.
-         The ongoing war with Isis in Iraq and Syria.
-         The terrorist murders in France.
-         Climate change.
-         The Republican-controlled congress.
-         Immigration in the United States
-         Same-sex marriage becoming a norm in American culture.

I wonder if anything that came to my mind would be on your list.  It’s too simple to count every story as “bad”.  Some certainly are.  Others are rife with tension because there is the negative element, but also the potential for hope.  These stories and many you have thought of and stories that we can’t see coming that will dominate headlines tomorrow collectively make up the narrative of our time.  This is our day.  When seen collectively, the signs of sin wreaking havoc and destroying human life are all too obvious. 
What word does a follower of Jesus Christ speak into this bad news?  To what action is the body of Christ, His church, called in our day?
We want to live out our faith publically.  We want to live as Jesus’ disciples not only as we carry out our individual lives and our church life, but also as we give a witness to the goodness of God and claim that God’s goodness, seen in Jesus, it a truer story than the bad news we hear.  We want to counter the anxiety, hatred, death, and destruction we see in these stories with a story of the good news of life in Christ.  All people are invited to Him and He seeks the lost and in different ways most of us have times of being lost.
Isaiah, living in Babylon with the Jews who were there as exiles, spoke the good news of God into a situation in which God’s people felt defeated an abandoned.  They thought themselves dead and the promises dating to Moses gone, but Isaiah came along to say God is still all powerful, God is with us, and God will save us. 
Isaiah’s words to the exiles are found in Isaiah 40-55.  Within that block, there are four passages called the servant songs.  Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and then the most well-known 52-53 are passages in which the prophet speaks of a special servant of the Lord, or the prophecy is from the perspective of the Lord’s servant. 
Bible scholars have widely debated who specifically was being discussed in these “servant songs.”  Who is the servant?  There have been many suggestions.  The servant is the prophet himself – Isaiah.  The servant is the nation of Israel, commissioned by God to be a light that shines and allows the world to see God (Is. 49:6).  The the emperor of Persia when Persia overthrew Babylon and allowed many Jews to return to Israel, Cyrus, is specifically named in Isaiah.  Thus, many think he is the servant.  New Testament writers took the prophecies to be signposts pointing to Jesus. 
Isaiah certainly did not know Jesus was coming.  He knew God was doing a new thing, but he expected to see God work in his lifetime and he did.  God has always been a God who saves.  I don’t think Christians are wrong to read the “servant songs” and immediately think of Jesus.  However, I think there other ways of identifying the servant are equally appropriate. 
Donald Gowan of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary writes, “The identity of the servant is not the key issue.  … What God accomplishes through the servant is what is important.”[i]  Another expert, Norman Gottwald, of New York Theological Seminary says, “The most promising question is not who is the servant but what does the servant do?”[ii]  When I was in seminary, we would get caught up in discussions over issues like this, and I have found it extremely encouraging to read these scholars and hear them express more concern about the servant’s action and what it says about God.  Most helpful is the perspective of Paul Hanson of Harvard Divinity School.  He says, “The servant is the description of the human being whom all who love God are challenged to become.”[iii]
Isaiah?  Israel?  Cyrus?  Maybe the servant image pointed to these, but when we consider the world around us, and the problems, and when we realize we are called as Christ-followers to announce the Gospel and the hope it brings to a lost, hurting, dying world, then the servant is a depiction of who we are called to be as God’s witnesses.  And in Jesus, we have a perfect example.
Look at Isaiah 42.  God delights in the servant.  After Jesus was baptized a voice from Heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  In Isaiah 42 God says, “I will put my spirit upon him.”  Luke 4:1 says Jesus was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit.  Isaiah 42 repeatedly shows the servant to be an agent of God’s justice (v. 2, 3, 4).  In his first public sermon Jesus declared that the Spirit of the Lord anointed him to bring “good news to the poor, … release to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, and … [freedom] to the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
In Isaiah 49, the servant is the speaker.  “While I was in my mother’s womb, he named me” he says (49:1).  The Angel Gabriel told Mary, “You will bear a son and name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).   The servant says God made his mouth like a sharp sword.  “He made me a polished arrow” (49:2).  In Revelation, the resurrected Christ is described as having a two-edged sword coming from his mouth (1:16).  In Isaiah, the servant says God is glorified in Him.  In the Gospels, God is glorified in Jesus during the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36).  Also in John 12, shortly before he is arrested, Jesus declares that his action of sacrificing his own life brings glory to God.  Immediately, a voice from Heaven confirms what Jesus just said.  God is glorified in Jesus and in what Jesus’ act of dying on the cross (John 12:27-28).
If the various Bible scholars are correct and the most important thing to see in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 52-53 is what the servant does, then we can see that Jesus does it better than anyone.  He perfectly filled the role of the servant described by Isaiah, and the servant is the key figure in God’s salvation of Israel and in turn the world.
Now recall again the problems we face – racism in our country; war in Syria; terrorism on a global scale; an immigration system that is completely broken and affects millions of people in our country; pollution which leads to climate change.  As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to respond to the bad news of terror, war, and death by sharing the good news of life in Christ.
How do Isaiah’s prophecies and Jesus’ ideal modeling of those visions help us?  Consider what we are.  Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 12, “You are the body of Christ” (v. 27).  He also says, “In the one spirit we were all baptized … and we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (v.13).  After Jesus rose from death, he breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples (John 20) and after his ascended, the Holy Spirit filled hundreds of Christ-followers at Pentecost.  Jesus is as present and as active as when he walked the earth but not bodily.  He is present in spirit and in the church, us.  We act as the body of Christ.
What did Professor Hanson say about the “servant songs?”  If we are people who love God, then we strive to live into the role of God’s servant.  Thus we look at the same verses from Isaiah Jesus fulfilled and see if those depictions can continue to be descriptive of the church in the world today.
In Isaiah 42 it says God delights in the servant and in Luke 3, at his baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved.  Isaiah tells us that God puts his spirit upon the servant, and Luke 4:1 says Jesus was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit.  What about today?  Paul writes in Romans 5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (5:5).  As the servant is beloved of God and endowed with God’s spirit, so too are when we receive forgiveness and give our lives to Christ. 
Last week we talked about seeing God above the problems of the world, as over everything.  We see God for God is.  This morning, we add to that, our perception of ourselves.  In Christ, we are sons and daughters of God.  When we find ourselves tempted to dwell on problems, our own personal struggles or the evils that threaten people around the globe, a helpful spiritual discipline is to remember that in Christ we are sons and daughters of God.
Isaiah 42 shows that God’s servant works for justice (v. 2, 3, 4), and Luke 4 among many other Gospel passages shows Jesus’ concern for people who suffered injustice.  We are living into the life of God’s servants when we identify the most vulnerable people in society and we work to help them.  Most often, these are those who are victims of injustice.  We see it, name it, and work to counteract injustice.  This will be our theme next week, but here we’ll simply say that the Lord’s servant speaks and works for the justice the Lord demands.  When we act out of compassion to help those in need, we are living into the role of God’s servant. 
Isaiah 49 also showed us some things about the servant including that God knew him before his birth.  And the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a son and would call him Jesus.  Does the Lord pay such careful attention to us even before we are born?  Luke 12 and Matthew 6 are both places where Jesus talks about the intimate, detailed care God has for us.  Like the servant, we too are loved. 
Isaiah 49 also tells us that the servant speaks the piercing truth so that his words are like a sword, and we see the same of Jesus throughout the gospels and the sword metaphor used in Revelation 1.  The servant says God made his mouth like a sharp sword.  If we as individual disciples and collectively as the body of Christ want to answer God’s call and live as God’s servant, we have to speak the truth of the word of God.  We don’t need to go out of our way to try to step on the toes of people in our lives.  We don’t need to quote scripture all the time.  But our words must laced with, colored by, and washed in the truths of the Bible.  When they are we end up pointing people to God. 
That’s not always comfortable or easy.  It doesn’t always feel good.  But, speaking truth in all occasion with love and compassion and tact indicates that we are living on God’s terms for God’s purpose.  We have given up our lives to Him that he would use us as His instruments of healing in the world. 
Finally, in Isaiah, the servant says God is glorified in Him.  In the Gospels, God is glorified in Jesus.  When we love, when we show compassion and work for peace and justice, when we welcome all people, and when we realize that because of Christ we are God’s offspring as well as his creation and all this determines how we speak and how we live, then God is glorified in our lives. 
The servant songs become a 21st century word that speaks to the world around us as we see ourselves for who we are in Christ and set our lives so that all that we say, think, and do reveals our complete God-orientation and Holy Spirit dependence.  Now, again, recall the opening question.  What are the stories of today, the big issues?  Which one troubles you most?  It could be a national current like terrorism.  It could be something local.  Maybe what troubles you most is something in your own neighborhood or your own family. 
We are God’s servants – loved, Spirit-equipped, armed with the truth we have in the word, and commission to work for justice, show compassion, and point people to Jesus.  We are going to take a few moments now for silent reflection.  Consider what you find most troubling in the world today.  Ask God how you, as His servant, and how we, His church, are to speak and give his hope and peace and love to the people suffering from that trouble God has put on your heart.  Take a few moments to think and pray about it silence, the problem, and the word of God we, His servants, are to bring to the people who suffer.

After we have this reflection time, we will sing, you will be invited to come for prayer if you would like to come. 


[i] Gowan (1998), Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death & Resurrection of Israel, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.159.
[ii] Gottwald (1985), The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction,Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.497.
[iii] Hanson (1989), Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preachign: Isaiah 40-66, John Knox Press (Louisville), p.44.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fake Gods and the Real Thing (Isaiah 41:8-10; 44:9-17)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

[Begin by reading Isaiah 44:9-17]

          Isaiah tells of the man who cuts down a tree, burns half of it for his fire, to stay warm, cooks over the fire, burning the wood he’s cut down, and carves what’s left into a statue.  Then he bows down and worships what he has made.  He calls it “God;” the absurdity of idols and idol worship.  In ancient times, some people worshiped nature.  Others made statues that they believed were manifestations of their gods.  Their superstitions blinded them from the idiocy of bowing down before something they had conceived.  
Have you read in the book of Exodus, the story of Moses receiving the 10 commandments on stone tablets on the top of Mount Sinai? The people of God were slaves in Egypt when God elevated Moses to the status of prophet.  He performed works of wonder that demonstrated God’s power.  He turned the Nile River to blood.  He brought plagues of locusts and frogs.  He raised his staff and God parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk out of Egypt. 
In the Sinai wilderness, Moses climbed the mountain to receive the commandments.  The people waited at the foot of the mountain.  And they waited. 
Tired of waiting, they decided he wasn’t coming back.  So, they took all their gold, melted it down, formed it into the shape of a cow, and then declared that this god was their savior.  This golden cow which they made themselves became their god.  It sounds nutty.  How could anyone make something and then worship what they made? 
However, just as in Moses’ day and later in Isaiah’ day, we in our day put our faith in something and often it is not God.  A lot us, people of the so-called ‘enlightenment,’ give devotion to things instead of God.  We would say it is different than worshiping a statue, but any worship that is due and is given to something else is idolatry whether one acknowledges it or not. 
The atheist may vehemently deny that he worships anything.  He does.  The Christian may insist she worships God and only God.  Look at her life. 
Better look at your own and I’ll look into me.  What is the object of our loyalty?  To what we devoted?  What determines our values?  What defines us?  By whom or by what do we measure everything else? 
Listen to something I read on the Preaching Today website.
John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, argues that everyone has "faith" in something—even atheists."
Lennox backs up his case by quoting the famous 20th century scientist Albert Einstein who once said, "I cannot imagine a scientist without that profound faith[that the universe is comprehensible to our reason]." The contemporary atheist Richard Dawkins once wrote, "An atheist … is someone who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe …" Notice that the atheist believes there is nothing beyond the natural world because he or she can't actually prove it. The physicist Paul Davies, who is not a Christian, says, "Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us." The physicist John Polkinghorne agrees, arguing that the entire study of physics depends on "its faith in the mathematical intelligibility of the universe."[i]

          Everyone has faith in something. 
Only God delivers.  Only God – God as we know Him in Jesus Christ – is worthy of worship.  Only God can make good on god-type promises.  Only God is in all places, available to all people at one time.  But people, including many Christians, trust something or someone other than god.
What are the idols of today? 
Obviously one is money.  Every decision is based on holding onto the money one has, making more of it, or longing for the money someone else has.  We stress about money.  The stress puts a strain on one’s relationships.  It disrupts one’s participation in the work of God, because money, not the call of God, decides how we participate ministry. 
Money is an important tool which should be managed wisely, respected, given away thoughtfully and prayerfully.  Trusting God does not lead one to be reckless with money.  But neither should it be the determining force in our lives.  Money cannot give peace of mind, a sense of purpose, or joy.  Money will not forgive us of our sins, bless our relationships, or give us eternal life.  When we look to money to do things only God can do, and when we construct our lives around the protection of, love of, and striving for money it is an idol as silly as the worship of a golden calf. 
In what or who do we put our faith?
Some American Christians idolize a certain life style – the house with the two-car garage, the big screen TV and the SUV in the driveway; oh the good life.  Our pursuit of it consumes us.  We have no time for God or friends because we’re chasing a dream which is in reality is not the blessing we think it is.    
In some families, a family member is exalted.  However, as awesome as Grandma might be, she is not perfect and she is not holy.  She is a sinner like everyone else and she needs God and it is OK to say that in an appropriate way.  But in some families, it becomes not OK because Grandma, without intending to, has become an idol. 
The quotes from Lennox, Einstein and Polkinghorne show that for many, science is an idol.  Science is a great thing – a way of knowing and seeking knowledge of reality.  Research, experimentation, new discoveries, publication – this can all be done as an offering to God.  Science cannot save – only God saves, through Jesus.  But, like Money, a lifestyle, or pride in one’s family, science can be a way the disciple glorifies the Lord Jesus. 
The promise every idol makes is that we can have life apart from God.  This lie was first told in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent told Eve she would not die.  You shall not dieYou shall be like God.[ii]  We don’t need God to thrive.  That’s the lie.
Even when the lie is couched in different language, the basic promises of power and security always lead back to the idol ( scientific achievement, the security of wealth) claiming to give what in truth only God can give.  When it begins, the idol promises us everything and asks nothing of us.[iii]  Over time, the idol offers less and less to us while asking more and more of us until, when we are enslaved, the idol demands everything from us and gives nothing. 
God asks everything of us, but not deceptively and not conditionally.  Up front God said to Israel, I shall be your God and you shall be my people.  Up front, Jesus says to us, take your cross and follow me.  How Israel responded and how respond does not determine God’s gift.  God gives us life – eternal, abundant life – out of his love for us, as a gift of grace.  God created each of us.  God gives a world in which we can live, thrive, and grow.  To our mistakes including our sins against Him, God gave himself – His Son, Jesus Christ.  He died on the cross for us.  God give mercy and forgiveness regardless of what we do.  Our step of faith is to receive what God has given.
Upon receiving, we find ourselves remade, born again.  As Paul says, we become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17).  And the Holy Spirit within us leads us to give God what God is due, worship, devotion, and loyalty.  Filled with God’s spirit, we become daughters and sons of God. 
So how do we keep our eyes on Him and off the idols?  And how do we help others who aren’t so sure about God and certainly are not conscious of the idols they serve see and follow and find salvation in the one true God? 
A starting point is to change our perception.  Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, we see people as those God loves, those who need him.  We are not annoyed by people.  We have compassion for them.  Along with this, we recognize the temporary nature of worldly power and the eternal reality of God’s power.  In other words, we see God as God really is. 
Isaiah tried to get the Israelites to see.  He wanted them to understand the limitations of human power, whether it was the force of the Babylonian empire or the weight of their poverty.  And he wanted them to feel the fullness of God’s divine authority.  When held up side by side, human power and God’s power, there is no comparison. 
The words Isaiah spoke to the Israelite exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BC ring true for us today because of Jesus.[iv]  We make ourselves aware of how limited the world we see is.  At the same time we ponder the limitless rule of God.
One of the questions we pondered last week was how we could help our friends who have doubts about God see us, then see past us to Jesus.  How can we be good witnesses?  One way is to see clearly and help others see clearly.  We see what it is an idol that provides no enduring blessing and that in the end leads to death.  Conversely we see what God is about.  God is about saving people from despair and saving them for life. 
Isaiah 41:8-10 and also vs.17-20:
 But you, Israel, my servant,
    Jacob, whom I have chosen,
    the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
    and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
10 do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers on the bare heights,[b]
    and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
    and the dry land springs of water.
19 I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
    the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
    the plane and the pine together,
20 so that all may see and know,
    all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel has created it.

          So that all may see and know; I am at my best when I am conscious of seeing God.  I leave the house in the morning and stop at the grocery story on the way to the office.  In my exchange with the woman at the check-out, I am aware of God’s presence.  I am acutely aware that she is a child of God made in the image of God.  She may be really nice, or she may be impatient and cranky.  Either way, she is God’s.  As I talk with her, God is present and I know it. 
At the office, I have a lot of work to do, but someone comes in with a problem that demands my time.  For a moment, I am annoyed that the work is not getting done.  But, I am aware that this hurting person is a child of God and God has put him and me together in this moment, and God is present.  The annoyance is overshadowed by the purpose of God.  My tasks do not determine the value of this time.  God does. 
I go through the day seeing each encounter, living each moment, under the lordship of God as I know God in Jesus.  God is always present.  I live in this awareness, as I said, when I am at my best.  Other times, I am not at my best.  I am mean, petty, and impatient.  God shows up then too.  God redeems those moments and redeems me in those moments.  Rejecting idolatry, seeing as the prophet sees, and living with constant, conscious awareness of God’s presence, authority, and love leads us into living a public faith. 
Last week we ended by taking up the challenge.  Do we really believe these audacious claims of Isaiah?  How can we encourage someone we know and love who does not believe?  This morning I have suggested a first step in being a witness is seeing.  We see idols and we name them.  We see God and line our lives up according to God’s purposes. 
This coming week, continue to challenge your own faith.  Ask, ‘do I really believe this?  How can my life be a testimony?’  As we do this a second challenge is the challenge to see.   Pray that the Lord will open your eyes.  Read Isaiah 40-55, pray, and then read and pray again, all the way, looking perceptively at the world.  Look around your world, and see the fake gods and notice people orienting their lives by the idols they worship.  As we see fake gods, we look to the Holy Spirit and we look in the Word of God, and we see the real thing.  We see God.  We put our trust in him as we put our focus entirely on Him.  He then shows how we are to go through the day.

[i] The two opening paragraphs are a direct quote from the Preaching Today website -

[ii] A. Crouch (2013), Playing God, IVP Books (Downers Grove, IL), p.66.
[iii] Ibid, p.71.
[iv] In Romans 11, Paul states that gentiles have been “grafted” into the people of God because of Christ (Romans 11:17-23).