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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).  

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