When I preach for Tulane Chi Alpha’s weekly service via Zoom (we usually meet face to face), we plan the messages and the service to be very brief. To stay on point and keep to time, I manuscript my messages. Here’s one from yesterday that I hope might prove timely for others, as well.
Raging seas, bloody moons, smoke and darkness obscuring the sun – distressing signs and omens. These images of nature at war cause humans to lose hope, fail in courage, lose strength. They are helpless.
We find these kinds of images in the OT prophets and through the NT. This biblical language is often symbolism for apocalyptic upheavals in the human world: wars, the rise and fall of empires and rulers, events and movements that shake the foundations of societies and cultures. These symbols portray the painful unsettling that marks turning point moments in history and the human devastation in their wake.
This is our moment, “unprecedented times,” and all. The most turmoil, fear, anxiety and uncertainty the USA has known in nearly two generations, more than 40 years. The hearts of people are melting with fear, foaming with rage, floundering in anxiety. What is God’s answer in this time?
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Isaiah is prophesying in the moment between empires: Assyria and Babylon, with Persia right behind. These mighty powers are clashing with each other while ruthlessly conquering other small kingdoms. Israel and Judah are swept up in these conquests under the judgement of God. There is nearly constant war and devastation all around.
The character, power and promises of God are being called into question.
In chapters 40-41, Isaiah sets up a rotating scene of courtrooms and creation where God, Israel/Judah and the nearby nations (those conquering and being conquered) come to ‘trial’. We see God vs. Israel, God vs. the nations and God vs. the idols. Within this kaleidoscope of judgement there are multiple invitations into the rest and strength of God, multiple guarantees of God’s care, concern, power and presence, and a repeated command to God’s people to not be afraid.
The idols – Isaiah 40:18-20
With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.
People choose and create different kinds of idols, different images of imaginary strength and security based upon their social class, cultural values and ethnic heritage, but the root is the same.
The islands have seen it and fear;
the ends of the earth tremble.
They approach and come forward;
they help each other
and say to their companions, “Be strong!”
The metalworker encourages the goldsmith,
and the one who smooths with the hammer
spurs on the one who strikes the anvil.
One says of the welding, “It is good.”
The other nails down the idol so it will not topple.
In the second passage, the islands (or the nations) are coming to face God, who is sovereign over the international calamities they desperately fear. God has invited them to be renewed in strength (41:1), but instead they turn to make another idol, an idol they have to nail down in hopes that it won’t topple.
Idols are clearly futile. They are the cobbling together of human ignorance, hubris and craftiness. They are symbols of hopes built upon anything other than God, human efforts to stave off destruction, to have something permanent when everything is crumbling, things like national pride, democratic dreams, social justice rhetoric, governments, brands, corporations, Facebook…
See, they are all false!
Their deeds amount to nothing;
their images are but wind and confusion.
They cannot save.
Humanity, in the face of problems and powers beyond its control seeks to build or make something to save itself, but salvation is only in the Lord: the One not contained by human minds (Is. 40:13-14), the One who sees and knows all, unconstrained by time or space, the One who created everything and before whom all the nations and empires amount to nothing (40:15-17, 21-24).
This impulse in premodern times and cultures is explicitly religious, and often takes the shape of statues, shrines, temples and sacrifices. Times have changed and idols have changed. Especially since the Enlightenment, these impulses take the shape of rationalizing away risk, empirical investigation to conquer nature and solve problems, marketing imagery and celebrities to wash away the anxieties of responsibility, and all sorts of tools and toys for self-actualization. And there is still the premodern, modern and postmodern penchant for political power and militarism. We don’t bow to statues or build religious temples today, but idolatry lives on long and strong.
Today, our democracy is in question. We know that our news media is compromised – which source is not drowning in its own fear of the other side? Scared journalists cannot report the truth, and power hungry politicians and their backers thrive on fear and twisting the truth. Our culture has been losing its capacity for graceful disagreement, for trusting the motives of those we disagree with. We are gaining speed on the tracks of making enemies, canceling those we dislike and fear, rather than growing in our capacities to build a common good together.
I sometimes fear for the future of the Church in America where so many Christian leaders stand for what seems absurd or against what seems like common sense. Yes, I think some of them are dead wrong, but when I let fear turn into an anger that threatens my capacity to love them, bless them and pray for them, I’ve turned away from the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and bowed down to an image my self-made or culture-derived image of what things should be. I’ve given up seeking understanding in order to discern truth together in favor of slinging mud and accusation. Lord, have mercy.
What have we been turning to as a nation?
What have you been turning to?
God promises to be with His people, to deliver them and calls them out of fear!
Isaiah 40:11; 41:10-14
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
“All who rage against you
will surely be ashamed and disgraced;
those who oppose you
will be as nothing and perish.
Though you search for your enemies,
you will not find them.
Those who wage war against you
will be as nothing at all.
For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob,
little Israel, do not fear,
for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
Jesus taught his disciples not to fear those who could merely kill the body. Instead, they should fear the One who can destroy both body and soul. Their fears should be driven out by contemplation of the Creator God of infinite power and absolute sovereignty, who is also their loving shepherd and very Good Father.
The place of fear in the human heart–dread, ongoing anxiety and worry, not alarm or momentary fright–belongs only to God. Anything else we fear is an idol, something taking space in our hearts and minds that belongs to God alone, something staging an insurrection against the rule of God’s shalom.
Where do you turn in the time of alarm? The moments of deep unsettling?
Do you turn to diversions (pretty idols)?
Do you turn to self-reliance or hope in the machinations of society (practical idols)?
Do you turn to worry, fear and anxiety (passive, miserable idols)?
Or, do you turn to the God who set the stars on their courses in the heavens, who made all things and orchestrates history to bring about the salvation of His people rescued out of every nation?
God gives strength to the weak and the worried. “Just as the Lord’s attributes include eternity, creativity, self-sufficient strength and wisdom, so they also include sharing strength. This is not a spasmodic or occasional activity but part of what he is.” (Motyer) He will overcome where we must otherwise fail, and he will give us strength to triumph where we must otherwise faint.
The Living God proves His trustworthiness to Israel and the nations through Isaiah by foretelling the rise and demise of empires and kingdoms through dire warnings of impending doom and promises of redemption and renewal (41:17-29). The Living God has proven His trustworthiness forever to all people through the Gospel we confess in the Creed: Christ has come. Christ has died for us, the ungodly. Christ has risen and conquered death!
It is time to lay down and demolish our idols of diversion, human reliance and fear!
Conversation Questions for Response
- How have you observed the things we often take for granted being exposed as failed idols over the past year in your personal life, or in our nation?
2. How does fear affect your ability to be the kind of person Jesus calls his disciples to be (loving God, neighbor and even enemies?)
3. How can you turn away from idols and look more fully into the wonderful face of Jesus this week? This year?