Oct 25, 2015

“Elevating to Worthlessness” 10-25-15

Isaiah 44:9-28
October 25, 2015

As we approach the end of October, it is sometimes difficult to identify people.  Politicians are pretending that their voting records aren't theirs in order to get votes as Election Day approaches. Children are dressing up as their heroes or villains as Halloween approaches.  And it is difficult to identify some of us by our clothing because we are turning more and more to our fall/winter wardrobes as winter approaches. 
And here at Faith Presbyterian, it is time for us to remember who we are by honoring those who started the reformation.  It is a good time for us to ask ourselves if those who started the reformation would recognize us as their spiritual descendants.
And as I thought of all of those things going on around us and within us, I thought that we might find this 44th chapter of Isaiah helpful and enlightening.
The first part of this passage, verses 9-20, taken alone, has become the classic sarcastic viewpoint of Judaism against Idol Worshipers.  It describes metalworkers and carpenters using their strength and skill to fashion an image of one of their gods.  They create it after the shape of themselves or some other creature, to symbolize the powers that this god is supposed to have.  The carpenters cut a log, and then cut the log in half.  Half of it they burn to cook their food and warm themselves. 
So far so good, they are using the resources of this world to provide comfort and sustenance for themselves, as God intended.  But then they take the other half of the log and shape it into an idol, which they then bow down and worship.  Part of that worship involved bringing sacrifices to that god and praying to that god so the god would keep them safe and strong and healthy.  So half of the log they would use properly to provide for themselves and the other half they would depend upon to provide for them and keep them safe from the powers of the world and the spiritual world.
Now, as I said, this would become the standard Jewish ridicule of the pagan idol worshipers.  But as it was written it was about a problem much closer to home.  When this passage was written, Idol worship on the part of Israelites was either a continuing problem, or it was a problem in the recent past of Israel about which they needed to be warned.  Later on, when they were resolved as a people to never be involved in Idol Worship they read this passage and others as being descriptive of the follies of the Gentiles. 
But I think there is more for us to think about here than idol worship.  This passage I think can be seen as warning us all against elevating the value of the works of our hands and considering them as more important or a more important part of our lives than they should be.  We sometimes value our possessions, the things we make or the things we buy with the wages of our labors as more important than the spiritual side of our lives or the eternal kingdom of which we will be a part.  And I am afraid that we also consider preserving the stuff we have as being more important than some of the people in this world whom God loves and who need our help.
When I was younger, I used to hear sermons or evangelist's messages that equated the love of one's possessions with Idol worship, and I never really liked that equation and now that I have studied the real problems and passages that deal with idol worship, I still do not consider them as being anywhere near equal, but it is easy for us to consider things as more important than people, who are created in God's image, and while that is not idol worship, it is wrong, and a violation of the values God wants us to have.
And since this is reformation Sunday, it is good for us to remember the reaction of the reformers to this passage and others like it.  One of the things that Calvin and others came to denounce in the church was the statues and images of God, Jesus, Mary, and the saints that were ever present in the churches they grew up in.  They understood the doctrine of the church behind such things, that those images and the saints were not worshiped but used as aids to worship and that the saints, including Mary were not worshiped but venerated.  The reformers understood this, but they were concerned that in practice the people were not really able to make that differentiation.  So they removed all of the images and statues and the two dimensional representations in the beautiful stained Glass windows.  Were they right, or did they go too far?  I can explain why they did what they did.  I do not feel the need to judge what they did.    But they did leave us a tradition that we have chosen to honor.  We are currently in a sanctuary that is without many ornaments.  There is no cross, save the one on the pulpit-fall and the ones on my robe.  There are no statues or stained glass windows.  There is, however, symbolism in the panels and colors of the baptismal font.  And there is a subtle reminder of the nature of God on the front wall of our sanctuary.  You will notice that there are 3 panels identified by the moldings on the wall.  The God whom we worship has revealed himself to us in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But so far I have only been talking about the first part of our passage, verses 9-20.  When we add the second part, verses 21-28 we see a new dynamic come into the picture.  In the verses we have been looking at, God ridicules people for worshiping the works of their hands.
In the second part, we see God and his works, of which the nation Israel is one.  Of Israel God says “I formed you, you are my servant, you will not be forgotten by Me.”
And then God speaks to his ability to continue to work in and for them once he has formed them.  He says “I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.
God also reminds them that he formed each one of them in their mother's wombs.  And his purpose in them is to be glorified because of what he will do in them and for them.  After they have lost their land, after they have been slaves for 70 years, He will rebuild their land, including their temple, something which no one would have expected except that the prophets, especially Isaiah had been predicting it for years.
And it is not just in Israel that God will be glorified.  Israel is not God's only servant.  He will also use the great tyrant and conqueror Cyrus the Persian.  Cyrus would be feared by many for good reasons.  One of them might be alluded to in 27 “I will dry up your rivers”.
When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he rerouted the river that flowed through it and used the nearly dry river bed to march under the walls and into the city.
The nations of the world had reasons to fear Cyrus, but God said that he would use Cyrus to be a shepherd for Israel, to guide them back home, and it would be the decree of Cyrus that would allow the Jews to return to Israel.
So the overview of this passage with both of its parts can be seen as a comparison of the works of man and the works of God.  We are not to value the works of man too much and we are to greatly value the works of God, in creation and in the way he uses the people and nations and movements of this world to accomplish his will, as he is using us to prepare the world for the return of His Son.


Pastor David L. Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906