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“The Absurdity of Idols”

Isaiah 44:9-20
Bob DeGray
March 17, 2013

Key Sentence

Have you made something that you give the place of a God in your life?

Outline

I. Am I investing myself in something profitless? (Isaiah 44:9-11)
II. Am I giving something other than God my best work? (Isaiah 44:12-13)
III. Am I elevating something above its place? (Isaiah 44:14-17)
IV. Am I believing a lie? (Isaiah 44:18-20)


Message

I don't know if I've officially announced that I’m going to Nepal for two weeks in May. The desire to see my grandson, to see where Tim and Abbie live, and the excuse of taking them an espresso grinder finally convinced me. I should probably wait until I come back before I talk about things there, but today's text prompted me to talk about something very Nepali, very Asian.

That something is idols. In the Hindu belief that dominates Nepal’s culture, idols, temples and shrines are pervasive. Tim has blogged on this several times. A year ago he had a post about the Chariot of Machindranath. Tim says “Every year in Kathmandu they have a tradition of building a huge tower on wheels, putting gods on it, and rolling it through the city with great fanfare. Crowds follow, people worship, and they generally block up traffic and have a huge dance party.” According to the internet, the idols are paraded every April to pray for a good monsoon season. But the effort is fascinating. People invest tons of time and energy in this. Every single piece, including the images of so-called heavenly beings, is someone’s hard work. And once they build it, they drag it from temple to temple and worship the idols they’ve made. Does this make sense? God, the one true God, doesn’t think so.

In one of the most highly ironic texts of Scripture, Isaiah 44:9-20, he mocks those who think they’ve made a god by the works of their hands. He forces each of us to ask ‘have you made something that you give the place of God in your life?’ He teaches us how to question the value of these things and put them in their place.

I. Am I investing myself in something profitless? (Isaiah 44:9-11)

The first question he teaches us to ask is ‘am I investing myself in something profitless?’ Isaiah 44:9-11 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

In the section beginning with chapter 40, Isaiah is intent on elevating God in our eyes and making low anything that is not God. One of the key thoughts that introduces these chapters is Isaiah 40:18 “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” Isaiah 40:25 “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” Isaiah recognizes that God is greater than things we consider great, and he points out the uselessness of all we put in the place of God.

Thus Isaiah 40:26: "Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing." God is greater than all we see of the whole universe. But just before that, Isaiah 40:19 says “An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.” In one case people are being called to worship that which created us, in the other they worship what they created.

Does it seem to you one of these is more profitable than the other? It seems that way to Isaiah: “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit.” The word profit means “to help, benefit, be of use.” So we are putting in God’s place something useless. In Jeremiah 2 God strongly rebukes Israel for this: "My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit." It’s interesting, especially in our culture, that the same word is applied to wealth. Proverbs 11:4, "Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death." Jesus said “What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Neither idols nor wealth nor anything we put in place of God has eternal value.

The verse ends with the thought that the witnesses, or followers, or worshipers of these gods are blind and ignorant. Back in verse 8 Isaiah used ‘witness’ to say “Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” The question this raises is ‘are we witnesses to the One True God, or do our lives point people to passions that are useless and profitless?’

These pursuits lead to shame, and the Biblical definition of that is “to fall into disgrace, normally through failure, either of self or of an object of trust.” Those who put anything other than God in God’s place, as their focus or passion, will experience the failure of whatever they put there, either self or some other object of trust: ideologies, money, health, popularity, or anything else we think we trust. What God is saying, three times here is that to worship anything other than him is futile and shameful.

Verses 10-11 repeat this with emphasis on idols as ‘the work of our hands:’ “Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human.” The idol is of no use, it will ultimately fail its worshippers because its craftsman is only human. This is very simple: can a non-God make a God? No. Can a painting make an artist? Can a book fashion an author? Can a song write a singer? It’s absurd as soon as you think of it.

But for thousands of years of human history, and around the world today, and right here in our own culture people have blinded themselves into thinking that the work of their hands can somehow can behave toward them as their God.

II. Am I giving something other than God my best work? (Isaiah 44:12-13)

Verses 12 and 13 begin the lovely satire that ridicules this idea and leads to the question ‘Am I giving something other than God my best work?’ The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.

The point here, and it’s an important point, is that whatever you give your best work to may be your God. Here’s an iron smith; he’s doing his best work; he heats the coals hot; he’s strong and works the image he’s creating until he’s hungry and weak; he doesn’t even stop to drink. And by this effort does he make a true God? No, he’s given his best to something useless. In the same way the carpenter gives his best; he’s a master of his tools; the line, the plane, the awl. He’s so good he can shape the figure into a beautiful image of a man, or in the case of the Hindu gods, something that is a distortion of a man. And he makes a place for this work of his hands to live; he wants his god to be secure. He gives his best, but he can’t make a god he can trust.

So what are we giving our best to? What are we giving our best thought to? What are we giving our best work to? What are we giving our best passion to? If you are pouring yourself into something in order to receive what God alone can give, you will be disappointed. Your work, your sport, your hobby, your dream for your children, your vision of a perfect home or even a perfect house, these will all disappoint you. What are you pouring yourself into? Do you really think all your effort will give you peace, purpose, fulfillment or maybe salvation? I don’t think so: only a true God can give these things.

Now don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying you shouldn’t pour yourself into things. The question is not whether each of us has different and unique pursuits that express our relationship with God. The question is whether we are giving something God’s place when we are pour ourselves into it. If so, that’s idolatry: worshipping the work of our hands. Only when we give God first and unencumbered place in our lives does the work of our hands fall into its proper place. It’s all there in Ephesians 2 “for we are God’s workmanship, his unique masterpiece, prepared in Christ Jesus for good works, which he prepared in advance for us to do.”

How do we know if we are giving our best to something other than God? This isn’t that hard a question. If you can pursue this passion as worship of the true God, conciously in his presence, with his help, recognizing your dependence on Him and giving Him all the glory, that’s good work. Let me give a very personal example. Many of you know that for the last couple of years I’ve been making music videos and putting them on Trinity’s Youtube channel. And some people have said or implied “Bob, you’re just going crazy on this thing.” And maybe at times I have. But in pursuing this passion I have been able to worship God, been in the presence of God, received what I think is God’s help, and clearly recognized my need of God. And I think, for the most part, it’s been good work. These videos are now viewed 6000 or more times a month - that’s 6000 opportunities to communicate God’s truth.

III. Am I elevating something above its place? (Isaiah 44:14-17)

So we’ve learned to ask ourselves a couple of questions: Am I investing myself in something profitless? Am I giving something other than God my best work? The third question is similar: am I elevating something above its place? Verses 14-17: He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16Half he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

This is the heart of God’s satire. He mocks the foolishness of those who worship the work of their hands. Continuing to follow the carpenter of verse 12, we find that he’s invested for the long term. He starts with seedlings, watches the rain nourish them, selects one or two for special attention, and keeps his eye on each tree until it grows strong. Then he steps in; he cuts down the tree and uses part of it for fuel and with that fire he both warms himself and bakes bread. This is creation being used the way God intended it to: as something to be valued and appreciated, but not something to be worshiped.

Then man takes another piece from the exact same tree - and makes it his god; he worships it; he gives his best to craft it into an idol, then he falls down in homage to the work of his hands as if it were something greater than he. Isaiah goes through the whole thought process twice; half he uses for firewood; half he worships. He cooks his meat and warms his hands and says ‘ahh, nice fire, then he turns to the other half of the same tree and when he finishes shaping it he worships he says “Deliver me, for you are my god.”

God’s humor would have us in stitches, if it didn’t have us in tears. The tragedy is that this irony reflects so much of what mankind has done ever since the fall. We take some aspect of creation and shape it not to God’s design but ours; then we worship it. The blatant examples, of course, are found in cultures like Hinduism where gods great and small are worshipped for the benefits they can give: a fruitful monsoon season; good health; fertility; safety. Tim tells one story about six little dolls he passed in a street near a hospital. He says “It's clear somebody put a lot of time into making these.” After talking with people on the street, an employee at his shop, his language teacher, and others, he concluded that this was some sort of local shamanism, created for the purpose of appealing to some god or power for healing.

But our idolatry doesn’t seem that obvious, at least to us. I hope it becomes more clear if we ask the kinds of questions we’re asking today: what have we made that I worship. One clear example is our ideologies or philosophies. Reading the history of communism, we find that the communist reformers created an ideology of perfect equality, then worshiped that ideology, to the point where they were willing to kill those who would not convert to this new worship. And even when it became clear that the ideal was absurd, that it didn’t work, they doubled down, and raised the bar of pure devotion, and killed anyone who deviated from their way. It was unfettered idolatry.

In today’s environment, in our culture we are surrounded by idolatries that are only slightly more restrained. Not communism, but humanism or athiesm or socialism; not murder but mockery and outcry and disdain. One of the most vocal of ideologies today is the one that elevates sexual tolerance. If you speak against that agenda you will get a intense ideological reaction.

But even for us, as conservatives and even believers, things can take on an aspect of ideology, like capitalism or American exceptionalism or gun rights. Don’t get me wrong - I see merit in each of these causes. But if they become the primary thing we think about, the primary focus of our passion, rather than God and Jesus being that primary thing, they may be idols.

Let me poke at this a little further. The second amendment, useful as it might be in creating a government that does not become a tyranny, is a man made thing. It is not found in God’s word; it is not Gospel, nor essential to the spread of the Gospel or to worship. So we would become like this idol maker, bowing before a man made thing, if we gave all our passion to the 2nd amendment while ignoring the omnipotent God of the universe, or worse, trying to get God in harness to help us preserve this man made thing, referring to the 2nd amendment as a God give right. Ideologies can become idols.

But our culture is just as deeply distorted by simpler idols. I think many recognize that we can put lust above God, making sexual things our deep focus, even while living a lie in church or at home. I made a video this week of one of the songs on “Joy Beyond the Sorrow.” The second verse speaks to this: “What can strip the seeming beauty, from the idols of the earth? Not a sense of right or duty, but the sight of peerless worth. Captivated by His beauty, Worthy tribute haste to bring. Let His peerless worth constrain thee, Crown Him now unrivaled King.” Only God can subdue the passions of our hearts.

In the same way, I’ve talked often about our blindness to materialism, which is literally making something to take God’s place. That’s why Paul can say ‘greed is idolatry.’ Our culture works all the time to make us think we need stuff: a bigger house, newer car, fatter retirement account, the latest tech, toy or tool for our hobbies. The propaganda of our age is that stuff can make us happy. So I googled the ‘ultimate indugence’ and got thousands of hits, like “Own a share of a luxurious Learjet 85 and take the tedium out of flying.” You can indulge yourself in gourmet popcorn, or at the cupcake salon, or with bacon jalapeno cheese fries. The one that really got me was a website with the tag line “Kyra's Ultimate Indulgence is a hair and skin care line made for the fearfully and wonderfully made.” In other words let’s recruit all these Christian women to make idols out of the state of their skin or hair.

And that edges toward another idolatry common to our culture: we are obsessed with health, as if by just taking care of ourselves we could escape death. Last time I checked the mortality rate was still 100%. Yet in our materialistic culture we spend millions of dollars to, in the words of the advertisers, give ourselves the gift of health. Again, this pursuit is not wrong until it begins to weigh more with us and be more of a passion for us than pursuing God.

Isn’t all this absurd? Isn’t the idea that a car or a cupcake or clear skin can make you happy as absurd as cutting down a tree and worshipping it? Isn’t the idea that a manmade ideology can solve mankind’s problems as absurd as the idea that a piece of wood can help you with the monsoon season?

IV. Am I believing a lie? (Isaiah 44:18-20)

Which leads to the last question “Am I believing a lie? Verses 18-20: They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so they cannot see, and their hearts, so they cannot understand. 19No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

We’ve already seen in Isaiah the complex relationship between personal choice and hardening of people’s hearts. God is sovereign, but he causes personal choices to have real consequences. He blinds those who choose not to see; he hardens those who choose not to understand. They have become blind and ignorant because they refuse to think about the absurdity of idolatry, refuse to ask after they’ve cooked over the firewood “shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”

So verse 20 is the apex of God’s ironic argument. The person caught in idolatry, God says “feeds on ashes.” Isn’t that a great image? You think you’re indulging yourself, whether with a Lear jet a cupcake, clear skin or the latest ideology. But it’s all ashes, it’s all dust, it all ultimately chokes you.

I have long loved John White’s children’s book ‘The Tower of Geburah.’ At one point Lisa, one of the main characters, is trapped by the enemy and offered anything she wishes for: food, clothes, a luxurious bath. She soon discovers that she’s been bathing with ashes and wearing rags. Wish soap, she finds, won’t wash, and wish food leaves you hungry, and wish clothing won’t keep out the cold.

That’s the way it is with idols - you’re eating ashes. Idolatry is feeding on ashes; it’s false comfort, false beauty. Isaiah says that the person caught up in idolatry has been led astray by a deluded heart. Just as Eve, in the garden of Eden believed that by eating the fruit she would be like God, so every heart since that great downfall has believed that something else can take God’s place in our lives or make us like God. It’s a delusion - you can’t be God and you won’t find a manmade God or substitute for God that can rescue you.

God says through Isaiah that the person caught up in idolatry cannot deliver himself. The word deliver is perhaps the most common word in Hebrew for rescue; you can’t rescue yourself. It is often used in conjunction with the two words we studied a few weeks ago, ‘redeem’ and ‘ransom.’ You cannot rescue, redeem or ransom yourself; you need a god, a true God, not a man made God to do that. One of the phrases we use here in America is ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,’ implying that you can lift yourself up by grabbing hold of your feet and just pulling hard enough. It’s absurd.

We cannot rescue, redeem or ransom ourselves because our hearts are deluded and broken and every one of us has been led astray into sin. We need a true God to rescue us. And he does. God the Father sends Jesus the Son to redeem, to buy us back, to pay the price of our ransom from sin by the sacrifice of his own sinless life. Only by trusting in this redemption and this redeemer can we be rescued from deceived hearts and the diet of ashes we eat.

Nothing else can strip the seeming beauty from the idols of the earth. But the person caught in idolatry is believing a lie and doesn’t have the sense to say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” My challenge to myself and to all of us this morning is to seriously ask the question ‘is there a lie in my right hand?’

Is there something, anything, many things in my life that receive what I ought only be giving to God. What receives my time, my allegiance, my money, my heart, my passion, my best work, my best thoughts. Everything created, Paul tells Timothy, is good if received with thanksgiving. But nothing created, certainly nothing man-made, is good if given our ultimate allegiance and made the source of our hope. God and God alone is our hope. No ideology, no created thing can offer a glimmer of the hope he alone offers us.