False God or True audio (3MB)
Do you ever struggle with whether your understanding of God is correct? Do you ever wonder whether we might have got it wrong? After all, there are lots of voices in the world today that are questioning the orthodox view of God, of Christianity. There are lots of people out there offering an alternative view, an alternative way of coming to God. And there are probably even more who think that it doesn’t matter; any god will do as long as you’re sincere in your belief.
The reality is that we’re in the minority, as people who believe that the God of the Bible is the only true and living God. It’d be easy enough to be swayed by the majority view wouldn’t it? The arguments sometimes seem so reasonable.
A God you can Touch?
In some cases the alternative to our God can seem more real, more tangible. That was the case for the Israelites in Babylon. Bel and Nebo, the gods of Babylon had imposing statues for people to bow before. No doubt the priests had developed impressive rituals to go with the worship of these idols. Babylon was a great military power and much of that power would have been attributed to their gods. And of course the Israelites were a weak minority if ever there was one: slaves in a foreign city. So the temptation to doubt the God of Israel was extremely high.
In fact it was about to get worse. As we’ll see in a moment Babylon wasn’t the only big boy on the block. Cyrus, the king of Persia, was about to attack Babylon and take it over. So it seemed that there were even more powerful gods than those of Babylon.
And that’s how our chapter begins. “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are on beasts and cattle; these things you carry are loaded as burdens on weary animals.” As Cyrus approaches, the people begin to carry their idols out of the city to safety and as they go it looks like they’re bowing or stooping. In fact such a procession was a regular event in Babylon as Bel or Marduk, the chief of the Babylonian gods and Nebo his son were carried along in procession in the annual New Year celebration. We saw something like this in India when we visited it years ago. The local Hindu god being carried along on a Bullock cart. But this is no celebration. No here, they’re fleeing for safety. Someone has translated this the way a commentator might describe it from the sidelines: Bel has collapsed, Nebo is crumpling.”
And Isaiah highlights the irony of the scene. Here are the two great gods of Babylon and what are they doing? Nothing! Well, that’s not quite right. What they’re doing is burdening the poor animals that have to carry them. Their burden is wearying. You see, false gods are worse than useless. In the end they wear us out as we try to pretend that they can help us. Well far from helping the people of Babylon, these false gods are about to go into captivity along with their followers.
A God who Carries his People
Then comes God’s voice, speaking to the people of Israel: “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb.” Now when we read this we might think of God watching over each one of them since they were born. But that’s just the product of our 20th century individualism - which may or may not be getting worse in the 21st century. No he’s not talking about individuals, he’s talking about them as a nation. These are the people whose birth as a nation was overseen by God.
Listen to how he describes their birth in Ezekiel 16: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. 5No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were despised on the day you were born. 6I passed by you, and saw you flailing about in your blood. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, ‘Live! 7and grow up like a plant of the field.’”
They’d started off as nothing, as rejects, thrown out to die in a field. This was then, and still is today in some places, the common fate of girls born into a world where men are all that matter. But God chose to save them, to nurture them to maturity. In fact he says he’s carried them from birth to old age. This will be good news for some of us. He says “even when you turn gray I will carry you.” Do you know that feeling of needing to be carried? Well that’s what God will do for us. Why? Because “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”
Here’s the first great contrast between false gods and the God of Israel. They require to be carried. He carries us. Remember the promise in ch 40: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isa 40:11)
Where we read “Who have been borne by me” in v3 it could have been translated “who have been loaded on to me” or “who have burdened me”. Do you ever think of yourself as burdening God? Do you think that’s possible? How could we possibly burden the almighty God? Well listen to what God says to these people in ch43: “You have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities” (Isa 43:24). If you want to weary God it’s easy. Just keep on ignoring him. Keep on doing what he tells you not to do. Like a rebellious child who does everything they can to exasperate their parents.
But here’s the amazing thing about God’s grace. Despite our rebelliousness, he’s carried us since our birth and he’ll continue to carry us right through to old age until in the end we receive the salvation that he’s guaranteed for us. In the book of Leviticus we find the description of the day of atonement when a goat was sent out into the desert bearing on itself all their iniquities (Lev 16:22). That of course was a foreshadowing of the lamb of God who would bear away the sins of the world. Is 52 and 53 tell us about that: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isa 53:4-5)
Can you see what a contrast our God is to the false gods of the world. He bears our sin. They can do nothing for us. By the way, make no mistake, our world is still full of false gods. You see, a false god is anything that someone relies on for security or success or happiness other than God. I was thinking about what the false gods of our world might be. I guess the major example is money. We’re told that money will provide us with security. Whether it’s savings in the bank or funds put aside in a superannuation account. And we think that setting ourselves up financially is the most important thing for our future. But what actually happens is that when we begin to think like that our wealth becomes a burden to us. We begin to worry about whether our investments are going OK; is our super going up or down? Should we put off that bit of expenditure in case we need more money later. And of course the issue is brought into clear contrast when it comes to budgeting our giving to God. Do you put giving to God at the top of your spending priority list? The Israelites were commanded to give the first fruits of their harvest to God. They didn’t finish the harvest and then work out what they could spare for God’s work after they’d fed their family and paid their debts. They took God’s bit out first as a sign of their obedience to God, but also of their trust in God to look after them. Jesus put it like this: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24)
Isaiah goes on to say again what he’s said several times already in this book. Just think how these idols come into being. Someone pays a fortune to a goldsmith who makes it into a god that they fall down before and worship. In ch. 44 the description is even more laughable. There the carpenter cuts down a tree, cuts in half, one half he uses to light the fire, to keep him warm and to cook his meal over; and the other half he makes into an idol to worship. And he says “They don’t think to themselves ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now ... shall I fall down before a block of wood?’” (Isa 44:19) No they live on in their delusion.
A God who Listens and speaks
And having carried it to its place they then pray to it. But what happens then? “If one cries out to it, it does not answer or save anyone from trouble.” An idol is totally powerless to help you. How can some lifeless piece of wood or metal - or polymer sheet, save you from trouble? Of course it can’t.
But our God is different “I am God, and there is no one like me, 10declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.’” God is a God who listens to the cries of his people and God is a God who speaks. He speaks, foretelling the future; he speaks and the world is changed. And when he speaks, we’re told in ch55, his word won’t return to him empty. They’re about to see the reality of that as Cyrus comes at God’s call to fulfill God’s purpose of deliverance for his people.
But here’s another irony: God is coming to deliver them and they don’t want to know about it. They’ve settled down to life in Babylon and they don’t want things to change. Does that sound familiar. God is bring a change to their life and they don’t want to have anything to do with it! They’d rather stay in Babylon as prisoners and exiles than follow God to salvation.
And so he pleads with them “12Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from deliverance: 13I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.” It’s a fascinating paradox isn’t it? God has brought their salvation near to them but they’re still far from it.
And the clock is ticking. Do you see that: “my salvation will not tarry.” If they don’t get ready they’ll miss out.
Now I skipped over a significant expression back in v3, so let’s just look back there for a moment. He says: “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel.” Sue Wheeler will know all about remnants. They’re the pieces of material that are left behind when a dress is being made; too small to be of much use; you might use them as a rag or as wadding or maybe in a patchwork quilt but basically they’re not worth worrying about. In this case the house of Jacob had declined to the point of being of no significance. Why? Because they’d consistently ignored God’s way of living. And here they are doing it again. Ignoring the salvation that God is bringing near. That’s been the danger since God first called out a people for himself. Even when Jesus came preaching salvation there were those who didn’t want to listen to him: (John 6:64-66) “‘But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
The question for us today, as we think about the year gone by and the year to come, is this: Will we remain faithful to the one and only true and living God? Will we trust him alone for security, for salvation? Or will we look to other gods, false gods who offer much but deliver nothing? As a parish will we persevere when things appear to be difficult. Will we continue to trust God to look after us in a different place where we won’t be in full control of what’s happening?
God’s word to us today is this: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, 10declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, "My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.”