St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 17th November 2013
Reading – Isaiah 2:6-22
This morning I want you to picture in your mind’s eye a city. It could be a city in almost any part of the world really, a prosperous, wealthy city. Its streets are full of workmen going about their business, putting up lots of new, impressive-looking buildings. People who live there are feeling confident about their economic prospects, and despite the fact some still struggle to make ends meet, generally folk have never had it so good. It’s a city that’s open to all kinds of new ideas from around the world, and as the expression goes, it’s a melting point of different cultures and nations. In this city high achievers are rewarded, and in the bars and cafes you often hear the movers and shakers boast about what they’ve done.
And on the whole most people are pretty happy with living in a city like that – a vibrant, busy city where there are lots of opportunities to get on, and plenty of good things to enjoy. So imagine, now, when a leading churchman stands up and condemns the whole place as God-forsaken. You’d be pretty shocked, wouldn’t you? What do you mean, it’s God-forsaken? Look at the new ideas, the wealth, the rewards for success. How on earth can you label a place like that as abandoned by God? It doesn’t make any sense, does it!?
Yet that was precisely the message that Isaiah delivered to the people of eighth century BC Judah and Jerusalem. Those new ideas from around the world – they were really all superstitions and folk religion you shouldn’t be taken in by. All that material wealth and prosperity – it was based on greed and a desire to have more and more. And all those achievements people were boasting about – really they were nothing more than idols they’d made themselves and then worshipped. That’s why God had turned His back on the city, why it was in the most literal and awful sense of the word, “God-forsaken”:
6 You have abandoned your people, the house of Jacob. They are full of superstitions from the East; they practise divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with pagans. 7 Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is full of horses; there is no end to the chariots.
8 Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.
Now we have no real way of knowing when Isaiah prophesied these words. But most likely, they came to him early on in his life, when he was growing up in the reign of a king called Uzziah, a king who reigned over Judah for more than 50 years. And while he was on the throne this little country that nowadays we would find in the southern half of Israel grew and flourished. Isaiah would have seen the impressive new towers Uzziah had built in the capital city, Jerusalem, or maybe some of the many agricultural projects the king undertook in the desert. He would have experienced the peace Uzziah won for his people through great military victories and maybe witnessed the tribute conquered nations brought to the royal palace. It was a great time in which to grow up.
And yet, and yet… as 2 Chronicles 26 tells us, all this peace and prosperity came at a great cost. Quite simply, the more powerful the country became, the more they wrote the Lord out of the picture. It wasn’t that they stopped worshipping Him. On the contrary, as we have seen, hardly a day went by with some kind of religious festival taking place. But they stopped actually believing and trusting in Him. The Lord no longer made a practical difference to their lives even though they thought of themselves as the Lord’s people. Just as I suppose today people may still have some vague idea that we are a Christian nation, even though only a small minority are practising Christians.
So why did Judah stop following the Lord? Let suggest three possible answers.
First of all, they forgot who they were.
Now how many people here have seen or even performed in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Do you remember how after the opening number we are introduced to Joseph’s family?
Way way back many centuries ago,
Not long after the Bible began
Jacob lived in the land of Canaan,
A fine example of a family man.
And the musical tells us how, thanks to Joseph, Jacob and family are rescued from a great famine and how they come to live in Egypt as guests of the rock and roll Pharaoh. It’s a great show, but it suffers from one problem. You see, it misses out the central character in the story, who is God. It was God’s plan to send Joseph down into Egypt. It was God’s plan to prepare the way for Jacob and his other eleven sons to live there. Why? Because as both Tim Rice (and the Bible!) tell us, Jacob was also known as Israel, and it was out of Egypt hundreds of years later the nation of Israel was miraculously delivered.
But the problem in Isaiah’s days was that God’s people had forgotten the story of how they had come into being. They were not like any other nation who just happened to be living in the area. They were chosen by the Lord. They were miraculously delivered out of slavery to be a people separate and different from any other. And that’s what Isaiah is trying to tell them when he calls them the house of Jacob in verse 6. He wants them to remember who they are and where they have come from, so that they might turn back to the Lord who saved them in the first place.
The people of Judah forgot who they were. And so it’s no surprise that they forgot what the Lord commanded them.
As always, whenever a prophet spoke, he chose his words carefully. And Isaiah’s words in chapter 2 are no exception. Because those who had ears to hear would have understood he was quite deliberately referring to the laws the Lord had given to His people Israel.
So, for example, we read in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 18, verse 14: The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practise sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. But are the people in Judah paying any attention to this command? Clearly not, because in Isaiah chapter 2, verse 6 we read: They are full of superstitions from the East; they practise divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with pagans.
Or again, we read in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 4: Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the Lord your God. But what does Isaiah tell us in chapter 2, verse 8? Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.
And let me repeat again the people in Judah were not ignorant or unaware of these commands. The law of the Lord – what we find nowadays in the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – was regularly read in public worship and learnt by heart. It was simply that God’s word no longer really mattered. For most people, it was more important to work out how to make more money, or copy the latest fashions, or have a new place to live in. But we before criticise too harshly how these people lived way back then, maybe we ought also to reflect there might also be a real lesson for us here as well.
You see, the basic problem with the house of Jacob was that they forgot who God is.
One of the difficulties in preaching on Isaiah is that Isaiah uses lots of wordplays in the original language he spoke, which was Hebrew. You’ll be relieved to know I’m not going to bore you with the technical details. But it’s worth noting that the word for “idols” he uses in verse 8 literally means “little gods”. Instead of worshipping God with a big G, they were worshipping little gods. They took a lump of metal and turned it into a statue that they worshipped. As far as they were concerned, that statue represented a real god who had real power, and as Isaiah tells us, they bowed down and worshipped that god out of genuine respect and devotion.
Now of course we may say that today – at least in the West – we don’t have these kinds of idols. We don’t generally have statues sitting in our living room that we think have power over our lives. But I put it to you that while we may not have physical idols, we may, perhaps without even realising it, have our own “little gods” that actually are more important than serving the Lord of heaven and earth. It might the little god of our family or our work, or the perfect relationship. It may not in itself be a bad thing, except that when push comes to shove, it’s far more important to us than our faith and love for Jesus Christ.
The people of Judah forgot who they were. They forgot what the Lord commanded them. They forgot who God is.
So where had their relationship with God gone wrong?
One way to work out what a particular passage is all about is to count how many times a particular word or idea comes up. So, for example, if you go through verses 11 to 17 of this passage, you might like to tot up how many times you find words like “arrogant”, “proud”, “lofty”, “exalted”. We might argue about the exact total, but on my rough count these words crop up at least nine times. The national mood at the time was pride. “Look at how well we’ve done, look at what we’ve achieved. See what little old Judah has become”.
Of course to a certain extent it is right to be pleased at what you have achieved. It is good and proper to take satisfaction from your work and enjoy the fruits of your labours. The danger is, when this satisfaction turns into a pride that declares independence from God. Again, if the people of Judah had been really listening to the law of God they would recalled the words of Deuteronomy, chapter 8, verses 11-14:
11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.
12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down,
13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied,
14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
And that’s why the people of Judah could not listen to Isaiah’s words – because their hearts had grown proud. They didn’t see any need to obey what God had commanded them. They were too busy enjoying making money and then spending it on whatever they pleased. Of course, they still said they worshipped the Lord, but their faith was really just an insurance policy, in case anything bad happened. But that wasn’t likely, was it!? As far as they were concerned, the good times were just going to keep on rolling.
Yet the utterly shocking message Isaiah gives them is that disaster is coming and that this disaster is from the Lord. Not, as I’ve said before, because the Lord is a cruel God who delights in punishing His people, or an impatient God who demands instant obedience. But because whenever we declare our independence from God, when we push Him out of our lives and say we can manage fine, thanks, then in the end He will act. Just as a parent might act to deal with children who forget all the good things they’ve been given, break every rule in the house, and reject every offer of love.
That’s how we need to understand the rest of this passage which spells out in such graphic detail what the day of the Lord will be like (and there’s more if you read on into chapters 3 and 4). We tend to come to a passage like this cold and say how terrible it is for the Lord to act in this way. What we need to realise is that God has to deal with our sin and rebellion, because what we do and how we behave matters deeply to Him.
10 Go into the rocks, hide in the ground from dread of the Lord and the splendour of his majesty!
11 The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
Because in the end the Lord’s greatest desire is that He and He alone is worshipped. After all, He is one who made us. He is the one who offers us salvation. He is the one who sustains us every moment of every single day. So Isaiah’s message to his hearers is simple – if you are worshipping little gods instead, watch out! If you are relying on your own achievements and your own wealth, then one day your pride will be dealt with, and you will be brought low. And it isn’t as if you haven’t been warned. In fact Isaiah’s warning here is so clear he repeats it again and again in this passage.
Verse 17: The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
Verse 19: Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the dread of the Lord and the splendour of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth.
Verse 21: They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from dread of the Lord and the splendour of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth.
The real tragedy behind the book of Isaiah is that despite all these repeated warnings his hearers would not, could not listen. So the question is: what about us? Have we forgotten who we are, people who have been saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Have we forgotten what our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded us to do? Have we indeed actually forgotten who the Lord truly is? I can’t presume to answer those questions on your behalf. But the Lord knows you, and He knows your heart. And by His grace and mercy it is not too late to turn again to Him in penitence and faith, to say sorry for your pride and sinful independence, and come back to the cross where Jesus has dealt with our rebellious nature once and for all.
The apostle Peter writes these words in 1 Peter 5, verse 6: Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. That, I suggest, should be our response to Isaiah’s message this morning.
So will you listen to the prophet’s challenge? And will you act?