Sunday, June 24, 2018
Full Service Audio
A very articulate pundit on BBC this week said, “I have never, in the history of following politics, seen so much dog-wagging going on.” I thought “surely someone from King’s College, London, England, isn’t talking about canine activities with such passion.” He was, of course, referring to what is euphemistically known as “wagging the dog.” Wag the dog finds its origins a long time ago, but it has been used over the years to show something that is a pseudo-event, or something that seeks to divert attention from one problem, so you focus on another.
He was suggesting that at the G7 meeting held recently, there was a lot of wagging the dog going on. Where what appears to be the main story is in fact secondary. Events become almost unreal and we’re unsure of precisely where the truth lies. The 1997 movie, Wag the Dog was about a sexual scandal in the presidency, and a war was created – a pseudo-war – with Albania. That was the focus of all the media attention, in order that people did overlooked what was going on in the White House. This is a common political spin: Wag the dog.
What we have in today’s passage is a wag the dog story. Isaiah, the great prophet, probably the second prophet named after Isaiah, writes an account dealing with the wagging of the dog. He does so because he’s confronted by his own people, the people of Israel, who are in the last year of their exile. It was around 539 BC when this was written, and the people of Israel had been in exile in Babylon for some fifty to sixty years. They really didn’t know where the truth lay, and had the option of following the gods of the Babylonians – the pseudo-gods – what Isaiah called the false gods, the idols. They were wondering if maybe the real power resided with the idols and not with the God Yahweh, whom they had followed, so they turned their attention to the gods of Babylon.
Isaiah encourages them, he believes that there is an impending change, that God is going to set the people free from living in exile and return them to their homeland, but he has to keep them clearly focused on their love for God. He does not want them to abandon God now, just at the point where he believes they will be set free. He contrasts what he would call the living God, from the god of idols and reminds the people of Israel that the living God is still the God who liberated them in the past with Moses and the Exodus. He refers to God as both King and Redeemer, in other words, both powerful and loving. He refers to God as the First and the Last, the One in other words, who will always be there, who is omnipresent as well as omnipotent, and that they must not lose sight of this.
He calls God the Rock, the Foundation on which they stand. He says that God will pour out his Spirit upon the people and give them power and hope, and will be a living presence in their lives. He says that God will pour water out for people who are thirsty, because they feel dry, living in exile in someone else’s country. They’re tired of being refugees with no land; they’re tired of having nowhere to live; they’re tired of being between two places. This was a whole nation living in servitude, and he’s saying, “Rely on the God, who you know can save you. Do not rely on idols.” And then in a little twist - and there’s some almost humour in this – he describes the making of the idols in Babylon. They measure out pieces of wood and form them into human symbols. He then uses the example of the cedar tree, and explains that those who make idols, cut down a cedar tree – and they get very smug about this cedar tree because they notice that once they’ve cut it down, it can be used as an energy source, providing heat, a means to cook and bake.
Then, with the remainder they make a god, and they turn this god into an idol. Isaiah says they worshipped this idol they made with their hands. This idol that has cooked their food and kept them warm, becomes their god, and they worship this god and are happy for a while, but only for a while. Isaiah goes on to suggest that there is a contrast between the God who is the living God, and the god of idols, who is both dead and non-existent. The god of the idols not only cannot say, cannot redeem, and is a figment, a creation of people themselves, and therefore has no intrinsic power. The god of the cedar tree is not the living God. I think this is pertinent, not only in the time of Isaiah, but from time immemorial. We create gods and then we worship them. We make idols as human beings and we bow down before them.
I think Jesus, in his ministry, would often say that the idol of his day was the temple in Jerusalem, and that a temple cult had been built, so the worship of the temple had become the primary thing, rather than the worship of the living God, who was the source of everything. Jesus’ prophetic ministry was pointing at idolatry.
I had a fascinating conversation this week over a lunch. Someone asked me, “Andrew, what do you think is the greatest sin?”
Well, if you want to have your mind spinning over lunch, try figuring that one out in thirty seconds. So, with this sermon in mind, I said, “I think it is idolatry because the very first of the Ten Commandments is, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me.” The second commandment is, “You shall not make an idol.” It seems to me to be pretty clear that idolatry is often the beginning of many other sins, and that we create our spiritualities around it.
The great Carl Jung, whom I admire, once talked about what he called “the spirituality of the gaps.” In other words, we create our own spiritualties based on our own gods. Jung said: “There is nothing more repulsive than a furtive, prurient spirituality. It’s as dangerous in many ways as excessive sensuality.” In other words, what he’s saying is that people get caught up in their religion, in their own spirituality, in the worship of those things that they think are important, and they become the big part of their lives. They create a spirituality, which is designed to justify the gods that they have made. We find that, do we not, with our own materialism, when we make a god out of the very things that we have, and we worship them. We place them above the love of others, above family, above charity, and sometimes even above our own welfare, let alone the worship of God.
It is the same with all forms of “isms” that we create, such as nationalism, where we elevate our nation above our God. Our ideologies, which undergird those nations, become the most important thing in the world. Is that not what is driving so many people in the world today to become refugees? Is it not a nasty, spirituality of nationalism that drives so many people out of lands, excludes them, and keeps them at a distance? I could go on forever about the idols of our day, but you know what they are, and you probably know your own as I know mine. We all do it. We create idols, and a god who blesses that idol. No matter how contrary it might be to the will of the living God, we hold onto those idols, we worship those idols, and those idols become a part of us. But those idols also, even if we’re faithful, push our belief in the living God, to the periphery. The living God, when our idols have become dominant in our lives, becomes the leftovers, as Isaiah refers to it. Once you’ve created your idols you have little room for God. God gets the leftovers.
I love a children’s story that I once read about a farmer and his wife who had a cow called Daisy. Daisy gave birth to two identical cows and these little calves could not be distinguished from one another. The farmer came along and said, “Isn’t this marvellous, we only expected one calf, now we have two, so we’re going to give the second one to God.” Then there was a day with a lot of rain, thunder and lightning. Lightning struck and killed one of the calves, and the farmer runs back to his wife and says, “Oh dear, it’s such a tragedy, lightning has killed God’s calf.” That is the God of the leftovers, the God of the periphery that we push to one side.
The people of Israel were doing at the end of their exile. The gods that had been created, according to Isaiah, could not save the people, could not give them fulfilment, and could not redeem them. In fact, they were gods who had no power to do good. In many ways, they had a hold over the people, having been part of the Babylonian community for sixty-odd years, they had become attached to the gods of their oppressors.
Idols do have a hold on us, and when we create our own idols, those idols control our lives, so much so that we even look at others differently through the lens of our idols. We turn people into consumers, we turn subjects into objects, and we turn living people into people who we think we can just ignore. In other words, having created our own idols, we then turn on those who don’t worship the same idols, so it becomes a circle of death. The idols, which have no power, become not only the source of our spiritual affection, but they have a hold on our lives, and that can be destructive. The gods that had been created in Israel had a hold on the people of Israel, and Isaiah was worried about it.
If you think I’m the only one who might think that this is the case today, I turn to another source of wisdom and truth, Brad Pitt. In Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago, he was interviewed about life, and he said: “Far be it from me to turn to Hollywood to substantiate any great theological point, but I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us. The condo, our version of success, our cars, our bling. But if that’s the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness? If you ask me, ‘I say, toss all this. We’ve got to find something else, because all I know is that at this point is that we’re heading for a dead-end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of our spirituality and I don’t want that.’”
The interviewer then asked, “If we’re heading towards this kind of existential dead-end in society, what do you think should happen?”
Pitt replies, “Hey man, I don’t have those answers yet. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain and I’m seeing it, and I’m telling you that it’s not it. I’m the guy who’s got everything, I know, but I’m telling you, once you’ve got everything, then you’re left with yourself. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it doesn’t help you sleep any better and you don’t wake up a better person because of it.”
To Brad Pitt I would say, and you don’t make a better world either. He understands the emptiness of idolatry, and how it leaves the human soul bereft, without hope or courage, without the impetus to love, because idols, by nature, are pseudo-events and pseudo-gods. They are the wagging of the dog.
Isaiah does not end there. That all sounds very bleak, doesn’t it? “The living God,” he says, “will set Israel free. If people keep their faith, God will set the people free.” One year later Cyrus, the Persian, no less, comes in, defeats the Babylonians and sets the people of God free. Cyrus arranges for the people of Israel to return to their land. In other words, if one year before, the people had turned to their idols and not to their living God, they would have missed one of the great events of history, the event that God had constructed for the salvation of his people.
Isaiah was prescient, Isaiah was prophetic. He knew that people needed to keep the faith, because this is a living God. This is a living God who pours out his Spirit, who provides water for the thirsty, and liberation for the oppressed. This is the God who stands with the people who are in need and redeems them. That’s what the resurrection is about, and that is why the Apostle Paul said, “It is in this God that we live and move and have our being.” It is this God who can actually become a part of our lives.
When we build our idols and when we push God to the periphery, we have wagged the dog and worshipped a pseudo-god. But if we worship the living God, we have the power and the strength and the freedom and the love of a God who lives. Is this not a word for our time? I think it is. Amen.