No Room for Idols
by Jack Wald | September 27th, 2020

Isaiah 42:5-9

I preached last Sunday from the first of four Servant Songs in the second half of Isaiah. Isaiah does not identify who the servant is. Perhaps the nation of Israel is meant to be the servant but was not able to live up to the expectation of what the servant would be. In any case, Matthew quoted this passage to show that the most perfect example of this servant is Jesus.

This first servant song describes one who will bring justice to the nations. He will do this with gentleness and tenderness, not with an iron fist. He will care for people as a shepherd does with his sheep, not like Cyrus, ruler of the Persian empire, who crushed people on his way to power and conquest.

Before I read this first servant song, I need to remind you of the context of the first seven chapters of Isaiah. Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians and the elite Jews were taken into exile in Babylon. For seventy years they remained in exile until Cyrus led the Persian army into victory over the Babylonians. In the first year of the reign of Cyrus, he gave the Jews permission to go back to Jerusalem. So when we read these chapters of Isaiah, the context of what we are reading is set in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the walls of Jerusalem were being rebuilt by the exiles who had returned from Babylon.

Only the youngest of the Jews who were taken into exile in Babylon returned to Jerusalem. Seventy years had passed. The Jews who returned were the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who had been deported.

When they returned to Jerusalem they had many questions. Why had the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, allowed the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple? Why had the God of Israel allowed their parents and grandparents to be taken into exile? Were the gods of the Babylonians more powerful than the God of Israel? Had the God of Israel been sleeping on the job? Did the God of Israel not care about the people of Israel anymore?

So the opening chapters of the second half of Isaiah are presented as a trial with the Jews prosecuting God and God defending himself. What we read in these chapters is best understood when we read with this context in mind.

So let me read this servant song at the beginning of the sermon this morning. (Isaiah 42:1–4)
The Servant of the Lord
42 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

This was our text for last Sunday. Each of the four servant songs in Isaiah are followed by comments that confirm what is said about the servant and offer more detail.

In the five verses that follow this first servant song, there are three stanzas: vs 5, vs 6-7, and vs 8-9. It takes just 46 seconds to read these verses and three times in less than a minute God reminds Israel who is speaking to them.

The follow-up to the servant song begins in verse 5,

This is what God the Lord says— 

If God is on trial, he wants them to be sure they know who he is.

This is what God the Lord says— 
the Creator of the heavens, 

I talked about this last week. God defines himself in contrast to idols made of wood or metal. The idols sit on a shelf or on a stand. If the idol needs to be moved across the room or go to another house, someone needs to pick it up and carry it.

In stark contrast, the God of Israel, the Lord, does not need to be carried. The God of Israel is not an inanimate object. He was not sleeping when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Why he allowed that to happen is another question, but what is clear is that he is alive and active in the lives of his people.

This is what God the Lord says— 
the Creator of the heavens, 
who stretches them out, 
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, 
who gives breath to its people, 
and life to those who walk on it: 

God stretches, spreads, and gives. These are active verbs.

God stretches out the heavens.

Isaiah did not know this, but God, the creator of the universe, created a universe that is expanding at a very precise rate that allows it to continue to expand without disintegrating into nothing or collapsing back in on itself. The laws of science that God created continue to keep our universe in existence.

God created the stars and planets in the universe and gave earth the features that allow life to flourish. It is the right distance from the Sun, it is protected from harmful solar radiation by its magnetic field, it is kept warm by an insulating atmosphere, and it has the right chemical ingredients for life, including water and carbon.

And then, more magnificently, God created life on this planet. God gave breath and life.

God stretches out the heavens. He spreads out the earth, He gives breath and life to all creatures that live on earth.

Look outside your window at a tree. Who created that? Who created photosynthesis that takes energy from the sun and transforms light energy into chemical energy?

Look at a bird in the tree. Who created that bird and the process by which a baby bird grows in a fertilized egg and then when it is time, cracks open the egg shell and comes into the world? Who created feathers and the ability for a bird to fly?

Look at the other people in your room or outside your window? Who created eyes that can see? Who created the nervous system that allows humans to feel the wind blowing across an arm but not live in pain from the pressure on feet and hands when they are at work?

With all our modern scientific technology we cannot duplicate the mechanisms of the human body. We cannot make a camera that rivals what the human eye can do. We cannot create a computer that is able to feel emotions, fall in and out of love, be self-aware. Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 was not the analysis of a massive amount of data but a great intellectual leap that computers are not capable of doing.

The ground on which we stand, all we see around us, and our ability to see, to smell, to hear, to taste, to feel the world around us comes from God. We are sensual creatures who live in a sensual world. This is a precious gift God has given us.

The created world and creatures in the created world testify to the wonder and majesty of the pre-existing creator God we serve.

Can an idol do any of that? An idol does not exist until a human creates it and if it is burned in a fire it has to be recreated. If an idol falls over it can’t even pick itself up, let alone do anything else in they world.

God’s active presence in the world keeps the world alive. Paul wrote in Colossians about the supremacy of Jesus. (Colossians 1:15–17)
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together. The world will end when Jesus releases his hand that holds creation together.

This is not the work of an idol; it is the work of the pre-existing creator God.

This brings us to verse 6 and the second stanza:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;

It is not just anyone who has called – it is the Lord who has called. And this call comes at the right time. It comes in the right place. It comes for the right purposes.

People complain about having to wait for God to come and help them in a difficult situation -“How long, O Lord?” writes the psalmist. From our perspective it is taking too long, but from God’s perspective he comes at the right time, in the right place, and for the right purposes. His actions are righteous.

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; 
I will take hold of your hand. 

The servant is not expected to do what he has been called to do on his own. God will hold him tightly by his hand and he will not let go. Jesus was in relationship with the Father and the Spirit throughout his life. He was most aware of his relationship with the Father and the Spirit in the years of his public ministry. He did not go to the cross by himself. (Although in one of the greatest mysteries of the life of Jesus on earth he was left alone when he died on the cross.) The point is that the life of Jesus exemplifies this servant song – I will take hold of your hand.

There are some who have argued that God created the world and then stepped back to see what would happen. They argue that God is like a watchmaker who makes a watch, winds it up, and then sits down to see what happens as it ticks down until the watch finally stops.

But God is not absent. God is not distant. God is present. Dallas Willard wrote that God is as present as the air we breathe. When we are in distress we do not have to wait until word gets to God that we are in trouble. When we pray we do not have to wait for our prayer to make its way to heaven and then wait for a response that will make its way back to us. God is present with us. The Holy Spirit dwells in us. God is with us in every step we make.

He takes us by the hand and will not let go. God has said, (Hebrews 13:5)
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”

Imagine how it felt for the Jews who returned from exile to hear God say to them, “I will take hold of your hand.” In these verses God is speaking to the hearts of people who were worried, fearful, confused, anxious about the future. They felt rejected by God, ignored by God, but now he says he will work with them, take them by the hand.

When we are worried or anxious, God will be present with us. He will take us by the hand. We will never be left alone.

God continues,
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people

The servant will be the means through whom the people of Israel will be brought into a covenant relationship with the Lord.

God made a covenant with Abraham. (Genesis 17:1–7)
“I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
… You will be the father of many nations,
… I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

This covenant was renewed with Isaac and Jacob, with Moses and Joshua, and in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah with the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem.

The covenant needed to be renewed, again and again, but not because God was unfaithful. The covenant was broken because Israel was unfaithful. The history of the Old Testament is a history of the people of Israel chasing after idols, desecrating the temple by bringing idols into the holiest part of the temple.

Despite all of that idolatry, God is once again coming to the people of Israel to provide for them a servant who will help them to enter into a covenant relationship with himself.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah, who was contemporary with the deportation to Babylon, had to say about what was coming. (Jeremiah 31:31–33)
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

The writer of Hebrews spoke about the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. (Hebrews 9:15)
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

In this new covenant relationship, how will the people of God work together?

I will keep you and will make you 
to be a covenant for the people 
and a light for the Gentiles, 
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison 
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 

A light for the Gentiles.
Into the darkness of the Gentile world, the light of truth will come. Jesus said, (John 8:12)
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

This is the light that met Paul in the heat of the noonday sun as he was making his way to Damascus. This is the light that Paul carried to the Gentile world. This is the light that came to us and brought us out of darkness into the light.

Open eyes that are blind.
When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the Messiah, Jesus replied, (Luke 7:22)
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

Jesus fulfilled this prophecy of Isaiah by healing those who came to him. The disciples of Jesus continued to fulfill this prophecy by healing in the name of Jesus and we continue to fulfill this prophecy of Isaiah when we reach out to care for those around us and pray for healing.

To free captives from prison.
This could mean many things but certainly it includes those who were demon possessed. They were being tormented in the prison of their bodies until Jesus came and cast out the demons. This could include lepers who were excluded from society because of their illness. They were in a prison that did not allow them to be with family and friends.

To release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
Again, this could mean many things but it includes those who have made choices in life that have restricted their freedom to live and move freely. It could include Pharisees and Sadducees who were locked into a religious system that did not allow them to see the light of life that would set them free to live freely and abundantly.

Jesus sent out his disciples with this message: (Matthew 10:7–8)
As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

This is the work of the servant and his followers. This was the work of the disciples and it continues to be our work today.

Jesus is at work bringing light into the darkness and hopelessness of broken lives. Jesus is reaching out to people, encouraging them to open their hearts to his love. Jesus is present with those who suffer, offering them his comfort, love, and compassion.

As his followers, this is our work as well. We do not sit in the stands of a stadium watching Jesus work on the field. We leave our seat and go to work with Jesus on the field. We sit with a friend or neighbor and listen to them as they tell us about the difficulty of their life. We step out of our comfort and routine to help someone when they have a need. We pray with those who are under stress, consumed with anxiety. We share the hope we have for the future because of our relationship with Jesus with those who have no hope.

We serve alongside Jesus and along with Jesus we bring light into darkness.

The third stanza of the comments that follow the Servant Song begins, once again, with an introduction of who is speaking.

“I am the Lord; that is my name! 

Wake up and pay attention! This is me speaking! When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush Moses asked God who he should say sent him to deliver the Jews out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:14)
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

What God told Moses he now tells the Israelites who have returned from exile. “I am the Lord.”

God gets their attention and then what does he say?

I will not yield my glory to another 
or my praise to idols. 

God will not tolerate idolatry. God is patient, but he is not patient with idolatry.

The Jews cried out for help when they suffered in Egypt. God answered their prayers by sending Moses to rescue them. Through Moses he sent plague after plague on the Egyptians but Pharaoh would not relent and allow them to leave. Finally he sent the last plague – the firstborn of Egyptians, human and animal, were killed.

At last Pharaoh relented and allowed them to leave. But after they left he had second thoughts and sent his army to capture them and bring them back. But God again delivered them as they crossed the Red Sea. After all this, after all God did for them, they arrived at Mt. Sinai, Moses went up on the mountain to receive the law from God, and what did they do? They gave praise to a god of Egypt rather than to the God of Moses who had delivered them.

They worshiped a calf they had to make from gold, an idol that they had to carry from place to place. God had been active in delivering them. God had been active in leading them to safety across the sea while the army of Pharaoh was destroyed. God had been active in leading them with a cloud by day and fire by night.

And now they traded this God who had actively rescued and led them for a gold calf that could do nothing by itself. The gold calf had no consciousness, no brain, no voice, nothing. It was inanimate gold. In contrast to this worthless idol God says at the end of these comments in Isaiah 42,

See, the former things have taken place, 
and new things I declare; 
before they spring into being 
I announce them to you.” 

God knows what we say before the thought comes to our minds. God knows the future before we are born and have a future in front of us. God is alive, active, and constantly on the move, working for our own good.

When we have God on our side, helping us, encouraging us, leading us, why would we shift our attention and put our hope in someone or something that has no permanence?

We read in Exodus about Aaron making a gold calf for the people and we scratch our heads and ask, “How could they be so stupid?”

We read through Kings and Chronicles and are dismayed at the persistent attraction of the people of Israel to worship the gods of Canaan. It hurts to see king after king marry a foreign woman who brought her gods into Israel. There were good kings who got rid of the idols and cleansed the temple, but then their sons reverted to idol worship.

It makes us feel dismayed, but God had a much more powerful reaction against their idolatry. He spoke harsh words about the idolatry of Israel through his prophets. God spoke graphic, insulting words through his prophet Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 2:23–25)
“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
24 a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving—
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
25 Do not run until your feet are bare
and your throat is dry.
But you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’

Why did God allow the Jews of Jerusalem to be defeated and taken into exile? It was the consistent and persistent idolatry of Israel that caused them to be defeated and taken away into exile. The exile was God’s judgement against Israel for their idolatry. (Isaiah 42:23–25)
Which of you will listen to this
or pay close attention in time to come?
24 Who handed Jacob over to become loot,
and Israel to the plunderers?
Was it not the Lord,
against whom we have sinned?
For they would not follow his ways;
they did not obey his law.
25 So he poured out on them his burning anger,
the violence of war.
It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand;
it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.

God is patient and longsuffering toward his people, but he is not tolerant in any way towards idolatry.

There are ten commandments from which the rest of the Law God gave to Moses are derived. The most important commandments come at the beginning. What are the first two of the ten commandments? (Exodus 20:2–6)
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

But despite all that God did for his people, despite the words he spoke through his prophets, Israel persisted in worshiping idols.

Isaiah wrote about the idolatry of those he created to worship him and their fate at the end of time. (Isaiah 2:621)
Their land is full of idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their fingers have made.
9 So people will be brought low
and everyone humbled—
do not forgive them.
10 Go into the rocks, hide in the ground
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty!
11 The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled
and human pride brought low;
the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
12 The Lord Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,

People will flee to caves in the rocks 
and to holes in the ground 
from the fearful presence of the Lord 
and the splendor of his majesty, 
when he rises to shake the earth. 
20 In that day people will throw away 
to the moles and bats 
their idols of silver and idols of gold, 
which they made to worship. 
21 They will flee to caverns in the rocks 
and to the overhanging crags 
from the fearful presence of the Lord 
and the splendor of his majesty, 
when he rises to shake the earth.

Idolatry was not just a problem for Israel. Idolatry has continued to be a problem in history. Idolatry is a big deal so the question to ask is if there is idolatry in our own lives?

We don’t have wood or gold idols we worship, but idolatry comes in many forms.

Frederick Buechner writes about idolatry in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.
Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth. Under certain circumstances, money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical beauty, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on are fine things to have around; but to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly. They just aren’t up to it.

It is good to have money. It is good to be patriotic. It is good to be part of a family. It is good to have a career and be good at what you do. But where do I put my trust? Where do I look to find hope?

How do we know if we have turned from God as the source of our hope, as the one in whom we put our trust?

Here are four questions you can ask.
Where do I spend my time?
Where do I spend my money?
Where do I get my joy?
What’s always on my mind?

If you honestly reflect on these questions, I think you will discover where it is you have a tendency to have idols in your life.

It is not that we abandon our faith in Christ, but we shift our trust and hope from Christ to other things. We make them more important than they should be in our lives.

I’ll give you one current example. The political contest for president in the US is approaching. There are just 37 days before the next president of the US is elected and tensions are running high.

I’m not spending my money on this election, but I don’t do so well with the other questions.

I spend a lot of time each day watching the news, reading the news, checking Facebook to see what people are saying about this election, making comments to what people say.

My mood is definitely affected by what I read, by what happens day after day. I swing from cautious optimism to sinking despair. This election is always on my mind.

I think this is an important election, more important than any of the other 15 presidential elections I have lived through. I think it is important for me to do what I can to influence the people who will vote in this election. The results of the election are not without consequence to the US and to the rest of the world.

I am strenuously opposed to the reelection of the current president, but I have close friends and family for whom I have great respect, who will vote for the current president. I listen to their reasons for voting for the current president but obviously, I do not agree with them. There are a lot of fears associated with this election. Some are fearful of socialism. Some are fearful of protestors in the streets. Some are fearful of vigilantes who carry guns into these protests. Some are fearful of continuing chaos in the leadership of the US. This election is sucking up our energy and time. Meanwhile, what is Jesus doing?

The intention for family and friends to vote to reelect the current president distresses me, but in the last few weeks I have found myself reminding myself over and over again that whether the current US president is reelected or replaced, the kingdom of God will continue to advance. I don’t know if Jesus has a preference, but I do know that Jesus will not be thwarted by whoever is elected.

It is more important to Jesus that brothers and sisters in Christ remain in unity than who is elected. We may have strong differences, but Jesus will not ask us who we voted for as a requirement to enter into his kingdom. Our unity is more important than our political choices.

I remind myself that God has built his kingdom through the centuries of the church’s existence despite those who rule the world as kings or presidents. Kings and queens, presidents and dictators come and go but the kingdom of God grows in each generation from strength to strength.

Jesus was born when Herod was king. Herod was so in love with power that he murdered his own sons to keep himself in power. Cruel kings, incompetent leaders, immoral leaders do not prevent the growth of the kingdom of God.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and we are to work for justice on earth. We need to work to elect good leaders. But our hope is not in the leaders we elect. Our hope is not in which political party dominates. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. On Christ, the solid rock, we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

There is no room for idolatry in our lives. Examine your life, put your hope and trust in Christ who will never leave you or forsake you.