But let’s go back in time further than 50 years. Let’s rewind to 2500 years ago. God’s people, the Judeans remain in exile, while the nations of the near east are in a state of flux. The Babylonian Empire is in free-fall. Fear and anxiety is widespread. A new global power has stepped onto the stage and it’s unclear what the geo-political landscape will look like when the dust finally settles. As Cyrus, King of Persia makes his move and marches against the nations of the coastlands of the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean Seas, the people tremble – they’re afraid – they try to encourage one another, but it does no good. Most of the people have put their faith in gods that are not. They’ve invested their future in idols – false gods who have no power to deliver them. To get the full picture, let’s take a look at Isaiah 41:1-10.
“Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment. Who has roused a victor from the east, summoned him to his service? He delivers up nations to him, and tramples kings under foot; he makes them like dust with his sword, like driven stubble with his bow. He pursues them and passes on safely, scarcely touching the path with his feet. Who has performed and done this; calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord am first, and will be the last. The coastlands have seen and are afraid, the ends of the earth tremble; they have drawn near and come. Each one helps the other, saying to one another, ‘Take courage!’ The artisan encourages the goldsmith, and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil, saying of the soldering, ‘It is good’; and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved. But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off’; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:1-10, NRSV).
Why are the people of the coastlands so afraid as Cyrus makes his move? Because they realize they don’t possess the military might to oppose the Persians. And their idols are merely the creation of humans – they must be propped up by human means and human methods. They nail down their idols so they won’t fall over in the middle of the night. They try to pump each other up, saying to one another that their creations are good and they shall not be moved. But God has seen this all before. He was there in the beginning; he’s seen kingdoms rise and empires fall. He’ll be there in the end. He’s in the middle of the present as well. Cyrus doesn’t know it, but it’s YHWH who’s behind his rise to power.
As the coastlands are in an uproar, as they tremble and quake, and call upon their gods who can’t even stand up on their own, Israel has no need to fear. They’ve put their faith, not in their own creations, but in the God who created the cosmos out of nothing. They’ve put their trust in one who’s delivered before in the Exodus, and who will deliver again through a man and an empire that doesn’t even call upon his Name. Israel has nothing to fear because they are YHWH’s chosen servant; they’re a part of his plan. They’re God’s instrument in bringing about the reconciliation of the nations. God will not abandon his people. He will strengthen them and allow them to share in his victory. And that’s good news for a people who were told that their God was nothing – that their God could not deliver them. That’s good news for a people who up until this point, didn’t seem to have much hope. That’s good news for a people who’ve been in exile for 50 years.
Looking back historically, we know that soon after these oracles were delivered – Cyrus, the Persian King allowed the exiles to return to Judea and rebuild their temple. The God who had acted previously, had acted again! The God who acted then is still active in our world today.
Though the fear of global communism is no longer present in our world, there are a lot of other concerns which cause a great deal of stress and anxiety in people. As I mentioned earlier, there is a renewed fear in the potentiality of another Cold War with Russia. Global terrorism has become a dangerous reality. Not to mention, we are days away from a new, unproven president’s inauguration. We are facing a lot of unknowns.
And since the age of the Enlightenment, our world has offered any number of idols to deal with the problems people face. People want something to put their trust in, but unfortunately, people far too often put their hope in things that ultimately cannot deliver. Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the communist ideal. After periods of recession and depression, we’ve been reminded that capitalism doesn’t solve all our economic problems either. We’ve seen that military might doesn’t always make right. The war to end all wars only led to more wars. Technology was supposed to make our lives easier and more efficient, but people are busier today than ever – lives are chaotic and out of balance. Science has discovered amazing things and has given humanity numerous benefits, but it has not created a perfect world. And the materialist/reductionism which science spawned is merely a new kind of Pantheisitic idolatry – it’s a philosophy that claims that the only thing that’s real is what can be observed scientifically. So people end up worshiping the laws of nature, rather than the creator of those laws. Politics is still politics, need I say more?
Just like the old paganism, this neo-paganism isn’t about conforming to God’s will; it’s about creating a god who can be conformed to our will. But there’s a problem with this sort of god – it’s only as powerful as we are and we soon find that we’re not nearly as powerful as we thought. Human self-sufficiency has been found insufficient. By now, it’s obvious that the age of reason didn’t solve all our problems, but neither will an age of so called post-modernity – an age of pluralism and moral relativism. These new idols are no more persuasive or powerful than the old ones, because like the idols of old, these idols are propped up by human methods and as we have seen in history, they inevitably fall.
We are at times tempted by the illusions of our modern idolatries. On the one hand, we’re tempted to put our trust in these man-made institutions and on the other hand we’re discouraged as we look around and it seems as if God’s Kingdom isn’t really coming. It seems that we’ve been in exile for far longer than 50 years and when we see the world through merely human eyes, things appear to be getting worse, not better. But God has another word in all of this and it’s not simply a word of judgment, but also a word of grace.
And this word of grace could only come to us from a God who is more powerful than we are – a God who is not bound by our circumstances – a God who can step into our lives from the outside and act on our behalf. Hope in a dark world can only come to us from a God who can enter into space and time and make a difference. This word of grace could only come to us from the God who revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. He’s a God whom we didn’t bring down, but a God who has brought us up. This is the message the church needs to be reminded of and this is the message that our world so badly needs to hear.
The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the personal God who was at work in the history of Israel. And he’s the personal God who is still at work in our world today – in our past, in our present, and certainly in our future. This God did not forget his promises to Abraham. He did not forget his promises to the slaves in Egypt. He did not forget his promises to David, or the Judean exiles. And this God did not forget his promises to his own Son. He did not abandon him to the grave and he will not abandon us either. The God we know and serve isn’t a god of wood or stone. He isn’t the god of Greek philosophical speculation. He isn’t simply the god of Pantheism, or Deism, or reductionist materialism – He’s the God who has acted and will act again. He will not abandon or cast off his people!
For those of us who have put our trust in Jesus, through God’s grace, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to share this message. On the one hand, we are to call our modern ideologies what they are always in danger of becoming – modern idolatries. And on the other hand, we have the responsibility to share with a hurting world God’s message of grace. Let’s remind ourselves once more of God’s word to his people. “Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
We encounter God’s word of grace as we embark on the year 2017. We may all feel anxious as we face the unknowns of the weeks and months ahead. And it may be that you’re personally coming to grips with some unknowns in your life as you begin this new year. Maybe you’re facing financial problems – you may have issues at your work. You may be dealing with family or marital problems. Maybe you’re carrying emotional burdens. It may be that you are in the midst of a health scare – some kind of illness, or medical problem that has arisen. Whatever you may be facing, you can be sure that the God who acted on behalf of Abraham, the God who acted for the exiles in Judea, and the God who most clearly acted in the person of Jesus Christ will continue to act on your behalf - the God who acted before, will act again. - Shay