In the late 1800s there were just two deacons in a small Baptist church in Mayfield County, Kentucky. These two deacons hated each other and always opposed one another. On a particular Sunday, one deacon put up a small wooden peg in the back wall so the minister could hang up his hat. When the other deacon discovered the peg, he was outraged that he had not been consulted. The church took sides, and the church eventually split. To this day, they say you can find in Mayfield County, Kentucky, the Anti-peg Baptist Church.
That story is a bit humorous, but I think it’s more sad than anything. And its sadness reaches far beyond the small community of Mayfield County, Kentucky. I’m sure there were relationships that were destroyed over this silly issue. Perhaps families split right down the middle because of this church conflict. But I think the picture that it paints of the people of God is far more damaging in the long run. The fact is: We as Christians have done a good job over the years of digging ourselves a pretty deep hole. We speak of love and joy and sacrifice. But so often our actions and speech are not only void of these virtues, but they actually contradict them!
Unfortunately, I imagine that there are many people in our world today that would be open to following Christ if not for one thing: Christians! I believe there are individuals in this world, in this community, people who see two options in life; follow Jesus or follow the values of this world.
These two options could really be described as the option between two competing Gods! The God of Scripture; YHWH, The Creator of the world. Or, the god followed by so many people in our culture; the one god who goes by so many names, the god of materialism, the god of ambition, the god of fame and fortune, the ever popular god of happiness.
And this second god looks so appealing! It looks as if riches will take you far in life. It so often seems the case that titles and degrees can give you the self worth you have so long desired to have. So many people buy into the idea that the answers they seek in life come from power, image, and worldly honor. And I’ll be honest with you, I honestly believe that when some people look at both of these gods in the storefront window, they choose the second option, because some well meaning people in this world (and some not so well meaning people) have so badly disfigured the God of heaven and earth that He is hardly recognizable. And the image they have created pales in comparison to the glitz and glamour of option number two.
Sometimes, it’s easy to deceive ourselves and others into believing that this God, the God of heaven and earth, is far inferior to the gods of this world.
But we are not the first ones to fall into this trap.
If you remember, the Jewish people spent some time in exile in the nation of Babylonia. One day Israel was the “chosen race” of God living in the shadow of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The next day, they were salving their wounded pride on their way to the capital city of their enemy, Babylon.
Imagine what that first glimpse of Babylon must have been like for these Hebrews. Enormous statues to the gods of this ancient civilization, large temples dedicated to the victorious deities, and chief among them, Marduk, the supreme ruler, the god who, in their minds, played a role in creation. I’ll bet these dejected Jews felt like street rats entering the Oval Office. I imagine many of them noticed a stark contrast, their world was burned to the ground. Their temple didn’t exist anymore. Many of their friends and relatives were dead on the battlefield. And here was the great city of Babylon in all of its splendor.
Now it is essential at this point to recall something very important concerning the way these Hebrews viewed the world. Known in more modern times as the Deuteronomic theology. It has a big name, but it is actually quite simple. The good are rewarded; the bad are punished. The good guys win; the bad guys lose. The powerful gods always taste victory; the lesser gods are always defeated.
I have to believe that when these Hebrews entered Babylon, that theology began to play tricks on them. It wouldn’t take long before many of them began to buy into a gravely misguided thought. Babylon won, so, their gods are more powerful than ours. YHWH was defeated, so, perhaps He was no match for Marduk! In fact, we have records that indicate that is exactly what many Hebrews believed, we have their writings. The middle section of the prophetic book, Isaiah, was written during this time to address just that issue. Isaiah, recounting the minds of the Hebrews at this time, writes:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”
Israel felt abandoned. They felt alone. And I imagine many of them had mixed feelings. Like the god they had served all along was not the god they thought He was, or, if He was powerful, He had abandoned them. And I picture many of them looking in the shop store window and choosing option number two.
But in this time of questioning and uncertainty, Isaiah wrote to remind the people who God really was, and who they really were as well.
READ ISAIAH 49:1–6 CEB
Isaiah was reminding these captive people of a very important truth. God is still God! The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was still in charge. No matter how appealing Marduk and the other gods of Babylon seemed, they were no match for the Creator of the world. But Isaiah had still another message for these people.
You Hebrews…Now this plan God had in mind was unlike anything these Hebrews were expecting. They expected God to reiterate His covenant with His chosen people. They fully expected God to remind them of their set apartness. In their minds, their primary purpose in this world was to live out God’s commands within God’s chosen community. But God called them to something new:
You who sit in captivity in a foreign land…
I created you for a mighty purpose.
And I have been preparing you all along for just such a time as this.
At this moment, you will help Me carry out My plan.
To simply restore the tribes of Jacob, that is too small!The purpose outlined by Isaiah was this:
No, I am calling you to look beyond yourselves and into the world.
Your purpose is to bring light to the Gentiles!
To those outside…
See all of those people looking in the store shop windows…What a mighty purpose God has created us for!
The ones trying to choose their gods… It’s your job to show them who I am!
I really believe texts like these are some of the most challenging texts for Christians living in our time. It’s possible to simply read these verses, praise Isaiah for challenging those people, and move on with our lives. But, church, if we really allow these words to sink in, they provide a significant challenge to us.
Church has changed dramatically in America over the past century. And some of those changes have been a real blessing to us. In the last few decades, youth and family ministry was born. We have special ministers and programs dedicated to our teens, children, and families. We know that children and teenagers are making significant decisions about their faith. Studies show that if a person does not come to faith by the age of 13, there is a small chance they ever will. I’m glad we put so much emphasis on our young people! Christians in 21st century America also enjoy senior adult ministry. Many of you gather together and do fun things. Trips out of town, regular area-wide gatherings, and who could forget Turkey Bingo! I think those times are important. They build community. They build relationships. Christians living in our time and place also have nice, beautiful (and functional) buildings. We have our own kitchen, which helps when we have meals together. We have a gym, which provides such a resource to our families. We have a comfortable air conditioned and heated “living room” to meet in each week. Anyone else thankful to God for air-conditioning?! All of these things are wonderful! They are blessings. There is nothing wrong with any of them. But…
As we enjoy these blessings, over time, it is easy to forget why we are here.
Our purpose, as Christ’s Church, is not simply to enjoy all of the amenities church has to offer. Our purpose, as Christ’s Church, is not to come weekly to our living room, see friends, talk about this week’s events, sing songs and pray and listen. Brothers and sisters, we were put here for a mighty purpose! We were put here to help each other and our world choose Jesus. We were put here to be a reflection of Jesus to the world, so that as the world chooses which god it will serve, as the world walks up and down the streets, looking in the shop windows, when they come to us, they will see Jesus.
God has entrusted us with that awesome responsibility. Let me remind you once again of these words from Isaiah:
He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant,To restore Israel is too small a goal for us. I will use you to attract the world. Church, lest we forget: the world is watching. So, what picture of God are we showing them?
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.