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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, chapter 44. As I so often have reason to do, I want to start this morning by thanking you. Thank you, Louis, for leading our Wednesday night small group to let me get some time to rest. Thank you to everyone who helped Momma Rose celebrate her birthday. I deeply appreciate you guys, which is my emotionally stunted way of saying I love you—Phil makes that sound so easy—and I appreciate your care and concern for me and for my family. Not every pastor has that.
My week was fantastic. I lived in a house that had nothing wrong with it. It rained, and none of the rain fell on me inside the house. There were many, many trees, but none of them had fallen through the house. I had many phone calls, all of which I ignored, and many emails as well, I’m sure—I don’t know, I haven’t checked. I kayaked down a river—that was wonderful. I played golf for the first time—that was more of a mixed bag. That poor gardener who is going to have to undo what I did to the grass, if you ever hear this, know that I’m sorry. We ate dinner at nine, and slept in til nine, because we didn’t have any children with us, with their needs and emotions. I read a book about Norse mythology that had nothing to do with anything, and it probably won’t come up again. In short, we rested, and rest is a beautiful gift of God, a reminder that I am not necessary in the world, neither is my work. Only God and what he does is necessary, and we are invited generously to participate in his work.
Ironically, after spending a week getting lost in the woods, our passage today has a tree, and woodworking, as the central image, and you’ll see in just a moment what they will craft, what they will form from this tree, and it’s this idea of formation that I’m going to keep in front of us for the next several weeks. I want you to ask yourself what is forming you. What are you allowing to shape your life? And as I asked last week, if you or I are going to be Christian, we are going to have to learn what makes a Christian.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 44, and we’re going to start reading in v.12. [Isaiah 44:12-20] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
There’s so much going on in this passage, it’s difficult to know where to start. You’ll notice this passage is in the middle of this section with the servant songs, beautiful prophecies describing the messianic hope of Israel, the servant of God who will suffer for our sake, and because he suffers, we will be able to heal. This servant will be our salvation out of exile and from our sins, our help and our model as we seek to serve God in our lives. In the middle of this section on the servant of God, we find this strange little parable about two craftsmen, a smith and a carpenter. I want to take each in turn. At first glance, the parable seems disconnected from each other and disconnected from the rest of the section, but they’re not. This parable of the craftsman tells us a little more about how God is crafting and shaping us.
The first craftsman in the parable is a smith in v.12. An ironsmith, which is hot, hard work, all day near a fire and hot metal. It says, in the parable, he has a strong arm. This is the kind of man who would be able to carry a heavy workload. He wouldn’t need a whole lot of help in his work. But one day, he doesn’t eat as he works, and his strong arms grow weak. He doesn’t drink, and in the heat all day, he starts to grow faint.
In chapter 40, which was the beginning of this section on the servant of the Lord, Isaiah says God never grows weary or faint, and he is able to make his servants to not grow weary or faint. God, in this parable, is the food the smith does not eat. The Spirit of God is the water he does not drink. So the smith is a servant of God, admittedly someone who is strong and talented, who decides to attempt the work of the kingdom of God without depending upon God himself. But in the end, without allowing the Spirit of God to refresh him, he grows faint and weary, he burns out and can’t do anything, can’t even care for himself.
My first point for today is that the Spirit forms his servants, forms Christians, to be dependent. The Spirit forms his servants to be dependent.
There is a temptation to believe that the most mature believers are the ones who seem to have no needs. Growing up, I tried to keep my needs and emotions to myself, tried to be joyful in every circumstance, said yes to everything, and always wanted to be on the side that was helping, never put myself in a position to be helped. But as I grew older, the Spirit had to break me down and reform me to be a person of profound need. I’m not trying to set an example by going to our prayer time Sunday morning; I need that time. I need to come here and worship, not so I can stand tall at the front, but because I need to bow low before God and ask for help.
I don’t like to ask people for things, and so of course now I’m a pastor whose livelihood is dependent upon whether or not people tithe or otherwise give to the church. I’ve always wanted people to think well of me, to think I’m a good person, and the Spirit has been forming me as a confessing sinner, who is not a good person and is deeply in need of grace and forgiveness. This is not my doing, but the grace of God for me. The Spirit forms his servants to be dependent.
When you are in leadership at a church, it’s a temptation to try to find strong people, talented people, to do the work of the church. Self-starters, go-getters, sacrificial givers, who can help you build your ministry, help you do the work of the kingdom and meet the needs of the community. And here in New Orleans, there’s so much need, you call fill your days just meeting needs, left and right. You can give all of your money away, spend all of your time meeting the needs of your community, and people will say that you are the best of us and the strongest. You can even begin to think that the work of God here depends upon you.
You start working through your lunch breaks, not spending time in the word, or with friends, or family, or resting, and you may make it longer than a day. Even though ministry in New Orleans is hot, hard work. You might even make it several years until your relationships falls apart and your soul is starved, and you’re so exhausted that you can’t do anything for your community or your church, even if you’re strong. You have to eat, you have to drink of the Spirit of God. And I know I’m preaching to myself, but I’m preaching to you, too.
The Spirit forms his servants to be dependent. We are dependent upon him and upon the people around us. We cannot do enough good in the world that it will make up for not actually knowing him. The meals we prepare can’t be good enough to make up for the fact that we never actually sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. The work of God in this city isn’t dependent upon you. That would mean God needs you. He doesn’t, but you need him desperately.
I hear this all the time: we think we don’t have enough time to pray and read, spend time with God—there’s too much work to do, there’s no time. There is too much work to do, which is exactly why we need to spend time hearing from the Lord, because we need to not grow weary and burn out. And you’re right, there is too little time, but not in the way you mean it. There is too little time in our lives to live without him. We are so weak and brief, that we only have moments in this life to do the things he’s called us to do—a single day in which we need to stop and eat. Be still and drink deep. God is water and food. The Spirit forms his servants to be dependent.
I know this is subtle. What I’m arguing for here is a shift in approach. Something’s off in our churches if we’re dependent upon people. We make urgent pleas for help, for volunteers, for finance, for involvement. And that’s practical, I understand it, but it’s just not true. I hope I’m saying this in a way that makes sense—I’m not against church growth, and I’ve been fundraising all year—but we could shut the door of this church today, never open it again, and the work of God in New Orleans would go forward. We act so often like God needs us, and he doesn’t. We need him, desperately. I’d rather know, as a church, we have what we need in the Lord and operate from a place of confident contentedness. I would rather view our communion table as a feast, and then invite people to take part in something that’s valuable in and of itself. If you want to be a part of the community, come knowing our church is filled with a love God supplies. If you want to participate, know that you’re invited be a part of God’s work in the world. If you want to give, give knowing you’re helping to fund something of an already inestimable value.
Jesus asks his disciples if they will leave him, and they reply, “where else would we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.” I want us to be a people dependent upon the Lord, a “where else would we go” people. If the Lord doesn’t build it, I don’t want us to spend time on it. If he’s not going to show up, I don’t want us to be there. We need to become people who approach the Lord, not because we think we have something to offer him, but because we need him, and we’re desperate to drink deeply of the spring of life. The Spirit forms us to be dependent, and the more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more we realize our desperate dependence upon him, like food and water.
The second craftsman in the parable is a carpenter, a man who cuts down a tree, and with one half of the tree he cooks dinner, then with the other half he makes an idol to worship. My second point for today is this: the Holy Spirit makes his servants to be alive. The Holy Spirit makes his servants to be alive. But in this parable, together with this great encouraging truth, we also see a dire warning about spiritual formation. The warning is that other things besides the Holy Spirit are able to form you spiritually. The truth is, whatever you worship forms you.
Last week I talked about how the Holy Spirit makes people Christian, the Spirit is the one that shapes us into the servants of God, and in doing so makes us more like Christ. The Spirit calls us to be just and do justice, to sing and praise God, to be fearless and wise, and I kept saying over and over again, the more you allow the Spirit to work in you, the more he shapes you, forms you, crafts you in the shape of these things, in the shape of Christ.
In this passage we see that the converse is true, as well. Whatever you worship forms you, not just the Holy Spirit. The more you allow the Spirit to work in you, the more he shapes you, but the Holy Spirit is not the only one seeking to shape you, and Christ’s life is not the only form our lives can take. Whatever you worship forms you. Here in our passage, we see a man worshipping idols. We don’t tend to worship idols in our society—or we don’t call them idols, at least, but look carefully at v.13. When this carpenter shapes his own god to worship, what shape does it take? What does his idol look like? V.13 says the idol is in the shape of a man, with the beauty of a man, and he lives in a house like a man.
He’s worshipping himself, basically. This carpenter, instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to form him into the image of God, he’s decided he is a good enough craftsman, he is going to form god into his own image, to make a god that looks like him, who wants the same things as him. I would say that, generally, of idolatry. Idolatry is an attempt to make god in our own image, to be like us or like the way we want to be. I don’t see a lot of people falling down and praying to carved images in our present day, but people making little gods who look like them all the time, making God to be what they want him to be, what is convenient for them, rather than the vast and challenging figure he actually is—that’s something I see every day. We want to form our god rather than allowing him to form us. We want to put him in a little box and carry him around, pull him out when we need something, set him up in our house to impress our friends.
We want to be the creators, and we want God to be created in our image, how we would like. And Isaiah is saying, be careful. Because the gods of our own making can form our spirits, too. Deform our spirits, I should say. And the more we worship these little fake gods we make, the faker, the more like them we become. I see it in churches, as people make little gods who are quick to speak out against and punish sins they aren’t guilty of and readily forgive sins they or their children have committed. Like when we preach endlessly about our personal relationships with God while ignoring entirely radical injustices in our society—like racial inequity and sexual abuse—and never issuing a call for repentance and justice. Or vice-versa, when we pursue societal justice in the name of God, but we excuse what the Bible calls sin in the name of equality and acceptance.
We make little gods who look like us when we quietly disregard faithful, biblical teaching in favor of our own opinions. We’re right in our own eyes, and content to be so. We say, that’s his opinion, or her politics, or the generational difference, so we don’t actually have to change our minds or our lives. We make little gods who look like us when we pick and choose different beliefs from different religions telling ourselves that we’re open minded, but really we just don’t want anyone to actually change us. We gather our world views from media and social media outlets literally designed, algorithmically, to tell us things we would already agree with, to avoid change or challenge of any kind.
There’s lots of ways to try to make God more like you, more manageable, more understandable, less wild. The only problem is, our God is not like us. He’s holy. And we can’t manage or control him. We’ll never fully understand him or his ways, and he is wild, not safe.
By the end of our passage, not only has the carpenter made god into his own image, but the carpenter has become just like the idol he made. By the end of the passage, the carpenter and the idol both have eyes, but neither of them are able to see—the carpenter’s eyes might as well be made of wood, too. They both have hearts, but they are hard, lifeless, unmoving. They both have heads, but neither of them reason in wisdom. He has become exactly like the thing he is worshipping—dead, hard, and cold.
The Holy Spirit, though, is the spirit of the living God, so as we worship the living God, we, ourselves, are made to be alive. Our eyes begin to see. Our ears begin to hear. Being in Christ makes you see the world as though it’s a novel written declaring the glory of God, makes you see yourself as a beloved son or daughter of God. It’s like seeing and hearing for the first time. It is seeing and hearing for the first time. Our hearts become soft again. Hearts soft enough to break when we see people who are lost like sheep without a shepherd. Or when we hear a people crying out for justice, peace, or comfort. Soft enough to be dependent upon the Lord and know our need for him.
The great tragedy of this passage is in v.17. The carpenter cries out to his idol, to the God he made for deliverance, and of course nothing happens. The idol can’t hear him, and it can’t move, much less save him. It can’t speak comfort to him.
That’s the tragedy, too, when we make God into something we can manage or understand. Someone who forgives our faults without any kind of atonement. Someone who looks like us who is content to sit in our house. The gods we make are easier to live with than the living God whom we can’t control. We can understand them and we can follow their laws and tell ourselves we’re good people. Only, those gods can’t do anything. Their laws may not require you to confess and change, but then there’s no grace, there’s no forgiveness to be found in the religions we make for ourselves, and you remain in your sin and suffering. Your conception of God may not offend you, but neither can it help you. And when you’re upset, the universe can’t come sit with you in your sadness and anger.
My invitation today is just that: an invitation, not a plea. An invitation to know that you are completely unneeded and unnecessary, to know that you can rest—I would recommend cabins in the woods. To know that God doesn’t depend upon you, but also that we are totally dependent upon him. I would encourage you to move your body in some way in response. Historically, Christians have knelt or bowed or prostrated themselves in some way to show, with their bodies, their dependence on the Lord. You don’t have to be having some sort of ecstatic experience to get up and come pray at the front or with another person or to bow or get on your knees, it’s just a way we can physically remind ourselves of the truth of our dependence upon him.
And I would invite you to lay down the gods of your own makings, the conception of god you can control and who always agrees with you, and come to the living God, who will challenge you, who is wild, but who would give his life to save you, who sits with us in our hurts and pains, who emptied himself, a king who became a servant, even died to be with us. Come, all you who are weary, and drink deeply of the spring of life.