October 29, 2-17
So, today we are going to start back in ancient times and work our way forward. We have to start with Bel and Nebo. Our text begins by telling us that, “Bel bows down. Nebo stoops.” Who are Bel and Nebo? Any listener in Isaiah’s day would have known two things. First, Isaiah is referring to the gods of Babylon. Second, they would have immediately known that Isaiah was mocking those gods. Let me explain…
Bel Marduk was the city god of Babylon, the god whom the Babylonians considered the leader of all the gods. The second reference is to Nabu who was the son of Marduk. Now, here’s the “kicker.” “Bel,” stated alone, is a title, like “mister” or “Lord.” Without the name Marduk attached, the reference is sarcastic, sort of a “Mister Big Stuff” meaning. The second reference to Nebo, I think is a deliberate massacring of Nabu’s name. People do this all the time to one another to “get under each other’s skin.” Isiaiah is “needling” the Babylonians.
There is another really interesting thing that is happening with the change in this second god’s name. In the story of Moses, Moses is not allowed to go into the Promised Land because he has disobeyed God’s law and kept some of the treasures that the people had seized in battle for himself. As a nod to 40 years of solid wilderness leadership, though, Yahweh allows Moses to stand and look into the Promised Land. God leads him to a mountain top which is really more of a ridge. The name of that ridge—that’s right!—is Nebo. So, Isaiah has managed to insult the Babylonians god and invoke the people’s history, all at the same time.
Now, we have to remind ourselves that for the first thirty chapters or so of the Book of Isaiah, our ancestors in faith have been Isaiah’s target. He takes all the rhetorical skills that a person can have and unloads on the people for their faithlessness. It’s honest. It’s brutal. It hits home. What a relief it must have been to begin to have Isaiah’s prophetic focus turn to a little bad news for the Babylonians for a change!
Of course, in addition to the digs against the Babylonian gods there is the simple image that Isaiah puts in front of us. “Mister Big Stuff” god over there? He’s bowing. “Junior What’s His Name?” He’s stooping down.” Why are they doing such non-god-like things? The reason is simple: Babylon is being overrun. They are “loading up the truck and headin’ to Beverly,” (for all of you where were alive in the 1960s.) The statues are being loaded onto the backs of the cattle and oxen, the closest thing to a Mack truck that they had. However, those poor animals are being crushed by the dead weight of those gods. The oxen wobble. They stoop. They waver with every step as the animals and the gods head into captivity.
These gods aren’t going to save anyone. They are completely inanimate. They are just an incredible burden. They are helpless and the people who worshipped them are helpless, too.
Then, Isaiah shifts his attention: “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel.” (Imagine, if you want, a modern speaker saying to us, “Listen, descendants of the original colonies!”) Isaiah challenges the people to remember their roots. Then, he shifts the focus to their individual history. In essence, he says to them, “Those people over in Babylon have to carry their gods. Here is the truth: I have been carrying you since before you were born. I have carried you every day since. I will still be carrying you when you are old and gray.” The Babylonians gather up their gold and silver and hire people to make their idols. The strongest among them hoist it into place. They get those statues set and then… nothing! It never moves. It is never moved by the prayers of those in distress. It never eases anyone’s burden. The statues never budge until finally the strongest people carry them again off into captivity.
Isaiah suggests on God’s behalf that the people might want to keep all this in mind: “Remember this…recall it to mind…Remember the former things of old.” “I am God there is no other.” This was true from the beginning of time. This will be true in the end. In the meantime, what is unfolding is a purpose that is mine that will be fulfilled.” If we need a bird of prey, I’ll get us one. If we need the right person for the job, I’ll keep calling them until one shows up. Even if it is not on your schedule, it will happen. Trust me!
Of course, what makes these words so hard to remember and so hard to take to heart is that the people are living through crazy times. They, themselves, are in captivity—something which they were sure God would never let happen to them. They have felt abandoned by God. Isaiah offers them a chance to hear that God still cares, that God is still carrying them, that there is still chance that God’s purposes will prevail. Isaiah invites them to hear that God will stay with them in exile. Isaiah invites them to see that one day God will walk them home.
If you have followed me so far, perhaps you are ready to work our way back to the present. Earlier this week, Tracy looked at me and asked, “Do you just feel like things are incredibly stressful right now?” Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “Absolutely!” Let’s see…Anger and self-interest and resentment and fear seem to be the order of the day at all sorts of levels. From a local to a national level, people are looking far more for a fight than we are looking to solve problems. We are deeply divided across all sorts of lines. Internationally, alliances that have been in place for decades seem to be fraying, treaties are being broken and millions of people are migrating in search of some kind of peace. Just looking at North Korea, all of a sudden it seems like part of the population is discussing nuclear weapons as if they are a viable choice for waging war.
We have extremely skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who have built giant idols for us. Just as much as any other group of human beings who have ever walked this earth, we are prone to worshiping those things which are less than God: our wealth; our power; our tribe and on and on. Just as much as any other group of human beings, should we worship these idols, we too will discover that these lesser things are, like Bel and Nebo, a great burden to carry with us in this life. They will not be there when we need them. Sooner or later, they will crush us. Just as much as our ancestors in faith, we will be tempted, when things don’t go the way we want, to believe that God has abandoned us.
That, of course, is when we need to remember. We need to be more than impulsive and reactive. We need to step back and remember who we are and whose we are. We need to recall Isaiah’s words of truth and hope. The evidence of a loving God is not an easy life. The evidence of a loving God is not a life that fulfills our every want and need. The evidence of a loving God is the truth that we perhaps discover most in the very hardest moments of this life that God is with us. No matter how crazy things seem, we are not abandoned. We are not alone. God is in our midst. There is hope.
Part of remembering this is remembering the people who helped us learn this. For our ancestors in faith, one of those people was Isaiah. His words were preserved and passed from generation to generation. A lot of those words were words that challenged people to be self-critical. He called on our ancestors to take seriously the fact that a great deal of the reason why they were in the situation that they were in had to do with choices that they had made. They needed to be honest about those mistakes. They needed to learn to live differently. They needed to worship nothing less than God.
In the midst of crazy, stressful times, we need to learn to blame less and examine ourselves more. We need to take responsibility for our mistakes. We need to resist the temptation to focus on what our leaders can or can’t do and instead take a cold, hard look at the choices which are ours to make and the responsibility which is ours to shoulder. We need to be open to the possibility that I might be the person whom God is calling to play one small part in turning the tide and beginning the long walk home. There is hope but only if we each learn to choose differently and if we each play our part.
This is why remembering our “Isaiah’s” matter so much. We’ve read the names of some of those “saints” already. Perhaps as we did, you remembered the names of a few more of those folks from your own life. They are the people who showed you something about how to live, who led you to a different kind of depth, who kept hope alive, who lived the best of what they believed. They are the people who challenge each of us to rise and face the challenges that face us today.
God is with us, carrying us, calling us, helping us. The “saints” are with us, inspiring us again. Let us rise and face the challenges ahead.