catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 3 :: 2006.02.10 — 2006.02.25


The restoration of a nation

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.? (Isaiah 40:25-26)

?To whom then will you compare me?? asks God in Isaiah 40. ?Who is my equal?? It almost comes across as a kind of a macho question. We picture Clint Eastwood challenging any and all comers to ?make my day.? But is this really the right tone for the text? Is God just acting macho here, or is God inviting us to ask the question, to make the comparison, to put God on trial?

?Who is my equal?? For God to ask such a question is both a surprising and dangerous move. Keep in mind that when Isaiah (chapters 40-66) was first written down the nation of Israel sat captive in Babylon (which at that time comprised much of modern day Iraq). Israel, having been sorely defeated by the superpower of its day, now faced the rather difficult and troubling question: Are we backing the right God?

To the casual observer it was fairly obvious that not only had the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar won, but also that Marduk (the ancient Babylonian god) had won. ?To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?? asks God. Well, Marduk! Of course! After all, who won the war? Jerusalem is a burning pile of rubble and God?s people are confined to the Babylonian ghetto.

?Who is my equal?? God asks of us. And perhaps we need to think twice before we answer that same question, because back then (just like now) there are some real and obvious alternative answers out there. Safely seated in our comfortable churches, or among our Christian friends and family, we probably have no trouble naming God as God. But in other situation, the answer to this question might not be so clear.

So who is God?s equal? Well according to the most recent statistics that I could find, members of both Protestant and Catholic churches gave less per capita in 1998 than they did in 1968. However, according to Online Publishers Association and ComScore Networks, the average family spent more on entertainment in 2004 than they did in 2003. A 30-second ad during Super Bowl XL cost about $2.5 million. So if you?re talking about what seems to be the standard measure in American culture (money and power) then lots of things are equal to God, and then some!

The fact is that throughout history nobody (but gods) have ever gotten the kind of offerings that we make to our celebrities and pop idols today. Our culture of triviality seduces us into paying whatever it takes to maintain itself, but even though it can entertain us and divert our attention and make us lazy, it can?t save us. And although I certainly don?t want to draw any moral equivalence between the corrupt regime that was in Baghdad, and the present regime that is in Washington, D.C., there is a kind of Clint Eastwood arrogance on both sides that tends to take itself and its own claims so seriously that it cannot hear other voices, including that still small voice of God, pointing us to a better way.

?Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name.? Once again God makes a rather bold move. Keep in mind that in Babylon the stars were not just burning balls of hydrogen gas up in the sky; they were, in fact, gods themselves. The Babylonians were the guys who pretty much invented astrology, and the stars were the deities who controlled everything.

So God?s move, here, is indeed bold: ?Let?s see, those stars are your gods?? says God, ?Guess what, I made them! You can?t even count them, and yet I know them all by name.? Can you make the stars? I can?t. We can?t. Babylon can?t. But God can. Only God is God.

In other words, don?t play God. Go down that road and all you?ll find is death and destruction. It was true for a superpower 2500 years ago, and it?s still true today.
Therefore, if we?re going to remain faithful to this text, then we?re going to have to wrestle with the question: Who is God?s equal? The trouble is that this text was intended to challenge the powerful, so if we?re going to bring it into our present day context, then we?re going to have to recognize that what?s good for the goose is also good for the gander.

So I ask the question again: Does the tone of voice in which God makes this claim matter? If it?s just an ?on-your-knees-sucker? demand that God is making here, then I might convince myself that I have to do it, but is that going to offer any real help for my life? But what if this is more of plea?I?m God, and you?re not, so come to me all of you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest?

Since God is God and we?re not, we can?t expect to play in God?s ballpark. But the beauty of the Gospel is this: Although we can?t play in God?s ballpark, God has chosen to play in ours. ?Who is my equal?? asks God, and our answer has to be ?no one.? But, says God, I can make myself equal to you, I can come to you, and I can show you a better way.

The point that God was making in those ancient days, when it looked as though Babylon had won the game, was that God-ness, divinity, was no longer measured strictly by force. Battlefield victories were no longer the sure sign that God was on our side, which means that it?s a whole new theological ball game.

So what does this new theological ball game look like? It?s within these same chapters of Isaiah that we?re introduced to the notion that God?s presence comes to us in the form of a servant, and that Israel is called to be a servant of the nations. That was not an easy lesson for Israel, nor is it an easy lesson for us. We?ve convinced ourselves all too well that ?We?re number one!? is the only slogan worth having, and we?re not sure whether we like the fact that God is out to win folks who don?t look like us, or act like us, and that God might just be asking us to lose ourselves in this cause, and that God chooses weakness instead of strength. But isn?t this what Christ taught us from the start?

Keep in mind that every religion claims that their god is number one. Every nation idolizes itself and every culture plays god. So what if God calls people to be a light to attract the nations, so that together we can realize Isaiah?s vision to beat our swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. What if God comes to us in the form of a servant named Jesus who?s obedient even unto death, as Paul claims? What if the Christian faith is not a call to choose the winning side, but instead, a call to cease the competition? What if God comes to assure us that, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything we need has already been given us, so we are now free to give ourselves to others?

I don?t mean to come across as naive here. Isaiah?s picture of the peaceable kingdom is not some new kind of foreign policy, nor will it be something that is fully realized in this era. There will always be legitimate disagreements among people of faith about what one has to do in the real world. And there are real bad guys out there, and self-defense may even be (at times) a justifiable response. But the Bible reminds us that there is also a bad guy inside each and every one of us. Therefore, arrogant self-righteousness will never do. There may be times and places for protecting what we have been given. But the Bible also reminds us that there?s never full protection for the things of this world, only for those whom God calls to be his own?and God wants to offer that protection to all people of every race and every nation.

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