Tuesday, September 01, 2020

A Sheet of Glass

Now and then when I’m unable to write a new post for one reason or another, I’ll recycle something from our archives, generally without comment. But I couldn’t help but notice that this end-of-2014 post about the suddenness with which change comes to our world was definitely NOT inadvertently prophetic. Not one bit. Really.

Last week, Matt Drudge linked to an article in The Guardian that informs us “we are safer, richer and healthier than at any time on record”. In “Goodbye to one of the best years in history”, Fraser Nelson wraps up 2014 by reminding his readers that while it may have escaped our notice:
  • our lives now are more peaceful than at any time known to the human species;
  • global capitalism has transferred wealth faster than foreign aid ever could;
  • global life expectancy now stands at a new high of 71.5 years;
  • traffic deaths are down by two-thirds since 1990; and
  • there has never been a better reason for people the world over to wish each other a happy and prosperous new year.
While Mr. Nelson may have overlooked one or two little atrocities here and there in his glowing report on the human condition, he makes an effort to substantiate his claim that relatively at least we are doing pretty well as a species.

Terrific for us, until things change. And change is coming.

Prosperity and Idolatry

Isaiah has one or two things to say on the subject of idolatry. In fact, when reading the middle chapters of the book that bears his name it is almost impossible not to notice the number of times God makes what appear to be rather obvious declarations. Declarations like “I am God, and there is no other” are repeated so often that you cannot help but think that God took for granted that his audience really didn’t know it.

Because it seems … they didn’t.

It doesn’t take a very attentive reader of Isaiah (or, in fact, any book of the Old Testament) to observe that despite its nominal monotheism, Israel remained in perpetual danger of turning away from Jehovah to the would-be deities of its neighbors, especially when things were good; like, for instance, in the days of Solomon.

Idols and … Idols

Nowadays, of course, almost nobody in our western countries that are “safer, richer and healthier than at any time on record” carves or casts images and makes a habit of groveling in front of them. We’re far too clever and sophisticated for such silliness.

Instead we make gods of the Nanny State, insurance policies, credit cards, the stock market, the pension plan, the 401(k), love, sex, fame, respect, the family, the “good life”, homes, careers, sports teams, the cult of entertainment and all manner of other things. It is from these sorts of idols that many of us derive whatever security, satisfaction, motivation and self-image we are able to find in this world.

And just like Israel during its very checkered history as “the people of God”, believers live in constant peril of finding ourselves looking to such things to give our lives their real meaning while deprioritizing our relationship with Christ, who is the only genuine source of it.

So, yeah, Isaiah remains much more relevant that he might initially appear.

When Everything Crashes and Burns

That said, one wonders how idols deliver on their promises when social conditions, the economy and the state of the world are not quite as rosy as the The Guardian currently paints them.

I’m not sure how I missed this short passage in chapter 46 my first dozen or so times through the Old Testament. I’m sure I’ve read it over and over again. Sometimes, though, when you read aloud, certain things jump out at you.

Isaiah, speaking for God, is talking about the extremely limited utility of false gods in times of crisis:
“Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.”
Isaiah makes the very valid case that when you are being carried off into captivity in a foreign land, as was in the process of happening to Israel and the nations around them during the prophet’s own lifetime, all the stuff that gave your life security and meaning up until that moment of crisis doesn’t really add up to a whole lot.

Whatever is not completely obliterated is bundled up on the back of a donkey staggering off to Babylon. Your false gods are about as useful as the rags on your back. You get to walk; they get to ride. Perhaps they’ll come in useful to somebody somewhere, but it sure won’t be you.

Mr. Nelson’s Curious Caution

In good times a retirement plan, a 401(k) or an RSP may actually appear to be a form of security, and a fat bank account, real estate or a series of well diversified investments may be counted upon to provide the results they promise.

And hey, as Mr. Nelson says, we live in REALLY good times — the best of times, if he’s correct. But his piece, curiously and perhaps prophetically, ends on this cautionary note:
“Just over a century ago, a period of similarly rapid progress was coming to an abrupt end. The Belle Époque was a generation of scientific, medical and artistic advances, which, then, felt unstoppable. John Buchan summed up this mood in his 1913 novel The Power House. ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism,’ one of his characters says. ‘I tell you: the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.’ So it was to prove.”
A thread. A sheet of glass. Ouch.

How Thin a Sheet Would That Be?

About as thin as a lone EMP or another provocation on the scale of 9/11. About as unimaginable as a single nuclear error. About as implausible as a solitary act of terror that turns into a cascade. Somebody hacks the NYSE, or we get a run on the banks. And everything changes overnight.

In terms of world history, the forms of security with which we have become all too comfortable in western society are aberrations, not constants.

But in contrast to idols and the false security they provide stands the true God; the God of Israel and the same God we worship today if we have truly come to know and understand his son Jesus Christ, and he has this to say about the security that comes from being called by his name:
“ ‘Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.’ ”
I am no prophet but I cannot believe that I will go to my grave with the world in its current rosy condition, and if I do, many of my contemporaries surely will not. Whatever it is that we rely on for our security or satisfaction, if we harbor idols in our lives, they will wind up packed on the back of donkeys on their way to Babylon, metaphorically at least.

Or probably somewhere worse than Babylon. One day there will be no RSPs, no NFL and not a whole lot that we currently know and are familiar with. Those optimistic Christians who want to erect bigger and better buildings to attract the neighborhood? I have a feeling they do not have their fingers on the pulse of world affairs, or that if they do, it’s simply incomprehensible to them just how thin a sheet of glass separates us from social conditions that are quite unrecognizable and terrifying.

But we do not put our faith in such things. And if the Lord could tell wavering, idol-loving Israel that he had carried them from before they were born and would carry them until their old age, then most surely he can be depended upon to carry those who love his Son through whatever looms ahead of us: “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”

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