Do you belong to Zion or Babylon?
Are you carrying your religion, or does your religion carry you?
In Isaiah 44, the inspired prophet of God declares a rather austere message which exposes the folly and stupidity of Israel’s idolatry. I’ve come to call the middle portion of this chapter “The Parable of the Blacksmith and the Carpenter,” seeing as Isaiah uses both craftsmen in a sardonically prophetic (or is it prophetically sardonic) way to demonstrate just how seriously silly Israel is for chasing after “molten gods.” It is a fascinating section of Isaiah’s oracle, with a tinge of frustration and sarcasm smeared on top of his polemic verve. The good news of this particular section, though, comes to the fore when you realize that it is sandwiched between indefatigable promises of what the Lord of hosts would do on behalf of his chosen people (Isa. 44:3–4, 22). Even though Israel had gone and situated herself in amorous idolatry, God hadn’t given up on them, assuring them that they “shalt not be forgotten of me” (Isa. 44:21).
This diatribe against idolatry, though, stands out for several reasons. Chief among them, I think, is Isaiah’s intentionally derisive satire of how “graven images” are made (Isa. 44:9–20). In the end, what’s unmistakable and unshakable is that those who fall prostrate before idol gods crafted by their own hands are subscribing to a religion of ash (Isa. 44:20). The force of this passage is oftentimes lost on most Westerners. After all, it’s not like us to erect shrines in the corners of our homes to bow before gods we’ve fashioned. Yet, by the same token, we worship a myriad of other things that we elevate to the station of gods. As G. Campbell Morgan explains, in this extended excerpt from one of his sermons, the true assessment of “true religion” comes about when we answer the question, “Are you carrying your religion, or does your religion carry you?” Morgan affirms:
Anything in the place of God, or anything that puts God at a distance, is idolatry. When we put something between the soul and God we at one become burden bearers. If our religion is something as between ourselves and God, though our creed be perfectly orthodox as to God, then we are idolaters.
How shall we know? We shall know by our relation to our religion. Let me put a question with all practical force. Are you carrying your religion, or does your religion carry you? That is the test question. There are men and women in this house tonight who are carried by God. They read the great word I read in your hearing, and they understand it, they know it. It is not poetry to them. It is poetry, but it is infinitely more, “I will bear; yea; I will carry.” There are men here who, presently, will pass away from the sanctuary, the day’s worship done they will take a night’s rest, and tomorrow morning will settle back again into the work of the shop, the office, the hospital, and all the way will feel the lift and lilt of their religion. Those are the men who belong to Zion.
There are men who lay their religion aside when the service is over, they have carried it, it is an observance. They come to the sanctuary because they ought to come once a week at least. It may be that in the morning hour, they will bend the knee in prayer, and also at night; but they are carrying their religion. It is something added on to their life, a department of their life which they lock safe up when they get to business and pleasure. It is a weariness to them, a burden. If they dared they would be rid of it. Then, even though they sing the song in this house, and attend reverently to the preaching, and never take the name of God in vain, they are idolaters, they belong to Babylon and not to Zion.
The test of religion is whether you carry it or it carries you; whether it is a weariness and a burden, something that after all if you only dared you would fling overboard; or whether it is the inspiration, the joy, the strength of life. Idolatry is the making of an idol which you can put down in any given place — and you will find it there when you come back. It will not move. There is a good deal of that in the Christian Church. You go away today, you will find your religion here next Sunday; it will not move, but you will be away from it for a week. That is idolatry. True religion is the worship of God, which means that in the busy street, in the midst of perplexing questions in the office and the profession, and amid the thousand and one duties of the home, it carries you, and the song of His praises escapes your lips, and the gladness of His presence is in your heart. That is true religion. (4:329–30)
This, to be sure, is no isolated thing. There are scores of churchgoers who are idolaters and they don’t even realize it (Isa. 44:18–19). They are blind to just how deep they’ve been seized by the things they put in place of God. The religion of too many American Christians is just that: evangelical idolatry, taken up and revered on Sundays only to be left behind and all but ignored throughout the rest of the week. That is, perhaps, a hard word to hear. I admit that I’m guilty of the same. The good news is that, just like Israel, God’s faithfulness is sure and steadfast even for idolaters like you and me. To such are given the words of the Lord, “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee” (Isa. 44:22). Praise the One True God, our Maker, that those whom he chooses he doesn’t soon discard.
Grace and peace, friends.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1–10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954).