“All who make idols are nothing, and what they treasure benefits no one. Their witnesses do not see or know anything, so they will be put to shame.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
This is one of my favorite passages in Isaiah. Take a minute, click the link above, and read from here all the way through v. 23. I can’t read this section without chuckling a bit to myself at the sarcasm dripping from the pages. Most often, when we encounter idolatry in the Scriptures it is being condemned. Here it is mocked. Isaiah is flat out making fun of idolaters. So, why is this on my mind this morning? Because we have recently been treated to an example of what Isaiah was saying.
Unless you follow religious news in the United States, you probably didn’t hear about this story. Union Seminary in New York City recently tweeted out a picture of one of their chapel services. In the picture, a student is seen sitting before a collection of potted plants. The text accompanying the picture says this:
“Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?”
Yes, you read that right. They confessed to plants, the beings who sustain us. I’ll wait until you get up off the floor. I first heard about this story while I was driving and nearly drove off the road I was laughing so hard. What kind of a looney bin seminary has a chapel service to confess sins to plants?
There are so many things wrong with this. Perhaps the biggest thing is this: plants aren’t beings. They are plants. They are things. They really don’t even qualify as creatures because they aren’t conscious. Animals are creatures because they are conscious, but even they don’t qualify for the distinction of “being” because they aren’t conscious of their being conscious. They don’t process any coherent thoughts; they don’t ask questions like, “Why am I here?” Of all the things God made, only humans qualify for the distinction “being.”
Actually, that may be the second biggest thing. The biggest thing wrong with this is the worshipful attitude they took toward something other than God. This was a display of pagan idolatry. It reversed the order of creation. God made the world, then He made us, and then He made us the stewards of creation. We don’t owe creation anything. We owe Him something and so take care of what He made. And we must indeed take care of it. Being the stewards of creation is a serious business. Too often Christians have been delinquent in our duties as caretakers, but any confession of this fault needs to be aimed at the one who is offended by it and that one is God, not creation.
Still, as easy as it is to laugh and poke fun over the ridiculousness of Union Seminary and its students in all of this, here is something worth our consideration: They did not think this was ridiculous. They thought it was worth tweeting about. What’s more, when ridiculed for it, they thought it was worth defending. Why does that matter?
If you are a church person or a follower of a Jesus generally, the odds are pretty good that Union Seminary is better tapped into the modern secular mindset than you are. They’ve got me beat, that’s for sure. They are not Christian in any meaningful sense, but they do reflect their culture well. And, outside the church, what they did makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.
You see, the secret truth about the modern, secular world is that it is increasingly neither modern nor secular. As an old adage probably incorrectly attributed to G. K. Chesterton observes: People who do not believe in God will believe in anything. As the western world has more and more completely turned away from any meaningful worship of the God of Christianity, it has not become the secular paradise we were told it would become. Instead, it is turning in more and more places back to a much older paganism.
In other words, while we may laugh at Union, a significant and growing segment of our culture not only didn’t laugh, it thought this wasn’t a bad idea at all. Now, that segment is almost entirely on the cultural left, but that’s a growing piece that we can’t afford to ignore—or mock—if we are going to effectively obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations.
What this means is that rather than being able to merely assume on the folly of things like confessing sins to potted plants, we need to remind ourselves of why that’s a nonsensical thing to do. As our culture looks back further and further into the past for direction into the future, we need to root ourselves ever more deeply in the Scriptures which were largely written in a cultural context when paganism was the assumed norm of most people, in order that we can re-craft old arguments to new effect. This is where the world around us is and we’ve got to meet them there or we won’t engage them at all.
There is one other lesson we should learn from this. Union Seminary may have an idol problem with these plants, but just because we aren’t bowing down to plants ourselves doesn’t mean idolatry is totally off the radar for us. Our idols may not be physical things, but defining idolatry so narrowly foolishly let’s us think we’re good when we may struggle inwardly just as much as they are outwardly.
An idol is anything to which we give our devotion that is not God. It may take the form of a houseplant, but it may take the form of something entirely intangible. In the face of this silly situation, let us not laugh, confident of our own righteousness on this point, but rather pause and reflect: Do we have any idols in our own lives? Do we have anything we turn to instead of God as our source of hope or relief or comfort? As Isaiah makes clear in this chapter, idolatry will reduce all who partake in it to sheer silliness because of just how ridiculous it is to worship something created instead of the Creator of all things. This reduction to folly will happen whether it is an obvious idolatry or not.
The simple fact is that the Christian worldview is something that comes to bear in every situation and circumstance in our world. And, it will always point us to the truth—that is, to Jesus—no matter what the situation looks like. Let us make sure we are firmly rooted in it and move forward from there with humility and boldness.