Assemble yourselves and come together,
draw near, you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge—
those who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
that cannot save.
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me. - Isaiah 45:20, 21b
Idolatry is bad: soul-killingly bad. On this point, most may agree that scripture is clear. Just what constitutes idolatry — on this point, the disagreements can disrupt friendships and fracture believers into acrimonious argument.
Isaiah derides those who pray "to a god that cannot save." Those misguided religionists can be recognized by the wooden idols they carry, says the prophet. Isaiah blasts a blanket condemnation. We don't learn anything about the people he dismisses. Might they have used wooden figures as prayer aids? Or did they really believe that the carved figures contained divine power? We just don't know.
I wonder if a conversation with the people Isaiah dismissed might have gone like the conversation between a priest and a friend's teenaged daughter. He questioned whether she had a sufficient understanding of communion. She thought for a moment, then pointed to a crucifix. "That looks like Jesus, but it isn't," she said. Then pointing to the bread and cup she said, "That doesn't look like Jesus, but it is."
The priest, to his credit, rapidly adjusted his assessment of the young woman and invited her to receive the sacrament.
God, help me avoid putting my trust in idols that cannot lead to wholeness — money, worldly success, shiny objects of all kinds. But anyone or anything you can use to invite me into your life-giving presence — for those, keep a wide open welcome in me. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.