Perhaps we all remember spring 2020 as the Year of COVID-19. Campus life took a collective kick in the stomach as students rushed to remote learning and toward home. Few would have chosen either option, but unfortunately, that was our path. When we read Isaiah, we find strength and insight for unexpected and unwanted times. We read about the chaos of history and the questions it raises. One of those is – In whom do you trust? This question stirs in my heart as I reflect on spring 2020.
Many years ago, I read a simple little book that defined a pivotal transition in Western Civilization. Several other historians, philosophers and theologians have chronicled this watershed moment as well. William Placher, the author of the little book, sets forth two very different convictions. First, God is the source by which we understand ourselves and the world. Where am I located in the reality of God? Second, the Self is the source by which reality is determined. Humankind is the measure of all truth. Experience is the test of all truth. God must locate Himself in our life. He must make sense to us. We decide, “What does reason or my experience tell me?” The juxtaposition between God and Self defines a fundamental aspect of modern life. Isaiah 41:21 reads, “Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.” All of this calls to mind the image of a court. Make your case or sit down. The King of Jacob is God, so we should understand the court as the heavenly court, or at least the court of history. The challenge of the question asks that idols prove their efficacy in the crises of life. The prophet further suggests:
Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, so that we may consider them, and that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be afraid and terrified (41:22-24).
This goes to the heart of idols and those who worship them. The questions raised in these verses are relevant to us. Can we align our worship to the gods when they are so clearly impotent?
These days, no less than in the sixth century BC, human beings have a habit of fashioning God in their own image. Ludwig Feuerbach, a nineteenth-century philosopher, famously asserted that human beings project their idealized self-understanding onto reality and name it God. This is in the same vein as Freud and Marx. This is little more than a modern version of the ancient tendency to “make” idols and then bow down to them. Isaiah speaks of the absurdity of idol worship:
The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint...He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel...The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god” (44:12, 14-15a, 17)!
Today notwithstanding, the reemergence of paganism or idols is fashioned by our imagination. Some find meaning in ideas that end up controlling us. We might consider the challenge witnessed by Isaiah – Set forth your case! How do the idols we envision serve us in times of great distress? Will mammon save us in the face of cancer? Will nationalism settle our deepest fears? Can we trust in our own wisdom in the face of memory care? The list could go on, but let us agree that no credible argument is sufficient to bring comfort in the face of our most persistent enemies/fears. Isaiah unequivocally responds, “You, indeed, are nothing and your work is nothing at all; whoever chooses you is an abomination” (41:24). He adds later, “No, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their images are empty wind” (41:29).
MVNU stands on the unshakeable conviction that the reality of God is enough. No idea or “ism” can take the place of the living God. Everything else is a delusion or empty wind. The University exists to educate, form character, and evangelize a broken world through the love of God. We intend to change the world with the love of Christ. The demon COVID-19 cannot change this. Nations are unable to do what the Kingdom of God on earth already sees. The idea that someone could die because the richest nation on earth cannot provide a respirator is heartbreaking. The image of isolating from a loved one in a time of serious sickness or even at the moment of death brings a tear to my eye. All of this would be unbearable if we did not believe that in every moment and every breath, Jesus is present. The omnipresence of God expresses the sheer commitment of God to be with us. Everything else is a delusion and an empty wind.
Isaiah asserts a bold challenge – Set forth your case! Idols and our ideologies have nothing to offer. MVNU stands in the strong tradition of faith that believes in the power and love of a redeeming God. For fifty-two years, students, faculty, and staff have gathered on this campus because they believe in a particular kind of education shaped by the Christian faith. It is an emerging belief in the graciousness of God that calls us into the future. Isaiah is not concerned with COVID-19. He fixed his eyes on the terror of captivity and the irony of the godless captors. He knows in the depth of his mind that God pierces through the clatter of paganism and useless idols. MVNU witnesses to an anxious world that God is faithful in the face of our fears. Isaiah had no choice because he was powerless in the face of the rampage of the Babylonians. He simply had to believe that God is the One “Who declared it from the beginning, so that we might know, and beforehand, so that we might say, ‘He is right’” (41:26a).
Amid the tears in our eyes regarding the abrupt changes of spring 2020, may our faith help us place our trust in God. May we be a witness to others that God will always be faithful.
May MVNU “Shine Forth” with the message that God is faithful.