“Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel. This is what the Lord says, “What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives? I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritace detestable. The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols. “Therefore I bring charges against your children’s children. Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless dols. Be appalled at this, O heavens and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord.” My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. “(Jeremiah 2: 4:13)
Throughout their history the Israelites had a fickle relationship with God. The prophets were continuously calling them back from faithlessness to Yahweh to lives of faithful obedience. Jeremiah lived at such a time. You can hear the anguish in his voice as he holds up a mirror to the Israelites and confronts them with their tragic behavior. They had broken, again, the covenant that God made with the people when God had proclaimed, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” They have forgotten that they are partners with God bound together by a web of mutual promises, writes Sally Brown. They have abandoned God for other gods. Like an abandoned lover God cries out against the beloved Israel, through the words of Jeremiah, and reminds them of his faithfulness and accuses them, as in a court of law, of their guilt in breaking the covenant God established between them.
In every wedding I perform I always talk about covenant and marriage as a covenant. I say something like this: I would say that the majority of couples believe that marriage is a contract between equal partners which often leads to each person thinking more about his or her own needs than the needs of the relationship. And as in business, the contract is viewed as renegotiable or to be broken if a better deal comes along.
The Bible, however, says that marriage is not a contract but a covenant. And like the covenant God made with the Israelites, a marriage covenant is nonnegotiable, unconditional and durable. Unlike contracts that are governed by the pursuit of one’s own interests, covenants are governed by the demands of love.
Israel, viewing her relationship with God as a contract instead of a covenant, went out in pursuit of what she thought were her own interests, looking for the best bargain. Her leadership, both kings and priests, had been weak and false and had led her astray. Instead of issuing a wake up call to be faithful to God, to worship him and have no other gods before him, they had submitted themselves to other powers, like the Babylonians, and to their false gods.
Remember that this was a totally different time and place from the world today. People didn’t have a scientific world view where they relied on “the facts” to help them form an understanding of truth. People didn’t choose to believe in God. Their choice was about which god or gods to follow and their choice was practical. Their god was the source of their life, their fertility and their well-being. God brought the rain and a good harvest and gave them military victories as well as punished them through drought, illness and defeat. They hadn’t read about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and they weren’t worried about their individual selfactualization. Their lives focused on the basic needs of life. They depended on each other and on their God for everything and there was always the temptation to worship other gods to see if life might get better. According to writer Patrick Miller in Jeremiah 2 God is stating that the previous generations have left the Lord to find gods that would be productive and useful to them. Their sin is that they exchange faith in God, with a capital G, for gods that do not profit or benefit or take care of them. Miller puts it this way, “The theme that binds all these verses together [in Jeremiah] is the abandonment of the Lord for what does not work… The search for God becomes a search for whatever enhances my (or our) well being, makes my land more productive, increases my wealth and my place and my status. The use of the word profit is a good one. It suggests, correctly, that the effort to find a deity who will benefit and profit oneself is the primary concern.” But, seeking [the good life] elsewhere is an utterly fruitless task.
Jeremiah’s indictment of the Israel presents God’s case before them. God has been a faithful and loving God, full of compassion. God has been a gracious and saving God, bringing them out of Egypt and establishing them in a land of milk and honey, “a plentiful land, “where they ate its fruits and good things. Instead of remaining faithful to God, they have gone after “nothing” and become “nothing” themselves. They have “followed the desires of their own hearts,” as one prayer of confession says, and abandoned that which truly benefits them for short-lived pleasure. They have chosen a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives. They have become worthless as they followed a way of life that wasn’t worthy.
Unfortunately it doesn’t take much imagination or probing for us to come up with examples of individual lives that have taken this same wrong turn. Certainly politicians from both parties have fallen into this way of living as well as characters in the Bible and players on the world’s stage. King David is one example but we could be talking, as well, about a contemporary figure here like John Edwards or Eliot Spitzer. David, anointed king and leader of the Israelites, chosen by God, author of some of the most poignant and faith- filled Psalms, abandons his high calling as God’s beloved servant when he seduces his neighbor Bathsheba and then arranges for the death of her husband in order to cover up his philandering. David, in his desire for pleasure that does not profit, abandoned God’s desire for him to live a life of benefit and service to others
which in the long run will also be of benefit to himself. We know that the consequences of his actions were pain, sorrow and regret that stayed with him the rest of his life.
Or take a contemporary situation in southern Africa. Martin Meredith’s Robert Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and Tyranny in Zimbabwe can be best described as a catalogue of outrages committed by Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. The book begins on a hopeful note, with the young Mugabe as a brilliant and disciplined leader in the revolutionary struggle against Ian Smith who was determined to preserve the country, then Rhodesia, as a last bastion of white rule in Africa. Settler rule was formally abolished by the Lancaster House settlement in 1979, which called for a provisional British governor and prompt elections. Mugabe was elected president in April 1980, full of conciliatory words about nonracialism and uniting to build a new nation. But things soon turned ugly.
The revolution almost immediately devolved into a struggle for power as Mugabe tried to realize his dream of a one-party socialist state. Needless to say, socialism was not forthcoming: Mugabe and his ministers and friends promptly adopted the life-style of the departing white overlords, moving into mansions and buying Mercedes cars, while conditions for the rural poor –the vast majority – remained essentially the same. Meredith’s book shows that the conflict was not ideological or “ethnic” at base, but rather about power and greed.The breathtaking scope of Mugabe’s government’s corruption dominates the story. Mugabe’s sad story is about a man whose life was transformed from one of service to his country and its citizens to one of self-aggrandizement; from a life that was worthwhile to a worthless life turned inward on himself and his pleasure and need for power.
I have no doubt that all of us here, if asked, want to lead worthy or worthwhile lives. The test comes, says John Debevoise, when we ask ourselves, “Are we spiritually thirsty and devoid of a rewarding purpose?” If so, we have probably abandoned the gifts that really give life. Our problem is that we often become confused about what has been rewarding and what has been a waste. Like a school boy who is more excited about buying his hockey uniform than actually playing the game, we are tempted to become fixated on the “stuff” of our lives and the uniforms we wear that identify us as important players. Like the Israelites we are tempted to “turn from the deep well of God’s goodness to instead try to quench our deepest thirst with the thinnest of tonics.”
Could it really be true that following this God of ours we read about in the Bible holds out for us a way of life that will be the most satisfying and, in the long run, the most profitable? What Jeremiah identified in the life of the Israelites was not an “idolatry focused on false objects as much as an idolatry focused on false hopes” writes Brown. We hope that in chasing others gods we can find one who will fulfill our fantasies, give us the desires of our hearts and not demand too much from us. But what the false gods take from us is our very souls. In contrast the very thing we need to feed our souls and give us lives of worth are lives that rely on God, a life described by King David when he wrote: For God alone my soul waits in silence,for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge in God. Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.
God, our true refuge, allows us to live life on solid ground. Other gods hold out to us the promise of immediate gratification, and usually they deliver what they promise. But like the thrilling smell of a new car, the pleasure we get from these other gods can’t last. All too soon it is past and dissatisfaction sets in again. If we keep really busy we can ward off those feelings and keep going. However, peace of mind, and a deep sense of security and love is what we truly crave and those, the Bible tells us, we can only find in faithfulness to God and God’s desire for how we are to live together.
The Pharisees in the story from Luke had become confused, like the Israelites, about what had been rewarding in their lives and what had been a waste, turning from that deep well of God’s goodness to try and quench their deepest thirst with the thinnest of tonics. As they vied with one another over the best seats at the table, Jesus gave his fellow partygoers some advice that is, for us, a metaphor for a worthy life steeped in God. When you go into a party don’t sit at the place of honor, Jesus told them. Sit down at the foot of the table and leave the better places to those who come in after you. Sitting in the place of honor can allow you to bask in the glow of your own importance but when you go home you are left with the same old you with the same old insecurities, doubts and fears. By choosing to sit at the end of the table you get yourself out of the competition and give yourself the opportunity to develop qualities of justice, mercy and humility. These qualities have such a prominent place in the Bible because they are exactly what is needed to live in peace and harmony with all persons. To have the peace of mind you have always wanted. They dissipate anger and reduce competition and allow us to see the dignity and worth of all God’s people. You might think these qualities, justice, mercy and humility, interfere with “success.” However, following the gods of wealth, power or status gained at the expense of others brings only anxiety — never peace and love. And it is in having peace of mind that we find the ability to live with purpose and meaning.
The choice is always before us…what god do we choose to follow? Let us choose wisely.