September 1, 2019
A life that is good but not perfect – J. Barry Vaughn – Sept. 1, 2019
I think the prophet Jeremiah needed a personal coach. You know, one of those people you pay to help you devise a strategy to achieve your professional goals. A personal coach will help you do the things that will lead to success, such as network with the right people, and avoid doing the things that will impede success, such as talking about politics and religion at dinner parties or telling people things that they don’t want to hear. Jeremiah really needed help with that because if you asked him how he was doing, he would actually tell you. Jeremiah simply lacked tact; like most prophets, he did not know how to behave in polite society, nor did he have any idea how to deliver bad news.
In today’s first reading, Jeremiah reminds Israel of all the things that God has done for them: God brought them up from Egypt; he led them in the wilderness; and finally brought them into a land full of “fruits and good things.” So how did Israel respond? Well, the first thing they did when they arrived in Canaan was to build altars to false gods.
According to Jeremiah, from the greatest to the least, the Israelites failed to acknowledge the God who had brought them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the land of Canaan.
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
Instead, they just assumed that Israel’s God had been left behind in the wilderness. And the prophets, who should have spoken in the name of God, were instead speaking in the name of Baal, the principal Canaanite deity.
As soon as Israel walked across the threshold into Canaan, they turned around and said to God, “Thanks. That was great but we can take it from here.” They left God behind and started worshipping false gods.
Why would they do that? Why would Israel turn their back on the God who had done so much for them? I think it was because the real God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, is complicated. He is difficult. False gods are easy. The one true God wants to have an intimate relationship with us, and most of us are old enough to know that intimate relationships are never simple. They are always complicated and messy.
The only relationship we need to have with a false god is a simple transaction. We offer them the sacrifice they ask, and they deliver the goods.
I’m not just talking about the Canaanite gods such as Baal and Astarte and Moloch. I’m talking about the false gods that almost all of us worship from time to time: money, fame, success, and power.
Now, the really tempting thing about false gods is that if we give them the sacrifices they request, they usually give us what we want. The person who worships financial success quite often ends up wealthy. The person who spends every ounce of energy and every moment of her time in pursuit of power may very well end up as at least a governor and perhaps even president of the United States. The person who puts his private life and the lives of his family on the altar of fame may very well end up famous.
But keep this in mind: The false gods of our age demand what false gods have always demanded – human sacrifice. Of course, they don’t ask us literally to murder another human being and place him or her on the altar, but there are other ways of taking a human life. We can sacrifice our families to false gods by spending too much time at work, by ignoring the needs of our spouse, by not helping our children with their homework, and so on. But many people think this is a small price to pay for the glittering prizes that the false gods offer.
And even though the price is high, worshiping the false gods is so much easier than worshiping the one, true God. Because the one true God is difficult and complicated. The God of Israel, the God of the Christian church, says to us, “I want to have a relationship with you. I want to get to know you and to reveal myself to you. I will always be with you, but life will still be difficult. I will be there to comfort you, but you’re going to need a lot of comfort because life is messy.”
I was reminded of this inconvenient truth when I visited the mother house of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. By now I suppose everyone knows that even though Mother Teresa devoted her life to serving the poorest of the poor, she was wracked by terrible doubts. Mother Teresa finally concluded that the doubts and spiritual darkness she experienced were her way of participating in Jesus’ own suffering. She wrote, “For the first time in this eleven years I have come to love the darkness, for I believe now that it is a part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”
The false gods promise us a life without darkness. We have a spiritual hunger and thirst that cannot be quenched by the false gods because (as Jeremiah says) their cisterns, their wells and reservoirs, are cracked.
Some time ago I saw a movie entitled, Then She Found Me. April, the main character, is a Jewish woman whose life is a mess. Even though she is 39 and her husband has left her, she is determined to have a child and so she tries to conceive by using in vitro fertilization. While April and her mother are in the clinic waiting for the procedure, her mother tries to get her to pray, and April finally admits that she has lost her faith. Life has just been too hard. April says, “I thought God would protect me,” to which her mother replies, “What if God is as difficult as you are? What if life is supposed to be messy and complicated?” Finally, April haltingly chants, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Her mother (who is not Jewish) asks, “What does that mean?” And April explains, “It means, ‘Listen! The God of fear and the God of love are one.’”
The Bible is not a fairy tale, but even if it did begin, “Once upon a time…”, we would not expect the hero or heroine to have an easy time. Even fairy tale characters have to fight fiery dragons, ford raging rivers, sail the seas, and climb high and dangerous mountains.
The false gods promise us calm seas and smooth sailing, but the true God promises to be with us in the storm and in the calm, on sea and on land, in the dark of night and in the bright light of noon. The God of fear and the God of love are one. God is difficult and life is messy. God promises us a good life, not a perfect one. God does not promise us that the journey will be easy, but God does promise that it will be worth doing.