According to the old adage, “You are what you eat.” But parts of the Bible, including Jeremiah 2, give voice to a different point of view: You are what you worship. In Jeremiah 2, one of the prophet’s initial broadsides against the people of Israel was the sad fact that in worshiping gods that were worthless, the people had themselves become similarly worthless. A bit later in verse 11 we get a similar idea expressed when God says that the people exchanged the Glory they had—which is, of course, a sharing of Yahweh’s true Glory—for something worthless. Apparently there are lots of good reasons to not worship false gods but it’s the effect on the worshiper him- or herself that we may not ponder nearly often enough.
Throughout these verses in Jeremiah 2, God keeps wondering why the people did not seek him out, why they made no effort to locate—and then to properly serve and worship—their one true God. But probably the answer is obvious: they did not seek the true God because it was far easier to take the worthless route of serving gods who made fewer demands.
False gods never challenge people. After all, when was the last time you heard someone like this say, “I made up a new religion by borrowing from Christianity, Judaism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Islam. I took the best of all those faiths, popped them into a spiritual blender, and whipped up a frothy new god that now guides me. Once I encountered my new god, he told me I had to repent, I had to clean up my life and change my ways, I had to devote more time to serving the poor and denying myself the trappings of the good life as our society defines it.”
No, that’s not the drill. When you make up your own god, the first thing that god says is that you are just fine the way you are. Almost no one makes up a god who ends up being demanding. Hence it’s no surprise to find that the same people who tell us these days that they hate creeds, catechisms, sacred Scripture, and other pre-packaged forms of truth are also the people who tend to make up their own, always very convenient, religious ideas. Think of Israel’s Golden Calf: sure, Aaron said it represented Yahweh but first thing you knew this new god sanctioned an orgy of partying so loud, Moses could hear it clear up on the mountain. Idols always let you do what you wanted to do in the first place.
The irony in Jeremiah 2—the very grim and tragic irony—is that the real God had already done so much for his people. Yahweh had given Israel a fertile land, many gifts, and of course had originally given them the very BIG gift of making them into a nation—and then delivering them from Egypt—in the first place. And yet the people eventually stopped looking in Yahweh’s direction. They made up their own gods—or adapted to the cult of the Baal—and in so doing cut themselves off from the truest (and only) source of Life they had ever had. God gave them living water, they opted for leaky buckets that could not hold any water, much less living water. God gave them good food to eat, they opted to eat the sand at the religious mirage they both willingly constructed and then duped themselves into believing was the real deal.
Idolatry is never funny. But sometimes it’s ironic. You are what you worship. And since that’s true, we can never be too careful in letting God define the divine character so that when we become what we worship, we can be as sure as possible that we are becoming more and more like the one true God.
The people who create false gods, Jeremiah 2 claims, become like those gods but only because the gods they invented were like the people who invented them to begin with. John Calvin once said that the human heart is a perpetual idol factory. If so, then we know that even as Christians we are not immune to this temptation to project onto Jesus someone who will go easy on us in our lives. To follow the first commandment’s call to worship the Lord our God and him alone, we need constantly to be wary of our own hearts.
The moment I find myself thinking that Jesus endorses every opinion I have, I need to worry. The moment we find ourselves tempted to think that Jesus approves of every action our own nation takes, we need to start getting worried. The moment any one of us becomes so rigid in his or her conception of Jesus that we refuse to listen when we sense that even the Bible may be challenging our ideas, then we need to be very, very worried. Because the Bible, and the Holy Spirit’s witness to God through the Scripture, must ever and always have the final word on who it is we must worship.
That’s why I have always liked these lines from C.S. Lewis: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. God shatters it. God is the great iconoclast. Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence? Most are offended by iconoclasm. Blessed are they who are not.”
Of course, Lewis did not mean to convey that there is no fixed reality to God. Instead, Lewis wanted to say that God will always burst our abilities fully to conceive of him. The God of the Bible resists neat formulations or easy packaging.
Really to hold in creative tension the full display of God which the Bible gives us requires a balancing act–sometimes it even requires a dumping of any one-sided pictures of God we perhaps once carried with us. The Bible reveals a multi-faceted, always surprising God; a God who is at once the Lion of Judah and the slain Lamb. He’s both. He is the fierce judge whose holy word is like a two-edged sword and he is the God of all grace who inflicted that sword on himself as a means to our being saved. He is at once the God who truly is “above it all” dwelling in light inaccessible and he’s the God who is close enough to his beloved creation that something of his glory can be seen in your flower garden.
The Bible constantly challenges us. So perhaps one way of trying to make certain we are worshiping the true God and not one of our own manufacture is to humble ourselves before the Bible. Instead of always trying to make black-and-white the Scripture’s multi-hued portrait of God, maybe we need to bow before the mystery of a God who, within the course of the Bible, says and does so many things.
Yes, God is the God of all grace and yet he can be a fierce dispenser of judgment when needed too. This particular jarring feature to God was enough to led to one of the church’s earliest heresies: Marcionism as taught by Marcion who had such a hard time combining the grace of Jesus in the New Testament with the God who frequently doled our punishment for sin in the Old Testament that Marcion concluded these had to be two different deities. For Marcion it was just too much to hold these two in tension.
Let’s just admit that this is difficult, not just with grace and judgment but with so many things, some of which are mentioned above. But there’s something good about the tension. There is something good about the discomfiture this can cause. Maybe it means we are grapping with the real God and not one of our own making or imagining.
The Word of God made flesh, John’s opening prologue tells us, was full of grace and truth. That’s actually a tricky combo. But the fact that it reflects the incarnate Son of God reminds us that the real God keeps us on our toes. C.S. Lewis had this right once again, this time in an oft-quoted passage from the first of his Narnia chronicles. Upon hearing about a Lion named Aslan, the children respond by asking if this Lion was safe. The reply, of course, it that of course Aslan is not quite safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.
Yes, that’s got it right.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 28, 2022
Jeremiah 2:4-13 Commentary