“I lifted the burden off your shoulders; your hands are free of the brick basket! In distress you cried out, so I rescued you. I answered you in the secret of thunder. I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Listen, my people, I’m warning you! If only you would listen to me, Israel. There must be no foreign god among you. You must not bow down to any strange deity.” – Psalm 81:6-9
God’s warning comes too late for most of us. As much as we try to put God first, the reality is that we all have foreign gods. I don’t mean that in the sense of coming from another land, but instead of being totally incompatible with the life of faith.
Idolatry is the word theologians have used for centuries to describe putting something else in the place of God. Most of us are good about knowing that God should come first. But if we look closely enough when we make daily choices, or allocate our resources, we might find that we give too much to other gods instead.
But here’s the thing about bowing down to those other gods: you can give them everything you have in the hopes that they will bring you joy and contentment, but in the end they will never love you back. Instead you will find that they are not gods at all, but are black holes that suck away every good thing you have to share.
That may sound harsh, but Lent is in many ways a time to be honest. As we walk through the desert with Jesus, preparing for his death, I’m reminded of my time as a hospice chaplain. It may sound cliché, but it’s true: never once did a patient of mine find any comfort in the past purchase of a vacation house, an expensive car, or a country club membership. In fact, at the end those strange deities finally looked like the hollow shells they had always been.
So what did people find comfort in? Their faith, of course, but more than that in lives where their faith in God’s love had moved them to love others. Family members who came day after day. Friends who showed up. Lives of service to something greater than themselves. A world made somehow just a little better by their lives.
Some of the most joyful services I have officiated as a pastor have been funerals. (Some of the most joyless and anxious have been weddings, by the way.) I don’t think that’s a surprise. A life well-lived becomes a cause of hope for the rest of us, and a witness to what it looks like to be free from serving what can never love us back.
God, may I love you with all of my life knowing that you loved me first, and may that love be enough to keep my heart turned towards you. Amen.