Week of January 22, 2014

Todd JonesMy Dear Friends,

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the person of faith is the challenge to keep God first in our lives. This is surely why the very first of the Ten Commandments addresses this human dilemma. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20 begins with this commandment before all the others, because it is so fundamental to the challenge to live faithful lives. It is so easy to lose our way and to get confused over our priorities, and in this world it is always easy to put someone or something or some desire before God. Martin Luther said, “Whatever thy heart clings to, that properly is thy god.” As such, we are always in danger of breaking the first and most important of all the other commandments by breaking the second: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Idolatry is to turn anything that is less than God into your god. It is the worship and service of something or someone not worthy of your worship. John Calvin said, “The human heart is a factory of idols. Every one of us is, from our mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” We are always in danger of placing before God something or someone in our lives that is simply not God. When we do, we find ourselves in grave danger of selling our souls for a mess of pottage.

In his classic book, Wishful Thinking, Fred Buechner says, “Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth. Under certain circumstances money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical health, social or intellectual preeminence and so on are fine things to have around, but to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly. They just aren’t up to it.” That is the problem with putting anything before God in our lives. We ask from proximate things ultimate meaning and significance, and they simply are not able to deliver. We will always end up feeling empty, longing for more than this world can ever give to us. Saint Augustine knew this, and after he had found the Living God in his life, he could finally write of his early life, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

Jesus doubtless had the first commandment in mind when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you as well.” And in writing to the church at Ephesus, John said in the Revelation, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love” (Revelation 2:4). It is easy to forget God’s preeminence in our lives and when we do, nothing else works as it should. Of course, the most dangerous and destructive idol is also the most seductive and that is our own egos out of control. Augustine defined sin as “the self curved in upon itself.” It is so easy to end up living what Earl Palmer calls “the self-referential life.” This is life when everything revolves around us, and things matter only inasmuch as they affect us. Palmer says, “Finally, the self-referential person is a boring person.” God alone frees us from self-centered living and sets us truly free to find ourselves by losing ourselves. Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Only God can save a life, and only Jesus is the Savior.

I talk to members of our church family all the time, and I sometimes ask the question, “What is your favorite passage of Scripture?” I am amazed and yet not surprised to find how often the answer is Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” “All your ways” means all of our opportunities and undertakings. The Living Bible paraphrases this verse: “In everything you do, put God first, and he will direct you and crown your efforts with success.” This is what it means to keep the first commandment! In everything you do, put God first.

Of course, religious people are always in danger of breaking this first of all the commandments. We can easily turn our worship into something that is self-serving and self-centered. Some fine people I know think of worship as a kind of therapy, something they do to feel better or to help themselves to live better. This is not evil, but it is also not really worship of Almighty God. It is a means to an end, with ourselves and our own well-being serving as our end. To put God first is to offer our praise and thanksgiving to God and to listen to a Word that is larger and deeper and more wonderful than we are. To worship God is be “lost in wonder, love and praise” and to see all of life in the light of this God. To put God first is to give ourselves to God in our worship and in our service.

But irreligious people are also in danger of forgetting the first and most important of all the commandments. Again, listen to Frederick Buechner: “It is among the irreligious that idolatry is a particular menace. Having ushered God out once and for all through the front door, the unbeliever is under constant temptation to replace God with something spirited in through the service entrance. From the moment the eighteenth-century French revolutionaries set up the Goddess of Reason on the high altar of Notre Dame, there wasn’t a head in all Paris that was safe.” And when the people of Nazi Germany began to salute Adolf Hitler as Der Furer, there soon was not a Jew in all of Europe who was safe. I tremble when I think what might happen in this world in which so many have forgotten God.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This is what it means to put God first. The rest has a way of following…

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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