I have a very simple proposition: rejoicing and weeping, great joy and great sorrow, leave us in places of great temptation to idolatry.
Observe the happy among us. What makes them so? Sadly, it is oftentimes the presence of some kind of physical blessing. He is happy because she kissed him. She is happy that he proposed. He is delighted at the progress of his career. She can’t stop staring at her new Lexus. Especially at this time of year, I find the question of “did you have a good Christmas?” is often answered in terms of stuff accumulated, as if a celebration of the incarnation could ever be anything but good? (“What did you get for Christmas?” “Not much except that God came to earth in flesh to restore creation.”)
So the happy among us find themselves surrounded with blessings that at times can blind them to the giver. It is at this time that they face a temptation to idolatry–the temptation to love the gifts more than the giver. More deeply, it is to attribute our positive emotions, our joy, to the stuff we have. To do that is to ascribe to materiality more than it was ever meant to bear. That kind of glory belongs only to God and should be given only to God. It is a serious temptation.
On the other hand, observe the unhappy among us. Why are we so sad? Oftentimes it’s the absence of some kind of blessing to which we feel entitled. We see it in other people routinely enough that we cannot square away why we should not possess it also. We begin to make comparisons with other people and find ourselves coming up short. When that happens, we begin to grow small in our soul. We glance askance at God and wonder why he has decided to deal so miserably with us. Why did we receive such mighty poor blessings? We are tempted to make gods out of the things that sadden us. Not all gods are good. We no longer focus on the God who can lift us up, but instead on the gods who torment us and drag us down. Some have even suggested that the primary religious urge of humans is to focus on the demonic, not the divine. It has been suggested that our base religious urge is to placate angry and arbitrary gods, not to enjoy the presence of loving ones.
What all of us need is the surpassing joy to soar past idolatry. If we find ourselves rejoicing now, great! But let us not forget that it is the giver, not the gift, that blesses us. Let us focus on God and determine quickly and finally that we will serve and love him even if the gifts were to disappear as they did to Job so many years ago. If we find ourselves in misery now, so be it. Let us remember that the giver is not arbitrary, nor is he malevolent. He is loving and good. So our present, sorry circumstance simply cannot define the quality of our relationship with him.
All of this, good and bad, will pass. The blessings and the trials will both pass away. When they do, what will be the basis of our joy? The answer is the same for both: God. It is not his gifts, but his nature, that we seek. So for the happy and the sad, our joy is the same. That is why we can “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” The church that celebrates Peter’s deliverance mourns James’ execution. It is not the circumstance of the individual, but the progress of the kingdom that brings joy to the Christian.
Amen. So be it.
Grace and Shalom.