April 30, 2018

You Have Abandoned Your First Love (Rev. 2:4)

I love [fill in the blank]. I love family, I love the beach, I love football, I love lots of people and things. What do you love?

We’ve been talking about some of our idols. Listen and see if you can find the idol here in Genesis 29: After Jacob had stayed with Laban for a month, Laban said to him, “Should you work for free? Tell me what your wages should be.” Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the older was Leah [which means cow], and the name of the younger was Rachel [which means sheep]. Leah had weak eyes [which might mean she was not easy to look at], but Rachel, on the other hand, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel” [four times the customary price for a bride]. So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because he loved her so much…Then Jacob said to Laban, “My seven years is done. Give me my wife. I want to make love to her.”

What, or who, is the idol here? It’s love, or lust, or romance, or all the above. But it’s really Rachel, isn’t it? And you know the rest of the story: Jacob [which means deceiver] is deceived when he wakes up the next morning to find Leah in his bed. And he’s furious! But Laban replies: “You knew the oldest daughter must marry first.” Jacob the deceiver, who has a history of getting his way by cheating and cutting corners and bucking tradition, thought he could get away with another one but he fell into his own snare this time. So he agrees to work another seven years for his beloved Rachel! He was so blinded by love, blinded by love [I think that was the Rolling Stones?].

Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, says Jacob had become so obsessed with Rachel that he was no longer rational and would do anything for her, making him vulnerable to manipulation and deception. [Like Samson and Delilah—talk about blinded by love!] Worse, it made Jacob hateful and abusive of other people who stood in his way. For Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah and her kids.

And what a mess Jacob made of his life. Leah won the baby war, by the way. Rachel had two sons plus two more by way of her servant Bilhah. While Leah had six sons and a daughter plus two more sons by her servant Zilpah. These sons, of course, fathered the 12 tribes of Israel because God is always cleaning up our mess—we call that grace. But the most significant sons all came from Leah, including Levi, who fathered the priestly order in Israel, and Judah, who fathered the kingly order. Which makes me wonder if Leah was God’s plan all along for Jacob. But Jacob had his own plans.

Keller, quoting Ernest Becker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death, explained the various ways we deal with the loss of belief in God. Now that we think we are here by accident and not made for any purpose, how do we instill a sense of significance in our lives? One of the main ways is what Becker called “apocalyptic romance.” We look to sex and romance to give us the transcendence and sense of meaning we used to get from faith in God. We still need to feel heroic, to know that our lives matter in the scheme of things…We still need to merge ourselves with some higher, self-absorbing meaning…If no longer God, then who? The answer is found in what Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank called the “romantic solution.” …A love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focused in that individual…That individual becomes God. And what do we want from that God? Redemption—nothing less… That is what had happened to Jacob. Rachel was not just his wife, but his savior…Some say that Becker’s cultural analysis is dated. We now live in “the hookup culture” …Don’t bet on it. Laura Sessions Stepp [former Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner], in her book Unhooked…[as well as a series of articles in The Atlantic, particularly an essay entitled Boys On The Side], demonstrate that the hookup culture is really a sad and desperate attempt to find significance in other people.

But doesn’t the Bible say we’re supposed to love other people? Yes, of course, and who are we supposed to love? [And what does it even mean to love, which is beyond our scope here.] We’re to love God, our neighbors, our enemies, our wives, etc. The key is getting all that in the right order. It’s all about our priorities. St. Augustine [and others today such as the brilliant philosopher Jamie Smith] defined sin as “disordered loves.” In other words, it’s all good and worthy of our love but in the proper order. And screwed up loves lead to screwed up lives.

Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in For the Life of the World, really brings it home for us good, Christian family men: The real sin of marriage today is...the idolization of the family…This is expressed in the sentiment that one would 'do anything' for his family, even steal. The family has ceased to be for the glory of God…it is the idolization of the family that breaks the family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow.

Quoting Keller again: One commentator noted, “This is a miniature of our disillusionment…no matter what we put our hopes in, in the morning, it is always Leah, never Rachel. Nobody has ever said this better than C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we fall in love or [plan some great adventure]…are longings which no [relationship] or [adventure] can really satisfy…There was something we have grasped at…which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the scenery may have been excellent…but something has evaded us. If you get married like Jacob did, putting the weight of all your deepest hopes and longings on [another person], you are going to crush him or her with your expectations. It will distort your life and your spouse’s life in a hundred ways. No person, not even the best one, can give your soul all it needs.

CS Lewis goes on to say: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world [something supernatural and eternal].” And, again in one of his most famous sermons, The Weight of Glory: If we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us [Eccl. 3: God has set eternity in our hearts] but not yet attached to it’s true object, [which is God]. Things we thought were sources of beauty—books or music [or people or nature]—will betray us if we trust in them; the beauty is not in them, it only comes through them…These things…are good images [or pictures and reminders] of what we really [long for]; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not yet found, the echo of a tune we have not yet heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness [and idolatry].

Keller says when we finally realize this, we have four options. We can blame the people who are disappointing us and move on to better ones—the way of continued idolatry. We can beat ourselves up and say, “I have somehow been a failure, everybody else is happy, I don’t know why I’m not happy, there must be something wrong with me”—the way of self-loathing and shame. We can blame the world: we can say, “Curses on the entire opposite sex”—the hard, cynical, empty way.

Or we can reorient the entire focus of our life toward God, the only true God and source of life, love, meaning, happiness, fulfillment, etc. It’s good to love other people, and it’s okay to love other things. But all in their proper order, and thou shalt have no other Gods before me, says the God of gods.

The good news is that God is in the business of saving us from our idols. Let go. Turn to him. And Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means the one who struggled with God and lived to tell about it. I can identify with that.  

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