September 1, 2019

Jeremiah 2:4-14
Luke 14:1, 7-14

“Cheering for the Right Things”

Do you remember the year that the Winter Olympics were hosted in Vancouver? In the weeks leading up to the Games, the Olympic torch was carried in a relay across the country, and it made a stop just outside the Presbyterian Church in Saskatoon where I was serving at the time. On the day of the event, I stood in the middle of the crowd gathered on the street outside the church to watch the show and prepare to welcome the torch runners into our community.

I enjoyed the first part of the presentation very much. There were local choirs singing, and Native groups sharing traditional drumming and singing as well. It was nice to be able to host these groups, as they were using our church basement to put on their costumes and get ready. And it was remarkably warm for a Monday in January, so being outside in the crowd of Saskatoon citizens was surprisingly comfortable.

But my reaction changed as the presentation went on – as the Olympic sponsors RBC and Coca-Cola took over the show. They certainly had some spectacular things to share… There was an artist who spun his canvas round and round as he painted with his hands, and created a beautiful picture within only a few minutes. And there were some very talented dancers and acrobats, who jumped and flipped and balanced and flew across the stage in some truly amazing ways.

But while the dancers dazzled the crowd, a huge bottle of coke flitted across the stage too, and the music and lyrics encouraged us all to buy the product (Coke) and “open happiness!” The bubbly, sugary drink was being touted as a source of happiness. “Escape from your problems, your troubles, and your sadness,” they might as well have said, “Have a coke, and open happiness!”

It’s not that I haven’t heard this sort of nonsense in advertising before or since. It’s all over the place, really. But I guess I wasn’t prepared for it at the Olympic Torch Relay. And it was so blatant, and ludicrous, and it just went on for so long! We were a captive audience for a couple of very long, expensive commercials.

One of the tasks that the Coke and RBC representatives had, was to get the crowd warmed up – to get us excited about the arrival of the torch so that we would cheer loudly, and jump up and down, and make the event a success. And so there was a lot of encouraging us to make a lot of noise, to cheer louder than our neighbours, and to wave our hands in the air enthusiastically.

Though I stayed in the crowd until the torch had arrived and the various speeches had been made, I left the event feeling annoyed and frustrated by much of what I had witnessed. I suppose I felt very much like Jeremiah, but without the opportunity to present my complaint before the people and their leaders.

That is what Jeremiah was doing in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet was presenting a complaint (almost like a law suit) against the people of the Northern kingdom of Israel, accusing them of turning away from God and worshipping all kinds of other false gods instead.

Actually, Jeremiah presents the complaint as if it is God himself who is arguing the case against them. “Thus says the Lord,” the prophet begins. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”

I think it’s interesting to note the phrase “went after worthless things.” The Hebrew phrase translated as “went after” has exactly the same sense as what, in the New Testament, is described as “discipleship” or “following after.” We’re talking about people who have become “disciples” of worthless things or ideas or priorities. We’re talking about people who have centered their lives around things that don’t have value or meaning. And in choosing to “go after” these things, they have chosen NOT to “follow after” God.

Now, I’m not saying that the Olympics are worthless. I always enjoy watching the Winter Olympics, and it was particularly good in 2010 when Canada got to host such a major international event. And the Olympics do bring people together from around the world in a relatively positive and peaceful way. And the Games themselves may serve to encourage physical activity and learning about fairness and good sportsmanship whether you win or lose, and these are all good things.

But there was something about the huge crowd on the street that day… something about the way we were encouraged to get excited and to cheer with all our might… something about how the advertising seemed intent to connect the anticipation surrounding the Olympics to the supposed happiness that comes from opening a bottle of coke… There was something about the whole thing that made me sad, and angry, and as frustrated as an Old Testament prophet!

It wasn’t so much that there was something terribly wrong with what happened on that day at that particular event. But what happened to me was that I became suddenly aware of all the cheering going on in our world today. And it felt like there is so much more cheering going on for the Olympic Torch, or for a football team, or for a pop music group, or for a movie star, or for a carbonated beverage than there is for God!

I suppose I’m preaching to the choir today, because you’re the ones who are here in church, raising a cheer today for the God who made you, and who loves you, and who is calling you to follow after the way of Jesus Christ. (You’re here even on Game Day!)

But discipleship is not just about coming to church every week. It’s about paying attention to God and seeking to follow the way of Jesus throughout the week and throughout our lives. It’s about finding our help and our strength and our joy in the goodness of God, instead of looking for the temporary excitement or so-called “happiness” that so many other things advertise they will provide.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives some practical advice to those who wanted to be his followers, but who also had to function in the normal social situations of the society. One of the worthless things that the people of Jesus’ time were going after was “honour.” They had developed a very complex system for gaining and maintaining “honour.” It was about social status, reputation, and power. Those with greater honour would get invited to social functions, they would be offered the best seats at the table, and they would even get the best food to eat.

But Jesus warned that grabbing the best seat at a dinner party was dangerous. Someone else could come along with more honour than you, and the host might ask you to move down. That would be embarrassing, and you would be put to shame. The wise guest would take a less desirable seat. And then if the host deemed them worthy, they might get moved up.

It would be simple enough to read Jesus’ words as practical and helpful advice for shrewd behaviour at dinner parties. But Jesus’ own words indicate that he’s not just giving advice – he’s sharing a parable. In other words, his advice means one thing on the surface, but it has a deeper meaning as well. The Gospel writer helps us out by summing up what the parable was getting at: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So… if we make our lives about going after all the things that we hope will make us happy, or attractive, or popular, or rich, then ultimately, we will be unsatisfied. Eventually we will discover that the advertising is a lie and these are worthless things.

But if we make our lives about following after the way of Jesus… the humble, self-giving, risk-taking, no-immediate-reward way of Jesus, then we will be raised up. It’s not necessarily the most exciting way, or the flashy way, and it’s certainly not the easy way. But ultimately, we will experience the love and the grace and the joy of knowing and being in relationship with the God of the universe. And we will have the promise of life and life everlasting.

It seems like common sense… the way Jeremiah puts it… Why would we choose to drink the water from an old, muddy, leaking cistern, when we are being offered clean, cold, fresh water from the fountain of God? But we know from experience that it’s a little harder to learn to consistently choose water over coke… to consistently choose to worship God alone, to cheer for God alone, to depend on God alone, and to place our hope and our trust and our lives in God’s hands alone.

May God help us to make the right choice today, and tomorrow, and each day of our lives, so that we are cheering for the right things and going after the right things. In humility, let us trust God who will be our help and our strength in all things. For God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Amen.