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Gospel Lite

Sermon - 1/09/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 42:1-7

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
   who created the heavens and stretched them out,
   who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
   and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
7   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.

 

With all the concern of late about obesity in this country, it is not surprising that our grocery shelves and airwaves are filled with all kinds of lite products that offer pleasure for the pallet without the guilt of calories.  We have lite bread, lite beer, lite milk, lite syrup, lite ice cream and lite cake mixes so you really can have your cake and eat it too!  And they are big sellers.  Coke Zero alone brings in more than $1 billion for the soda giant.  Watch for runner-up Pepsi Max to out do their rival with humor in a Super bowl commercial, itself a multi-million dollar affair for 30 seconds of glory.  I feel so healthy every time I drink one of their products that I have to eat a Twinkie to compensate!

Well it is high time, I think, for the church to take advantage of the lite craze and to proclaim a lite Gospel!  Think of the appeal we could have with “God lite” services sponsored by Starbucks and offered every half-hour on Sunday morning, with a 15 minute coffee break between each morsel of worship!  Come to First Christian Church to hear the low calorie Gospel that will never fill you up, a Gospel that is fat-free, non-controversial, trimmed and packaged for a quick sale.   A Gospel that is chopped up into little, bite-size pieces, easy to swallow.  A Gospel for the good times, so bland that it offends no one.  A Gospel that allows millions to become Christians and changes nothing.  A Gospel that is homogenized, pasteurized, positive thinking fortified, easy to sell. 

Some people think the church has already been proclaiming such a Gospel Lite for many years.  René Padilla, a theologian from Ecuador, sounded this warning over 30 years ago at the International Congress of World Evangelism.  He said that “the Gospel of culture Christianity is a message that if not accepted can at least be easily tolerated because it doesn’t disturb anybody.  It is a Gospel that the free consumers of religion will want to receive because it is cheap and demands nothing of them.”

Allan Patton, the great novelist from South Africa, warned that “the greatest danger of Christianity in Africa today is pseudo-Christianity.  The marks of pseudo-Christianity are easy to recognize.  It always prefers stability to change, order to freedom, law to justice, ... realism to love.”  I believe Patton is right except that his scope was too limited, that is the danger of Christianity in any time and any place.

Witness the recent Senate hearings which came to a close under Republican Senator Grassley from Iowa.  Grassley launched an investigation in 2007 into the spending habits of six prominent televangelists notorious for their luxurious lifestyles, private jets, posh vacation homes and in one case, a $23,000 marble toilet.  (I wonder if anyone will investigate the $54 I just spent upgrading our 3 toilets to water-saving dual flush capabilities?!)  Friday’s news article reported that each preached “some form of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches.  Ministers in this tradition,” the AP story reads, “often hold up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works.” 

I missed that somewhere in my seminary education.  Instead I got things like Danish theologian Søren Kirkegaard who taught that authentic Christian faith is found in shocking paradoxes. He said, “Remove from Christian religion its ability to shock and Christianity is altogether destroyed.”  From this perspective, great weight is placed on the paradoxes of proclaiming a savior  who was crucified among sinners; on the scandal of the cross, an instrument of humiliation, suffering and oppression, which we are called to bear; on the teachings of Jesus which frequently offended the powerful, the rich and political and religious leaders alike.  At least that’s what I learned.  Maybe I went to the wrong seminary.

In contrast to the lite Gospel, this shocking Gospel is very heavy.  Like the cross, it becomes too heavy even for Jesus to carry.  Thus otherwise very good, decent folk feel unworthy to wear the crown because they cannot bear the cross.  It is no wonder they stay away from the church.

Is there not an alternative between choosing, on the on hand, this lite Gospel that has as much nutritional value and flavor as a fat-free, sugarless, cholesterol-free fruit cake, and on the other hand, a heavy Gospel that is about as appealing as a winter vacation in Tora Bora searching for Osama bin Laden.  I believe there is something between those two.  Not the heavy Gospel but the whole Gospel which offers joy as well as sacrifice, hope as well as obligation and duty, grace and forgiveness alongside judgment.  Not the lite Gospel but the Gospel of Light that illumines the darkness, rather than denies it; that shares the burden of the cross instead of dropping it; that confronts sin, rather than ignoring it. 

This full-bodied Gospel of light does not shy away from controversies and the demands of our faith, neither does it seek to lay heavy burdens and guilt trips on the faithful.  It proclaims that the Good News is neither great tasting nor less filling but rather is long lasting and fulfilling, leaving nothing out and holding nothing back.  It calls us to be servants to all and subservient to none, to be bold in our proclamation and humble in spirit, to depend fully on God and yet claim human responsibility for our actions, to hate evil and love the enemy, to know the riches of the inheritance in God and yet to be poor in spirit, to believe in the full divinity of Christ and the full humanity of Jesus. 

To proclaim the whole Gospel of Light is to leave out neither the disturbing parts, as does the lite Gospel, nor to disregard all else save the paradoxes as does the heavy Gospel, but rather to affirm the vivid contrasts and multi-faceted perspectives of the whole Gospel.  A Gospel of love that is limited as Paul says by “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.”  

We see the boldness in this Gospel of Light in the text this morning from Isaiah with it’s threefold call for justice.  God’s servant, the prophet says, will bring forth justice to the nations (v. 1); … he will faithfully bring forth justice (v. 3); … He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.  (v. 4)

That that justice is social justice, Glen Beck please take note, is made clear in vs. 6-7:

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,  to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

We also see the humility of the servant in this text who does not lift his voice or break a bruised reed or quench a dimly lit wick.  We see that same humility in Jesus when he insists that John, despite John’s protest, baptize him.  And then we see this same Jesus, as Peter says in Acts, boldly commanding the disciples to preach that he is the one ordained by God to judge the living and the dead. 

To accept and affirm the whole Gospel of Light, as opposed to the Lite Gospel or the heavy Gospel,  is to accept the contrasting claims on us that call for a proclamation of that whole Gospel, not just part of it, for the whole world, not just to those we like.  That means at times we must be bold, at other times humble. (Tomorrow night is a time to be bold, Duck fans can be humble after the victory!) At times we must shout from the rooftops, at other times whisper our prayers in the closet.  At times we must challenge injustice in our world and other times seek forgiveness for injustice we cause.  We must be willing to speak a word of judgment and yet also speak a word of grace.  To address the needs of the individual as well as those of all humanity.  To speak to the heart and also to the mind. 

The Gospel of Light is the proclamation of the whole Gospel for the whole person to the whole world.  We have been entrusted with this Gospel to bring to sight those who are blind physically as well as those who are blind spiritually.  To bring to light those imprisoned for criminal activity as well as those imprisoned by their own fears.

I was struck by the statement several years ago of Wesley Dodd before he was hung in the state of Washington for the murder of three young boys.  He said that he had thought that nothing could be done to stop pedophiles like himself from sexually abusing children, but that he was wrong.  For in prison he discovered Jesus Christ and, he claimed, was healed of his sexual addiction. 

Perhaps that was just the confession of a dying man, someone desperate to save his soul or in some way to bring some good in a small way out of all the evil that he had done and therefore easy to dismiss.  Certainly my own experience of working with pedophiles as well as knowledge of sexual addictions suggest that such miraculous cures are very rare. 

Yet did not Dodd sit in the darkness of prison spiritually as well as physically?  Was not the Gospel of light intended for him too?  Could not Christ free him from the darkness that surrounded him most of his life? 

Most people were glad that he got his just due.  I would like to think that his just due was not the gallows but the cross.  That Dodd may have discovered, as did those criminals on Golgotha 2,000 years ago, that this cruel instrument of death is also the means to and the symbol of new life. 

Do you see the incredible contrast here?  The juxtaposition of criminals with Jesus on Golgotha?  Or a Wesley Dodd with a Mother Theresa, possibly both included in the realm of God? It provides us precisely with the kind of contrast illuminated by the Gospel of Light that shows the wideness of God’s love and the depth of God’s mercy.  Whereas the lite Gospel either would dismiss the seriousness of Dodd’s sin or would not entertain the possibility of his forgiveness altogether, the Gospel of Light acknowledges that there are those like Dodd who sit in deep darkness, but that there is no darkness so deep that the light of God cannot reach it.  Whereas the heavy Gospel would emphasize the paradox of the innocent Christ dying for a convicted child killer and would conclude that, even as unworthy and guilty as we are, that we also will receive this forgiveness,  the Gospel of light instead emphasizes the light of the nations that will establish justice on the earth, and that we, no matter how badly bruised or how dim our wick, that we are still part of God’s creation.  Therefore, we are worthy of God’s love, not unworthy.

Every time I hear someone say they are unworthy of God’s love, I want to shout out in the good tradition of Congressman Joe Wilson, “You lie!”.  But then I realize that will only make them feel more unworthy.  We are worthy as human beings created in God’s image, which is why Christ gave us his life for us.  Don’t let anyone tell you are unworthy or anyone else.  You are God’s child, don’t ever forget that.

To all those who are lost in darkness, hear then the Good News:  there is one bold enough to enter into our darkness and gentle enough to lead us out of it.  His light shines in the night and leads us forward.  May we be humble enough follow, and bold enough to lead others in that light.  This is the full Gospel for all God’s people.

 


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