JESUS AND GTD
A Sermon for Passion Sunday, Year C
I. INTRODUCTION: Today is the day when we come face to face with one of our curious and horrendous human tendencies: Our ability to completely turn our back on those who care for us the most when they don't meet our expectations. Did you notice what happened in the readings today? In the span of one week the crowd in Jerusalem went from welcoming Jesus as a King to spitting on Him as a criminal. The whole crowd. In one week the disciples went from being willing to die for Jesus to being unwilling to admit they even knew Him.
I want you to notice that [PAUSE].
They expected Jesus to be one thing, and He turned out to be another. They expected Jesus to be the Warrior Messiah who was going to destroy the Roman Army, kill all the infidels, and set up God's Kingdom on Earth, where all nations would grovel before the Jews and pay tribute money. What they got was a Jesus who came to usher in a Kingdom of Love, where ALL people- Jew AND Gentile- would Love God above all and Love each other as themselves.
The crowd expected power, and they got peace. They expected victory, and they got humility. The expected hate, and they got Love [PAUSE]. So, they turned on him and got rid of him.
And, like pretty much every story in the Bible, the important thing is not just that it happened then. But it happens now too. Because that crowd was not just them, then. It is us now. The only major difference in how we turn our backs on Jesus is that while their rejection was hot-blooded and violent, our rejection is often cold and bland. We simply don't care: about Jesus then, or about God now. We have better things to do. And we only think about God when it suits us… When we NEED something!
II. GTD DEFINED: Two years ago Oxford University Press published this book called "Soul Searching". It is a sociological study of several thousand interviews with teenagers and young adults across the US, across ethnicities, and across religions. However, by and large, even despite such diversity, there was one glaring commonality: It was the belief system espoused by the great majority of the youth surveyed, regardless of what religion they were an adherent of, and regardless of how they worshipped.
The study called the actual religion of most people "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism". Here is how they defined it (see if you have ever heard of this religion). The five main characteristics of this religion are:
"1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by the Bible and most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die."
Sound familiar? Just today, I was writing this very sermon in a Starbucks and I heard someone almost yelling at another person that every person sees God in their own way and that we have ABSOLUTELY no right to say they are wrong about God. The supposed "intolerant" person was just sitting there, getting berated by open-mindedness… Ever been there?
Although I largely agree with how Soul Searching characterizes American religion- especially that variety prevalent on college campuses around the country- I would quibble with "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" on just one point. I don't think it is moral. "Moral" assumes that someone must give up something they would normally do in order to satisfy some type of moral standard.
I don't think there is anything moral about "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism". It basically states that we should just be nice… not make waves… Don't stand up for anything in particular because you might be wrong or even worse, offend someone. It is basically self-preservation: Don't rock the boat so you don't get pushed out of the boat. Self-preservation is not morality. It is saving one's own butt.
Instead of moralistic, let's replace it with "generic". Generic Therapeutic Deism. It is generic because it will make God be anything to anyone, as long as it is not offensive and doesn't make any claims about God that could ever make anyone uncomfortable. It is therapeutic, because God exists to make us feel better about our life and our death. And it is deism because it assumes that, while God may exist, God doesn't really have anything to do with us.
It is a cold-blooded, mushy-oatmeal kind of religion, that covers everything with a vaguely religious glow (kind of like one of those special fuzzy lenses you use for photography to blur all of the wrinkles and pimples). Here is the hymn of Generic Therapeutic Deism (based on "Jesus Loves Me"):
Jesus loves me this I know
For a vague feeling tells me so
But your God is as good as mine
I'm sure your God makes you feel fine
I think some God loves me!
I think some God loves me!
I think some God loves me!
A vague feeling tells me so!
Your truth is yours and mine is mine
No one can know truth at this time
Our best guess is what we feel
Truth feels good, but guilt's not real
The Bible is such an old book
Modern thought has taken a good look
If its not new it can't be right
So only believe what's in your sight
III. JESUS AND GTD COMPARED: But, how does the warm-blooded Jesus and the cold-blooded god of Generic Therapeutic Deism (GTD for short) compare?
First, the god of GTD is Abstract and Universal. Jesus is Concrete and Specific. The God of GTD is anything to anyone, so it winds up being nothing to everyone. The bland vanilla pudding God. Jesus, on the other hand is so concrete that the Bible calls Him the Rock on which our lives are built. This offends postmodern sensibilities because we think that everyone should have equal access to the universal nebulous concept of God. It is a scandal that Jesus should be so particular and so concrete.
This is perhaps why, when the Bible calls Jesus "The Rock", it also calls Him "a stone of stumbling". Stumbling in Greek is skandalon. Where we get scandal from. The world stumbles on the particularity of Jesus, because in Jesus God becomes one of us… And that is hard to wrap our minds around. But if we are to know God this HAS to happen, because we do not fall in love with abstract universals. We do not reach out for vague ideas when we are drowning. We love real particular people. We reach out for real rocks to grasp onto to keep ourselves from sinking.
Second, the god of GTD is clean and bloodless. Nothing messy or uncouth about a vague concept. But Jesus is disturbingly messy and bloody. When you come into contact with GTD, you will never get dirty. In fact, you will never get anything at all. But, when you come into contact with Jesus you will get blood all over you. When you come into contact with Jesus, he will simultaneously heal you and destroy you.
He will heal you because in Him you will KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a real God who really loves you and who has made you for an incredible purpose. He will destroy you, because if you keep touching Jesus, he will lead you to start feeling like God feels about EVERYBODY. You will start caring. Really caring. And you will really give yourself to help others.
And, if there is a real God who really helps us through our messy lives, doesn't it make sense that he would become messy too? A generic God cannot help us. It is too clean. We need a messy, bloody, offensive God who will reach into human history with His mighty hand and save us.
Third, the god of GTD leads us to mere toleration. The God in Jesus leads us to love. The best, most aspiring ideal that generi-god can lead us to is a semi-placid "Hey dude. It's cool. You believe what you want. I will believe what I want. You do your thing, and I won't do a dang thing to stop you." In the face of someone who is destroying their lives through stupid choices, toleration can only say "Hey maaan, it's their choice…"
But Jesus leads us to love. And while true love does tolerate and give freedom, it does further. It says "I will accept you like you are, but I will not leave you that way! I will not give up until you are fully healthy and wholly holy, just like Jesus". True love, just like the true God found in Jesus, gives up itself to save others and bring them to healing. Mere toleration could never lead to a Mother Theresa, but the Love of Christ can, and does, every day.
Fourth, when confronted with the horrendous reality of human suffering, the best the god of GTD can offer is a hospice. But Jesus offers healing. A hospice is a place where people are made comfortable while preparing to die. Their symptoms are medicated so they do not feel pain. Their minds are numbed to suffering. They are put safely in their own comfy world to await death. And, if there is no cure, that is the best they can do.
GTD has no cure. So, it gets us by with a "live and let live" philosophy of tolerance that tells everyone "You are good enough, and there is nothing you need to change. Just be yourself and have faith in faith and everything will turn out OK". HEY! Someone cue up the pink unicorns and the butterflys while we are at it!
But Jesus has a cure. It is resurrection. And Jesus brings us to REPENTANCE instead of a bland resignation that says "Just be who you are, and be comfy in your own selfishness". He says: "Repent! The Kingdom of God is here!" He is the great Physician who alone can heal our souls. And the first step to being healed is admitting we are sick, and surrendering ourselves to the care of the doctor.
Perhaps the reason that GTD is so popular is because it makes no demands, and gives no rewards. A vague ideal is never going to tell you to repent. A nebulous concept is never going to tell you that you are sick and you need to be healed. A distant God is never going to move into your heart and turn everything upside down.
V. THE CHOICE BEFORE US: But Jesus will. Instead of abstractness he gives us the real, concrete world. Instead of a clean, bloodless diety, He gives us a messy, bloody God who goes through suffering with us. Instead of toleration that gets out of our way, He gives us a love that never leaves us. Instead of hospice care leading to death, he gives us a healing that takes our death and resurrects it forever. Instead of resignation, he calls us to repentance.
And that is the call today. Repent! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent! Admit where you are sick and drowning, and reach out and cling to the only Rock that can heal and transform you! Repent! God wants to make you into something new… into a someone with purpose, who will do wonderful things that never even entered into your mind!
You can repent, or you can deny. You can join with the crowd 2000 years ago and shout "crucify him" by leaving here in a cold, bland indifference. Or you can join with the saints throughout the ages- those people who transformed the world and turned it upside down- and proclaim Christ crucified… and resurrected!
So who will you choose? Generi-god who offends no-one, and who is everything to anyone, except when you need it to be something to you? Or Jesus: bloody, messy, concrete, loving, dead and resurrected?
The choice is yours!