2007-09-07

A TALE OF FOUR GOSPELS

A Sermon For Year C Proper 18
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Luke 14.25-33

SERMON: What is the best news you have ever had? Can you remember a time when you sat around, waiting, wondering, hoping… Just to hear some news- some GOOD news- about something or someone you cared about deeply?

What was that good news? Was it news that someone you liked, liked you in return? Was it news that someone survived, made it through, and made it home? Was it news that all the tests came in, and it wasn't as bad as everyone thought it might be?

Or was it news that you got in! You made it! You got an opportunity of a lifetime!

What was your good news?

I think good news is like the very air we breathe. Without good news- news of hope, news that things will be different and better- without that news we gradually wither and die.

Good news gives us hope, and hope is the oxygen of life. Without this spiritual oxygen, we gradually suffocate on the misery, hopelessness, and depression of a thousand disappointments.

God knows that we need hope to breathe, that we will suffocate without good news. And that is why the central reading of our worship service proclaims to us GOOD NEWS.

In fact, you may not know this, but that is precisely what "Gospel" means. Gospel comes from the Germanic roots of "Gut" (meaning good) and "spiel" (meaning story or news). The Gospel is the Gut-spiel of what God has done for us in Christ.

And that is a pretty faithful translation of the original Greek word for Gospel, which is "e-u-angellion", where we get the word "Evangelism" and "Evangelical". Euangellion is the "good news" that a King's messenger would bring to a town.

This message might be news that the King would be coming to visit, or that the King had won a battle. The good news would be met with feasting and partying and preparation for the King's arrival.

And it is this Good News, this Gut-spiel, this Euangellion, that is the very life-blood, the very oxygen, of our life in Christ. It gives us hope, and that hope empowers us to live a life WORTH living. It is this good news that stops us from suffocating on our sorrows.

It is for this reason that the four books that give us four perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus, are called "Gospels". They are four proclamations of the Good News that in Jesus, the King HAS come among us - HAS defeated evil through His resurrection- HAS given us His resurrection Spirit to live as He did - and WILL come again to bring all of Creation to fulfillment in Himself.

So, it is with a great deal of irony that we read today's Gospel, which seems to be anything BUT "good news". How is it good news to hate your family? How is it Gut-spiel to carry our cross? How is it euangellion to give up all we possess?

Far from being good news, it sounds like suffocating disappointment.

But it only suffocates if we do not have a clear idea of what "good" is in the first place. So, today I want to tell you a tale of four Gospels. Not the four books in the Bible, but four ways of interpreting the meaning of the "Good News" found in them.

The first gospel is the gospel of "I'm OK, your OK". It is the "good news" that God loves you the way that you are, BUT God does not want to change you at all.

It is the gospel of "self-esteem". And, in this gospel, Jesus is the supreme prophet of loving yourself. In this gospel, Jesus would never say anything unkind or judgmental. He just sits little children on his lap and hugs them and tells them "You are good enough, and smart enough, and gosh-darnit, I like you!"

God would never judge us, or impose anything on us that would make us uncomfortable, or cause us to question ourselves. In fact, in this gospel, the only people we can judge are those who might judge us.

So, this gospel winds up being something like a child's security blanket. My daughter has a pink security blanket, and she takes it everywhere she goes. It is not long enough to cover her, or useful enough to keep her warm, but it makes her feel happy.

And this is what the "I'm OK, you're OK" gospel does for people. It surrounds them with this pink, cuddly assurance that God will never judge them, and that they will go to heaven in the sweet bye and bye when they die.

But, when life's pain comes crashing in, and rips away all our hope, and leaves us to suffocate, this gospel won't cover us. It leaves us cold, hopeless, and vulnerable.

And when we read a passage like today, we cannot make sense out of it. How could the cuddly security-blanket god ever speak of hate? How could he want us to sacrifice? Why would he want us to surrender?

Not only does the "I'm OK, you're OK" gospel leave us without tools to live life, it leaves us without a way to understand the REAL Jesus. God may love us the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way!

So, we move to our second gospel. It is diametrically opposed to "I'm OK, you're OK". We could call it the gospel of "home improvement".

In the gospel of home improvement, Jesus comes to us like a home inspector. He takes a look at our foundation, at our roof, and inside our walls, and tells us what is wrong with us.

His "good news" is that we can finally fix what is wrong inside us! Jesus gives us a set of tools- moral platitudes and spiritual principals- that, if followed correctly, will lead to an abundant life.

This gospel winds up looking like a blueprint, or even a recipe book, to ensure "your best life now", and to assure you that God will have a mansion waiting on you in heaven if you jump through all His hoops.

All you have to do is master the five purposes, the seven principals, the ten steps, the twelve fundamentals, or whatever other recipe you can squeeze Jesus into.

And, on good days, this gospel works great. When the world is right, and your schedule is good, and nothing out of the ordinary happens, you feel great about yourself. You are successful, and getting better every day in every way.

But, this gospel cannot make sense of why Jesus would use the word "hate" either. Aren't we supposed to be successful and well liked? And this gospel can't make sense of why we would have to "carry our cross". Isn't your best life supposed to be filled with pleasure and prosperity?

And, this gospel utterly fails when our world falls apart. That means that for 99% of us, 95% the time this gospel is a pipe-dream. Because we live in a world where our lives, our relationships, and our families are torn apart by forces we do not understand, and cannot control.

And in the face of that, a gospel of home-improvement seems laughable. For those who have struggled for years in failure after failure despite their best efforts, this gospel is suffocating.

We just can't do it on our own. We don't need a God who is merely our "life coach". We need a God big enough to take our burdens onto Himself, and go with us through our despair and pain.

The third gospel is one way of dealing with this, and I call it "Easy believism". Easy believism takes it for granted that life is hard and painful, and also that we will fail even in our best efforts. And it also sees the need for God to directly help us, to pull us out of the ditch.

So, the solution it proposes is that Jesus took all of our sin and suffering into Himself on the cross, and died for us, so that we can be forgiven and get to heaven. All we have to do is believe in Him.

That's it. That's the good news. Life here WILL be hard and uncertain. You WILL fail and sin. But Jesus will be waiting for you at the end of it all, to comfort you, and make you feel better.

If we believe, we have a ticket to heaven. If we refuse to believe, we earn a ticket to hell. Either way, this world is going to hell in a hand-basket… So repent and believe while you still have time.

But "easy believism" cannot make sense out of our Gospel passage any more than the others. According to our passage, Jesus says we are supposed to "carry" our cross, "build" our lives, "fight" a war, and "give up" our possessions. These are things we DO, not just things we BELIEVE. And this happens NOW, not just in the sweet bye and bye.

Now, don't get me wrong. Belief is a necessary first step. We do not go to a college without first believing that college is worth going to. We do not marry a person unless we first trust them. And we do not LIVE for Christ unless we first BELIEVE that He is the Risen Lord, and thus worth living for.

Let me give you a fourth way to look at the Gospel, and lets call it the Good News of the Great Physician. To understand this version of the "good news", we have to understand that the "bad news" is not primarily a lack of self-esteem, or a lack of obedience to God's principals of success, or even a lack of belief.

To be sure, problems of self-image, lack of obedience, and unbelief flow from the primary problem (along with evil, suffering, and death). But, at the core of all of this is the fact that we all have been infected with a disease, a cancer, that is selfishness and sin.

This cancer eats up society, eats up relationships, and eats up individuals. It is a spiritual disease that kills souls, just as sure as a physical cancer that kills bodies. Once we have the disease, there are things we do that can make it worse- lifestyle choices, relationship choices, and belief-system choices.

But there is nothing we can do, in ourselves, of ourselves, to cure it. We need medicine. We need a Physician, who can reach inside us, and take all of the cancer out.

Think about what happens in the course of recovering from cancer. First, the sick person has to realize that they are sick. This can be a tough process, with lots of denial involved.

One they realize they are sick, they have to put their trust in a certain physician, who has the cure they need. Then they have to surrender to the surgery or chemotherapy that this physician prescribes.

Finally, after the surgery, they have to co-operate with the physician to recover and stay healthy. This will mean un-learning some unhealthy choices (like not smoking five packs a day), while learning healthy ways of life (like eating vegetables and fiber).

With the spiritual cancer of sin, the good news is that Jesus IS our cure. He has put our death to death on the cross, and overcome it by His resurrection. And if we trust Him to open us up and do radical surgery- and remove from us the tumors of idolatry, deception, selfishness, and hate- then He will inject us with His resurrection Spirit, to enable live a life WORTH living.

And once the Physician performs this radical surgery, there will be some things we will have to do to recover and stay healthy. We can't smoke five packs of sin a day, without expecting to have another round of spiritual surgery or chemotherapy!

But, recovery is hard. It will be like tearing down our old life, and building something entirely new. And Jesus is asking us "Are you ready to build WITH me?" It will be like waging a war against the selfishness and self-deception that used to rule your life. And Jesus is asking us "Are you ready for the conflict to come?"

Recovery will require us making a decision to put Him at the very core of our lives. To do that, we will have to get rid of lots of things that act as "gods" for us. For some, it is our possessions that are our "gods". We can't bear to be without them. That is why Jesus says that if we want to be healthy, we must give them to Him.

For others, it is our relationships that are our "gods". We worry more about what our family and friends think about us, than we worry about who God made us to be. Our desire to please or impress others is a cancer that eats away at our souls.

And that is why Jesus tells us to "hate" our family and friends. Because, compared to our love for Him, all lesser loves must be despised. And the paradox is, that if we make Jesus the sole love of our lives, we will love others MORE than we ever did when our own self-worth depended on whether or not they liked us.

This Gospel of the Great Physician, is the only Gospel that can make sense out of passages like this, and show us how this too is "good news": Because radical surgery- even if it is painful- is always good news to those who KNOW how deadly their disease is.

BENEDICTION: And now may put your whole trust in the Great Physician. May you allow Him to remove from you the cancer of sin, and fill you with His resurrection Spirit. And may you embody His Gospel of Healing with everyone you know. Amen+

AFFIRMATION: And now, let us affirm together our Faith in the Great Physician, joining our voices with all who have been healed by Christ in all ages, as we recite together the Nicene Creed…
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.