A friend recently posted a meme with the simple comment: 'sermon material?' The meme had to do with seeking disciple in one's life, as a measure of personal growth. And certainly, there is ample material in that - the Scriptures are full of the call to the disciplined life. And having a disciplined life can draw us nearer to the heart of God in so many ways.
What struck me, though, was the first comment on my friend's post. A commenter, also someone who claims the Christian faith, said, "Oh, absolutely!" And I got excited because there was a whole paragraph after that, which I assumed was going to be a spiritual development of the point and a little fodder for my own thought (I love listening to other theologians; they challenge and inspire me). But the comment went on to explain a theology that included nothing at all of God. It said something to the effect of, "Why wait until tomorrow when you can change your life for the better today? Time to get up off your bones and do something for yourself." And an excited declaration that this friend would "preach that all day."
It's a great message, I guess, if you're into that sort of thing, but it doesn't have anything to do with God. It doesn't even acknowledge Him as a catalyst for or a calling to change. It doesn't acknowledge His wisdom in discipline and doesn't require Him for taking our own action. It doesn't even ask Him what He desires for us.
And I realized that this individual was willing, even excited, to stand in a church and preach a message of self-fulfillment and call it a sermon, call it worship - and it is no such thing.
This sort of thing is happening in churches all around our country, from pastors trained and untrained, known and not-so-well-known. In small churches and big churches. We are slowly letting this human-centered theology sneak in, and we're calling it the same thing. We're calling it godly. And yet, God Himself hasn't been mentioned in some of these churches in a long time. God's story has not been told there in a long time. God is not a required element of the faith in too many of the churches in our nation. All that's required is a decent heart and a desire to do something meaningful in the world, and we're willing to call it good news just the same.
But this is not good news. This is nowhere near good news. This is bad news.
Because here's the truth: if all it takes for us to change our lives is to change ourselves, a lot of us are in trouble. Probably all of us. If it were just that easy, we would have done it already. If having more discipline in our lives was just about choosing more discipline, who among us wouldn't have chosen that already? We ought to be the most disciplined group of persons in all of history if all it takes is us choosing to be that.
We break promises to ourselves all the time, even promises that we fully intend to keep. Even promises that we made because we knew they would be good for us - and for others. We lie to ourselves all the time. We say things and make promises that we know we aren't going to keep. We lie to others, even about things that we claim we hold so near to our heart. Even as persons of faith. How many persons have you said you'll pray for and then never prayed for them?
We are broken, messed up, fallible human beings with sometimes decent intentions and terrible follow-through. If the sermon that you choose to preach is one that says that you can, and should, change your life, then you're in trouble because that's never going to happen. Very, very rarely does a human being change his or her own life long-term just because he/she wants to. If you need more evidence of that, ask yourself how many diets we've all been on in the past ten years. If the good news you want to offer to a person is that his or her life is in his/her own hands, guess what - that's not good news. That's not good news at all.
That's terrible news. Because I promise you, from a lifetime of experiences and testimonies of the same, that my life doesn't stand a chance in my own hands. No matter how much I want it to.
We have to demand that our theology doesn't turn to rubbish. We have to demand that God stays central to all of the messages that we're preaching. We have to demand that even when it looks like it's about our lives, we keep it firmly rooted in His. That's the only hope we've got. That's the only good news there is in this whole thing, in this whole existence that we have - that our lives, the good and the bad and the broken of them, are fully wrapped up in His life, in His death and resurrection. That's good news. That's the message we need to hear, over and over and over again.
Anything less, anything else, is bad news.
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