Yeah. You know the stuff.
When you’ve got to drive a long way, how do you keep yourself awake and engaged?
I never thought I would know more than one person who stays awake on road trips by listening to and yelling back at hellfire and brimstone radio preachers. One of those people is me. The many others are everyone from seminary friends to people from my home church.
Those loud, angry radio preachers seem much more common in the South, but as you know, they’re naturally everywhere, including here, usually on the AM stations or the lower end of the FM dial. They draw their inspiration from passages like the Isaiah passage — “here am I; send me!” They volunteer to go preach the Gospel. To become, as stated in the Gospel passage for today, “fishers of men,” as the King James put it; the Gospel is the bait, the line is the radio waves, and the listeners are the fish.
In those cases, I’ve always been one angry fish, doing nothing but shouting at the “bait.”
Because by and large, it isn’t very good bait. It’s supposed to be Good News (the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”), but all I ever remember hearing is about what God would do to people who don’t follow the very narrow plan that God wants. It always seems less like Good News and more like bad news. It was as if someone told you that you were in grave danger and then said “wait, I have good news!” then gave you a ten thousand bullet point checklist for survival and told you that you had ten minutes to complete it. Well, they would say when you protest that this checklist is impossible: as the Good Book states, “narrow is the way, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).
Narrow is the way indeed, but I daresay not in the way that these preachers think. This sort of thinking — that we must be good in order for God to love us — is, in its final theological product, missing something pretty key that changes everything. Namely, God’s love. Namely, that this sort of thinking makes the Gospel into a story about how good Christians are for our herculean efforts to be “good” instead of a story about how good God is. That is a poor substitution indeed.
Let me continue to explain by way of cookies.
My best friend from my hometown, Samuel, and I have been friends for years and years. One day, when Samuel was but a tender sophomore in high school, he set out to make homemade cookies.
The recipe he found, as most chocolate chip cookie recipes do, called for butter. Young Samuel opened his parents’ fridge and found none; his parents were on a diet, or something. Pushing aside some other condiments, however, Samuel found the hope of his young baker’s career: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
And so my dear Samuel used I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in the cookie recipe. Everything seemed fairly normal, as it were, until the cookies were pulled out of the oven.
What Samuel pulled out of the oven was, as the experienced bakers in the room already know, not cookies. The substance was charred and still liquid, which would lead to them running sideways down the pan when it was turned. If you ever need to know what happens when you use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, Samuel can tell you the answer: you get I Can’t Believe They’re Not Cookies.
I want to argue something very simple here: that when you preach the Gospel — which literally means “good news” — and substitute stuff we do for what God does, you’re going to end up with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News. Charred, burned, running down the pan. Not the Gospel.
Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing good things. We’re called to love our neighbors and help them out, to be generally good humans in the world, to be kind and trustworthy and loving people. But that’s not why God loves us. “Good humans” is who we tend to become when we know we’re loved. People who know that they are loved are more themselves, more secure, more honest, more trustworthy.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News gets that all backwards.
God is exclusive in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News theology. Nothing about it seems very good, which seems strange for a God who, as we read in our Genesis study this morning, created everything and then danced over it exclaiming, “Very good! Very good!”
I know, I know. Adam and Eve sinned and it messed it all up. (That’s next week’s study.) But over and over in the Bible, we’re reminded that God still loves us and calls us good and says what we are formed out of the dust in God’s own image. God still delights in us, so much that God became one of us and walked along the seashore calling not the best and brightest, but some ordinary fishermen.
Yes, we are some messed up people. We, too, are pretty ordinary at best. What’s more, the world is sinful, but not in the way you might’ve heard on the radio.
I can’t blame the radio preachers, really. The Isaiah passage ends with some pretty bad news, too. A frustrated God tells Isaiah that the people have been so unwilling to hear God’s voice of love that now they’re unable to hear it, and they’ve plunged into self-made destruction. That sounds familiar. The Bible calls us to “repent” — literally, turn around — for a reason.
But you see, I don’t think the world is sinful because there are gay guys and cusswords on TV sometimes. Besides not subscribing to that kind of spiritual violence, I don’t think God is so petty as to watch every moment of our lives for any sign of offense so that God can keep score and get God’s due later. No.
The world is sinful because people starve and have nothing — even clean water — because of the greed of others, and countless others die because of needless violence, both here in the US and abroad.
The world is sinful because we live in a culture that constantly tells us that we’re not created good, but that we need to earn our goodness by working hard enough and being good enough and being beautiful and thin and young forever.
Never forget that in Hebrew, Satan, ha-satan, means “the accuser.” The voice that tells you that you are and always will be messed up and can’t ever earn God’s love — so you either keep trying until you break and become angry and bitter, or you just give up on God and yourself.
Satan. The accuser.
I think I’ve heard Satan on the radio. And in my own head. I wager you have too. You’ve probably heard Satan in church at some point, too, telling you that you need to earn your way to God.
Listen to me and see what’s right here in front of us, as clear as the image of God imprinted in each of our hands and faces and feet and breath: the Gospel is good news, but not because of what you do. The Gospel is a story about God. The God who brought you into this world and gave you your first breath and the God who will see you safely into eternity still calls you good.
God still calls you to see what’s right there: that you are beloved and you are called, not because you earned it, but because you were created from the dust and given God’s breath of life. You are beloved and you are called because you breathe. The real Good News is right there, as close as your next breath.
As close as Jesus was to Peter when he tells him to cast those nets down one more time. Peter scoffs. That doesn’t make sense. He protests: we’ve been working so HARD!
Just listen to Jesus, will you? And they cast that net on the other side and they got so many fish it was comical as they and the folks in the other boat struggled to get it all to shore.
And that’s how it all began, this church thing.
I know, it sounds lazy or too good to be true, or something. Surely we have to do something. It’s not easy to believe — narrow is the way, because most people want to earn it. They logically think we have to do something to earn it. That’s how the world works, after all.
But the road that says “work harder” is broad and leads to destruction and self-loathing. It’s why both Peter and Isaiah tried to scare God away by telling God how sinful they are. Every prophet in the Bible tries to scare God away somehow.
But God don’t scare easy.
So here’s the bottom line: the next time you run out of butter, just step out to the store and get more butter. And the next time you’re on a road trip, or any other time you doubt God’s love and your own goodness, find something that helps you feel more you, more created by God, more beloved. You can believe this is good news, because it is.
Accept no substitutions.