Alternative Gospel


Isaiah 58 NRSV

It’s good times in Atlanta, Georgia today. But times have not always been good. I want to begin this morning with a story from some of the darkest days of what is perhaps Atlanta’s most famous corporation.

Some of you remember when the Coca-Cola Company made the unfortunate decision to change the formula of its flagship soft drink introducing “New Coke” back in 1985.

What prompted the change in formula were these “blind taste tests” that revealed consumers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi over Coke.

Coke sales were down, so these geniuses went to work and “New Coke” was born to completely replace the original Coke.

It wasn’t long, though, before the public rose up and demanded to bring back the original formula, or what became known as Classic Coke.

And even Bill Cosby (who still had his clout in 1985) and a cartoon named Max Headroom could not prevent one of the largest marketing failures in world history.

I am not sure when this exact thing happened to the original Word of God that was fully revealed by our Lord and announced by the prophets before him, but it happened. It’s like someone, or some group did some sort of blind taste test that revealed that people preferred a faith that had a much sweeter taste. Perhaps it happened in the very beginning, when Adam and Eve chose the sweetness of that forbidden fruit, choosing to live in the creation of their terms, instead of on God’s terms.

So these geniuses went to work, and this brand new faith was born to completely replace the original faith—to make it sweeter, more palatable, more drinkable.

However, unlike New Coke, the general public did not rise up and demand to bring back the original formula, or what we might call “classic faith.” In fact, most seem to prefer the re-imagined, re-engineered, and re-manufactured faith.

So, one might argue that the reformulation of this “new” gospel has been the largest marketing success in world history. It has been so successful in North America that the majority of folks believe that this new sweeter gospel is actually the “classic gospel.”

For example, a recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” However, that statement is from Benjamin Franklin, a Deist, which means he did not even believe God was working in the world. It is not from the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves” is in fact one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter-assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But, we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we? Easier to swallow. Taste sweeter. And it doesn’t sound so foolish.

But the Apostle Paul warned us that the wisdom of God is understood as “foolishness” to the world.

But we in the world don’t like to be foolish, do we? So we’ve embraced this new, sweeter, less foolish formula.

We’ve replaced “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” with: “Do unto others as they do unto you.”

We’ve replaced “Turn the other cheek” with: “When somebody hits you, you hit back harder.”

“Love your enemies” has become: “Love the deserving.”

The simple commands to “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked” have become the more qualified, conditional, yet sweeter commands to: “feed and clothe those who will pray with you, or at least attend a Bible Study or a worship service with you. Feed and clothe others, but give preferential treatment to those who share your faith.”

We’ve replaced “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” with “We must look out for number one.”

“Love keeps no account of wrongdoing” has been replaced with “love the sinner but hate the sin” (and of course everyone knows to hate the sin we just have to keep account of that sin).

“For whosoever welcomes little children welcomes me” has been replaced by “children should be seen and not heard, especially in a worship service.”

“Welcome the stranger” has been replaced with “It’s always best to err on the side of safety.”

We’ve replaced “In Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek” with “Oh, there is most definitely ‘us’ and ‘them’” (and there’s way too many of them).

There is “neither slave nor free” has be replaced with “the free should have the religious liberty to treat others as second-class.”

There is “no longer Male nor Female” and other verses that elevate women like “Wives and husbands should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” has been replaced with “Somebody needs to man up and wear the pants in the family.”

Ashamed of the gospel, we’ve replaced it with something sweeter to the taste, something more popular to the culture, more drinkable to the majority, and less foolish to our friends and family.

And we wonder why the world grows ever darker.

What we need today is for someone to rise up and demand to bring back the original formula, the original faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and Prophets, the classic, old-time religion of Jesus and the Apostles. This country needs someone to stand up for the the true, indisputable, irrefutable Word of God.

We need someone like Isaiah, the prophet Jesus quoted the most, to stand up and shout out and hold nothing back! We need someone to lift up their voice like a trumpet and announce to the people their rebellion. We need for someone to call it out for the sin that it is. We need someone to tell the God’s honest truth: “The church has been conned. The people have been played. The clergy duped. They have been seduced into accepting an alternative faith, a fake-news that is nothing like the original good news.”

Hear again these words from Isaiah (I am reading from the contemporary Message translation):

They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the the sweeter gospel, it’s more-pleasing church. But when did Jesus ever say, “Worship me, study me?”

He never said that. That’s Alternative Jesus. That’s fake-news Jesus. True Jesus, Original Jesus, Classic Jesus never said, “study me or worship me.” No, he said something much more radical. He said, “follow me.” And not only “follow me,” but “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Isaiah continues:

To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side.

We certainly do, don’t we? We love saying: “one nation under God.” We love singing: “God bless America.” And we love having: “In God We Trust” on our money and the Ten Commandments in our courts.

Isaiah keeps preaching:

But they also complain…

Oh boy, do we complain! We whine in the darkness. We blame, and we scapegoat. It’s us verses them.

So rise up and preach it Isaiah. Stand up! Shout out! Hold nothing back!

Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?

Why is the nation so divided? Why is the church struggling to survive? Why is the world so dark?

Well, here’s why [says the Lord]: The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.

In other words, your worship is more concerned with bringing in money than bringing in the lost. Or as Jesus said, “the house of prayer has become a den of thieves.”

You drive your employees much too hard. [You are against fair wages.]

You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist.

You worship, you attend Sunday School, you might even teach Sunday School, but you gossip, and you tear others down. You go to church, but you say things and do things that do not build up the church.

So the kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.

Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility?

To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black?

Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad…

With absolutely no strings attached, especially religious strings!

But God, this doesn’t have a sweet taste at all. This is just foolish. We prefer something easier to drink, another formula, a new faith. Might we just remember, study the classic faith? Read about the original covenant? Must we actually do it?

Yet, when we look around at our world, all is so very dark. Everything seems to be headed in the wrong direction. The road before us is so uncertain. Something must change.

Then, don’t just remember this or study this, says the Lord.

Do this, [do this and the good news is:] the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

Do you really want to bring light to the darkness? Then do this:

Get rid of unfair practices… [Get rid of this new gospel created by selfish, sinful minds that send the poor away empty.]

Quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. Be generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out.

And then your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.

The answer to the cries of this world is right here. It is the original covenant. It is the classic faith. It is the true gospel. It is the irrefutable, indisputable Word of God. And we need to rise up and demand to bring it back.

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