Good News For Losers Dr. Micheal S. Horton • 2004 Faith & Life Conference • 46 min. All Saints Reformed Presbyterian Church (transcribed in 2005).
(Frederick Nietzsche) not exactly a great Reformed theologian. One of the fathers of what is called modern nihilism, the death of God theology, or the culture of death as it is called these days. (He) said, “The Christian movement (this is the end of the 19 century) is a de-generous movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every kind. It is, therefore, not also national not racially conditioned (we see how he was Hitler’s favorite philosopher). It appeals to be disinherited everywhere. It is founded on a ranker against everything well constituted and dominate. It needs a symbol that represents accurse on the well constituted and the dominate. It also stands in opposition to every spiritual movement; to all morality and philosophy. It takes the side of idiots and utters a curse on the spirit. Ranker against the gifted, the learned, the spiritually independent. It detects in them the well constituted, the masterful.” What a marvelous quote, in a really horrific, terrifying sense. Here, he captures, in a nutshell, the attitude that the high and the mighty in this passing evil age have toward this lowly man of Galilee and His followers. We don’t like to see ourselves that way, we don’t think of ourselves as losers, we are Americans. It’s not a very nice thing, especially in America, the form of Christianity that we like here is the kind that makes winners not losers, the kind that is on the side of the happy, the beautiful the people that are making it, the people who are on their way; if Christianity can fit in somehow, if you can prove to the beautiful people that Christianity can help them be more beautiful. If you could prove to them there already tremendous giftedness can just be slightly improved then Christianity can be useful. It can be therapy, therapy for the beautiful people. That’s what religion has become largely in our country today. It’s the theology of Dr. Phil or Oprah. It is one thing, if you have the choice on turning on the TV, but a lot of people across the country do not have a choice what they hear on the Lords Day, and this kind of emphasis is as many of you know very thoroughly embedded in our culture today across the denominational spectrum. Even popular religion, then, is often exploited in what Nietzsche would celebrate as the Will to Power—if religion is going to have any place in our lives it has to promise to make us happier, healthier, and wiser. It cannot promise as it actually does in the New Testament to kills us in order to make us alive. It has to come to us and explain to us how it can boost our self confidence, and can make us and our families the Christian family the envy of non-Christians. But what happens when it doesn’t, what happens when a Christian family falls apart? What happens when our lives are obviously not the Rockwell picture that we paint? What happens when we’re weak? We spend a lot of time in Christian circles with publicity to try to convince the world that it is not a religion for losers. We will put athletes on the podium; we will bring beauty queens up to give their testimony. I have never seen a janitor or a plumber at a crusade giving his testimony. We are so terrified that Ted Turner is right when he calls Christianity, in view of Nietzsche’s quote, a ‘religion for losers’, (Ted Turner) having grown up in a very conservative Christian home, that was his conclusion. For at least a century and a half American Christianity spent a great amount of time and energy on just this area of concern. There are great exceptions like Joan Erickson Santana, years ago who almost grudgingly given an opportunity to tell her story. It clashed with the other stories being told, many have been grateful for her for having done that. We seem obsessed at times at convincing the world that we are cool, that we’re with it. Christianity is not a religion for losers, but for winners—Jesus came to recruit an all star team and to take us to the Super Bowl. But then we read the bible, whenever we Calvinist get cocky all we have to do is read the Bible and remember again whom He chose; not many wise, not many noble, He chose the stupid people to confound the wise, He chose the people who are not worth it in the eyes of the world. Jesus said “Those who are well are in no need of a physician but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31. And there is Paul’s recurring call appealing to the weakness that he himself exhibits, even as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul say’s ‘on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.’ What a strange thing, maybe Nietzsche and Turner are right, actually boast in our weakness, what a weird religion. Have we forgotten how weird this is? But the Lord said to me my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness, therefore I will boast in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me, for the sake of Christ then I am content with my weaknesses: insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, for when I am weak then paradoxically, strangely enough, in a way this world will never understand, I am strong. Paul wouldn’t have been a very good representative of muscular Christianity, he wouldn’t have been a very good representative of the powerful Christian, the successful victorious Christian. Paul’s saying ‘when I am weak, actually I don’t figure out a new diet plan to get myself strong, but I realize that I am in a great position to rest more firmly in Christ.’ In his varieties of religious of experience published in 1902, Harvard philosopher William James gave the world the only distinctly American form of philosophy known as pragmatism. He distinguished between two types of religion. A religion of the healthy minded and a religion of the sick soul. He said that the healthy minded is pretty typical of Unitarianism (and that it) is pretty typical of a kind of religion that we have growing in the major centers of religion in America today. ‘The religion of the sick soul is the old Calvinistic religion. (what) we used to had to deal with (and) had to face. The religion of the sick soul, very morbid minded you could sort of tell where this neutral Harvard philosopher was in his take. Healthy minded versus morbid minded, sick minded. That’s what we are the pathological. In this world sanity is pathological, and the pathological is sanity. You think of Nebuchadnezzar on the roof of his palace, “Is this not the great Babylon which I have built by my might and for my glory.” Remember he has that vision Daniel explains that vision and that vision comes true. He is despoiled of all of his riches, he is sent out like a wild animal, and his fingernails grow like the claws of an eagle. He doesn’t shower, he doesn’t bathe, his hair grows like thick feathers, think of the picture of Howard Hues, (and) he became a wreck loose. And he said then after those days I lifted my eyes to heaven and my sanity was restored and I realize that God is sovereign over the kingdoms of man and gives them to whomever he choose. And that the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing but he does according to his will in the hosts of heaven and the peoples of the earth, and no one can hold back His hand or say to him what have you done. That is when his sanity was restored. After the fall, after we bought the lie that we can be our own Gods we think the same thing to do is to rely on ourselves to renounce God and believe in ourselves, but the really sane thing to do is be the people that we were created to be dependent on the God who made us. I don’t think the biblical sense of human sin and the need for redemption outside of ourselves requires pessimism of our nations future or pessimism about how our children will do in school. There is a difference between things earthly and things heavenly, we’re talking about things heavenly, we’re talking about whether progress can be made in terms of our relationship with God. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, in a lot of ways in this country. We can work our way from the stock room to the board room in this country. But you can’t do that in your relationship with God, it is not a democracy, and you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. This healthy, American optimism has lead to startling opportunity in things earthly, but it is also meant that the bad stuff has got to go; anything negative just has to be pushed to the periphery, no downers like human depravity, human inability for self salvation. God helps those who help themselves; the emphasis on divine rescue has to be watered down to divine assistance. And I tell you it will make a lot of difference perhaps not today, especially those of you who are younger, maybe some of you have not yet had anything but your hamster die, and that was a crisis, really, but you are going to face a lot more, and you may be sitting here thinking it does not matter that much what you believe about God. Who cares the sick soul religion of the healthy minded religion. It will matter right now which religion you embrace down the line when you face those trials and those circumstances, whether you are tossed back and forth with every blow of life circumstances, or whether you are an oak tree rooted by the streams of living water even when life blows really hard at you. 7 The Greeks said the same thing that Nietzsche said: Christianity is a slave morality, Christianity is for the weak, for the hopeless, you don’t put one of our criminals on a cross, and worship Him. What a weird religion that is when you think about it. The irony is that the religion of Nietzsche’s superman, which the 16th century reformation dubbed as a theology of Glory when the medievals tried to pull it off, is its own kind of slave morality. It makes the weak subservient to the powerful, it makes the consumers subservient to those who can manipulate the market. It makes the common person the servant of the genius, and all of this is easily supported by a church that depends on the market place for its own power stake in popular culture. Again, this is not to advocate pessimism because of God’s common grace, all spheres of human endeavor are not as bad as they could be, we are not as badly off as we could be, however, a religion of healthy mindedness which ignores the reality of the Fall in all of its aspects renders itself finally nothing more than a form of therapy in times of plenty, and absolutely irrelevant in times of tragedy. There is no answer. People who have the religion of healthy mindedness move in times of tragedy very quickly and very easily to atheism, there is just nothing holding them down. See, what we need is not therapy, but news, Good News, because a radical problem needs a radical solution. Not for us to be reformed or improved, but for us to be slain by the law and raised up by the Gospel. The bottom line is that the Gospel is that Good News for losers; it’s only good news for the losers: moral losers, spiritual losers, losers in life in every respect; physically, emotionally, psychologically. The good news is anyone who knows he or she is a loser can be saved. But as Luther said that’s the hardest one of all, that’s why faith is impossible, unless God gives it as a gift. The demand for glory, for power, for comfort, autonomy, health and wealth that demand creates a viscous cycle of craving and disillusionment, it’s called the hedonist paradox. The more you crave happiness the more disappointed and disillusioned you are in life, it’s a vicious cycle. The more you have the more you want. We become prisoners of our own felt needs which were inculcated in us in the first place by the very market place that promised to fix it. We become victims of our own shallow hope, our own shallow dreams that aren’t rich enough or deep enough to really satisfy us. We become too easily disappointed because we become too easily pleased. A lot of people say that our desires are too strong for us to become Christians, the problem is our passions. C.S. Lewis said no, it’s not that our passions are too strong it’s that they are too weak, he said, we are like little children making mud pies in the slums because we have never known what its like to have a holiday at the sea. While life and abundance is offered to us we settle instead for the false promises of this passing evil age and we mistake the headlines of CNN for that which for that which is really relevant, that which is really important, not that is it irrelevant not that it’s trivial, but by comparison it is penultimate to the headlines of the Kingdom of God. The Reformers distinguished (as I alluded to just a moment ago) between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. And this is a helpful distinction for us to have as we think through the whole matter of suffering as we face concrete situations of suffering to ask ourselves, are we embracing a religion of healthy mindedness that will not allow us to face the reality, a theology of glory, or are we theologians of the cross, who are ready to brace ourselves and go through the valley of the shadow of death knowing that our shepherd is leading us and comforting us through that valley? What do they mean by that the theology of glory and the theology of the cross? Well, Martin Luther announced this in his Heidelberg disputation in 1518 (just after the 95 thesis). He said, the theologians of our day are all theologians of glory, they want to climb up and get a peak at God nakedly, the nude God. God not as he has clothed himself and revealed himself to us, but God as he is getting dressed in the morning. We want to steal into His inner chamber, you know like the periodical visitors to queen Elizabeth’s sweet at Buckingham palace. ‘I got in there, I violated the sacred precincts, I went into the Holy of Holies.’ Luther said, the monk wants to do this, the mystic wants to do this, the theologian today wants to do this by speculation everybody wants to climb up when God has climbed down in Jesus Christ, and that’s exactly what happens in the a theology of glory: we speculate about God, we say we’ll do better, we climb up in form of promises, or we climb up in form of mysticism. ‘I know I could fix this if I just go to the right conferences, I just can read the right books, listen to the right tapes, if I can just maybe go to Pensacola or Toronto.’ But Paul says you don’t have to go to Toronto, you don’t have to go into the depths, you don’t have to pull Him down or bring him up He was raised the third day He has already ascended to the right hand of the Father, and He brings him to you through a preacher! Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God, He is as near to you as the word, that Gospel that we preach. You don’t have to go get him he comes down to you, that is the theology of the cross. God is with you when it does not look like it. Luther said this about morality, and suffering and it all came together. He said suffering makes a Christian, not that suffering is inimical to bring a Christian like Paul, Luther and Calvin believed that suffering is essential for a Christian, suffering is particular for Christians, in a certain sense suffering is peculiar to Christians as the psalmist said as we heard last night felt like he was the only one suffering, the ungodly were not suffering so. Ironically, it is precisely where the world can only detect by its experience and its common sense detect the most obvious example of stupidity and weakness that God was the smartest and the most powerful He’s ever been, so to speak. Isn’t that the paradox of it all. This isn’t just whimsical blind faith, folks, two thousand years ago God proved it, God proved the theology of the cross by the cross. There at that moment all the wisest people in the world knew for certain what was happening to Jesus their common sense and their experience told them so, and they were very wise men, and they were completely wrong. God completely outwitted the world and Satan on the day where it looked like He was the most foolish, and really took the biggest loss that He had ever had. The day God lost he won. The headlines just got it wrong. Your headlines when your suffering will always be suspect, your headlines will probably get it wrong even as a Christian more often then they get it right, and that’s why we go back to the cross, we go back to the promise, something outside of us anchored in what God has done, not in ourselves, something anchored in what happened to us. That’s the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory. Nietzsche may have been accurately describing the feeble pietism that surrounded him but he could not have been more incorrect in his analysis that as a religion of the sick soul a Bastian of hope for the hopeless the preaching of Christ was simply a message of resignation to defeat, that’s how he viewed it that’s what Christianity was, it’s Jesus taught a whole race of people how to be losers, how to be outcasts, how to simply surrender to their fate, a religion of resignation. How completely different that is from what Jesus actually says. John 10:18 no one takes my life from me. It is not resignation. ‘No one is taking my life from me but I lay it down of my own accord, I have all authority to lay it down and to take it up again.’ So much for resignation. Jesus was the real superman, but unlike Nietzsche’s superman who is a weak man who thinks he is strong, powerful and dominates the weak. He is the strong one who becomes weak in order to free the weak to be strong. He is hardly the helpless victim there is no sentimentalism here, unlike the reaction of a lot of people walking out the movie the Passion feeling sorry for Jesus, no one feels sorry for Jesus after reading the Gospels. Jesus did not have his life taken away from him. You don’t have to be mad at the Jews or the Romans, Jesus laid it down, no one took it from him. Jesus was the superman, the God-man who though He was rich for our sakes became poor. Now, this is contrary to our stories today, Ted Turner’s story is the story we all like; from rags to riches. This is a story of riches to rags. We are going up the down escalator. I used to do this when I was a little kid I would try to run up the escalator as it was coming down seeing if I could beat it. That was the goal, and that’s what we do in religion. It’s stupid, but we think its smart and wise, we think we could outwit the system and we can’t. It’s a down escalator God is coming down and we try to climb up, we never get to the top. That is what your average Christian bookstore offers a trip up the down escalator, that’s what popular American religion offers, the self help section down at Walden Books or Bdalton. That’s what if offers, ‘How to go up the down escalator!’ But for all you who are weary and laden, tired of running up the down escalator, Jesus Christ says, I will give you rest. There is a power here that makes the fallen will to power petty and stupid, and silly and trivial by comparison. Our feeble sentimentalism simply cannot handle the tragic side of life (and I am going to talk about that little more this afternoon). Discomfort, sickness, disabilities, death, sinful practices, depression, fear, anxiety these are not realties to be faced but symptoms of an ignored disease that we can treat with a proper medication; we can fix that, unlike the Psalmist himself we find it difficult to sing the laments of the Psalter. I find it interesting that a lot of times today (this is not a contemporary music bashing message at all) but there is a certain tenor in a lot of contemporary Christian worship today that is always upbeat it’s only happy, and if you read the Psalms it is a completely different hymnal. I wonder sometimes how many of the Psalms we can actually sing. I sometimes go back to sing some of the praise choruses, and I thumb back to look at the psalm and they are taking the happy part of the psalm, and there taking the happy part of the psalm once the psalmist sort of realizes, like when he went into the sanctuary from last night and realized that everything is great and glorious in the face what God has done in Jesus Christ, but it makes no sense because they left out the graveyard, they left out the terrible stuff that just doesn’t make sense for American sing. That offends us, we don’t want to take that to our lips, and we even think that it sort of offensive to God, we don’t talk to the way the psalmist talks to God, we don’t talk to God the way the Jews talk to God, we’re nice people. Just keep it happy. We just don’t know what to do with sin, evil, and death. According to one contemporary church growth expert, in fact, quote, “There is shift today from worship to celebrations, the best illustrations of this is we used to have funerals then we went to memorial services, now we have a celebration of the life and ministry of that departed person (that is a shift in the whole atmosphere of what happens during that period of time, it’s gone from pain sorrow, grief crying and celebration and he is announcing this as good news) it is a mark of progress then a sign of living in denial.” That response to death has been characteristic of eastern religion, mind science cults, Christian Science, Religious Science, New Age movement. But Judaism and Christianity have been characterized by a somber view of death, it is not meant to be this way, there is brokenness to it all, there is something wrong. Here again we discover the contradiction in Nietzsche’s Will to Power instead of courageously facing the future he and his followers simply deny death which is the most cowardly renunciation you could possibly imagine. At least we believe death is a real enemy, yet we don’t back down in the face of it. Only biblical faith faces death as a foe and without hiding the scandal in soft platitudes, nevertheless, announces its conquest. Karl Bart was a theologian (whatever we think of his theology). He was a theology of the resistance against the descendents of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Nazism, in the church struggle it was called in the reformed and Luther churches, under the cross. Bart said people come into the church and they see through the glass what really matters, a church yard full of crosses, and here they thought all the other stuff was relevant, World War One, World War Two, and it is it is important, but when they come in here and they hear that bell calling them to church calling them to assemble as God’s covenant people and they look outside and they see crosses in the church yard and oh this is why we are here, this is what really matters. We never see church yards. Cemeteries are removed from us as cows are from our breakfast table. We don’t have any concept, any connection really with the reality of death. The Puritans used to, I remember I was in high school secular public high school, in history class they had a mock Puritan funeral. It was one of the best days in class. They were sort of mocking it, but it was actually I thought ‘cool, that’s really interesting.’ Very different from our normal experience. They would have a wake at the house, and for a whole day there would be eating drinking and discussion and the children would be brought over and they would touch the body, and the parents would explain what this is. Today we hide our kids from the reality of death, from the reality of suffering and pain, yet they get it in an unrealistic way on TV in a thousand images everyday. We just don’t know what to do with death. In the Jewish, Catholic, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran (in) all the service books across the great divides there were specific public prayers offered for the sick and afflicted, and not a general ‘one size fits all’ but very specific prayers for very specific circumstances for war times, natural disasters, epidemics, a sick child, those in bereavement, travelers and prisoners, they thought a lot about this and they wrote books. Some of the greatest writers of the Puritan era wrote there greatest books on the art of dying well. Can you imagine a New York Times bestseller today titled ‘The Art of Dying Well,’ maybe it’s not surprising that we don’t that we die well, but we die kicking and scream or die denying it altogether. Is our theology a theology of the cross a theology of the sick soul which actually matches reality, or is it a theology of glory that can’t handle reality when it happens. Listen to a couple of quotes from the book of common prayer (a service for the burial of the dead). This was drafted in by Reformed theologians, by Reformed pastors. By the way, it is a service for the burial of the dead and not for those who ‘passed on’ that line comes from Mary Baker Eddie the founder of Christian Science, and it just passed into our hallmark culture. Passing on, what does passing on mean? It is just a way of denying the reality of death and evil as she did. (The idea that)‘Evil does not happen, death is not a reality it only happens if you think it does, its all in your mind.’ Well the book of common prayer has a service for the burial of the dead. First of all it begins a promise of glorious resurrection then the Psalmist is cited, “Lord let me know my end and the number of my days, let me be aware of my mortality that I may be certified how long I have to live. Behold thou hast made my days as it were about a span long and my age is even as nothing as respect of thee, and barely every man living is altogether vanity. For man walketh in a vain shadow and disquieteth himself in vain, he heapeth up riches and cannot tell you who shall gather them. And now Lord what is my hope truly my hope is even in thee, when thou with rebukes just chasten man for sin thou maketh now his beauty to waste away like as it were a moth threading garment. Every man is therefore but a whisper. Here my prayer oh Lord with thine ears consider my cry hold thou my peace with my tears for I am stranger with thee, and a traveler as all my fathers were. Oh, spare me a little bit that I may recover my strength once more before I die, and am no longer seen.” What a downer, that is not a celebration that will ruin a good funeral. Then passages of hope are recited from the psalms, from the Gospels, and epistles affirming the resurrection of the body and the Justification from all those who are in Jesus Christ. But then comes the sober prayer again, “Oh God, whose days are without end, and who’s mercies cannot be numbered, make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensitive of the shortness and uncertainty of our lives, and let your Holy Spirit lead us through this veil of misery in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives that when we shall have served you in our generation we may be gathered to our fathers having the testimony of a good conscience in the communion of your church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a reasonable religious and holy hope in favor with you our God and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask only through the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. This piety grew out of the theology of the Cross. It could handle death in a way Nietzsche and Ted Turner can not understand, cannot fathom, can face death not as a superman but as the weak who are nevertheless are strong in an other, an other who has conquered sin and death. Finally, What the cross tells us is that we look for God in powerful places, when He is actually to be found in the weak places, we look for God in powerful nations, we look for God in powerful life’s, we look for God in health, wealth and happiness, surely he or she must be blessed by God, because of what they have done for the Kingdom or what have you. We look for God there, but the truth is the cross proves this brothers and sisters, God is exactly where we say by our experience He is not. He is more present in suffering than He is in health, He is more present when we think He is absent, He is more gracious toward us He is more present in his mercy in his condescending Grace, transforming us into his likeness, precisely when we think that his face is against us, precisely when we think he is furthest from us, for the word of the cross says Paul is folly for those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God, for it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will fort. Where is the one who is wise, where is the scribe, has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For sense in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom placed God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and wonders and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks but those who are called both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and weakness of God is stronger then men, consider your own calling, not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth, but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are nothing to bring to nothing things that are. So that no human being may ever boast in the presence of God, now, that is Good News for losers.
Let us pray. Our dear heavenly Father, We respond to this message both with the sense of embarrassment that we aren’t the people we thought we were: the healthy, the comfortable, the healthy minded, but that we are those who are sick in soul, sick in body, that we are dying we are decaying even as we are sitting here. We face the inevitability of our own death and sicknesses along the way and tragedies that happen to our loved ones and to us, ourselves. We’re more aware then ever that we face the teaming innumerable temptations and sins that so easily beset us, that trip us up in this marathon, and yet you set our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith who for the prize set before him endured the cross, and endured it for us. Help us Father, to see you where we cannot see you in common sense and experience but according to your promise. Help us Father to tolerate this blindness that actually allows us to see more clearly than our experience would allow a sight that really isn’t sight at all, but a hearing, a hearing in faith that comes from the preaching of the Gospel. And help us to be completely satisfied in the theology of the cross, and to anticipate the glory that awaits us, that glory which even now that breaks into the present that seems in our experience to be overwhelmed by the cross. Help us, to live in the valley of the shadow of death with hope on the horizon, the hope that you have conquered sin and death for us. And help us father to be those who testify to the power of weakness, not in general, but that certain kind of weakness, that weakness that you exhibited when you gave your Son two thousand years ago in our place. We pray in His name, Amen.