Summary: Religion is sick when it is system-only, salvation-only, or self-only. Christ gives us instead a relationship with Himself, a model of life, and an embracing compassion.
Religion is either one of life’s greatest blessings, or it is one of the sickest things we do.
Religion can be wonderful. I assume that because you are in church today you agree with that. Religion can be fulfilling, it can be instructive, it can be inspiring. Religion has driven so much of human progress. It can be one of life’s greatest blessings. Amen? Surely you would expect the preacher to say that. Like Calvin Coolidge’s pastor, who forcefully declared himself one Sunday to be dead set against sin -- duh -- you expect the preacher to be equally forceful in favor of religion. Ranks right up there with motherhood, the American flag, and apple pie.
But let me tell you that religion is also one of the sickest things we do. Religion is often sick. It hurts. It damages. It destroys. It deceives. It misleads. It deals in death rather than in life. It steals time, it mangles lives, it distorts values, it warps minds. It gets sick. Unhealthy, diseased, noxious, sick, sick, sick.
Everyone’s attention was focused just a few days ago on the Heaven’s Gate group. How in the name of common sense could thirty-nine otherwise intelligent, well-educated, privileged people decide to shroud themselves in purple and eat poison pudding on the basis of some notion of a UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet? Utterly astounding! We say, “They must have been sick. They were all sick.” Well, I ask you to go a little deeper. Probe a little farther. Is it possible that the sickness was not so much theirs, each and every person, individually, but the sickness was in their religion? In their belief system? Religion gets sick, and sick religions make sick people. Sick religion infects otherwise reasonable people. Maybe it wasn’t thirty-nine sick individuals so much as it was one sick religion.
If you remember some recent history, Heaven’s Gate is just the most recent of a whole string of religious sicknesses. Four years ago yesterday we watched in horror as government agents and the Branch Davidian cult waged a pitched battle. David Koresh and his band of followers died, as did a number of federal agents, all in the name of a cause that most of us could not begin to understand. And very likely what happened there had its horrible spin-off, two years ago yesterday, in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Well, we thought the Branch Davidians were sick, too. It was glib and even fun to mispronounce the name of the Texas city where it all took place: not Waco, but Wacko. But it would be too easy just to write off the Branch Davidians as sick individuals. It would be too easy to write of the Heaven’s Gate group as sick persons. There is a sickness in religion itself.
For, remember, religion is either one of life’s greatest blessings; or it is one of the sickest things we do.
Jeremiah stood outside the gate of a grand temple in Jerusalem one fine Lord’s day some twenty-six hundred years ago. There Jeremiah spoke of the sickness of religion. To the people of Judah, who were arriving that day to do their religious thing and get their spiritual jollies, this troublesome man spoke very distasteful words. Imagine, a fellow who calls himself God’s preacher, has the audacity to stand right there in the Temple gate and accost all these respectable people and tell them that what they are doing is sick, sick, sick! Did they want to hear him? Do you want to hear him? Are you sure?
There are three symptoms of sickness. First, religion is sick when it is a system only. Second, religion is sick when it is salvation only. Third, religion is sick when it is self only. System-only, salvation-only, and self-only.
First, religion is sick when it is system-only. When folks are more committed to a system than they are to the God whom that system is intended to serve, you have a sick religion. Sick religion creates a delivery system and then asks you to worship the delivery system instead of the living God.
Jeremiah stood at the Temple gate and mocked the people. He poked ridicule at them. “Do not trust in these deceptive words, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
Jeremiah saw that they had rooted their entire faith on being in the right institution, and working within the right system. They just knew that Jerusalem would not fall to the enemy, because it had the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord. Never mind that the northern Kingdom, Israel, had fallen. Those folks up there in the north, they didn’t have the Temple. And God is going to protect the Temple. We down south here, in Judah, we’ve got it made. We’ve got the Temple of the Lord.