Why Do You Call Me Good
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryant tells the story of his first child Madeline. Bryant and his wife were told by the doctor before Madeline was born that their daughter had a rare chromosomal disorder that meant it was likely she would die at birth. As Bryant recounts he had pretty much skated through life up to that point, and it was quite easy for him to affirm that God was good. Madeline lived longer than the doctors had predicted, just over two years. Bryant tells a story of a conversation he had with a pastor he knew during that time. “One day a pastor I had known for years took me to lunch in an effort to comfort me. While I was in the middle of eating my salad, he asked, “Who sinned Jim, you or your wife” I said, “Excuse me… what do you mean?” He said, “Well, one or both of you must have sinned at some point to have caused this to happen.” After the death of their daughter, well-meaning people would come up to James and his wife and say things like, “Sometimes children are too beautiful for this earth,” or “I guess God just wanted her in heaven more than he wanted her here.”
Over the next six weeks, we are going to be looking at the nature of God – the question of who God is. The answer we would give if someone said to us, “Tell me what God is like.” Part of talking about what God is like is going to involve talking about what God is not like. This morning we’re looking at the truth that God is good. In talking about this, I want us to look at what this doesn’t mean about God, what has been revealed about God’s goodness in the person of Jesus, and what this means for his followers.
The first thing that I want to say about God being good is this – in God’s goodness we don’t get what we deserve. This seems offensive to many. We like to control things after all. We like to believe that good things will come to us if we are good. This is what the whole concept of Santa Claus has come to mean hasn’t it? He is watching you all the time, when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake, be good get a present, be bad get a lump of coal. When Santa’s off the job he has the Elf on a Shelf to stand in for him. I’m in no way against the idea of Santa Claus or getting presents, but it’s a reflection of the belief that we get from God what we deserve. That we should be good out of fear of what God will do to us if we’re not. That God is vengeful and waiting up there with a lightning bolt in his hand ready to throw it if we put a foot wrong. The same idea is operative in karma isn’t it? The belief that we pay for our actions, whether good or bad, whether in this life, the past one or the next one. The problem I have with karma is that it explains why bad things happen to good people in this way, “You must have done something to deserve this.”
So we ask “What have I done to deserve this?” Why do bad things happen to good people? This is known as theodicy. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. The problem theodicy endeavours to answer is this - “If God is good then He is not great, and if God is great then He is certainly not good,” – because how could an all-powerful and all-loving God let bad things happen? I’m not going to solve the problem of theodicy in the next 20 minutes (and I don’t think it will ever be solved until we’re no longer looking through a mirror darkly but we see Jesus face to face and we know as we are known). Speaking of Jesus, I want to look at what happened when he was confronted with the question. How did the one in whom the fullness of God lived and in whom the fullness of God’s goodness deal with this question?
In Jesus’ day it was very much the belief that suffering could be attributed to sin. Luke tells a story in chapter 13 of his gospel. One day Jesus spoke about some Galileans who had been executed by the Roman governor Pilate at Passover. Passover was a time when nationalistic tensions ran high and Galilee was a known hotbed of revolutionary activity. “Do you think that because those Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Here Jesus is addressing both disasters caused by humans and natural disasters (assuming the tower didn’t fall because of some deficiency in its construction). Do you think that a hurricane hit New Orleans and killed almost 2,000 people because they were worse sinners? Do you think that those towers in New York were attacked and destroyed because of sinfulness on the part of New Yorkers? What are we to make of these events and the assertions that people make about them? Jesus is very clear about what we mustn’t make of them. We must never try to draw a correlation between suffering and sin. Drawing a correlation between sin and suffering is another matter. As one writer puts it “we can conclude from sin to suffering but not suffering to sin.” If we think of sin as a breaking down of the relationship between us and God, or a turning away from God or a belief in our own autonomy or there being no need for God, we can say without question that sin leads to suffering. What we mustn’t ever do, according to Jesus’ words is to conclude suffering from sin. We mustn’t ever say to a parent of a child born with a chromosomal condition “Who sinned, you or your wife?” as if we can draw a correlation there.
How does Jesus answer his own question? With an emphatic “No.” Did this mean the Galileans or the Jerusalemites were worse sinners? “No,” says Jesus. “I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus tells us that events such as these should serve as indicators of our need to repent, to turn toward, to orient ourselves toward God, because to not do so is to perish. These events do not happen so that we can make judgements about other people’s sinfulness. They should be a reminder of our own sinfulness and our own need for God. If you think this is overly harsh on Jesus’ part, note that in the next section he tells a parable of a fig tree which speaks of God’s patience with us. Nonetheless the call to action is clear – turn toward God, who is good. Billy Graham said something after the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City in 1995, resulting in 168 deaths and hundreds of injuries. He didn’t try to explain away why such a horrific thing would happen. He didn’t try to blame it on the sinfulness of the city or the federal government. He said “I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God, even if we cannot understand. It is better to face something like this with God than without him.”
The second story I want to look at is from John 9. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles. As he and his followers are walking along one day they see a man who was blind from birth. Common religious thinking at the time was that people such as this blind man were born the way they were because of sin – either their own or their parents, hence the question, “Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?”
Note that Jesus isn’t interested in the cause. Jesus shows here that’s he’s more interested in effect than cause. He’s more interested in doing his Father’s work, which is good. His Father’s work is deliverance. His Father’s work is renewal, rebirth. His Father’s work is in getting involved in the mess, in the mud, and creating something new. Jesus reframes the question and changes it from one of cause to one of effect – “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What are God’s works friends? We went over them the Sunday before Christmas didn’t we? Good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, release for the prisoner, recovery of sight to the blind. Rebirth. Deliverance. “When he had said this he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
How do we know that God is good? It’s very easy to say God is good when things are going well isn’t it? When things are going well it’s easy to say “God is good!” “I just found a discount tropical all-inclusive for 4 days in February - God is good!” I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that and of course we should thank God when things that we consider to be good come our way. The tougher questions come when you receive a letter saying you weren’t accepted into the program you were basing your academic future and career. The tougher questions come when you’re called into the manager’s office and told that sales haven’t been what was expected and layoffs are inevitable. The tougher questions come when you’re sitting down with the children trying to explain through your tears and theirs why mom and dad won’t be living together any more. The tougher questions come when the test results come back and the doctor wants to see you in her office. The tougher questions come when a child is born with a congenital heart defect and won’t live to see his second birthday.
Don’t try to look for cause. Don’t try to explain it away. Oftentimes even talk of God’s deliverance will seem hollow when someone’s in the midst of one of these situations. Oftentimes the best thing we can do for people to show God’s goodness is to sit with them silently in their suffering. To be with them. Don’t try to look for a cause whatever you do. Augustine put it like this – “We do not know why God’s judgement makes a good man poor and a wicked man rich… Nor why the wicked man enjoys the best of health, whilst the man of religion wastes away in illness… So though we do not know by what judgement these things are carried out or permitted by God, in whom is the highest virtue and the highest wisdom and the highest justice, and in whom there is no weakness nor rashness nor unfairness, it is none the less beneficial for us to learn not to regard as important the good or evil fortunes which we see shared by good and evil persons alike.” Don’t even wonder about it, says Augustine. It’s not something for us to know on this side of the glass that we look through dimly.
What is it we can know then? What is it we can affirm? What is it we can cling to when we’re assailed? How can we say along with Job “Though he kills me yet I will trust in him?” Because God has shown his goodness to us in the person of his son. Because God’s work was revealed in the person of his son. God’s loving delivering work was revealed in Jesus. What day in the history of the world was at the same time both the worst day and the best day? What other day than Good Friday? The day that God showed, as one writer puts it, “God is greater than all suffering because God overcomes it in solidarity with our salvation.” God turns death into life. God takes something terrible and uses it for the good – to bring us back to him.
Have you known this? God taking a terrible situation and using it for good – using it to bring us closer to Him? To increase our faith? To bless us? If we’ve misconstrued the link between suffering and sin, I think we sometimes misconstrue the link between material prosperity and blessing. The concept of being blessed by God and being a blessing to others goes far beyond the material. I think that to be blessed by God is about God making who he is known to us – his love, his mercy, his grace, his justice, his goodness – and to changing us because of this. This was the promise to Abraham. I will make you a blessing. I will give you a new name, I will make you into someone new. You’ll become the father of a nation through whom the whole world will be blessed – will be made new. We know what happened there don’t we?
The thing of it is, it’s often through dire circumstances that our faith is increased isn’t it? It’s often through dire circumstances that we are blessed –that we come to understand something deeper about how God loves us, about God’s goodness to us. It’s often because of a loss – whether it’s a job, a relationship, a loved one, our health – that we become more keenly aware of God’s goodness to us, God’s love, God’s faithfulness - recognizing that God works life from death. It doesn’t mean we don’t grieve. It doesn’t mean that we don’t mourn or weep. There is a time for all of those things. It doesn’t mean that we’re able to say why bad things happen to good people, or good things to bad people. As followers of Christ, we trust in the one who entered into our suffering, who enters into our suffering. We trust in the one who has reconciled, is reconciling and will reconcile all things to himself. This is the one of whom we say with certainty and conviction – “God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good.”