This sermon is part of the sermon series "Discovering God (part one)". See series.
Can you recall the first prayer you learned by heart? Was it for you, as it was for me, the one still prayed by children around dinner tables to this day? "God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food." There is wisdom in those simple words. As we began to explore last week, God is great in a way that cannot be said of any other person or thing. He is the only all-sufficient one. Everything else we will ever touch or discover is a contingent thing. It has needs. It requires something to cause or continue or comfort it. But God is not like any other. He is self-existing, self-sustaining, and self-satisfying. He has no needs outside of himself at all.
I know there are people who view God as nothing more than a projection of our minds. But the reality is that all we see and are is actually a projection of God's mind. It is "in him" that "we live and move and have our being." Just as easily as you could let go of the thought of anything that I am saying to you right now and move on to thinking about what you might have for lunch—Should I have the salad plate or the big greasy burger?—God could just let the thought of this Universe or of you and me go. He could turn his thoughts to simply enjoying himself instead, and we and this universe would be no more. Thankfully, however, God is not only great, he is also good. The true glory of God's immense greatness lies in his incomparable goodness. That's what I want to reflect on with you today.
Who is good?
The Bible says that a man once approached Jesus as he was walking "and fell on his knees before him. 'Good teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?' 'Why do you call me good?' Jesus answered. 'No one is good, except God alone" (Mark 10:17-18). In saying this Jesus was not suggesting that he wasn't good. Oh, he was and is, as we'll return to a bit later. No, the reason Jesus answered this way was because he knew how much the human concept of goodness needs stretching.
We throw that word—good—around barely even grasping its full meaning. Some department store Santa asks little Susie, "Were you good this year?" and Susie says, "Oh, yes, Santa, I only kicked my brother a few times." Or Bob comes back from being out with his buddies, and his wife or girlfriend asks, "Where were you?" "Oh, I was out with the guys having a few beers." He "kindly" leaves out the fact that their married friend, Dave, asked for the waitress' phone number, and Bob couldn't help but comment on the young woman's assets himself. But he says to his wife sweetly, "Don't worry, honey, I was good." Or the head of a sales team skirts a scolding for failing to close a key deal by playing on the boss' vanity: "I know if they'd had a chance to meet you, Steve, they'd have bitten for sure." On the way out of the meeting, a co-worker whispers slyly, "Oh, you're good."
Do you get the picture? The concept of good, for us, is a sort of squishy thing. I'm good because I could have been worse. I'm good because some people are worse. I'm good because I can get other people feeling good about me or thinking I'm good. It's not quite the same, however, as actually being good, is it? Even when selfishness or pride isn't the driving motivation, we often settle into a limited definition of good simply because we lack experience with something more good still.
For example, most people thought Magic Johnson was the definition of a really good basketball player, until Michael Jordan came along. People thought the iPhone was good, until an even better one was produced. I even thought I was good, until I met Mama Maggie Gobran, the Mother Theresa of Cairo. But if you start fussing over Mama Maggie, she tells you pretty much the same thing Jesus told that man who fawned over him: "Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone."
Again and again the Bible declares: "The Lord is good," for only "his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 100:5; Psalm 34:8). The message of the Scriptures is that God alone is good in the absolute sense. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon word good comes from the word God. In its original definition, goodness meant godliness. Earlier generations understood that if you wanted to teach your kids to be good or to strive after goodness yourself, then you must keep in your view this attribute of God. I submit to you that if we've seen any deterioration of goodness in our time—and I think our daily news and experience plainly suggests we have—it is because we have turned our gaze away from God and forgotten what goodness looks like. "O taste and see that the Lord is good. How blessed is the one who takes refuge in him!"
The goodness of God
So what is it about God that defines goodness in a needed way? A. W. Tozer defined it like this: "The goodness of God is that which disposes him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will toward men. He is tender-hearted and of quick sympathy. His unfailing attitude toward all moral beings is open, frank, and friendly. By his nature he is inclined to bestow blessedness, and he takes holy pleasure in the [health and hope] of his people." Those are lovely words, to be sure, but where do we actually see this alleged goodness? If you're trying to teach your kids or convince your neighbor of it, what actual evidence would you point to in order to demonstrate that God is so unusually good? Let me tell you what I see.
Before I went to bed last night I looked up at the clear, dark sky and saw the stars twinkling above me. As beautiful as that view was, I've got just enough education to know that what I was looking out at is a universe that should in no way make possible my life. Scientists tell me that the overwhelmingly pervasive character of about 99.9 and-a-whole-lot-of-other-nines percent of the space they've been able to see out there can be summed up in four words: darkness, lifelessness, emptiness, and unthinkable cold. Now, I grant you that it can look the same way here in Chicago come January, but that is not even close to what is out there.
People sometimes point to all the suffering and struggling that happens on this earth as evidence that God is not good. I don't mean to take anyone's pain and losses lightly. My own family has been wounded by murder, disease, and mayhem, too. But here's how I look at it: give me five minutes of the light, life, learning, laughter, and love that God has made possible on this planet over five million years of the darkness, lifelessness, emptiness, and unthinkable cold out there.
We have this stunning way of focusing on missing fruit and snakes in the grass when we are surrounded by an absolutely staggering abundance of blessing. Apparently that's been an issue for human beings since the beginning. But I got up this morning and gravity worked perfectly again. From the look of everybody I passed on the way to church, the miracle of cellular life was still operating quite remarkably. The sun was still just the right distance from this earth to keep me from freezing or frying. Throughout this morning, I've been able to enjoy all kinds of experiences that theologians call common graces, the simple gifts that come with being made a human being. I could taste coffee, smell perfume, hear music, see beauty, feel the touch of warm hands. And just think what opportunities to love, laugh, and learn—or to share with those who have less of these gifts—await me and you this afternoon.
The Bible says that after creating life on this planet, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). I'm inclined to agree with him. I'm inclined to believe that the grace I've been allowed to enjoy for even the past five minutes (especially in view of what's out there) is evidence that he himself is also very good. How about you?
I am also moved by what the Bible shows me of God's goodness in the stories of the Old Testament. The psalmist says: "The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works" (Psalms 145:9). I see his mercy in the way he treated Adam and Eve. Here were two people who had broken his trust and wounded his heart deeply. Yet the Bible says that rather than killing or abandoning them, God clothed them with animal skins and watched over them. I see his goodness in sparing Noah's family from the Great Flood. Some people look at that story and say, "How could a good God send a calamity like that flood?" But I consider the incredible wickedness that had overrun the earth by then, and I marvel that he spared anyone, that he gave the human family another chance.
The goodness of God is evident in his calling of Abraham and the birth of the nation of Israel. It's there in his careful preservation of the Hebrew people through famine, pestilence, and war. I see him delivering them from slavery in Egypt and giving them a magnificent law that would become the framework for the laws and moral codes of countless other nations to come, even our very own. I behold the goodness of God in the way he fed the Jewish nation in the wilderness, guided them to a Promised Land, and raised up judges, priests, and kings to lead his people. God's goodness is all through the voice of the prophets, warning Israel of spiritual dangers and calling them to justice and compassion for the widow and orphan, the poor and the stranger. Even through the exiles that his people endured as the price of their waywardness, God never gave up on them. With patient kindness he just kept calling them home. Who is good like God?
Goodness made flesh
The only one good like God is Jesus, who is God in the flesh. If I never had the evidence of creation, the experience of common grace, or the story of Israel to instruct me, the person and work of Jesus would be more than enough to convince me of the character of God. Philip Yancey once wrote: "I must admit that Jesus has revised in flesh many of my harsh and unpalatable notions about God. Why am I a Christian? I sometimes ask myself, and to be perfectly honest the reasons reduce to two: (1) the lack of good alternatives, and (2) Jesus. Brilliant, untamed, tender, creative, slippery, irreducible, paradoxically humble—Jesus stands up to scrutiny. He is who I want my God to be."
Could God really be like Jesus? When we see Jesus embracing lepers, dining with outcasts, and stooping to wash the stinking feet of people about to abandon or betray him, what is this telling us about God? When Jesus tells us about a shepherd who goes out in the night to find one lost lamb, or a heartbroken father who never stops yearning for the return of a wandering child, what's he trying to get across? When Jesus is surrounded by a clamoring crowd and not only notices but actually stops to give his full attention to little people that others ignore or despise, when he declares his utmost compassion for prisoners, the hungry, the cold, and the sick, what is the message there?
Above all, when Jesus voluntarily allows his body to be beaten, flayed, and ravaged for the sake of people who've turned their backs on him, when he sees Mary and John there to comfort him in his hour of loneliness and he moves instead to comfort them, when he promises paradise to a dying thief desperately hoping against hope for last minute grace, and when, with his final aching breaths, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of the very people who put him on that cross, what is this telling us about God?
You know the answer, don't you? There are only two possible reasons why someone so sufficient in himself that he needs nothing from anyone else would desire to say and do the very things that Jesus did. Either he is altogether crazy or else he is very, very, very good. And, since he is that good, what do you need to ask his help with right now? How do you need to be more like him? Why are you afraid of the future he is walking into with you? Or what's stopping you from giving your life to him today?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.