A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 18, 2011.
Getting Serious: Loving Goodness
Merciful Father, whose faithfulness overcomes our frailty and whose forgiveness outlasts each of our sins, we pray to you today because we are weary of things as they are. You know how we have mistaken shadows for reality. You know we have feared things that never happened. We spend our lives on that which perishes. We trust in things that fail us over and over. We ask that you would be gracious to us once again. Bear with our misguidedness of the past but do not let us stray any further today or in the days to come. Guide us to truth even if means realizing the deceptions we have used to comfort ourselves. Guide us to peace even if it means letting go of bitterness and jealousies. We ask that you would lead us to your heart even if we must forsake all else to see it, for in your heart, we know we will find our truth and our peace and the only true life. Steer us in the paths of righteousness for your namesake. May we always hold fast to the goodness that shines forth from your very person. Despite our sin, we ask that you would live in us and through us so that compassion, forgiveness, generosity, integrity, self-control, and love would be evident upon the earth and that the peoples of the earth might know that you are real if you can produce followers that will live like this. Remind us of the hope of the Apostle Paul who knew what it was to say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” May Christ live in each of us today. May each of our hearts welcome his grace and his leadership. In his name we pray. Amen.
What are you afraid of? Of leaving that which will soon leave you? What are you afraid of? Of following too much goodness, finding a too-loving God, of being drawn by an attraction which is stronger than self or the charms of this poor world? What are you afraid of? Of becoming too humble, too attached, too pure, too true, too reasonable, too grateful to your Father which is in heaven? I pray you, be afraid of nothing so much as of this false fear—this foolish, worldly wisdom which hesitates between God and self, between vice and virtue, between gratitude and ingratitude, between life and death.
—Francois Fenelon in The Royal Way of the Cross
Why is there something about evil that looks good to us? Why is there something about being bad, edgy, looking a little tough or doing the things that are unacceptable that appeal to us? Don’t act shocked on me. You may be the rare exception but most people, even some good, Christian people, like to put on that image that they are just not quite as good as you might think they are. There is something appealing to us about being bad. If not, then why were two of the greatest icons of the 1950’s Marlon Brando and James Dean?
In the 1960’s, Mick Jagger came upon the scene with his cocky, self-indulgent attitude and he is still one of the top-grossing performers today. He leaves people scratching their heads wondering, Who was Pat Boone after all? Sympathy for the Devil and Street Fighting Man had that edgy, rough sound.
In the 1980’s and moving on into today, we have Madonna, Eminem, and Lady Gaga. We like the forbidden, the rough, the bazaar side of being bad, so much so that we sometimes say, That’s bad, but which really means, That’s good, and That’s sick which means That’s excellent. We have even changed our vocabulary.
Since the dawning of time, it is why teenagers try things that their parents told them not to do. It is why men in their 50’s buy the most menacing wrap-around sunglasses they can find when they ride their Fat Boys, which for the uninitiated is a Harley Davidson. If you are not riding a Harley, the sunglasses won’t help. Some of you understand that. We all want to be the rebel, we all want to be the person everybody looks at and thinks, They are just a little tough. They are just a little bad. We think that is where the allure of life is.
Tom Petty sings, “All the bad boys are standing in the shadows and the good girls are home with broken hearts.” More fun, more appeal. It somehow seems better to us if we could be mean or tough or at least portray the image, even if we can’t be.
If we turn the coin over and look at goodness, we have to recognize that we do live in a high definition world. When the local news stations went to high def, a lot of the reporters were complaining because the new high def cameras revealed all the flaws. Standard makeup does not work anymore. Actually, that is a pretty good parable for the world we live in. We live in a high definition world where everybody sees everything. It is very hard to disguise the flaws in our lives. If we were to ask, Who are the examples of the really good people in the world, we would probably all think for a moment and say, I don’t know. But if we could find a really good person from whom goodness, kindness, and compassion emanated, we would feel a little nervous, intimidated, and afraid that somehow their goodness would reflect back and show the genuine sin in our hearts, the part that we don’t have to trump up or make look bigger. If we are in the presence of real goodness, it seems like it reflects a brilliant light back and shows all the flaws.
This helps us understand a little about Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus there by the Lake of Galilee. He lived in this rough world of fishermen. Although he was not in the navy and the Sea of Galilee is not an ocean, it is where men were making their living on the water. It was the kind of work that was hard and it created hard workers who were callous—callous in their hands and perhaps callous in their attitude.
Remember in the Gospels where Peter is betraying Jesus, and on the third time they say, “Surely you are with him.” And the Gospel writers say, “and with an oath,” they are too delicate to repeat exactly whatever it was he said, but “with an oath he said, ‘I do not know him.’” Where do you think Peter got the oath? It was part of this lifestyle on the water where men were men and tenderness and kindness were viewed as weakness. Here comes Peter who does not have to portray any more roughness and toughness, and he sees a miracle. He recognizes it as the handiwork of God. He looks at Jesus and realizes, This is somebody different. This is somebody pure, and this is somebody holy. There, after the miracle catch, he throws himself at the feet of Jesus and says, “Depart from me because I am a sinful man.” He was smart enough to be afraid because he probably recognized in that moment that goodness always asks something from us. Goodness has a standard that we are asked to live up to. If you want to be bad, what is the standard of being bad? I guess you can fail at being bad, but how does anybody know? But if you think, I am going to invite Christ into my life. I am going to follow the ways of God, there is a standard, and all of a sudden, if we don’t live up to it, everybody knows. Maybe Peter has a glimpse that Jesus is going to ask something of him. Goodness asks something of us. He was going to ask Peter to participate in God’s work—to challenge sin, to offer unlimited forgiveness, to care for the poor, to challenge evil, to challenge those places where self and selfishness are the standard and accepted part of life. Maybe Peter recognizes that if he lets Jesus get too close, he is going to be asked to participate in the mission for Christ in the world.
This kind of goodness—challenging sin, offering forgiveness, caring for the poor, loving everybody, challenging evil—will get you crucified.
The things I mentioned earlier about being bad or pushing the edge are not crimes, but if we could take an old cliché and use it as a slogan for that side and say, Evil doesn’t pay. The goodness of God will, indeed, get you crucified. Remember they hung up two thieves on each side of Jesus, but the one in the center represented the goodness of God, the one whose goodness reflected upon everybody else’s sin, the one they could not stand to have in their presence because it showed them up for who they really were. While he was crucified centuries ago, it is pretty much the way people in all centuries have felt. Get that goodness out of here. It shows me up. Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man. It is better to stay the way I am than to try to be good and fail. It is better to stay the way I am than to try to bear the cost that it would take to try to live up to Jesus. It is hard for me; I am a sinner.
For the past several Sundays, we have been talking about getting serious in our relationship to God. We have used the expression “getting serious,” to think about that sense in a relationship when a relationship becomes deeper, more exclusive, more mature. How are we ever going to become more serious about loving God if we don’t embrace the righteousness, goodness, and holiness of God. In order to embrace God, don’t we have to embrace the life that he has called us to? God’s way for life certainly does not include selfishness, toughness, or self-indulgence. What God’s life does include is loving one another, words that are trustworthy, marriages that are faithful, a place where the poor find care and where the hurt find compassion, and a place where sinners welcome one another. It is a frightful thing to be called to the kind of life that God desires for each of us and it would be very easy to say, “Depart from me. Leave me. Don’t challenge me. Don’t call me. Just leave me alone where I am.” However, then we recognize a world where we really do love one another, a world where words are trustworthy and marriages are faithful, the poor find care, the hurt find compassion, and sinners welcome each other, that is the only life there really is.
So we would forsake all, leave our nets, follow Christ, and attempt in whatever way we can, as sinners, to live up to the goodness of God, to let that goodness work through us, and be a part of Christ’s mission. “Lord, do not depart from me, but let me follow you.”
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.