LENTEN LESSONS ON LIVING
(Fourth in the Series)
March 18, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Lent
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Every other month, along with other members of the Rotary Club, I deliver DASH meals to senior citizens on a Saturday morning. I have been a regular blood donor for many years. I read to the kindergarteners at Edison once a month. I pick up the empty backpacks at Chalmers once a week for Backpack Buddies and sometimes I help fill them for delivery back to the school. I serve on the boards of VISTO and Habitat for Humanity and try to help them with their fundraising efforts.
I don’t tell you this to brag or claim that I do more volunteering than anyone else. A lot of you do a lot more than me every week.
I tell you this to ask this question:
Does doing these things make me a good person?
They certainly don’t make me a bad person, but do they make me a good one? That’s an important question to ask, I believe:
What is “goodness” and how do I know if I am a “good” person?
In this series of sermons we’re looking at the “core virtues” that help define the Christian life. Just as certain core beliefs and practices identify someone as a Christian, so certain virtues or character traits help us know if we’re becoming the kind of people that God wants us to be. A lot of these are based on the “fruit of the Spirit” that Paul lists in Galatians 5.
So far we’ve looked at self-control, faithfulness, and patience. We’ll look at others in upcoming weeks. Today we’re looking at:
If you’re familiar with the “fruit of the Spirit”, you might be wondering why I’m calling it “generous goodness.” In the Revised Standard Version, the version I memorized the fruit of the Spirit from several years ago, the fifth fruit of the Spirit is called “goodness.” But in the New Revised Standard Version, it’s been changed to “generosity.” So which is it, “goodness” or “generosity”?
Well, when in doubt, it’s best to go to the original Greek. The Greek word that Paul uses here is…
And it’s usually translated as “uprightness of heart and life,” “goodness,” “benevolence,” or “kindness.” Some have called it a “zealous activity in doing good.” So the truth is that goodness and generosity are both a part of the meaning. Rather than choose one over the other, I combined them into “generous goodness.”
But that still leaves us with the question: What does it mean to be a person of “generous goodness”?
Part of the problem is that our English word “goodness” has so many meanings. Think of all the different ways we use the word “good.” Here are just a few examples:
She’s good at math.
This car has good brakes.
You sure have good eyesight.
It was good of you to come.
Do a good deed daily.
You’re such a good child.
That was really a good party.
I gave the house a good cleaning.
Milk is good for you.
Did you have a good reason for doing that?
Is this leftover meat loaf still good?
I did it for your own good.
So when it comes to the Christian life, what kind of goodness are we talking about? Is the term so nebulous that it defies definition? I don’t think so, but it will take some digging.
In our Scripture reading for today, Jesus is talking to the Pharisee named Nicodemus. We’ve probably all heard John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” That verse would make an excellent sermon choice, but that’s not where I want to focus our attention today. Instead, look again at verses 19-21…
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21)
Jesus is talking about good and evil, light and dark, false and true. Evildoers avoid the light – they like to hide in the dark. But doers of good love the light. Jesus himself is the “light that has come into the world.” He himself said so in John 8:12…
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
So goodness, whatever else it means, is very closely associated with Jesus. If we have any hope of being good, we must walk in the light of Christ. This is a very important truth we have to grasp…
There is no real goodness apart from God.
That goes against the grain of what most of the world thinks. “What? You’re telling me I can’t be good without God? That’s ridiculous! I’m a good person. I work hard. I pay my bills. I’m good to my family. I haven’t even gotten a speeding ticket. I’m a good person. I don’t need God to be good”
I’m not saying that a person can’t have some goodness in them apart from God. But real goodness, genuine goodness must come from God, because God is the only one who is truly good. You might remember that a man who had a lot of possessions came up to Jesus once and said…
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
And Jesus replied…
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
Jesus meant that no one is altogether good but God. Human beings are good insofar as they reflect the goodness of God. Goodness and God are inseparable. As Paul says in Romans 8…
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God… (Rom. 8:28)
And as James says…
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… (Jas. 1:17)
Perhaps the very best example of generous goodness that we could ever think of is found in that well-known verse from today’s Scripture reading…
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Because God is the very definition of goodness itself, God’s goodness overflowed in the supremely generous and loving act of giving God’s own Son for our salvation. We are the recipients of God’s generous goodness, not only in the things we need for life and health and peace, but in the thing that matters most – our eternal salvation. And God’s example of giving can help us answer the question we started with – How do I know if I am good?
Just as God is good in himself and thus does good things toward us, so our goodness has a two-fold aspect:
Being Good and Doing Good.
The goodness we seek as one of the core virtues of the Christian life is a matter of both being good and doing good. We are good because of who we are in Jesus Christ. We really have no goodness on our own. Because we were created in the image of God we have the capacity to be good, but that capacity was damaged beyond our ability to repair it by our sin. In Genesis 1 it says…
God saw everything he had made [including humans], and indeed, it was very good. (Gen. 1:30)
But when our ancestors, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God and fell into sin, the goodness of creation was spoiled. That may sound like a pretty pessimistic view of humanity, but look at it this way: If we could achieve goodness on our own, why would we need Jesus Christ? But when we trust our lives to Jesus and accept the salvation that he offers us through his death on the cross and his resurrection, our original goodness is restored, so that we once again have the capacity not only to be good, but to do good.
As a matter of fact, doing good is one of our main purposes in life. As Paul says in Colossians 2…
For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph. 2:10)
We were made for goodness, in other words – to be God’s instruments of doing good toward our fellow human beings. As I said earlier, one of the definitions of agathunos, the Greek word for “generous goodness,” is “zealous activity in doing good.” It’s never enough for us to sit back and enjoy our goodness in Christ – “Hey! Look everybody, see what a good person I am.” Our goodness in God becomes actualized when we do good toward others.
There are many examples of genuine goodness in the Scriptures. Jesus is the foremost example, of course. But I also think of someone like Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth had married one of the sons of a widow named Naomi. Naomi was from Israel but she was living in Moab, Ruth’s home country. When Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, died, Naomi decided to return home to Israel. It would have been the logical thing for Ruth to remain in Moab, her home. Naomi told her to stay. But instead, she insisted on returning with Naomi to Israel. In well-known words of loyalty and faithfulness, she said to Naomi…
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Ruth was a genuinely good person and she did good toward Naomi. When I think of goodness I also think of someone like Barnabas. Barnabas (whose name means “son of encouragement”) was a generous person. Acts 4 says that he sold a field that he owned and gave the proceeds to the apostles. When Paul came to Jerusalem, shortly after he had turned from persecuting Christians and become a follower of Jesus on the Damascus Road, it was Barnabas who introduced Paul to the skeptical apostles. Acts 11:24 describes Barnabas as
…a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. (Acts 11:24)
If we want to learn goodness, which is planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, but which we have to cultivate and grow like the other fruit of the Spirit, then we need to apprentice ourselves to people like Ruth and Barnabas. We won’t learn goodness like we learn to use a computer, by studying a manual. We’ll learn goodness like we learn to hit a baseball or play golf – by watching someone who’s really good at it – a Ruth, a Barnabas, a Jesus – and imitating them.
Someone has said that goodness is…
Doing the right thing for the right reason.
We can do the right thing for the wrong reason, or even the wrong thing for the right reason. But only in Jesus can we learn to do the right thing for the right reason. Generous goodness will lead us to do lots of right things for the right reason – feeding the poor, caring for the sick, visiting the lonely and imprisoned, sharing the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ, loving our neighbors. May we all be such good and faithful servants. Amen.