Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Bible Doesn’t Say That: "Being Good is Good Enough"

Do you know anything that is 100% perfect? There is a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico: East Ocean. I love Chinese food—and I’m not using hyperbole here. I LOVE Chinese food! Good Chinese food. “Authentic” Chinese food. If a sign says “We serve Chinese and American food” I just keep driving! East Ocean has the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. In fact, I traveled to Asia just after I graduated from high school. I was there an entire month, and I ate some wonderful food. The night I returned to the states, I went to have dinner at East Ocean. They have two dishes, in particular, that are spectacular: Salt & Pepper Shrimp and Hong Kong Noodles. These two items aren’t even on the menu. But if you go there, ask them for them, they will make them. Literally the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life! The reason I bring this up: Those two dishes are as close to perfect as anything can get. But I’m sure if I continued to visit East Ocean, oh, about 1,000 times, it could be that on one of those visits, the food would be less than perfect. It’s possible that it might not be the right temperature. It’s possible that they may skimp on the shrimp. You know, nothing is really ever 100% perfect, is it? So, maybe we should just be satisfied with really good. Maybe our standards are just too high in this world. If you are holding out for perfect, maybe you should just settle for really good.

So, here is my question: Is really good, good enough? Consider this possibility. If 99.9% were good enough, then:
  • Two million documents would be lost by the IRS ever year.
  • 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank account in the next 60 minutes.
  • 1,314 telephone calls will be misdirected by telecommunications companies every minute.
  • 2,488 books will be shipped with the wrong covers on them every single day.
  • 20,000 incorrect drug prescriptions will be written every year.
  • Twelve babies will be given to the wrong parents each day.
But, hey, 99.9% is not bad. 99.9% is almost perfect! Obviously, being really good is not good enough in our world. So, why is it that some folks believe really good is good enough when it comes to God?

I remember a neighbor I once had. We were living in Nashville, and our kids were very young. In Nashville, many of the neighborhood lots were not divided by fences. So, we could easily walk back and forth between our yards, and we often did, particularly Luke, who was only a toddler. He would sometimes disappear and we’d find him sitting with our neighbors on their back porch. Our neighbors were much older than us, in their seventies or eighties I think. We were young, in our early twenties. Our children were small and these neighbors loved our kids, and we loved them! They were great people—friendly! We’d trust them with our children, and that is saying something! I had a conversation with that neighbor one day. He knew I was at Vanderbilt studying religion. He knew I worked at a church. So, one day the subject of religion came up. He said, “I don’t go to church, but,” he said, “I’m a good person. I’ve never concerned myself with church or religion. I’ve always been a good neighbor. I’ve always helped people. And, I think that’s good enough. You know, doesn’t the Bible say somewhere: 'Being good is good enough'?”

Well, church, no, it doesn’t say that. But that idea is so prevalent in our world, even sometimes among Christians. Somehow, we can be good enough to get into God’s good graces. Somehow, we can even obtain salvation through our very good behaviors. By being a good neighbor, by treating people well, by avoiding the big sins. We’ve all at least thought about this in our lives:
  • He is a good person.
  • Too bad he doesn’t go to church.
  • I don’t think he ever has.
  • He’s never had a relationship with God really, but he is such a good person.
  • I bet he’ll be OK in the end.
  • She doesn’t have much time for religion.
  • In fact, she says she doesn’t really believe in God.
  • But she is such a good soul.
  • She volunteers at the hospital, you know.
  • I bet good is good enough.
Martin Luther once wrote:
The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.
I’m going to say something that might sound harsh, so let me apologize ahead of time. But here it goes: He is not good enough. She is not good enough. You are not good enough.

None of us is good enough to stand in the presence of God on our own. Period. Don’t take my word for it, listen to what God has to say about it! When Jesus walked the earth, the standard for perfection was set by the religious leaders of the time: the Pharisees and Scribes. We sometimes give the Pharisees and Scribes a bad rap in church. They were “legalists.” They were “rigid.” But say this for Pharisees: They wanted to be good! They went out of their way to be good. In fact, they took drastic steps to separate themselves from any hint of sin. The 10 Commandments said: “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” But they wondered, “What constitutes work? What if I am working and I don’t even know it?!” So, they created hundreds of laws: things you cannot do on the Sabbath. We say, “Legalists”! But that isn’t how they saw it. They were being faithful. They were following God to their utmost ability. They were being good, really good! Jesus knew this about Pharisees and he knew they were the standard of perfection in His time.

So, once He was preaching to a large crowd of people. He was trying to explain to them just how “Good” you have to be to stand in God’s presence. And listen to his analogy:
I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts (scribes) and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20 CEB)
A little later in that same sermon, Jesus was a bit more blunt.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 TNIV)
God’s standard is perfection, not good enough. If you think that standard is high, just listen to this. From a theological perspective, it gets even more difficult. Not only can you not stand before God as anything less than perfect, God cannot even approach you! I John 1 says God is pure Light. In God there is no darkness at all. So, where there is darkness (sin), God cannot come close. That was the great tragedy of what happened in the Garden of Eden. When sin entered the world, God couldn’t be in this world any longer. At least not like He had been before. God couldn’t walk with Adam and Eve any longer in the Garden. Because God cannot be where there is any hint of sin or darkness.

So, in the final analysis, here it is: Unless you are Jesus Christ, you are not good enough. I don’t care how many volunteer hours you put in. I don’t care how compassionate you are. You will never be good enough to stand before God. Now that just sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Have I made you feel better about yourself? Well, don’t worry, it only gets better from here, I promise.

Here’s the thing: God knew we would never be good enough, so God took care of it. Listen to what God tells us:
Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then He sat down right beside God and waited for His enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, He did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process. The Holy Spirit confirms this: This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; This time “I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts.” He concludes, “I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins. Once sins are taken care of for good, there’s no longer any need to offer sacrifices for them.” (Hebrews 10:11–18 The Message)
God knew really good would never be good enough, so God took care of it for us. As our human representative, Jesus lived a perfect life on our behalf. And then, even though He was perfect, He took our punishment upon Himself. II Corinthians 5:21 says:
God caused the one who didn’t sin to be sin for our sake so that through Him we could become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:21)
I know this is a lot of religious, churchy language, so let me be plain. God knew you would never be good enough. So He came here to be good enough for you. And because Jesus was perfect, He has offered to make you perfect, too. You’ll never be good enough on your own. But if you follow Jesus, you will take His perfection upon yourself. And then—here is the best part—God will be able to come close to you. In fact, God will be able to live inside of you. And you will live with God forever. That is the gospel, folks. That is the Good News! And all we have to do is accept God’s free gift to us.

Here is what it looks like to accept that free gift. Once we hear the story of what God did for us, out of enormous gratitude and love, we decide to make Jesus Lord of our lives. That means we decide to make Jesus our Master and live the way He calls us to live. And that is a beautiful life, that kind of life brings us salvation from selfishness and greed and insecurity. Instead, we live lives of compassion and love and selflessness, and as we confess that Jesus is our Lord, we also submit to God through baptism. And this is an important moment. In our tradition, we’ve placed a lot of emphasis upon baptism, but to be honest, I think we’ve sold it short. We’ve treated baptism like fire insurance. Get baptized, or burn in hell forever! Baptism is so much more than that!

Here is one way to think of baptism. It is the moment when we confess with our actions that really good is not good enough. When we go under the water, we symbolically die. And when we rise up, we are new people, with God living inside of us. Baptism is our way of saying “By myself, I cannot make it. But with God inside me, I have become perfect.”

Brothers and sisters, good is not good enough. Without Jesus we have no hope! But with Jesus we have more than hope, we have complete assurance! Jesus is willing to make you good enough, but not just good enough. Jesus is willing to make you perfect.

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