The Goodness of God

Audio here.

Video of the Divine Service here.

Bulletin here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You there, running and falling on your knees. For what are you really asking? Who do you think Jesus is? You call Him good, but is it only insofar as any man might be good? Is Jesus just one more teacher of a way of salvation, none of which are right to the exclusion of the others, and none of which are wrong. Perhaps you have been asking the same question of all the teachers you can find: “Good teacher, what shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). You ask some and they say, “Eternal life? That’s just a distraction. Focus on living your best life now.” You ask others, and they say, “Find the way of thinking with which you are most comfortable. If it works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, find something else. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eternal life.” You ask still others and they say, “Be as good as you can be, and God will not condemn you for your little mistakes.  You haven’t murdered anyone. You haven’t committed adultery. You haven’t stolen. You’ve never lied in a courtroom. You’ve never defrauded anyone. You’ve honored your father and mother. Surely that’s worth something? No one’s perfect, after all.”

But which of those “good” teachers ever said, “Go, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow after Me” (Mark 10:21)? It’s fine and good that you’ve kept the commandments. Your neighbor appreciates it. But Jesus is not some sort of Buddhist, trying to detach you from all worldly concerns. He isn’t interested in your best efforts or your sincere intentions. He wants you; all of you. It seems strange for Jesus to require exactly that thing which the man could not do. What good teacher would send away an earnest seeker? This man honestly wants Jesus to teach him the way of salvation, which is evident in his sorrow.

But that is the problem. Jesus is not a teacher of salvation. He teaches, but His teaching is not an outline of a life plan, or a series of actions, or a five-step-program for salvation. Every other teacher who claims to have some insight into God and every seller of self-sufficient spirituality is teaching a path of salvation, or some secret knowledge which, once you know it, will enable you to be saved or free or at peace or happy. Jesus is not like those good teachers. He does not teach how to acquire salvation as a commodity, He does your salvation; He is your salvation. He does not teach you what you must do to inherit eternal life; He gives eternal life, and He—Himself—is eternal life. He is not a good teacher, but the one and only good God.

Jesus will not allow people to consider Him a good teacher among good teachers. If He were simply a good teacher, it would not matter if He was alive or dead: the teaching would remain. But He says, “If I am not alive, then it will do no good to follow My teaching. If I am not risen from the dead, it is a waste of time to listen to Me.” He says, “Do not call Me good unless you mean that I am the living God who is Goodness itself.” Jesus will not allow any idolatrous nonsense that He is one among many, or that as long as you acknowledge Him as a good man, as a teacher of good advice, you can go on with your worship of other gods.

All the man wanted was something he could do in order to ensure that he would have eternal life. All he wanted was the one Command that would tie all the other commandments into a nice package he could carry around like a golden salvation ticket.  So Jesus gives it to him: “One thing you lack.  Go, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.” Kill that idol that still holds you in its grip. Follow Me, and I will give you eternal life. But for this man, as for you and me, the one thing he lacked turned out to be everything. So he went away sorrowful.

Maybe, after he went away, he argued back and forth with himself: what good are my possessions if this Man really can give eternal life? But how can I know? How can I be sure that Jesus is who He says He is? I can’t see eternal life. But if there were some concrete action I could do to inherit it, then I could at least see the guarantee of eternal life. But giving everything up to follow a man, even a good man? Not a wise decision, based on the evidence available to us.

I can handle a teaching; you can hold a teaching in your mind and control it and do it insofar as you understand it and it works for you. But a Man who is God is different. You cannot own and control such a Man. You cannot take what you like and what works for you and leave the rest. This Man is what He says and He says what He is. The simple fact is that Jesus has no teaching at all outside of what He does. You cannot go and keep a commandment in order to inherit eternal life, as if eternal life has no connection to the Man who says, “Follow Me”—as if you could do anything to become an heir, outside of being a child. The simple fact is that there is no commandment that will give you life, outside of the Man who is the fulfillment of all the commandments. There are not, in the end, those who keep the commandments and those who don’t. There are only those who cling to Christ and those who do not.

False gods will always cling to those who do not cling to Christ. The tragedy of this man whom Jesus loved is not that he could not sell his possessions but that he turns his back on One who had no possessions, though all of creation is His. If only his response had not been to leave in shock and sorrow. If only his response had been falling down in confession: “I cannot give it up. I cannot sell it. My things and my stuff hold me too tightly. I love them too much. What’s more, I despise what God has given me and I want what He has given someone else. I know that everything I call “my life” will die with me. I am a poor, miserable sinner. Lord, have mercy!”

Which is exactly what we should say as well. The One who calls us to destroy our idols, to have no other gods before Him, to give to those in need—He gave up His treasure in heaven to enter our poverty. He went from the glorious presence of the Father, sold all that He had into the hands of poor sinners, and we trampled His treasure like pigs at the trough. He was despised and rejected and everything He had was taken from Him, even life itself. But He rose again, and now all of that is for your good; He does, after all, have mercy on us, who carry around a multiplicity of idols in our hearts; on us, who fear, love, and trust everything but Him who is truly God and truly Good.

And there is nothing to do but confess it. It will not help to try harder to do the things by which you might inherit eternal life. That will only lead to shock and sorrow. It will lead to despair if you are honest with yourself and with God. So come and fall at the pierced feet of Jesus. Bring your idols so that He can smash them; He gives you God. Bring your sorrow so that He can transform it; He gives you a joy unconnected to the wealth of this world. Bring everything that you thought was treasure; it is only a chain that binds you to this life, that is, to death. And the One who loves you, who speaks to you and feeds you under seemingly poor words, and poor bread, and poor wine, will give you everything: He gives you Himself.

Do not go away sorrowful. Do not turn your back on Him. Do not go back to things and stuff and cling to them. Eventually they will be taken from you, willingly or unwillingly. And if you know that you are unwilling to part with everything you hold dear, bring that to Jesus also. He will give you Himself, and the more He gives you Himself, the more everything else will fall back into its true worth. The more He strengthens His grip on you, the more He will loosen your grip on things for the sake of your neighbor, and the grip of things on you. And when He comes in all His glory and everyone sees the full and severe goodness of God, He will bring you to the promised inheritance of all those who followed after Christ, no matter what it cost. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every [fatherhood] in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and the length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19, ESV).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/12/18

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