open book on a table

On Knowing What Good Is

Substance of a sermon based on Isaiah 55, preached at a small church in Southern Indiana on the Third Sunday in Lent, 2022

At first, this beautiful passage from the book of Isaiah might seem out of place in the very middle, the third Sunday in Lent.

It’s awfully happy, for Lent.

Yes, there are some verses about repentance in here.

But then we end with those happy trees and all that singing and dancing and clapping, which sounds like a big party – definitely not very Lent-y.

Honestly, though, if we look more closely at this text, we’ll see that it does give us some insight into Lent and does help us through our Lenten journey after all …

But first, here’s a question: do we know what good is?

My dad used to say this – “you just don’t know what good is!” –

usually when he was eating something my brother and I thought was … icky, like liverwurst, or this childhood favorite of his that was called ploomamoos, was made with prunes, looked like gray soup, and tasted like boiled flour. And when we scrunched up our faces and held our noses at stuff like that, our Dad would say “You just don’t know what good is.”

He was kidding, of course – kind of – because everyone knows there’s no arguing matters of taste, … we have sayings in English like some folks’ trash is other folks’ treasure or beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and every other language and culture on the plant has some similar saying. We kids knew what was good according to us, and it was a lot more like corn chips and coco puffs than liverwurst and ploomamoos.

But only kind of, because … Aren’t some things just … good? This question seems to worry a lot of people these days, judging from what we can read in newspapers and on the internet and see on YouTube; judging from people’s complaints about postmodernism and relativism and people’s loud insistence that they believe in absolute truth and that some things, some ways of life are just … good. But assuming that’s true, are we any good at knowing what those are – at knowing what good is?

And this morning’s text of Isaiah 55 tells us something about that. It tells us, yes, some things are good, really good! Moreover, people, human beings, know that!! Unfortunately, people also get really confused about what is good, and about how to get to what’s good. But not hopelessly confused. Not so confused that God, in God’s goodness, and grace, can’t reach us.

Just look at this: Isaiah 55 starts out with a picture of something good, really good – something we ourselves know, immediately, is good – a picture of water –

This is no surprise when we come to think about it – because who doesn’t need water? What living thing doesn’t need water to live? Every living thing we know of suffers if it doesn’t have enough water – and thrives when it has enough water, the right amount of water. So that image of water, of something essential to life, given so freely – that’ an image of real goodness that every living creature, certainly every living person, can appreciate.

Also no surprise that this verse mentions food – because who doesn’t need food? Again, food, nourishment, is about as universal an image of what is good as we can get. Even the most jaded sophisticate isn’t immune to the basic appeal of this image, can sense that this opening invitation is calling us to something good.

So we begin with a powerful affirmation: here is something good, and we know it.

We might be able to imagine how appealing this invitation would be to those exiles from Judah, those Judahites, far away in Babylonia, who have been feeling far from home, far from God, far from the way of life they had learned back home, … how reassuring to hear this invitation to return to what is good …

Then, in the very next verse, the text alerts us to the fact that something is wrong …

We hear these questions – what are you doing?? Why are you spending your money on stuff that isn’t … good … isn’t … real … isn’t … what you need? Do you even know what good is?

Clearly the answer must be … no. No, the people the prophet is addressing have lost touch with … what is really good. You’re investing in things that can’t possibly satisfy your real hunger, your real thirst … things that aren’t what you really need …

To the point where there are wicked people and unrighteous people, who are definitely going the wrong way, and thinking the wrong thoughts. They obviously don’t know what good is. They are so confused, so disoriented, that they are headed in the completely wrong direction, and the more they think, the wrong-er they get …

We can probably imagine how that kind of confusion could happen to people who are displaced, surrounded by a foreign culture, who have spent decades learning how to make the best of a bad situation, who have even begun to think … the Babylonians can’t be that wrong, when they’re the winners … maybe we need to get better at thinking and acting like them … because we have that saying, too, nothing succeeds like success, nice guys finish last, take care of number one – that can sound mighty persuasive …

It would be so nice to think that the prophet is only speaking to people from thousands of years ago.

But unfortunately for us, we too have a lot of experience with getting confused about what good is, with not knowing what good is. Unfortunately, we can probably relate.

We know people in our own world who don’t seem to know what good is. All we have to do is check the news of the day. The whole world’s attention has been captured by someone who has gotten so confused about what good is that he has confused death, causing death, on a monumental scale, with leadership and strength and wisdom and winning.

But if we try to escape the news of the day, every drama on Netflix tells a story about someone who has gotten disastrously confused somewhere along the line, for some reason, about what good is. People who let their desire for fame, or power, or wealth take over their lives, or convince them to destroy the lives of others.

And if we just stick close to home, even there, we know of so many ways people can get confused about what good is, if we can think of one example, we can think of a hundred – we think of children being raised in homes where they learn that abuse is normal, or just being raised in homes where they learn that asking questions or laughing too loud isn’t OK. We think of people we’ve known who’ve gotten caught up in one or another addiction until poisoning themselves feels like what good is and getting clean and sober feels more like dying. We’ll think of people who have gotten so convinced that what is good is so far out of reach that they’ve stopped even dreaming of it.

I’m afraid that we live in a world that makes it easy to learn many lessons about what is “good” that keep us from being able to know what good is, lessons we actually have to UN-learn to begin to realize that “good” is what leads to flourishing, and helping others flourish. That, as the early church father Irenaeus said, the glory of God is humanity fully alive. That signs of the good are kindness, or honesty, or justice, or beauty, or courage, is a sign of what is good.

Even those of us who are greatly blessed, who have a keen sense that God-given life is our best index of what good is in this world, recognize that we still have so much to learn about what that life really can be …

So when we hear the voice of God, speaking through the prophet, saying, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways” – even those of us who feel pretty confident that we do know what good is no doubt feel the immensity of the distance between God’s goodness and what we had in mind … a sense of how far above and beyond us God’s ways and thoughts must be …

By now this is probably starting to feel a lot Lent-ier than we realized at first – the text is calling our attention to our need to re-orient ourselves to God and to God’s instruction after all …

And at this point, just when we are thinking that we can’t possibly, really, know what’s good, really good …

The voice of God through the prophet reminds us that we must know something about what good is … because when we hear this text, we know that this is good!

We can know God’s Word is good, because it’s like water: it’s like rain, or snow. We can know the deep effect of God’s Word is good, because it’s like this portrait of the future that we can recognize, can say, oh, wow, that’s beautiful!! That’s it – that joy and rejoicing, those prickly desert weeds transformed into graceful water-loving trees … green, shady, lush, beautiful … that vision does appeal to us …

and it appeals to us because …

probably the safest thing to say here is, because of the grace of God.

Because we probably know that whole libraries of theology have been written arguing about would be the right thing to say here, whether the right thing to say here is that something in us, even if it’s just a tiny tiny bit, can still respond to God’s Word, or whether the only reason we can respond to God’s Word of beauty and grace is that God has given us the ability to do that, and no doubt there is a right answer to that argument, but … when we come right down to it … at some point we have to acknowledge that whatever the reason is, once we are all sitting here nodding our heads, however we have come to be here able to do that, we also know it involves the grace of God one way or another.

And we also know that what we know of the grace of God, and what we know of the Word of God, we know best and most clearly from what we know of Jesus – that Word made flesh. That Word in the person of a human life, a human life that is the best demonstration we have in our world of what Irenaeus meant by humanity fully alive. We know that good means following Jesus and being in Christ …

And yes, we also know that Christ way takes us through Lent, because Jesus’s way took him to Jerusalem, and to Gethsemane, and to the cross – and here’s one of those places where people, where we, sometimes get confused, because we say, well, getting into trouble and getting arrested and crucified does not seem a whole lot like cypress and myrtle and good, does it?

But on these Sundays during Lent, that punctuate Lent, we remember and celebrate the other side of that, resurrection – new life – abundant life – living water – we know that, too, thanks to the grace of God and our Sunday school teachers –

God is good, life is good, and there is more where that came from. Lent is not over; Easter is coming; God is on the move; and we know this much about what good is: God is good, and the way of Christ goes there …  that’s the way to be led out in joy and to be led forth in peace.

red line embellished

Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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