Goodness or godliness?

Advent 2 2011

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God who, if we allow him, constantly moulds and re-moulds us so that we are formed into the image of Christ. Amen.

 C.S. Lewis was a profound Christian thinker whose works extend from children’s books – the Narnia series, to works of theological imagination – The Screwtape letters, to theological treatises. Most of what he has written is easy to understand and his works of imagination provide deep insights into the Christian faith. Lewis understands only too well that the world cannot be easily categorised into good and evil, black and white, that faith is so much more than ethics or morality (important as these may be) and that God cannot be contained by human thought. He is able to perceive and to describe the subtleties of faith that may escape many of us. For example, he knows how easily we can be tempted to believe that if we are doing good, then we are good and how quickly we forget that that being good is quite different from being godly.

In his essay: “Man or Rabbit?” for example, he suggests that we have to learn that what we have previously thought of as ‘good’ – ‘leading a decent life’ and ‘being kind” – is nowhere near as significant or as important as we have a tendency to think it is. None of us, he reminds us, can be completely ‘good’ – not even for one day. What is more, even if we could be ‘good’ for twenty-four hours together, that would by no means achieve the purpose for which we were created. Morality – while important – is not the goal.

However, we can be seduced into believing that “being good” is our final purpose, that goodness will earn us a place in the kingdom. Goodness, in the sense of keeping the Ten Commandments and observing the golden rule, is very tempting. It is observable and measurable and it allows us to believe that we know where we stand, to make up our own minds as to whether or not we have met the criteria for entry into heaven. The problem is that goodness on its own is a human and not a godly endeavour and as such it has the potential to bind us to this life and to confine us to mortality because it measures us by human standards and fails to see things from God’s perspective.

Goodness – simply because it relates to things that we do – can blind us to the possibilities of what God can do – with us and in us. Goodness that can be defined and quantified limits us to earthly achievements and denies us the possibilities available to our heavenly nature. Our final and ultimate purpose is not goodness but godliness, and our true goal is not perfection in this life but immortality in the next. In the final analysis, all our human striving will come to nought. Nothing that we do or achieve in this life will mean anything in the life to come.

God who has given us life, and made us in God’s own image has also given us the power to become children of God. The Divine Life which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods intends us to be so much more than “good”.

Only God can make us fit for to eternity, only God can draw out the divine in us. This process may be a painful. In the first instance we have to have the courage to abandon our belief that somehow to make it on our own merits. Secondly, we have to recognise that our confidence in ourselves and in our ability to be good is misplaced. Finally we have to submit ourselves to God’s creative power. If we are going to exchange mortality for immortality we will need to be re-made. In order to be re-made we may first need to be un-made – to allow our old selves to be torn and broken so that the new shape, the new creature – our divine nature – can be brought forth and given life – life that will last for all time.

During Advent we traditionally focus on the four last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This is not to frighten us, but to encourage us to remember that this human body is finite and that this earthly existence will come to an end – no matter how good we have been. The readings confront us with the need for repentance and re-construction, the necessity for preparedness in the face of the coming judgement and of the chaos and destruction that will precede order and re-creation.

Today, John the Baptist calls us to prepare a way, to make our paths straight, in effect to make it possible for God to enter our lives to change and restore us. The Baptist calls us to  “repent” – to turn around, to change direction, to stop going our own way, and to choose to go God’s way. He demands that we be washed clean so that we can start again. In a sense, John holds up a mirror in front of us so that we can see ourselves more clearly. By demanding that we repent, he is challenging us to understand that “good” and “godly” are two distinct ways of being, that being “godly” will endure forever while being “good” has only a limited life span.

I suggested last week, that one of the themes of Advent is the movement from chaos to order, that in order for the new life to come into being, the old has first to be removed. Advent begins with descriptions of the cosmic chaos and disorder which are necessary before the earth is to be renewed and restored. Today we move from the cosmic to the personal, from the disruption of the cosmos, to a more personal sense of disquiet – the recognition that we must experience the discomfort of our own lives being disrupted and pulled apart so that they can be restored and put back together again.

Having said all that, it is my observation and belief, that those of us who gather here, do so, not because we believe that we are good, or even because we believe that we can be good. We gather week by week, because we have recognised our need for God’s intervention in our lives. We come together because we understand that our life’s goal is not to achieve perfection, but to attain immortality and that we can only achieve eternity if we allow God to continually unmake and remake us until that which is eternal – all that is wise and beautiful and holy and true – is allowed to shine through and we become who we are intended to be children of God, made in the image of God.

It is not so much what we do but what we allow God to do that will enable us to inherit the kingdom of God.  This Advent and in all our lives to come, may we be willing to let God in so that God might let the god in us come out.

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