In 1879, Fyodor Dostoevsky published the great Russian novel, Brother’s Karamazov. In the book, Dostoevsky is trying to help people see the consequences of living in a world where God is not believed to exist. One of the characters, Ivan, is wrestling with the uncomfortable idea that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. The novel portrays the horror of living in that sort of world. The book shows the psychological trauma and the damage to society that takes place when people live as if everything is permitted. Generally speaking, our culture shares the assumption that God does not exist.
Now, there are two ways of understanding the idea that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. On the one hand, you can say, if God does not exist, then you can do whatever bad thing you want. Anything is permissible. Most people I know — who don’t believe in God — would reject the conclusion that you can do whatever bad thing you want. But there is another way of looking at that statement. If God does not exist, then anyone’s definition of good is permissible. Few people would label their choices as outright bad. Most people would like to defend their choices as being good. But what one person calls good might be what another person calls bad. Who’s to judge? We are living in a time of major polarization. Just look at the growing chasm between what differing political parties say is good. And who is to say what is good? Who decides what is ethical or just? Who decides what is civil? Opinions on what is good and just vary as widely as there are people. If God does not exist, does it follow that anyone’s idea of what is good is equally valid. Who has the right to be the ultimate judge?
I think that’s one reason why Santa Clause is so attractive. Yesterday a lady in a store asked my son if he had told Santa that he’d been a good boy. Davey responded, “Actually, Santa isn’t real.” She said, “well, is it OK if as a grownup I still believe in Santa?” I think she was trying to preserve a sense of childlike wonder in my 5 year old. Wonder in the mysterious is essential, but why preserve Santa? What is so enduring about Santa? (Slide 2) Listen to these lyrics: He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake!” This song is hugely popular. Its been recorded from Frank Sinatra to Bruce Springsteen, to Justin Beiber. What’s funny about this song is that it is just a pure threat. “You better watch out!” There’s no reward for being good. The song is telling people that they better be good, because Santa Clause is coming to town. Maybe people in our culture hear this song and breathe a sigh of relief: “Finally, someone who knows what is good is coming to town. How refreshing.” But what if Saint Nick lost his faith? What if he stopped believing in God? What if he thinks to himself, “Who am I to say what is good? Who am I to give someone a lump of coal? I can’t afford a discrimination law suite.” Maybe Santa Clause lost his edge and just gives presence to everyone. If Santa became an atheist he’s in trouble. Because if God doesn’t exist, then everyone’s definition of good is equally permissible.
(Slide 3) Scripture constantly offers the assurance that there is one God, He is good, and He tells us what is good. Maybe we can breathe a sigh of relief, we don’t need Santa Clause. There is one God, and He is good. You can find this conviction anywhere in Scripture, but I’d like to focus in on the book of Deuteronomy. That book contains Moses’ last words to the people of Israel right before they’re about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Throughout the whole book, God has been teaching His people that He is good, and what it means to live good lives. In chapter 28, Moses makes clear that if the Israelites are faithful to what God says is good, the Lord their God will shower them with abundant blessing. After all, there is one God, and doing what He says is good. Moses then warns the Israelites about what will happen if they ignore what God says is good. Moses says that if you ignore what God says is good, then bad things will happen. Living life will become a curse. Moses describes a number of things that will happen if they begin to do what is right I their own eyes. For example, Moses says, (Slide 4). “the Lord will bring you, and the king whom you set over you, to a nation that neither you nor your ancestors have known, where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone. You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you.” Basically, if the people of Israel ignore what God says is good, and start behaving as though he doesn’t exist, their kingdom will be taken away and they will end up becoming like other nations serving their kings and worshiping their gods.
(Slide 5) That is certainly why Luke mentions all those rulers at the beginning of the passage. The people of Israel are living the consequences of ignoring what God says is good. Now, those who rule their land show them exactly what it looks like to do what is right in their own eyes. Tiberius Caesar was the Emperor of Rome. He was known as a particularly ruthless Emperor. He was already demanding to be worshipped as a god in some of the Eastern parts of the Emperor. Pilate was also known for his brutality. In Luke 13, Jesus hears a report that Pilate attacked and killed worshipers while they were offering a temple sacrifice. In John 18, Jesus meets Pilate. Jesus says to Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth.”’ After all, if God does not exist, what is truth? Is not everyone’s idea of truth equally permissible? Often it seems the person with the power gets to decide what is true. That’s what Pilate did as he handed Jesus over to be crucified. The religious leaders of the Jews were not much better. (Slide 7) The High Priest, Caiaphas, had a warm friendship with Pontius Plate, and presided over the Sanhedrin as they handed Jesus over to Pilate for crucifixion. Caiaphas’ father-in-law was Annas. This family was not at all respected by the Jewish people. They were accused of bribery, corruption, repression and intrigue. Jesus lived under these rulers who lived by their own standard of good and bad. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, and in many cases the results were horrific. And remember, Moses said this would happen! Moses said that when God’s people turn their backs on what God says is good, when they decide for themselves what is good, they will find themselves under rulers who epitomize that corrupt line of thought. First came Assyria, then came Babylon, then came Greece, now comes Rome! Life under Rome was life under a curse. God was holding them accountable for sins committed. These foreign rulers ruled as though YHWH didn’t exist, and therefore anything was permissible. It begs the question, who are our rulers? What do our rulers say about us as a people? If we believe that anyone’s definition of good is equally valid, why not they?
Into this context, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah. (Slide 8) Luke tells us that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Notice how shocking these words are. Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Imagine someone shouting this on Main Street. It’d be the unforgivable sin! In order to be baptized by John, I would need to first admit my need for forgiveness. In order to be baptized by John, I would first need to admit that I have sinned. In order to be baptized by John, I would need to admit that my definition of what is good isn’t ultimately what counts. Instead, I would need to confess to being wrong. I would need to confess that it is only our good God who says what is good. How scandalous is John’s message is in a culture that says, “everyones definition of good is equally valid.” How scandalous is John’s message in a culture that says the only bad thing is to call another person bad. John cuts through it all, calling out for repentance, calling for one and all to seek forgiveness for their sins.
John invites one and all to be baptized, to submerge totally into the water, to be washed clean. Being washed clean from sin recognizes that when a person defines for themselves what is good, a person’s soul can end up feel dirty, feeling sick. The cure is to be washed clean. In baptism, God calls us into the waters, saying, repent, receive forgiveness, be made clean. The prophet Isaiah says, “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thought, let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. “Far as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”’ God calls us not to live according to what we see as right. Only God is good, and only God knows what is good, God calls us to submit to His Word, and so be washed clean.
The song “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” is a pure threat, “So be good for goodness sake!” We’ve been saying “There is one God, and He alone is good, but this is no threat. This is a promise. John says prepare the way of the Lord, because when he comes to town (Slide 9) “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” When our God comes to town, He comes bringing salvation. He comes bringing rescue. Rescue from the curse of living as though everything were permissible. That is no way to live. There is such thing as Good. God is Good. And our good God offers His Salvation.
What is this salvation John anticipated? He was a forerunner. John came in order to prepare the way for the Lord. John came to announce arrival of the Lord. Shortly thereafter, Jesus began his public ministry. Jesus approached John to be baptized. As He was coming up out of the waters, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. At that moment the Father spoke to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Our good God delights in Jesus. If you want a picture of what is good, look to Jesus. Learn from Him. Study Him. Walk with him. You will see who our God is, you will discover what He calls good. Therein lies our salvation.
But our salvation isn’t only about modelling the good we see in Jesus. Our salvation isn’t only about learning what God says is good and doing it. It is that, but it's not only that. Because when our God came to down, he didn’t simply offer us a clearer picture of what is good. When God came to town, he gave us a gift. And he didn’t simply offer that gift based on who was good and who was bad. Paul puts it this way, (Slide 10) “For when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, God saved us, not by any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Slide 11) This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This saying is sure.”