In Psalm 27:13, the Psalmist confesses, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.”
If you attend a United Methodist Church on any given Sunday you are likely to hear the pastor say, “God is good!” And the people will respond, “All the time!” Let’s try that:
“God is good!”
“All the time!”
We are sure to confess that God is good when our prayers have been quickly answered or even anticipated.
Let me give a very human example—or not. I am driving my first modern automobile—a 2019 that is loaded with safety features. It has lane tracing and warns me when I drift out of my lane, it has blind-spot monitoring and warns me when a car is too close on my left or right, and, this is the best, it puts on the brakes when I am about to hit something or somebody, front, or rear. One day last week I was backing out of a tight parking space at the Thruway Shopping Center when a car came speeding down the row of parked cars. Even before I knew it, the other car was there, but my car slammed on the brakes and saved me a nasty fender bender.
Jesus taught that God has the power to answer our prayers even before we can put them into words. He said, “For your (heavenly) Father knows what you need even before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:7)
In our gospel lesson from Luke 9, Jesus picks the father of the boy with a demon out of a crowd of people and agrees to look at his son. The man has already sought help from some disciples of Jesus, but they were powerless to help the boy because they were weak in faith. In those days, diseases of the body and mind were sometimes attributed to evil spirits and demons. The boy may have had epilepsy—or something like it, because even before Jesus could draw near him, he was gripped by an invisible hand and dashed to the ground. Jesus immediately rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And the text says that all the people who witnessed this healing and restoration were astounded by the greatness of God. Truly, in times like these, it is right to say, “God is good!” And you might add, “All the time!”
And when a child is born, or when two young people join their lives in marriage, or when we are promoted at work, or when we or someone we love is healed of a threatening disease, or when we reach the age of retirement with enough money in the bank to retire, or when we look out over a beautiful sunset and still feel the sun’s glow on our faces, it is right to say, “God is good!” And you might add, “All the time!”
We also confess God’s goodness—perhaps with even greater depth and feeling when God answers our prayers at the end of a long wait.
Consider Abraham. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house. In return for Abraham’s obedience, God promises him a land, a seed, and a blessing. In Genesis 15 several years have elapsed, and Abraham reminds God of his promises that he would have a son by his wife Sarah. God then shows Abraham the night sky and says that Abraham’s descendants will be more than the stars of the sky that he may or may not be able to count. And the text says, “Abraham believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In other words, Abraham trusted God’s promise and acted upon God’s promise, therefore Abraham saw the fulfillment of God’s promise. And God announced to Abraham that Abraham had fulfilled all that righteousness demands, for Abraham had kept the covenant he made with God.
Now God did not immediately fulfill the promise that he made to Abram. In fact, the fulfillment of the promise was a long time coming. Abraham had this vision sometime between the age of 75 and 85. He was 86 before Hagar, his wife’s handmaid, bore him a son, Ishmael. And Abraham was 100 years old when his wife Sarah finally bore him a son, Isaac, through whom God’s promise was fulfilled. This means that Abraham had to keep his covenant with God for at least 15 years—and possibly two decades or more, before God answered his prayer. During this time, Abram had adventures and misadventures. He pleaded with God for Sodom and Gomorrah, rescued his brother-in-law, Lot, from Sodom, fought battles, won a fortune, turned down a fortune, and offered tithes to Melchizedek, the high priest of Salem, whom the New Testament regards as a type of Christ. In short, as Abraham waited upon God to keep his promise, he continued to develop his relationship with God—or, rather, God continued to develop Abraham’s relationship with God, and Abraham became one of the greatest figures of the Hebrew Bible being surpassed only by Moses and David.
There are at least two lessons for us in the patience and faithful waiting of Abram.
First, we learn that it sometimes takes years for God to reveal the full and total answer to his promises. This does not mean that God is not already at work. As the hymnist reminds us:
“Deep in unfathomable mines skill of never-failing skill,
God treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will.” (Note 1).
And it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote:
“Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience God stands waiting,
With exactness He grinds all.”
Second, we learn that our waiting for God is not passive but active. As Oswald Chambers used to say, “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.” God sometimes asks us to put feet on our prayers. An ancient Jewish proverb declares, “No prayer is genuine unless the one who prays is ready to be a part of the answer.” Sometimes God asks us to put feet on our prayers and sometimes God asks us to lend our feet, hands, minds, and hearts to the prayers of another. We may be God’s messenger, even as we wait for a message of our own. We may be the one who keeps God’s promise to another, even as we wait for God to keep his promise to us.
Today, like Abraham, we have asked God for help. This is right and good. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you ask in faith.” There are limits on prayer—but Jesus does not want his disciples to set those limits in stone or be pressed into inactivity by them. When we pray, most of us ask for health and prosperity and peace. Recently, we have asked God to end the pandemic, put the brakes on inflation that is approaching an annual rate of 8%, and, above all, to put an end to the war in Ukraine. All these prayers are worthy, and all are worth waiting on. Our waiting must be active. Take our prayer for peace in Ukraine. Even the experts are amazed at how the nations, corporations, banks, and individuals of this world have come together to put sanctions on Putin. They say that, given enough time, these sanctions will ensure that Putin gains nothing from his invasion of Ukraine. However, these sanctions are costly for all of us and they will succeed only if we continue to pay our share, at the pump, in the grocery store, and at many other places besides. As Paul said to the Galatians, “We have made a good beginning.” And “Let us not grow weary in well-doing.” And while we wait, let us remember that word of the apostle in 2nd Peter 3:9:
“the LORD is not slow about his promises as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
That “us,” includes even Putin and people like him. If I were God, I would happily send the Russian dictator a stroke, or a heart attack, or maybe I would just distract him while he stepped in front of a bus. But I am not God and God has too much regard for the freedom he gave us to do anything like that. God gave us the freedom to do right and freedom to do wrong, and the freedom to oppose the evil in this world, whether we find it in ourselves or in another. This human freedom is often costly, but no one long believes that real freedom is free.
Can we accept God’s universal offer of grace and still say, “God is good!”? “All the time.” How can we not and still expect that grace for ourselves?
Finally, we believe that God is good even when we do not see “the goodness of God in the land of the living.”
Jesus trusted God’s goodness when he stretched out his arms upon the cross to receive the nails. And the trust of Jesus was vindicated when God raised him from death, exalted him to the Right Hand of His Majesty on High, and gave him a name which is above every name. When we ask Jesus to receive us into his open arms upon the cross, he promises to lift us up where we belong, with him, into the more immediate presence of God. As St. Paul reminds us in Philippians 3:20-21:
Our (citizenship/commonwealth) is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (RSV)
Karl Marx said that talk of heaven is just an “opiate for the masses.” Others have called it pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye. In one sense that is true, but the new world that is coming to us in Christ is much more. In Philippians 3, Paul tells us that the next life that is dawning is not just as a consolation prize for those who have been shortchanged in this life—like the millions who died in the holocaust, and the thousands who have died in Ukraine, but a time of reckoning for those who have bullied, cheated, stolen, and murdered their way to the top of our human heap. What does the apostle say?
Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly (their appetites), and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
The bullies of this world may escape God in this life; they cannot escape God in the next. They may go gently into what they regard as that long good night of sleep and death, but their worst nightmares will come true. They will be held accountable.
And what about us? As children of Abraham justified through our faith in Jesus, we rejoice in our hope of sharing the goodness and glory of God, whether in this world or in the next. More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-11) Therefore, despite all that this world can throw up against us, we can still say, “God is good!” “All the time!”
Please pray with me:
Gracious Lord, we pray that the nations, corporations, banks, and individuals of this world, including we who have gathered here, might continue to stand firm together against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If Putin does not repent, we pray that, our firm stand will inspire the legitimate leaders of the Russian people to remove Putin—and all the people like him who trade in bullying and fear. We also pray that the Ukrainian People, and the Ukrainian Government, and especially their heroic President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy might survive this terrible invasion. When they do, and when peace has been restored, and the rebuilding of the nation begun, we will confess that yet once again, we have seen “the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” Finally, if all else fails, we pray that you might hasten the day when the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ become one and the same.” Amen.
And this pastor says, “God is Good!” And the people say, “All the time!”
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform:
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour:
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own Interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
William Cowper, 1731-1800