5 Pentecost, Year A
5 Pentecost, Year A
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Who is God? What qualities, characteristics or attributes best describe God? How do we speak of God? It is often those who have faced and walked through sufferings that are given the deepest insights into the nature of God. In today’s psalm—regarded by some scholars as an individual lament—we learn that the author is facing and attempting to walk through some fairly tough times of suffering. The psalmist, among other things, describes him(her)self as poor and needy; as one who longs for God’s graciousness; as one who is depressed and sorrowful; as one who suffers from those who hate him (her). It is precisely in the midst of all this suffering and struggling that the psalmist reveals three very significant attributes/characteristics of God’s nature. In verse five, the psalmist affirms the following confession of faith: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.”
“For you, O Lord, are good,” says the psalmist. What does it mean to describe God as good? The philosophers associate goodness with morals, ethics, and virtues. They may trace the presence of goodness in the world, its functioning, and within the actions of human beings as originating from God the source of all goodness. We humans are created in God’s image; therefore we share God’s attributes/characteristics, including goodness. This however, is problematic for Jesus, when some try to flatter him by describing him as good. He resists such a description, insisting, “only God is good.” Yet, if Jesus is “fully human AND fully divine,” as we confess him to be in the creed, does this mean, among other things, that Jesus is in fact good? We speak of Jesus as being “without sin,” surely that means he is good, doesn’t it? When we examine the life Jesus lived on earth, and the activities he engaged in during his public ministry, certainly we meet “a paragon of virtue” in this Jesus, don’t we? If we associate goodness with morals, ethics and virtues, then surely Jesus is one of the, if not THE best Exemplars in human history, is he not? Why would he say, “only God is good”? If only God is good, then how can or do we know that goodness the psalmist describes?
It seems to me that for the psalmist God is good because God is and remains in relationship with the psalmist and with all of humankind. For God, relationships with us human beings are primary. Sure God is able to exist as the Wholly Other God without any of us around, but then we’d never know or experience the goodness of God, would we? So to be in relationship with God is to know and experience the goodness of God. Everything flows from this reality, hence the psalmist goes on to observe in verse nine: “All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.” This is the goodness of God. God is so large with goodness that there’s enough and to spare for everyone, all peoples, all the nations. In this sense, is God’s goodness not inseparable and intricately bound up with the very gift of life itself? Life in all of their forms—but most significantly the spiritual life, believing, knowing and experiencing the truth that we cannot live without God.
The psalmist describes the second attribute/characteristic of God like this: “For you, O Lord, are forgiving.” The following story sheds light on the beauty and importance of forgiveness.
A six-year-old son used one of those super adhesive glues on an airplane he was building. In less than three minutes, his right index finger was bonded to a shiny blue wing of his DC-10. He tried to free it. He tugged it, pulled it, waved it frantically; but he couldn’t budge his finger free. Soon, a member of the family located a solvent that did the job and ended this little crisis.
The next night the father remembered that scene when he visited a new family in his neighbourhood. The father of the new family introduced his children:
“This is Pete. He’s the clumsy one of the lot.”
“That’s Kathy coming in with mud on her shoes. She’s the sloppy one.”
“As always, Mike’s last. He’ll be late for his own funeral, I promise you.”
The dad did a thorough job of gluing his children to their faults and mistakes.
People do it to us and to those we love all the time. They remind us of our failures, our errors, our sins, and they won’t let us live them down. Like the son trying frantically to free his finger from the plane, there are people who try, sometimes desperately, to free themselves from their past. They would love a chance to begin again.
When we don’t let people forget their past, when we don’t forgive, we glue them to their mistakes and refuse to see them as more than something they have done. However, when we forgive, we gently pry the doer of the hurtful deed from the deed itself, and we say that the past is just that—past—over and done with.
God does what we are unable to do or what those around us don’t want to do or are unable to do for us. When we accept his forgiveness, he separates us from our sins. “As far as the east is from the west,” the psalmist says, which means as far as you can imagine, that offence will be wiped away, blotted out.
The good news—the very good news—is that we don’t have to remain in bondage, glued to our sins. The healing power of God is ours for the asking, promising freedom and the loving embrace of a Father who forgets our past and clothes us for a new life. 1
The third attribute/characteristic of God is described by the psalmist like this: “For you, O Lord, are abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” God’s steadfast love is one of the favourite attributes described in the Book of Psalms. In the Hebrew language the word is chesed, it is translated into English in the following ways: steadfast love, loving-kindness, kindness, great kindness, mercy, loyal love. It frequently refers to God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s loving devotion to Israel and the rest of humankind, God’s dependability at all times and in all circumstances. At the root of God’s steadfast love are God’s generous grace; God’s immeasurable favour towards humankind; God’s competence and ability to know and do what is right.
During World War II some soldiers took cover in a trench. Between their trenches and that of the enemy, a soldier lay wounded. One soldier begged his officer to allow him to run out of the trench and carry back his fallen friend.
The officer was displeased. He had lost many men and he suspected the wounded man was beyond help.
“What good would it do?” The officer asked, “You might throw away your own life.”
The soldier continued to plead until the officer agreed. Then, bravely, the soldier sprang from the trench and some minutes later reappeared dragging his friend with him.
The officer examined the man and then turned angrily to his soldier. “I told you it wasn’t worth the risk. He’s dead.”
“It wasn’t worth it,” the soldier replied. “He wasn’t quite dead when I reached him and he said something important.”
Although the wounded man had been in great pain, he had opened his eyes briefly, looked at his friend and said, “I knew you’d come.” 2 God is like that towards us all; God takes the risk to reach and save us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, may we, like the psalmist, bear faithful witness to our God who is good, forgiving and abounding in steadfast love.