I found an old Christmas card featuring a little girl sitting on a department store Santa’s lap. They have already been in conversation, apparently, because the little girl is saying to Santa, “Define ‘good.’”
That’s a big question. Certainly a big question for a kid at Christmas time. All the grown-ups are always asking, “Have you been good?”
I always had a hard time answering that when I was a kid.
What Does It Mean To Be Good?
I would look back on the year and try to sum up the good days and the bad days. And it really did come down to that business: Define good.
On the whole, for example, 1969 was a pretty good year. I didn’t get sent to the principal all that often. I hadn’t bitten anybody since the first grade. Didn’t get sent to reform school or military school.
But then things could really take off. I mean, if defining good meant just a list of the things you hadn’t done, you were in business. I didn’t rob any banks. I didn’t poison or stab or shoot anybody. I didn’t blow up anybody’s house or car. Of course I didn’t really know how. But still, it looked pretty easy on “Mannix.”
On the other hand, what if defining good meant doing the things you are supposed to do? Or, even worse, what if defining good meant finding new ways to be good and help out, things that nobody ever told you to do, that surprised everybody and amazed them?
What if being good meant never missing an opportunity to do a good, right thing?
A Recipe for Chaos
The priests and the Levites during the time of Jesus spent a lot of time and effort checking out this troublemaker called John, this man who had been baptizing people and preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And they were asking him the priests-and-Levites equivalent of, “Have you been good?”
John was facing off against secular laws and sacred wisdom, warning everybody big changes were coming, and nothing was ever going to be as it had been.
You can see where this might cause trouble. If we follow the law, then we are all on the same page. We all know what is expected of us. But if some joker comes along preaching repentance and forgiveness, all of that happens between the sinner and God. There are no priests, and there are no temples. No burnt offerings or any other intermediaries.
Well, clearly, as far as the priests and Levites were concerned, that was just a recipe for chaos.
And so they pretty much throw up their hands, figuring they’re not going to get a straight answer. So they ask, “Alright then, Who are you? Tell us something that makes sense, and we will let you go.”
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ ” (John 1:22-24).
By the time the examination is over, the powers that be have decided that, however you define it, John has not been good. He has been bad.
Christian, Have You Been Good?
John looked deep into the laws and wisdom of his people and saw being good or bad for what they were.
He knew and was basically saying, “I can’t be good! I don’t even know what it means to be good! I’m not the Christ, I’m not Elijah, and I’m not a prophet. But one thing I do know: Things aren’t always going to be the way they are now. Someone new is coming. Someone is coming who is so mighty and so powerful that I am not worthy to carry His sandals.”
John told all the priests and Levites and pharisees and Sadducees and scribes that they — yes even they, the ones who had written the definitions of good — they were going to have to repent. They were going to have to make themselves right before the Lord, who was coming.
This time of year, it seems like the whole world is covered in tinsel and garland, singing happy songs of winter, snow, trees, reindeer, wassail and mistletoe.
Every now and then, those of us who recognize Advent and Christmas can be overheard suggesting that maybe, every now and then, we look a little deeper into the season, beyond the strings of street lights and twinkle lights blinking bright white, red and green as the shoppers rush home with their treasures.
The world has a right to ask us, “Christian, have you been good? Have you done more good than the rest of us? Have you avoided more evil than the rest of us? Have you discovered new ways to be good? Have you surprised and delighted us with your goodness?”
And to all of these questions we have to answer, “No.” Oh, we have tried. We have done some good. We have avoided some bad. We delighted some, maybe, on a good day. But none of that is the point.
If we do our job right, people will not ask us about our goodness or our badness. John knew that to be the people of God, we must allow God to shine through us the way sun shines through a clean window on a bright Christmas morning.
We are not the light, but we testify to the light. We are not good, but we bear witness to the One who is good. We do not surprise people, but we serve the One who is filled with surprise, delight, wonder, mercy and goodness.
“‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”