In our second lesson today, St. Paul writes these words, " 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil." These words make solid, good sense. Hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil. If everyone did this, we wouldn’t have so many issues in the world, now would we? At least one would think so.
But, this statement carries with it an assumption–it carries with it the assumption that we can know what is good and what is evil. So, let me ask you this morning, what is the good we are supposed to hang onto?
Now, that might seem like a rather stupid question. You might look at me this morning and say, "Pastor, good is good and evil is evil and never the two shall meet. Right is right and wrong is wrong. End of story. You are wasting your time with this sermon."
O.K. Let’s play along with this line of thinking. Here’s a question that hits right in the center of rural America and especially farmers: is the use of chemical fertilizers good or bad? Think a minute on that one. Those of us who have been around farming and ranching know the tremendous benefits of chemical fertilizers. We know that it increases crop yields exponentially. We know it’s use has enabled us to feed the growing population of the world. We know that without it, many more people would have died. We also know that because of its use, fewer people have to farm thus giving others ample opportunity to use their time for other endeavors to be productive in society. So, along this line of reasoning, chemical fertilizers are good.
However, there is a down side, as I am sure some of you here this morning also know. Not all of the chemicals used in fertilizers are absorbed into the ground. Some of it gets washed away in heavy rainfall. That which is washed away runs into rivers and streams, and because of the large amounts of it, the excess chemicals cause a giant dead zone in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one strike. Another strike comes in the form of producing too much leisure. Remember what I said about fewer people having to farm to produce what we need to eat? Well, it has led some to be more productive; however I seem to have heard more than a few complaints about youngsters continually getting into trouble now-a-days because they have too much free time. I’ve even heard, and said once or twice, "If these youngsters could spend a day or two behind a cotton hoe being worn out, we wouldn’t have as much trouble." So, you see that chemical fertilizers have actually caused too much leisure time for some folks. Now, the question again: are chemical fertilizers completely good?
Ah, you might stop me there and say, "Pastor, as with anything, there is some good and some bad. But, that’s with inventions and things like that. There is still right and there is still wrong. There is still good and there is still evil. Inventions are inventions, but it is human action that counts. Here we can easily know the difference between right and wrong–good and evil. I mean there is a reason we have the Ten Commandments, isn’t there. They help us know good from evil."
A good point is made by this argument. A very good point. Is it even possible to argue with it? Well, you tell me as we go a little bit deeper. Let’s pick one of the Ten Commandments now–number five to be exact. As a refresher for those who might not know this one, the fifth commandment is, "Thou shalt not kill or murder" depending upon your interpretation. Martin Luther in his Small Catechism explained this commandment this way, "We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor’s life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life." Pretty straight forward, huh? Pretty black and white, right? Don’t kill. Got it. Killing, bad. Keeping alive, good.
So now, let me ask two quick questions: the Christian soldier who is serving in the military–if he gets an enemy in his sights and squeezes the trigger, is he breaking the fifth commandment? Or, if a would-be thief and murderer breaks into your home and threatens your children, and you have a gun and shoot him, have you broken the fifth commandment? Are you doing good or evil?
You see, such is the problem that we face as human beings. One would think it is very easy to distinguish good and evil. But we have a very hard time doing so. It stems way back in the Garden of Eden. Do you remember the story? God creates a beautiful garden. He puts man in the middle of it and shows him two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God says, "Eat of any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil because if you eat of that tree, you will die."
Man managed and did O.K. for a time. Woman came along because it was not good for man to be alone, and they thrived for some time. But then a serpent came along and offered up a temptation, "Eat of the fruit and you will be like God knowing the difference between good and evil."
At first glance this doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. Who wouldn’t want to be like God and know the difference between good and evil? Who wouldn’t want to be able to distinguish right from wrong? But there was a qualification to this argument that the serpent didn’t put forward–the problem is human beings are incapable of having God’s perspective on things. We simply cannot know the heart and mind of God in its fullness. We are much too limited. But our hubris, our desire to be like God has had dire consequences. Our thinking we can absolutely know the difference between good and evil has led to all sorts of issues, and I cited but two earlier in this sermon.
And unfortunately, most of you know I am correct. Most of you know because you know the old cliche and you know the truth within it: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Out of our desires to do good, evil often comes. And sometimes when evil is perpetrated, good comes out of it. So what is good? What is evil? How do we know what to hold onto and what to abstain from? Are we left to throw up our hands and meander around in hopelessness?
In the Gospel of Mark chapter 10 beginning in verse 17 we read a very interesting snippet, "As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Now, Jesus response is actually very interesting here. Jesus response is almost out of the ordinary. Why? Because, 18Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
No one is good but God alone. Nothing is good but God alone. Quick question here as well, if the man recognizes Jesus as good, is he recognizing that Jesus is God? Perhaps so, especially since we believe that God came down as Jesus the Messiah, the Word made flesh–the true Light which has come into the darkness of our world. It is this Light which indeed is good. And so...so it just may be that Paul is urging us, compelling us to hold onto Jesus. Hold onto Him with all our strength, all our soul, all our might, and all our power. For when we find ourselves confused by figuring out right from wrong; when we find ourselves in the chaos of the world that twists and turns our words and actions; when we find ourselves scratching our heads in bewilderment, we can turn to Jesus, we can grasp hold of Him, and we can truly know we are holding onto the Ultimate Good. Amen.