Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. The Psalmist's view is that God is so creative and so wonderfully loving that we shouldn't allow anything to separate us from him.
We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. He cares personally for each one of us and you'd think that would make us grateful and determined to be good.
My grandfather had a herd of sheep. To look at them, scattered around the field eating grass and watching over their lambs, they seemed like free agents who could do whatever they liked. But not a bit of it. The flock had a leader, whom my grandfather had kindly nicknamed Granny. When he came to the gate with a sack of feed she would walk to meet him and then she would follow him all the way to the feed trough. She never hurried, and she was never pushed or jostled by the rest of the flock, because she was the acknowledged leader of the flock and they all fell into line obediently behind her. I don't know how she enforced her priority in the pecking order, but she did! So those were good sheep. but not all sheep are as docile and well behaved.
When I was a child we used to go sometimes to sheepdog trials. They were supposed to be a test of which shepherd and dog had the best working relationship, but actually they were often a test of which competitor was unlucky enough to get the most stubborn set of sheep. The sheep would be divided into fours and each competitor worked with just four of them. But some sheep were good and would do just what the dog wanted, and some were determined to do their own thing. Once a dog got so frustrated that it tried to bite a sheep, but it wasn't entirely the dog's fault. Those sheep were spoiling for a fight!
The Psalmist warns that, although God is the good shepherd, we are not necessarily obedient sheep. Too often, even those of us who think that we're good find ourselves hardening our hearts to what is right. Like the sheep in the sheepdog trials we test the shepherd and put him to the proof, even though we have seen his goodness to us, and that's often because we convince ourselves that we're not so bad - that it's not our fault if we get bitten. And God gets frustrated, like the shepherd and the dog who were unlucky enough to draw the stubborn set of sheep. In fact, the Psalmist says an extraordinary thing; that God came to loathe the generation of people whom he rescued from Egypt so much for going astray that he swore - in his frustration - that they should not enter his rest in the Promised Land.
There is an implicit threat in the way the Psalmist recounts this story. 'O that today you would listen to his voice!' he tells the worshippers. 'Do not harden your hearts; do not go astray and disregard God's ways, or else you too shall not enter his rest just like the cursed generation who were condemned to wander in the wilderness without respite.'
But, of course, we know this isn't necessarily true. Our situation isn't as hopeless as the Psalmist implies.We can still obtain access to God's peace and grace, says Paul, even though we don't manage to be as good as we might like to imagine; and that's because God's patience isn't exhausted after all. We can still be justified by faith in Jesus' death for us upon the Cross, and God's love can still be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Although we are still struggling and failing to be good enough, God has died for the ungodly. 'Perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die,' says Paul, 'But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.'
Notice the almost casual way in which Paul moves from talking about God to talking about Jesus Christ, as if they were almost one and the same. God is not Jesus. He is more than Jesus. But we can say that Jesus is God. So if Jesus was willing to die for us, even though we are so shot full of imperfections, that proves the Psalmist was mistaken. We do, as the Psalmist says, make God angry by our disobedience. We do make God feeling loathing for the way we justify our behaviour. Paul actually talks in even strongly language than the Psalmist; he says that we incur God's wrath. But it is not true that we are condemned to wander for ever in the wilderness, cast out from God's love. We can find our rest in him. Despite our weakness we can be reconciled to God by Jesus' death for us and the Spirit of the risen Jesus can help us to become better people.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what Paul elsewhere calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. No wonder then that another Psalmist says, 'Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven.' God in his mercy is prepared to accept us despite our imperfections. In Jesus he offers himself as a solution to our predicament. He shows us that his love can always overcome the bad things that good people end up doing. And through his Spirit working in us we can at least grow towards perfection.
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. But the Bible reminds us that we can only be truly good if we’re radically good. There’s no such thing as pretty good. And if we’re falling short of radical goodness, as we surely must, that simply emphasises our reliance on God’s grace, for the truly good are those who know their need of God’s great goodness.