Sunday, December 4, 2011

Forgiveness

When I agreed to speak this morning on forgiveness, I didn’t expect to have my entire sermon outlined to the congregation the previous week… Last Sunday, [---], speaking about relationships, mentioned the cost of unforgiveness – how it only eats away at the one who refuses to forgive. [---], in his meditation earlier, mentioned the cost of forgiveness – how it involves absorbing a debt, often at a great price. [---] mentioned the example of Jesus – how his sacrifice for us was for the sake of our forgiveness, and how critical this is for us. Finally, [---] mentioned how to be truly forgiving involves participating in the sacrifice of Jesus ourselves – experiencing within us that death that leads to resurrection.

It hasn’t exactly left me with much material to cover… but instead of taking this as a set-back, let me interpret it differently; as reinforcement: God’s way of letting us know just how important the subject of forgiveness is this morning. So let me begin with a true story. It’s one you already know, but in perhaps a slightly unfamiliar form. This telling is due to Ray Pritchard, from Mississippi…

It’s Friday morning. Outside the Damascus Gate is a road and on the other side of the road is a flat area near the spot where the prophet Jeremiah is buried. Up above is a rocky outcropping that, if studied at a certain angle, looks like a skull. You can see eroded into the limestone two sockets for the eyes, a place for the nose and maybe a place for the mouth. Skull Hill, they called it. Golgotha. It was the place where the Romans do their killing. And the soldiers are ready to do their dirty work this morning. This is the death squad. They are in charge of crucifixions.

On this particular Friday morning their workload is light. Only three this week. The soldiers know that two of the men being crucified are just average, ordinary criminals—the kind that you find in any big city anywhere in the world. No big deal. But the third man, the one from up north, the preacher from Nazareth, his case is different. They don’t really know who he is. But they know it’s important because they sense the buzz in the crowd. There are more people than usual. There’s something morbidly fascinating about watching someone else die. The people of Jerusalem, at least some of them, loved to come out and watch the crucifixions. Well, maybe they didn’t love it but they couldn’t stay away. Some strange magnetic force drew them back to Skull Hill again and again. But today there are more people than usual, a bigger crowd, noisier, rowdier, milling to and fro, waiting for the action to begin.

Up the road comes a parade of people led by a brawny foreigner carrying a cross. That couldn’t be the one they were going to crucify. It turns out he was a man by the name of Simon—Simon of Cyrene. The crowd swirls around him and behind him is a stooped figure. Now walking, now crawling, each step an agony to behold. He had been beaten within an inch of his life. His back was in shreds. His front was covered with the markings of the whip. His face was disfigured and swollen where they had ripped out his beard by the roots. And on his head a crown of thorns six inches long stuck under the skin. A shell of a man. A man already more dead than alive. When the fellows on the crucifixion detail saw that, they weren’t unhappy. After all, sometimes people got a little feisty when you tried to nail them to a cross. No, they didn’t mind getting a person who was almost dead because it meant their work would be easier.

They laid the cross out on the ground and they laid the body of this man on the cross. He moved, he moaned, he didn’t do much. One hand over here, one hand over there. Wrapping rope around this arm and around that arm. Rope around the legs. They drove the spike on the forearm side of the wrist so that when the weight of the cross fell, the spike wouldn’t rip all the way through the hand. A spike in both wrists and then a spike through the legs. With the ropes in place they began to pull the cross up. Jesus’ blood spurts from the raw wounds. Steady now, boys, steady. Don’t drop it. It was a terrible thing to drop a cross before they got it in the hole. They lowered it carefully, and it fell into place with a thud. And there was Jesus, naked and exposed before the world, beaten, bruised and bloody. The soldiers stood back, satisfied.

And then… then this man seems to want to say something from the cross. He opens his mouth, and out come these amazing, haunting, remarkable words: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

No one expected him to say that. A dying man might scream or curse or utter threats, but you never heard a word of forgiveness when a man was being crucified. Yet that is precisely what Jesus offered to these men who were murdering him. He offered them forgiveness. He prayed that they might be forgiven. He asked his righteous and holy Father in heaven, the Lord of the universe, to forgive his murderers while they were murdering him.

This man, Jesus, doesn’t do any of the things that we would do in his place:
• He doesn’t offer a word in his own defense.
• He doesn’t condemn Herod or Pilate or the Jewish leaders.
• He doesn’t proclaim his own innocence.
• He doesn’t turn against God.
• He doesn’t attack his attackers.
• He doesn’t attempt to save himself.
• He doesn’t blame anyone—though many were to blame.
Instead, he prays. As his life ebbs from his beaten and bruised body, as the blood drips to the ground, he does the one thing he can do. He prays – and he prays for those who are torturing him. And Jesus is an example to us this morning, dear friends. Let us learn from our Savior today:
• We do not forgive because they understand what they did.
• We do not forgive because they have suffered as much as we suffered.
• We do not forgive because they “deserve” forgiveness.
• We do not forgive to gain some personal advantage over them.
• We forgive in spite of what they’ve done.
• We forgive because God is gracious.
• We forgive because that’s what Jesus did on the cross.
• We forgive because that’s what Jesus did for you.
That’s right: he prayed for us, there, too. When he prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he wasn’t just referring to the soldiers, the mob, and to the disciples who had all deserted him. I was included in the “them” and so were you. He was praying for you and he was praying for me.

“Hold on.” You might be thinking. “I’m not like that. I would never crucify anyone.” Perhaps not. But even Jesus’ closest disciples abandoned him before his trial. At best, if you had been there, you might have been like Peter – lying to and cursing at a stranger thinking you are connected to the arrested man. At worst, you would have been there along with the crowd shouting, “Crucify him. Crucify him!” We really are no better.

Early Sunday mornings at Bethel, we come before this table to participate in the Lord’s supper. We might be so familiar with it that we’ve forgotten Jesus words when he passed around the cup: “Drink from it, all of you,” he said. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) Every time we drink from that cup, as we did this morning, we are acknowledging God’s forgiveness in our lives. We are acknowledging our participation is Jesus sacrifice for us.“This is my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

When Jesus talks about drinking his blood, we naturally react with a shudder and an “e-e-e-ew.” Well, just like we might think that we would never crucify anyone, most of think that we would never drink blood. And sure enough, the Jewish people listening to Jesus’ words didn’t like that kind of talk at all. The Bible says, “From [the time he started talking like this] many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” After all, they had grown up with the Jewish teaching about blood, and avoided it as much as possible. “Drink blood? What are you talking about???” they might have asked.

But Jesus chose this image, as objectionable as it is, on purpose. He knew that there would be this reaction to it, but he also knew that there is a similar reaction – something deep within us – that also reacts against the need to be forgiven. Jesus talk about blood-drinking is to shake us up – to help us to realize that we need to get over something deep within our very nature. By that nature, we are offended at the very thought that we might need forgiveness. We want to think that we are really quite fine, thank you. But no: the reality is so opposite, and so severe that Jesus puts it in the starkest of terms: “I tell you the truth,” he says, “unless you drink my blood [– unless you accept my forgiveness –] you have no life in you. [But] whoever drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6:53) “This is my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The first lesson this morning, dear friends, is that we are deeply, desperately, sorely in need of forgiveness. In fact, that’s the idea behind the story that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 18, isn’t it? And before we turn there, I’d like to point out that this parable was delivered to Jesus’ disciples. Not to the Pharisees. Not to the tax collectors. This is a parable intended for the benefit of those closest to Jesus: and this is very important. Verse 23: “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him [a bunch of money] was brought to him.” Now folks often translate this “bunch of money” in ancient terms. The pew Bibles, for example, use “bags of gold.” But since I certainly don’t trade in gold, I had to do some research, and discovered that the amount of gold that this man owed to his king is close to the sum of all the balances of every single credit card in Canada – in the vicinity of 30 billion dollars-worth. As Richard Feynman famously noted, we used to call numbers like this “astronomical” numbers – these days, we should call them “economical” numbers. In its essence, this number is well beyond anything repayable. But let’s proceed with our passage:
“As [the king] began the settlement, a man who owed him $30B was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The king took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
When the servant begs his master, saying that he will pay back everything, he’s saying the only thing that he can imagine to have any effect. But the king is willing to put up with this nonsense, too: knowing full well that such a debt could not be repaid in many, many lifetimes. You see, we’re not talking here about the “wups, sorry, how much do I owe you?” kind of debt. As if I were visiting a friend and on the way home I accidentally run over a rose bush. This is a bigger debt; much bigger. Imagine how your friend might respond if you try the “wups, sorry, how much do I owe you?” if, after climbing into your car to head home, instead of running over his rose bush, you run over his child. We’re talking that kind of debt, friends. And it is precisely because the debt is so enormous that the grace involved in the canceling of that debt is so amazing.

Every summer, I like to spend a week at camp, and one of the things that I like to do during the chapel time at camp is to have the campers re-enact this parable. I choose one child to be the king (or perhaps the queen) and other children to be the guards and the bookkeeper. One of the counselors always plays the role of the servant owing a lot of money, and the campers really seem to enjoy seeing a counselor grovel in front of the camper playing the “king” part. As the Bible reminds us, back then if someone couldn’t pay a debt, their freedom was forfeit – they became slaves, along with their entire family. The camper playing “king” often likes the sound of that. But then I come to this part:“The king took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” “NO WAY!” the campers sometimes respond spontaneously. And this is, of course, the correct response! As incomprehensible is the amount of the debt, the grace and mercy and love active in the canceling of that debt is more unfathomable still. God’s response to us is, “Yes way!” God’s grace is amazing and glorious and transforming.

As it says in Colossians chapter 2: “He forgave us all our sins; he canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.” What a joy; what a relief; what a blessing. But hold up… the story doesn’t end there. (verse 28)
But when the man [having such a considerable debt canceled in its entirety] left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you [also] have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
Let’s be clear: Forgiveness is not an optional part of the Christian life. Practicing forgiveness is a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian. If we are going to follow Jesus, we must forgive each other. What does the Bible say?

Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another ... Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Mark 11:25 “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Luke 6:37 “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Matt 6 “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Ok, so much for theory. So far two very important points: #1: we are in desperate need of forgiveness ourselves, and #2: being forgiven requires us to be forgiving. But it isn’t easy. Of course it isn’t. If it were easy, Jesus would not have had to come to die. To forgive us cost Jesus his life. To forgive others will cost us something too. We will certainly have to give up our anger, turn away from our bitterness, and decide by a conscious choice that we will forgive those who have sinned against us. And very often we will have to perform that act of forgiveness over and over again until we learn the grace of continuing forgiveness.

It is, of course, one thing to acknowledge the importance of forgiveness, and quite another thing altogether to put it into practice. As C.S.Lewis wrote: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”

So how about some principles, that if understood might make it a little easier to exercise forgiveness. First: forgiveness is not something to be avoided. Don’t make the hermit’s mistake. The hermit thinks that the best way to avoid needing to be forgiven or needing to forgive is to remove oneself from others altogether. Tragically, we see attempts at this throughout the history of the church. But that’s not an option for a true Christian. We’re called to be the light of the world. And Jesus explicitly says that that means that folks can see our light. We’re called to be the salt of the earth. And that means that folks can taste our saltiness. The solution to the “problem” of forgiveness is not less sin. The solution is more love.

One day, Jesus was invited out to dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees (this is from Luke chapter 7),
And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that [Jesus] was was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when [Jesus’ host] saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
But Jesus replied: Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much”
Forgiveness flows from the spring of love. And with these words Jesus reverses the common conception. We understand that those who are forgiven much are grateful in proportion to the forgiveness they receive. But Jesus is saying the converse: this woman’s many sins are forgiven because she loved much. The solution to the “problem” of forgiveness is not less sin. The solution is more love.

We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. For it is when we truly love God that he give us glimpses of His glory: the glory of His perfection, of His righteousness, of His justice, of His love, of His mercy, of His holiness, and of His purity. The only possible response to such a revelation is complete humility before God’s awesomeness. The only way that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not in need of forgiveness is to measure everything by ourselves. But if we love God, we just can’t do that. Hanging around God even a little bit makes one realize that God is the measure of all things, and we immediately come to appreciate just how much we need forgiveness.

But we are also called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know from experience that people who have never experienced love find it very difficult to be loving, and people who have never experienced forgiveness find it very difficult to forgive. But God offers us such depths of love that no matter what we’ve been through, He wants to fill us with living water, overflowing to the world around us. But that’s the second practical Christian principle concerning forgiveness, isn’t it? We will forgive to the extent that we appreciate how much we have been forgiven.

One final point, a point that brings us back to Eileen and Randy from last week, and specifically brings us back to Christ on the cross. How is it that Jesus is able to even contemplate forgiving his enemies? If we understood that better, we would be better equipped to exercise forgiveness ourselves. Well, I think that the key is that Jesus had already initiated his sacrifice for us. He knew that that’s why he came into the world. And having already taken on the attitude of a servant, he was now taking on the attitude of a sacrifice. This morning, if you belong to Christ, you, too, are being called to share that mindset with Christ (“Let this mind be in you which is also in Christ Jesus” we read in Philippians chapter 2) – and this is a mindset that will heal your world through the forgiveness that is found in Him. We need to die with Christ, friends. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate source of all forgiveness – and we need to participate in it. As Tim Keller writes: “On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale...There was a debt to be paid--God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be born--God himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering.”

Jesus sends us as his Father has sent him: into a fallen world that desperately needs the love and forgiveness of God. But it hurts. Sure it does. But it is expensive. Sure it is. But Jesus obedience on the cross was the only solution for us. To forgive is simply to participate in the sacrifice of Jesus. But that’s not the end of it: because of his sacrifice, God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. And we, too, know that “if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6) For if we share in his suffering we will also share in his glory. (Romans 8) I’ll conclude by reading from Psalm 32.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the LORD does not count against Him…
3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
7 You are our hiding place;
and our protection from trouble