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Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Forgiving Forgiven”

Matthew 18:21–35, Pentecost 19
Focus: We are incapable of forgiveness on our own, but we are empowered by Him to forgive.
Function: That the hearers embrace God’s forgiveness and let it become who they are.
Structure: Narrative

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
In college, I read a story that captivated both my heart and my mind.  I knew its theology was questionable, but I wasn’t reading it for its theology.  What intrigued me was the intense, raw, and powerful emotions that the main character was struggling with and how he encountered God, grace, and healing in a way that I pray many of us never have to.  I can still remember how my stomach churned as I read how Mack’s six year old daughter was abducted, and all that was found was her torn and blood soaked dress in a rundown shack hidden in the woods.  Mack became bitter, and he blamed God for all that had happened.
A few months later, Mack received a note in the mail.  It said, “Mackenzie, It’s been a while.  I’ve missed you.  I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.  Papa.”  As he read it, nausea rolled over Mack like waves crashing upon the beach.  He thought someone must be playing a sick joke on him.  You see, Papa was a nickname that his wife had given God.  Fear, anger, grief, anxiety, and a whole flood of emotions came over Mack as he contemplated that note, but in the end curiosity prevailed.
With much apprehension, Mack made the long voyage out to that shack, not knowing what to expect when He arrived.  The shack was as just as he had last seen it.  Inside, he could still see the blood stain in the floor boards from where his daughter once laid.  Rage built inside.  He began smashing everything in sight and yelling at the God he believed wasn’t even listening.  Finally exhaustion overcame him and he slumped down against a wall and fell asleep.  When he awoke he headed back to his truck, kicking himself for coming in the first place.  Suddenly, a warm breeze cut through the cold winter.  He turned and the shack had transformed into a cozy little cottage, and there standing in the front door to greet him was God Himself.
What happened over the next couple days was full of both joy and hardships.  Mack felt his life being transformed and his relationship with God renewed bit by bit.  God and Mack talked about all sorts of things, not only about the pain and suffering he was currently going through, but also the wounds Mack suffered as a kid that hindered his relationship with God.  As they talked, Mack found the strength to forgive the wounds of his past, and the more he forgave the more joy he felt and the closer he felt to God.
As the weekend came to a close, God took Mack on one last hike.  When they stopped to rest, God looked at Mack and said, “I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart…you already know what I want, don’t you?”  Mack knew alright.  His emotions came to a boil as tears streamed down his face.  He opened his mouth to speak, “God, how can I ever forgive the man who killed my Missy?  If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do.  I know it’s isn’t right, but I want to hurt him like he hurt me…if I can’t get justice, I still want revenge.”
This is often how we respond when we’ve been wronged.  We ask, “How can I forgive those who have hurt me so badly?”  Often, instead of forgiveness, we want to get even.  We want to inflict the same pain that was given to us.  Like Mack, we just can’t forgive what has been done to us.  How could we just let it go?  How can we forgive those who have wronged us so badly?  …Maybe though…this is the wrong question we should be asking.  Maybe this question comes from a misunderstanding of what forgiveness truly means.
In our text today, Peter comes to Jesus and asks Him a question that we ourselves frequently want to know.  “How often are we to forgive those who have wronged us?”  With this question Peter throws out what considers a pretty generous offer.  It is said that according to Jewish custom of the time, you were only required to forgive someone three times before your obligation was satisfied.  Peter’s offer is more than double that.  Even so, Jesus does not respond favorably to Peter’s offer.  He says, “I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven.”  The point is clear: Jesus is telling us to not keep a record of wrongs and is calling us to a forgiveness that never ends.
Many may think this is an impossible task.  Continual forgiveness?  We just don’t have it in us…or is that the point.  Jesus explains with a parable declaring that the reign of God is like a king who wished to settle accounts.  One was brought before him who owed ten thousand talents.  That was more money than all Rome was worth.  This guy was in deep, and there was no way he could ever pay it back.  The king pronounced judgment upon him, and ordered all his possessions, family, and even he himself to be sold so that the king may recover something of the debt.
But the servant fell upon his knees and begged the king to have patience with him, insisting he would pay everything back.  Despite the ridiculous request, the king took pity on the man and forgave him his debt in its entirety.  The man was released free and clear.  But when he went out he saw a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  Compared to his debt that could not have been paid off in several life times, this fellow’s debt could have been paid off in three to four months, yet he seized his fellow servant by the throat and demanded repayment.  When his fellow servant pleaded in the same manner, he refused to show the same mercy he had been given and threw the man in jail.
Distressed at what they had witnessed, the other servants went and told the king.  Thus the king summoned the man before him and declared, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  And in his anger the king delivered the man to the jailers until his impossible debt was paid.  Jesus closes with telling His disciples, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  So then, what are we to do?
A few weeks ago I preached over Paul’s words from Romans 11.  I declared that there is nothing that you can do to earn the gift of salvation.  As Paul says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”  As sinners, we are spiritually dead.  This means that we cannot forgive any more than we can to earn forgiveness, for forgiveness brings life and as such it is only of the Spirit.  The reason it seems impossible for us to forgive is because it IS impossible for us to forgive.  The ONLY way forgiveness is possible is by living in the forgiveness that we have received.
In His parable, Jesus is shifting our focus from the wrong we have suffered at the hands of others to the wrong that we have done with our very own hands towards God.  When we compare our actions to the Law of God, we see our offenses stacking higher and higher, far outweighing anything that has been done to us.  We are confronted with the harsh reality that we have nothing to offer and justly deserve judgment and death.  Recognizing this we confess with Paul, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.  But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
You see, when Christ hung on the cross and paid the debt that we never could, He gave us life and in doing so made us agents of that very same life.  The life that He gives doesn’t just flow into us.  It flows THROUGH us.  When we refuse to forgive, we are refusing the life that Jesus has given to us.  Just as the man who refused to forgive his fellow servant, if we refuse to forgive others we too will be cut off from the promise of salvation.  Now…I want to make one thing clear, struggling to forgive is not the same as refusing to forgive.  Struggling is part of being both a saint and a sinner.  Your struggle comes from yielding to the power of the Spirit as He works against your sinful flesh.
God told Mack, “For you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me.”  Each one of us was formed by the hands of God and God desires the salvation of all.  Yet Mack struggled to forgive this man because he knew he could never forget what this man did.  God told Mack, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it’s about letting go of another person’s throat.”  These same words ring true in Christ’s parable.  When the man saw his fellow servant, he quite literally seized him by the throat.  He resisted letting the mercy he received flow through him, and by doing so brought condemnation down upon himself.  We all struggle, but it is the outright refusal to forgive that condemns us.
When we refuse to forgive we resist the life giving water and let sin fester within our heart until it becomes scabby and hardens not only against those who have wronged us but ultimately against God Himself.  But when we yield to the Spirit and let go of the other person’s neck, we allow the Spirit to kill our sin that is choking us.
Mack asked God, “So is it alright if I’m still angry?”  God responded, “Absolutely! What he did was terrible.  He caused incredible hurt and pain to many.  It was wrong, and anger is the right response to something that is so wrong.  But don’t let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck.”  Forgiveness isn’t easy.  When we are hurt we experience a lot of powerful emotions that make it feel as if forgiveness can never be possible.  It might take declaring that forgiveness every day, but with each declaration the Spirit works in our heart until one day we are finally healed and at peace. 
So as Christians we do not ask, “How can I forgive them,” but “Father, forgive them for what they have done,” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” for it is only through His forgiveness that we not only have the power to forgive but are healed and find peace.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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