Forgiveness

Sermon,  September 17, 2017 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Genesis 50: 15-21; Psalm  103:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important concepts in the Gospel.  It is an indispensable and necessary part of love in a world full of sin.  If you paid attention to our Gospel reading today, you will know what I am referring to.

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the hardest things we can ask for or grant.  Asking for forgiveness requires us to admit that we did something wrong to another.  Granting forgiveness requires us to set aside our own desire for vengeance or our need to sulk and feel sorry for ourselves.  Forgiveness demands that we put our relationship with God and others first.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch woman who was captured with her sister Betsie by the Nazis in the Second World War.  They had been hiding Jews.  They were put in a concentration camp where they were starved and humiliated.  Corrie Ten Boom survived but her sister died in the camp.  Two years after the war had ended, Corrie was traveling around Germany preaching God’s forgiveness.  At one of her talks, a man approached her and with horror she recognized him as one of the concentration camp guards.

Corrie wrote of this experience “One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.”

The man did not recognize her, but he confessed to her that he had been a concentration camp guard and that after the war he had become a Christian and repented of his actions.  He knew that she had been in a camp and asked if she would speak a word of forgiveness to him for the wicked things he had done.

Corrie wrote

I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.

Very few of us will ever be put in the position that Corrie Ten Boom was.  But we all need to wrestle with forgiveness.  She was right that God takes forgiveness very seriously.  I think that God takes forgiveness so seriously because it is such a core aspect of who God is.

In Psalm 103, we read David praise the Lord, saying “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins.  The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  Even as we continually do wrong and turn our backs on God, he is compassionate and gracious toward us.  So much that he sent Jesus Christ to die for us and, through his death, achieve forgiveness for all our sins.  Love and forgiveness are key parts of the character of God.

And that brings us to our Gospel reading.  Our reading begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times we need to forgive another person who sins against us.  Peter suggests that perhaps once we have forgiven seven times, we have reached the limit of reasonableness.  But think about what Peter is suggesting here.  By asking how many times we need to forgive before we can legitimately hold a grudge or seek revenge, Peter is looking on forgiveness like a duty, not as something that is foundational to us as image bearers of God.

Jesus responds by saying “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Jesus isn’t simply responding to Peter with a higher number, but is telling Peter that there is no limit to the number of times we should forgive another.  In the Jewish culture of that time, the number seven was the number of completeness, so seventy-seven was a way of saying “millions and millions.”  Jesus tells a parable to illustrate what he means.

Jesus starts his parable by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like”, by which he is telling us that this story speaks about the kingdom of God that Jesus is inaugurating in the world.  In the parable there is a king whose servant owed him a massive debt that he could not hope to pay.  The servant begged for mercy and the king forgave the debt.  This forgiven servant then went to collect a very small debt from one of his colleagues.  This colleague could not repay the debt, and begged for mercy.  Instead of extending the same forgiveness that had been extended to him, the servant demanded repayment, assaulted the man and had him thrown in prison.  When the king found out about this, he reinstated the first servant’s debt and had him thrown into prison.

In this story, the king represents God, and we represent the servant who had the massive debt to the king.  It is the nature of the king to forgive the debt of the servant, just as it is the nature of God to forgive us our sins.  But if we cannot then forgive the much smaller wrongs that our neighbor may have committed against us, we have not grasped God’s forgiveness.  In the end, forgiveness is a two way street.  We can forgive another person, but that person must accept that forgiveness in order for it to have an effect in their lives.

Remember Corrie Ten Boom’s story.  The guard needed to ask for forgiveness from Corrie, and Corrie had to grant it.  Only then was the relationship healed and God’s purposes achieved.  Think of another possibility.  What if Corrie had seen an unrepentant guard and forgiven him in her heart even though he didn’t ask.  Corrie would have forgiven the guard, but the guard would not have accepted her forgiveness, and he would not have been healed or changed by that forgiveness.  For forgiveness to be effective, it must be accompanied by repentance by the person who has sinned.  Forgiveness has no power in the hearts of the unrepentant.

God can forgive us, but if we don’t accept that forgiveness, then we are turning our back on his forgiveness, and in a sense, we then lose it.  We lose God’s forgiveness because we prevent it from having any healing power in our lives or in our hearts.  The parable tells us that if we truly accept God’s forgiveness, we must stand before God fully acknowledging our many sins and unworthiness.  And when we do this in our hearts, it is inevitable that any resentments or grudges that we hold against others will be cast away.

God offers us forgiveness of our sins with an end in mind.  We are not forgiven so that we can continue to live in sin and darkness.  No, God forgives us in order that we will follow Jesus into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we continue to nurse grudges and resentments against others even in light of God’s forgiveness of the massive debt we owed him, then we have not followed Jesus into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we are part of the Kingdom of Heaven, then our desire will be for the forgiveness and redemption of everyone we meet.  We must love them and desire that they too will experience God’s forgiveness.

Our Old Testament reading from Genesis shows us a wonderful example of forgiveness and the power that God can work in all things.  This story comes from the final chapter in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  For those not familiar with the story, Joseph lived in Canaan with his brothers and his father Jacob.  Joseph’s brothers grew jealous of him and conspired to murder him, but in the end, they decided instead to sell him into slavery and tell their father that he was killed by a wild animal.  After they sold him, Joseph’s brothers thought they had seen the end of him.

Joseph was brought to Egypt as a slave, but God had plans for him.  Through a variety of adventures and developments, Joseph rose to be one of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s top officials.  Joseph had interpreted a dream of Pharaoh which foretold seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  As a top official in Pharaoh’s government, Joseph prepared Egypt for the famine by storing up food during the years of plenty.  During the years of famine, his family came to Egypt looking for food, and this is where Joseph met them again.  There is much more to the story, but the long and short of it is that Joseph’s brothers feared that Joseph would still be holding a grudge against them and take vengeance on them once their father had died.  And this is where our reading today comes in.

Listen to the story once more:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”  So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Joseph had forgiven his brothers, and he realized that if his brothers were to be punished for what they did to him, that was up to God, not him.

As Christians, we are called to represent Jesus Christ to the world, and being people who forgive is central to this.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul is telling us here that we are called to represent Christ’s message of reconciliation to the world.  The only way that we can represent Christ in this way is to make forgiveness a central part of who we are.  Forgiveness is not just a bothersome obligation.  Rather, if we trust in Jesus, immerse ourselves in Scripture, and are full of the Holy Spirit, then forgiveness will be a central characteristic of who we are – sons and daughters of God, joining Jesus Christ ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us pray.

Lord God, we thank you that you have forgiven us our sins, sending your son Jesus Christ to come and give himself for us, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  Give us the will to forgive others as we have been forgiven, so that, through our forgiveness we can show them the power of the Gospel.  We ask this in your name.  Amen.

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