We come this morning in our series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed to “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
What would it be like if there was not forgiveness for sins?
My mother had a difficult time forgiving. Her best friend, my father’s oldest sister, betrayed her in the split of a family business and she cut her and all of her family out of her life and out of our lives – literally. She went through all the photo albums with scissors and cut out the faces of all the relatives who had offended her. When I wrote my dad’s oral history the year before I came to Morocco, I had to go to one of my aunts to get her copies of these photographs. My mother’s unforgiveness was icy cold. When I or one of my siblings did something she was unhappy with, she cut us off as if we did not exist. Because she was upset with me for a perceived offense, she did not speak to me for the year and a half before I came to Morocco. When my father came to my house to work on his oral history, my mother was furious at him for coming to see me. (A couple weeks before I left for Morocco my mother let me out of the doghouse and in the days before I left was as kind and loving toward me as she had been cold and distant before. She was a difficult woman.)
Some of us know what not being forgiven is like because we have had people in our lives who were never able to forgive us for something we did that was wrong – or for something they perceived we had done wrong.
Some of us have had experience with unforgiveness and it is not pleasant. But what if God did not forgive us for our sins? If not, then none of what we have covered thus far in the Apostles’ Creed would be of any worth to us. Think about it:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell;
The third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Universal Church,
The communion of saints,
An all-powerful God who does not forgive us our sins? This makes us his enemies, destined for destruction. Of what benefit is the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection if there is no forgiveness of sins? It might be an inspirational story, but it would mean nothing to us. The fact that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead would be a horrifying prospect. Forgiveness of sins is such a basic truth that it seems implied in all that has been said thus far in the Apostles’ Creed, but when it was written, it was deemed necessary to proclaim this truth.
I believe in the forgiveness of sins. This has two parts to it: being forgiven and forgiving others. I will break this up into two sermons this morning.
One of the best places to go in Scripture to examine what it means to be forgiven for our sins is the parable Jesus told about a son who wanted his inheritance before his father died.
The culture of Jesus in Palestine was an honor/shame culture and it helps to read the parable in this light to bring out the depth of meaning in the parable.
The son decided he had enough of working in the fields and wanted to go out to see the world. So he came to his father and asked for his share of the inheritance. To ask this of his father was to say that he wished his father was dead. It was as if he said, “I’m tired of waiting for you to die, give me what is coming to me.”
In a modern setting this would not be quite as dishonoring because our wealth is in banks and investments. We can take a third of what we have and pass it on and no one knows what we have done except the bank. But in an agricultural culture, giving a third of the inheritance meant selling fields and flocks. This meant that the dishonoring of the father became public knowledge. The whole town knew what was happening. “Did you hear that James sold some of his fields and flocks?” “I heard it was because his good for nothing son demanded his share of the inheritance.” “What an ungrateful son! If it were me, I would have just kicked him out of the house.” The entire town knew what had happened and talked about the shame inflicted on the father by the son.
Since he was the second of two sons, his share was 1/3 and he took the money and went off into a distant land and lived a wild life with prostitutes and parties. When his money was spent, his friends deserted him and he was forced to make a living taking care of pigs. In a culture that considered pigs unclean, this was the lowest you could sink. But just to make it even worse, Jesus added the detail that he was so hungry he had to eat the food that was given to the pigs.
Then he came to his senses and decided he would come home. He knew he had dishonored his father and brought shame to his family. So he decided to come back and accept the shame that was due to him. He would come back as a servant and work in the household where he had once been one of the sons. He would pay his father back by working hard and he would ease the shame of his father by being a servant.
But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him, came running to him, and restored honor to him by putting on a robe, a ring and celebrating with a party.
In this first of two sermons this morning, I want to pull out some lessons from this parable that will help us to receive forgiveness from God for our sins.
The first lesson is that God comes to us.
Now I know that the son came to his senses and decided to come back to his father. That is true. When we are caught up in our sin, we need to come to our senses and realize this is not a good life for us. We need to turn around and head back home.
But the father was looking for his son and when he was still a long way off, he came running to meet him. So they both came together but the more amazing of the two actions is the running of the father.
In the culture of Palestine, the lesser came to the greater. The servant came to the master; the master did not come to the servant. The son came to the father, not the father to the son. And the father did not simply come, he ran, which meant he lifted his robes, baring his legs in public as if he were a slave or servant. The father publically shamed himself by running to greet his son.
In the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, there is a pattern which is seen in this parable. Jesus looks, he has compassion and then he acts. Read the accounts of Jesus in the gospels and you will see this pattern over and over again. The father looked, which meant he spent much of his day looking. Day after day he stood looking down the road, waiting for his son to come home and then when he saw him, he had compassion and acted, lifting his robes to run and greet his son.
This is how God acts toward us. We live in disobedience. We are indifferent to God or we may be hostile toward God. We live as though we are the center of the universe, doing what pleases us. And then when we come to our senses, God has compassion and humbles himself by running to greet us.
The pre-existing creator God of the universe, the all-powerful God, comes running to us to greet us. This is amazing grace. We receive in abundance what we do not deserve.
Secondly, God restores honor to us by absorbing our shame.
The son hoped to be accepted as a servant. But there was a good chance his father would reject him. That is what he deserved. But maybe, just maybe, his father would permit him to stay as a servant. This was as high as he dared to dream. But to his astonishment he was received as a son. The father put on him a robe and ring and called to his servants to kill the fatted calf for a feast of celebration.
The son had disgraced himself by shaming his father and family in the eyes of the household and in the eyes of the community. And now the father restored honor to him, elevating him to his former status as a son.
Tim Keller points out that:
…God’s grace and forgiveness, while free to the recipient, are always costly for the giver…. From the earliest parts of the Bible, it was understood that God could not forgive without sacrifice. No one who is seriously wronged can “just forgive” the perpetrator…. But when you forgive, that means you absorb the loss and the debt. You bear it yourself. All forgiveness, then, is costly.
In restoring honor to the son, the father had to absorb the pain of the dishonoring that had taken place. Because of the actions of the son, the father was dishonored, the family and servants of the household were dishonored, the community was dishonored. In a small community the shame spreads out.
When the son came back, he faced not just the rejection of his father, but also the rejection of his brother, the servants and the entire community. In the second part of this parable the older son complains at what his father had done. The older son and others in the community were still looking for revenge for the actions of the younger son but the father took upon himself all the pain that the younger son deserved.
This is what Jesus did for us. We came, having disgraced God by our actions, and he absorbed the shame by shaming himself on the cross, exposing his body to public view, being beaten and flogged, dying for us.
And then, even more cruelly, after we have received such wonderful honor, being privileged to call ourselves daughters and sons of God, we drag the Holy Spirit with us into our continuing sin. We dishonor God and bring shame to him by our actions.
What is God’s response? Amazingly, he continues to look out, waiting to see that we are on the way back home and then he runs and restores honor to us. He continually absorbs the shame of our actions.
Thirdly, the most difficult part of forgiveness is not receiving forgiveness but deciding to turn around and head back home.
Because of God’s compassion and love, we will be forgiven. But we are shamed by our actions and we do not like to even think about it ourselves. We can come to church week after week, month after month, sometimes year after year and keep hidden the shame we feel. We can very effectively bury the shame so we rarely think about it ourselves. And when we do think about it, we rationalize it and rebury it.
We need to open ourselves to the shame we feel, turn around and head back home where we will receive a warm welcome and our honor will be restored.
In the Marriage Course some of us are taking, there are some couples on the DVD who talked about recovering from adulterous affairs. And it is amazing to me to see these couples sitting together, talking about the pain of what they had experienced and then about how they had been able to forgive and have the intimacy in their relationship restored.
No matter what you have done, there is hope for you because there is forgiveness of sins.
We’re going to take some time now to reflect, in silence, and open ourselves to the ways in which we have disobeyed God and then turn around, come back home and ask for forgiveness.
How do you know where there is sin in your life? Open yourself to the Holy Spirit and let him bring things to your mind. Where you feel shame, that is where you will find sin.
Psalm 139:23–24 (ESV)
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Jesus was a great story teller and although his stories were told two thousand years ago, they seem to pulsate with life in our present age. The second parable this morning was told in response to a question Peter asked,
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
The rabbis taught that a person ought to be forgiven three times for a particular offense and then after that, there was no obligation to forgive again. Peter knew Jesus liked to take the law and understand it at a heart level, so he doubled the number and added one for good luck.
But then Jesus took Peter’s seven and knocked it to the moon.
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Seven was the number of completion and perfection so Jesus effectively said there is no limit to the number of times we are supposed to forgive. And then he told this story.
A king wanted to settle accounts with his servants and so a man came to him who owed ten thousand talents. If we assume the modern equivalent of the daily wage for a laborer to be $50 US a day, then the 10,000 talents becomes $3,000,000,000 US. So the people listening to Jesus must have gasped when Jesus told how much money was owed. This was a debt that was impossible to pay.
The king ordered the servant and his family to be thrown into jail and everything they had to be sold to repay at least part of the debt. But when the man pleaded and begged for mercy, the king had pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
This was an act of incredible generosity. The people hearing Jesus’s story were amazed at the good fortune this man had received.
But then this man went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii, a hundred days of wages, sixteen and 2/3 weeks of work, $5,000 US. This was not an insignificant amount, but compared to the ten thousand talents, this was nothing.
The servant who had been forgiven grabbed him and began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” The fellow servant begged for mercy and promised to pay him back, but he refused and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
This is the height of arrogance. He had been forgiven a debt of three billion dollars and refused to be patient with the small debt of five thousand dollars that was owed to him.
When the king heard about this, he had the unmerciful servant turned over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay his debt.
And then Jesus said,
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
If that is not sobering, you are not really listening or comprehending. If you do not forgive your brothers and sisters who offend you, you will not be forgiven by God.
The first part of this sermon on forgiveness is the easy part. No matter how difficult it is for you to face your shame and turn back to head home, it is far easier than forgiving someone who has hurt you.
This is the first lesson in this sermon part 2 on forgiving others: Forgiving someone who has hurt you is going to be painful.
I’m not talking about some slight offense when you can say, “I forgive you,” without it costing you anything. I’m talking about someone who betrayed your trust, someone who you thought was your friend but then deserted you, someone who caused you pain by acting against you.
If someone has hurt me, justice demands that they pay the price of their actions. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is what justice demands. For me to simply say, “I forgive you,” when someone has deeply hurt me is not fair and it is not just. Who is going to pay for the injustice? Am I supposed to simply forgive and let the person who has hurt me go free? Shouldn’t I at least make them suffer before I tell them I forgive them?
The parable of the unmerciful servant tells us that we have to become the father in the parable of the prodigal son. As the father forgave his son, so do we have to forgive those who shame us and hurt us. As the father absorbed the shame created by the son, so are we to absorb the pain of the injustice that was done to us.
Tim Keller points out that:
Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.
When someone does something wrong, when they hurt you or someone you love, a pain is created and it cannot simply be ignored. Someone has to absorb the pain and Keller says that forgiving is absorbing pain, not inflicting it. Our every instinct is to strike back, make the other person suffer. But this is not what God has done for us and this is not what we are to do to others.
Don’t wait for the person who has offended you to repent and grovel in front of you. Forgive before the person ever comes to you or shows any sign of repentance.
I have used the analogy of two adjoining hotel rooms with a door connecting the two rooms. Each room has a door so to go in and out of the two rooms, both doors have to be open. Forgiving someone is keeping your door open so whenever they decide to return and come back into relationship with you, you are ready to receive them.
The second lesson is that there is nothing anyone can ever do to you or to someone you love that is worse than what you have done to God, so you need to forgive as God has forgiven you.
I don’t have time to repreach this sermon, but you were once God’s enemy deserving of his eternal wrath. And to you, when you were lost with no hope of life after death, Jesus came to die for you while you were still putting yourself at the center of the universe, living for yourself. That is a three billion dollar debt you will never be able to repay.
Since you have been forgiven such a great debt, you must forgive others. Remember the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray? (Luke 11:4)
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
When you forgive, forget. Release the wrong. Let it go. If this offends you, listen to how God forgives us. (Psalm 103:8–12)
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
This means forgiveness has to come from the heart. It cannot be superficial. Forgiveness does not keep the memory stored in a back pocket so it can be used in a future argument.
Henry Ward Beecher said:
“I can forgive, but I cannot forget” is only another way of saying,
“I will not forgive.” Forgiveness ought to be like a canceled note–
torn in two and burned up so that it never can be shown against one.
You may say this is too much. This is not right. This is not fair. I cannot forgive the person who has hurt me in this way.
Don’t give up. Keep listening as we come to lesson three.
The only person who suffers when you do not forgive someone is you.
Anne Lamott wrote:
Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.
When you do not forgive, there is a poison that infects your heart. This is what happened to my mother. Because she was so deeply hurt by her best friend’s betrayal, she harbored unforgiveness and it turned her into a bitter, angry woman. Not forgiving destroyed her; it had very little affect on my aunt, her sister-in-law.
Not forgiving someone is a self-destructive action. You need to forgive for your own sake, for your own healing.
Not forgiving someone, holding on to the anger and bitterness is destructive in this life and it also has eternal consequences. Remember the warning Jesus gave at the end of his parable.
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
George Herbert, a Welsh born, English poet from the early 17th century wrote:
He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for every one has need to be forgiven.
Forgive so you can be healed and forgive so you will be forgiven.
But if you say, Pastor Jack, even with this, I just cannot forgive, then listen to lesson four.
You will not be able to forgive deep hurts on your own.
As I have prepared this sermon, I have been thinking about a person who has deeply hurt me. I don’t want to talk about the details because I do not want this person to know how deeply he/she has hurt me. I don’t even want to identify the sex of the person to give a clue about who it is.
How do I forgive this person?
I’m running out of time so let me briefly tell the story of Corrie Ten Boom who was a Dutch woman. She and her family were arrested by German Nazis when they were caught hiding Jews. She and her sister and father were sent to concentration camps where both her father and sister died. Miraculously she was released and after the war spoke about forgiveness and reconciliation throughout Holland and Germany and elsewhere. This is her well-known story about forgiving those who have hurt us.
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
Jesus does not ask us to do something he will not help us to do. When we trust him, he will help us to forgive from the heart.
But I have one more question: What do you do when someone continues to hurt you, continues to cause you pain? It is one thing to forgive for something in the past, but what about ongoing pain?
Isn’t this the question Peter asked, “Do we forgive up to seven times?” And what was Jesus’ answer? Yes, seventy-seven times. Forgive without end.
Forgiveness is costly. We have to absorb the pain and forgive. Each day we pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Each day we need to forgive the person who has hurt us. Each day we have to ask God to help us do what we cannot do ourselves. There may be some offences against us that will require us each day to forgive that person.
We are going to take some time now to reflect and see who it is the Holy Spirit brings to our mind that we need to forgive. When we need to be forgiven, shame is the indicator that there is sin that needs to be confessed. When we need to forgive, there is another indicator.
Against whom do you hold a grudge? When you hear a good report about someone and that offends you, then that is a good indication that you are holding a grudge against that person and need to forgive them. If you think it is good news when something bad happens to someone, it is an indication that you are holding a grudge and need to forgive.
It may be you hold a grudge against a group or a country and you may need to pray to forgive a nation. Holding a grudge indicates there is a need for you to forgive.
Let’s take some time now to reflect in silence and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us those we need to forgive.
Psalm 139:23–24 (ESV)
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:12-14