Monday, November 13, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35, for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity (1 YR), "Forgive as God Forgives You"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today Peter addresses Jesus on the question of forgiveness, and seems to be testing the upper limits of what God expects or requires of our forgiveness. Shall I forgive my brother 7 times? From the perspective of our sinful flesh, 7 times seems pretty generous and patient. But Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven”. There is disagreement about how it’s translated. But whether 77 or 490 times, Jesus’ point is clear—don’t keep score of the sins committed against you, and don’t seek for an upper limit of forgiveness. Do not keep track, but forgive generously and without limit, as God has done for you. Jesus then tells a parable of forgiveness that begins with the debt a person owes, amounting in what today would be hundreds of millions or billions of dollars—or perhaps the equivalent of a couple hundred thousand years of work, at a laborer’s wage. Jesus shows the enormous generosity of God’s forgiveness. But the end of the parable makes clear that not all keep their forgiveness. Some forsake that forgiveness by refusing it to others.
First of all, we have to acknowledge the Biblical truth, that if we kept records of sin; really, if God kept a record of sin, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3). The answer is none could stand. Next, just like the servant whose debt was canceled, we have an enormous, unpayable sin debt to God. We have no means or method to repay it. The OT reading asks this same question. Wondering as the cost spirals upward, could God be satisfied by my offerings? By a thousand sacrificed rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? My firstborn child? When even an unthinkable price is not sufficient, he answers, God requires this: “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8). But the prophet Micah realizes we cannot pay even that cost on our own, as we have each sinned against God. He finally puts his hope in God’s mercy alone, saying at the end of his book: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression…you will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea?” (Mic. 7:18-19). We have no means to repay our sin debt, but God is unsurpassed in His mercy and forgiveness to us.
So it is a first and foundational principle of forgiveness, that we receive it undeservingly from our merciful God. Just like the first servant in the parable, we would be doomed if God did not cancel our debt. We notice, as I mentioned in last week’s sermon, that God does not renegotiate a payment plan with lower monthly payments, but wipes out this man’s debt entirely. Salvation is not a cooperative payback schedule for our sins, it’s Jesus’ total payment of our sin debt before God. He paid the costly price of His precious, innocent blood, and His holy death on the cross. We don’t “chip in” on the cost, or “earn our share.” All credit and glory belongs to Him. But a marvelous transformation in us is intended. The rest of the parable shows what went badly wrong, when the servant received forgiveness from God, but rejected the second essential principle of forgiveness—that as God has forgiven us, we are to forgive others.
Instead of being filled with joy and generosity at his unimaginable, newfound freedom, and spreading that generosity to others, he immediately and vindictively chased after his fellow servant and hounded him for the small debt he owed him. If ten thousand talents represents hundreds of thousands of years of labor, the 100 denarii owed by the second servant, amounts to about 5-6 months of labor. In the parable, this represents the sin debts that other owe us, in comparison to what we owed to God. Yet he mercilessly pursued this servant for the debt, and threw him into jail, pursuing his neighbor’s harm and destruction, when he had just narrowly escaped his own destruction, by the mercy of the Lord. God will not tolerate such a gross violation of His mercy and forgiveness. Such a terrible contradiction to the mercy that He showed first. The two principles of forgiveness—that we are first forgiven by God, and that we must also forgive others—are inseparably tied together. Hearing what happened, the Lord throws the unforgiving servant back in prison, revoking his freedom because he showed no mercy.
It’s a frightening thought for us—but it should not be unsurprising in the least, that God would not look kindly on us abusing His mercy by taking it for ourselves then mercilessly refusing it to others. Hell is real, and none of us wants to suffer there, so we must heed Jesus’ words with all seriousness, and if there is ever un-forgiveness harbored in our hearts, we must earnestly pray and attack it with all the weapons of the Spirit. We must pray and wrestle so that the devil’s stronghold is destroyed, and Jesus may truly work in our hearts, so we forgive our brother from our heart. This power to forgive truly comes from God’s forgiveness to us, and we must repent of our sins, and repent of any un-forgiveness, so that we may truly forgive others.
This raises one of the most difficult questions about forgiveness, that seemed to be on Peter’s mind when he was testing the upper limits of forgiveness. It seems unbearable (to our sinful human flesh) to continually bear with injustice. We feel like forgiveness should cut short after we have taken “so much.” Hatred and bitterness and desire for revenge all spring from injustices done against us—but it is only through forgiveness that these binding chains from sin are broken and we are released. The late Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey talks about several aspects of living out forgiveness. First, that unless we forgive each other and seek God’s forgiveness, we won’t be able to live together as a community. We daily need to pray for God’s forgiveness to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and be restored in the joy of our salvation. Bailey explains that many reject or scoff at the idea of forgiveness, because it seems to say “Never mind” or “Injustice can continue, it doesn’t really matter. We are willing to ignore injustice to ourselves or others.” But this is not  what Biblical forgiveness means.
First of all, forgiveness is not the brushing off of sin, but the acknowledgement of a real offense, hurt, or injury, and to forgive it nonetheless. Secondly, we can both forgive, and struggle for justice. Fighting injustice is part and parcel of the godly walk. We are not required to let injustice go unchecked and continue. Remember our verse from Micah? What does God require? “To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” Bailey goes on to say, “The world despises this theology because it thinks anger is necessary to fuel the struggle for justice, and that forgiveness will dissipate that anger. The Christian disagrees and replies, ‘No. I will forgive and I will struggle for justice. I may still be angry, but my struggle for justice will be purified by forgiveness and thereby become more effective” (Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 127).  The Christian does both, forgives and fights against injustice.
Bailey points us to how Jesus forgave, even when His tormentors made no confession of their guilt. Even when the wrongdoing was huge, He forgave. Jesus is the living example of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgives us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is nothing less than Divine Love, and God’s Divine Love is freely given out to us, as He has objectively cancelled our debts at the cross. That Divine Love of forgiveness is freely given to us, to forgive those who sin against us, even when the wrongdoing is huge. Raw and fresh in our memory is the horrible, evil act of last Sunday, the shooting at the Texas church. We as Christians can say that we forgive, but we will also struggle for justice, and let that struggle be purified by forgiveness. God’s forgiveness keeps us from descending into hatred and adopting the very forms of evil we despise.
The famous Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought against real and brutal racism and injustice in South Africa shares some of his own thoughts on forgiveness. He reflects that it’s not just a kindness you do to someone else, but also the best form of self-interest, as forgiveness helps you heal from being consumed by hatred and anger, which almost chains you to the perpetrator of the sin. Forgiveness allows you to move on and become a better person, and can even help the perpetrator do so, if they acknowledge their wrong and participate in the forgiveness. He shares the moving story of a young girl from South Africa whose four family members had all been brutally murdered by the police. She was asked: “would you be able to forgive the people who did this to you and your family? She answered, ‘We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive.’” Tutu said that in the beauty of her forgiveness she retained her humanity against all attempts to treat her as less than human.
In a world that swirls with so much anger, violence, and unforgiveness—in a world where many angry voices shout that we must fight injustice without forgiveness—we as Christians can take up the incredible and mighty calling of God to forgive others as God has forgiven us in Christ Jesus. Not because it’s easy, not because the weight of sin is not crushing and sometimes crippling, but because Jesus lifted that crushing weight, He bore it on His cross, and He buries it in His grave. Because through Jesus’ forgiveness He heals what is crushed and crippled, and makes alive. Jesus buries evil with a force that even death cannot overcome, as He shattered the grave in victory. Even when murderers take the life of innocents; whether in churches or on the streets; death cannot shatter the power of Jesus’ forgiveness and His Risen Life. He will give life again to all those innocent saints at First Baptist Church.
Evil and death cannot overpower the Divine Love of forgiveness that Jesus pours out on us without limit, and enables us to forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart—yes even to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus’ forgiveness washes over us by water and His Word, purifying us of anger, hatred, and bitterness, and steeling us to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. With His forgiveness, we are able to pursue justice through doing what is good, upright, and noble—not by repaying evil with evil. And as long as this sinful world lasts, we will need that daily prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen! So be it, in Jesus’ Name.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Peter asked Jesus if it was generous to forgive his brother ___ times. Jesus answered to forgive him ____ times ____. Did Jesus mean for him to keep track? What is the problem if we keep track of sins? Psalm 130:3.
2.      In Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, who does the king or lord represent? Matthew 18:35. Who do the servants represent? What does the debt that they owed to the king represent between us and God?
3.      Why could we never repay the debt of our sin? Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 51:3-4. Note: salvation is not a “repayment plan” but the total cancellation of debt.
4.      God cancels the impossible debt because God is _____. The servant then imprisons his fellow servant, who owes him the small debt, because the first servant is ______. How are these two qualities completely contradictory? What quality are forgiven believers to show toward others instead? Matt. 18:33
5.      What fearful punishment awaited the servant who would not forgive? Matthew 18:34. How are we made able to forgive others from our heart? Matthew 18:35; Ephesians 4:32.

6.      What was the cost for Jesus to pay our debt of sin before God? 1 Peter 1:18-19. Was this cost great or small? But how much does it cost us? 

Monday, November 06, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 5:5, for All Saints' Day, "Blessed are the Meek"

·         Some months ago—mentioned “doorway and exit” to the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are the “doorway” to understanding Jesus’ teaching in the sermon.  
·         9 Beatitudes. Simple structure: Blessed are_____, and how they will be blessed. 1st & 8th form bookends: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Only repeated blessing, and only present tense—theirs is. All other blessings are future tense—they shall… What does this mean? Kingdom of heaven delivers both present and future blessings. “Now but not yet” of Jesus’ blessings. Final note: first 8 are “they” (3rd person), but the 9th switches to “blessed are you”. Who are these blessed ones? They are you, the church: believers in Jesus.
·         The Beatitudes, give us Christ-colored glasses, not rose-colored glasses; to see our own life in light of Jesus Christ and who He is, and what He has done for us. Today, focus on Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Like all the beatitudes, there is a description of who are blessed by God—in this case the meek—and what blessing God promises—they shall inherit the earth. First of all, what does it mean to be meek? Secondly, how was Christ meek, and finally, how are we to be meek?
·         Quick word search finds passages that show what meekness is. Translated variously as “lowly, afflicted, poor, humble, or gentle.” As Pastor Fricke has put it well before: “meekness is not weakness.” Some may hear “Blessed are the meek” and think it means being timid, or not being assertive. But the scripture doesn’t praise these; telling us instead in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-control”. So meekness is not fearfulness or cowardliness. Assertiveness can be a good or a bad thing. It can be bad if it’s pushy and self-promoting. It can be good if it is humble and wise leadership without self-promotion. Numbers 12:3 describes Moses this way. He was very meek, more than any other on earth. The context was about the jealousy of his brother and sister grumbling over God speaking to Moses—but Moses did not defend himself against the accusation, but God did. Moses was no self-promoter, but lead well.
·         As a Bible dictionary sums it up, Moses kept his strength of leadership, while accepting personal insults and injury “without resentment or recrimination.” Resentment and vindictiveness might be selfishly satisfying, but they do nothing to strengthen our leadership. How much more so for Jesus, who graciously endured suffering and death on the cross, all for doing good, and did not sin by opening His mouth in cursing or anger in return. He bore it all patiently and committed Himself to God’s justice. (1 Peter 3:18-25). This is the very picture of meekness for us. To be Christ-like in meekness is not to be weak, but to be strong in self-control, not to lash back against those who hurt, hate, or lie against us. It is to bear with injury, and not to repay evil with evil, but to trust God to bring the final outcome to justice, as Jesus did. The command that Jesus held, even from the cross, awed even His enemies and the Romans.  And His meekness is seen, not just in His restraint, but positively in the gentleness and love with which He forgave His enemies.
·         Of course, that a Christian bears with insult or injury doesn’t mean they can never use lawful and just means to defend themselves against evildoers. St. Paul famously appealed to his Roman citizenship, and ultimately to Caesar, on more than one occasion, to right an injustice. Even Jesus told Pilate that his authority was subservient to a greater authority.
·         How do we respond when someone injures us with an insult or slander? Do we bear it in a Christ-like manner, or do we rage and thirst for retaliation? Proverbs 12:16 says, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.” Or Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” So meekness has restraint, or self-control, which is actually a form of strength, not weakness. The devil loves to bend it till it breaks, and sorely test that meekness. While it’s never as bad for us as for Christ, it still takes great self-control to be gentle or meek under great stress or pressure. Not just biting our tongue, but to respond with grace and gentleness.
·         So while meekness sometimes reads as “humble” or “gentle”, a quality to cultivate and practice; there are also many places, especially in the OT where the word reads as “lowly, afflicted, or poor.” In those passages, it’s the status or condition of a person who is objectively suffering or needs deliverance. Meek or afflicted, is often, but not always, parallel to being poor. Psalm 9:18 18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor (meek) shall not perish forever. Psalm 22:26 26 The afflicted (meek) shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! Psalm 147:6 The Lord lifts up the humble (meek); he casts the wicked to the ground.
·         Understanding the meek as those who suffer or need deliverance, brings, “Blessed are the meek” very close to the first beatitude, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” In fact, both echo a key passage in Isaiah 61:1-7, which Jesus quotes of Himself: vs. 1 “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound”. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, the downtrodden and suffering. Meek, poor in spirit, or lowly—who long for God’s deliverance—they are blessed! Isaiah 61:7 also says these who receive Jesus’ kingdom blessings will inherit a double portion of the land, and be filled with everlasting joy. It leads us to the blessing for the meek: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
·         Psalm 37 says almost the same thing: that “the meek shall inherit the land”—but listen also to the surrounding verses. It’s another picture of self-control. Here it’s against the anger and frustration of seeing wicked or evil men seemingly triumphing over the good, or getting away with evil. Psalm 37:8–11  Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. 10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. 11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.  It emphasizes waiting on the Lord, and that the meek who inherit the land will have abundant peace. The hearts of those who suffer, who are objectively poor, afflicted, and lowly, long for that abundant peace. God says to be patient and wait for it, and it will be ours!
·         Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. It’s a future promise, but it’s also a very physical one. Did you notice that? Some (without knowing the Bible) think that heaven is an airy, thin, insubstantial place, where ghostly spirits wisp around through the clouds. But “they shall inherit the earth.First, and briefly, remember that “inherit” is a grace word, not an “I earned it” word. Inherit speaks of God’s generous gifting to us. But what does it mean to inherit the earth? In the prophet Isaiah, God says: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). This verse describes the future of the new creation, where there will be no more futility or sin or conflict. It’s quoted twice in the New Testament, once at the end of Revelation, describing when God completes that future renewal of creation. The second quote, is 2 Peter 3:13, that after Jesus returns and this old creation is judged and destroyed, “According to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”
·         So blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth describes God’s promise of grace—that in the new heavens and new earth, the meek, the righteous, will possess the earth. The land will be yours. The Jewish people had a deep and profound connection to and longing for the physical land of Israel. It can probably be compared in some ways to the longing among many Hawaiian people for the land. I don’t know that the longing for land is a universal human desire; but I do think we all can identify with desiring a physical haven, a place where we can dwell in peace, without interference or enemies. People long to live without the futility of labor, or the greed and violence of wicked men, or all the things that frustrate the meek and the righteous. It takes us back to that Psalm, 37:11, “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” This becomes Jesus’ promise to us—there is a day coming, when the injustices and wickedness of this life will be over, and the land will be ours, in abundant peace. What an inheritance!
·         And all of it is owed to the Savior Jesus, who describes Himself as meek and lowly in heart: Matthew 11:28–30 (KJV)  “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Follow our meek and lowly Savior, who was afflicted for us, who suffered and died for us, that we should find rest for our souls, delight ourselves in His abundant peace, and inherit the new earth where righteousness dwells. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
·         Let us pray: “Meek and lowly Jesus, we confess to you our sinful boasting and self-promotion, our anger and retaliation when others wound us, and other sins against you and our neighbor. Take the heavy yoke of our sin, which you have born to your cross, and forgive us our sins. Grant us your meekness and teach us self-restraint, that we may flourish on this earth, and one day inherit the new heavens and new earth that you have prepared as the home for those who are righteous by faith in you. In your Most Holy Name, Amen.”

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Matthew 5:1-12 contains 9 Beatitudes. How do the 1st (v. 3) and 8th (v. 10) form “bookends” to the set? When the 9th switches to the 2nd person: “YOU”; how does this affect the hearer?
2.      How are the beatitudes like “Christ-colored” glasses for the Christian life?
3.      Read Matthew 5:5. What is “meekness?” What is not meant by meekness? 2 Timothy 1:7. How does Moses set a positive example of meekness? Numbers 12:1-9. How is Jesus the ultimate example of meekness? 1 Peter 3:18-25. What do the meek bear with?
4.      How is restraint or self-control an aspect of meekness? Prov. 12:16; 15:1. Why is this so hard? What is the improved outcome by doing it though?
5.      Read Psalm 9:18; 22:26; and 147:6. Here the word for “meek” carries the meaning of “lowly, afflicted, or poor.” How does being objectively lowly or meek in our need of help, also fit with the beatitude? Read Isaiah 61:1-7, and look for as many parallels as you can find to Matthew 5:1-12.
6.      Read Psalm 37:8-11. How does this passage also describe the self-control or restraint that accompanies meekness? What are the meek distressed by? What are they promised? Cf. Matthew 5:5.
7.      How are the future blessings of the kingdom of heaven physical? Read Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21:1.
8.      How does the word “inherit” speak of grace, and point us back again to God’s generosity and undeserved love in Christ? Galatians 3:29-4:1, 7.

9.      Finally, how does Jesus describe Himself as “meek” in Matthew 11:28-30 (see King James’ Version—other translations often use ‘gentle’, but the Greek word is the same from Matthew 5:5). What does He promise to those who follow Him and take up His yoke? How does this come full circle with Matthew 5:5 and Psalm 37:11?