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? 

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