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Forgive us our debts

The Scripture Readings

Old Testament – Leviticus 4:1-4
Psalter – Psalm 32:1-5
Epistle – Ephesians 4:25-32
Gospel – Matthew 6:9-15

Meditation: He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself. – George Herbert

Well if you haven’t guessed by now from the title of this message in the bulletin and from the readings from the Bible this morning, I plan to talk about forgiveness today. Now, this is going to sound strange, but forgiveness is definitely not a topic that I chose from a list of my favorite religious subjects, but in the past few weeks I have really felt drawn toward the subject. I asked Pastor Keith about this and he said that he believes this is one of the ways that The Holy Spirit speaks to us; by giving us a strong urge to do something even though we may not be comfortable with it.  So I want to make it clear that I am speaking to you today not as a teacher, but rather as a fellow student of the Bible. I have learned a lot about the subject of forgiveness recently, but the more I learn, the more I realize how much more I need to learn.

The foundation of the forgiveness of sins is where I’m going to start out today. You heard a little about that this morning when Jim read from the book of Leviticus. Now I intentionally chose just the first four verses of that chapter to avoid offending those who may be a bit sensitive to the graphic details of the preparation of a sin offering. If you’re the curious type, go home today and read the fourth chapter of Leviticus, but be warned! After reading about blood, fat, and the internal organs of bulls, you may find that the foundation of forgiveness is very messy.

The point of reading this passage today is to show that to the Jews in Old Testament times it was a difficult thing to make a sin offering if you wanted to receive forgiveness. You couldn’t just close your eyes, bow your head and tell God that you were sorry. Forgiveness can be a messy, difficult business.

The closest analogy I can come up with is that making a sin offering was probably like getting a new dress shirt. I know that sounds odd, but the gentlemen in the congregation will understand this, I think. My wife thinks I’m crazy, so maybe the ladies won’t.

When I get a new dress shirt, the first thing I have to do is take it out of the plastic wrapper which is usually taped closed so tightly that you have to rip the plastic instead. Don’t get too worked up over this part, it’s just a warm-up. After you get the shirt out, you have to pull two pins from the back of the shirt. It would be easy enough if they were just pushed through fabric, but these pins are pushed through two layers of fabric and a layer of cardboard. I usually bend at least one fingernail backward getting these out. After this is done, the shirt unfolds and there are anywhere from one to three more pins along the back. Regardless of how many pins you pull out, there will always be one more that you don’t find until you’re putting the shirt on.

Then it is time to attack the collar. Pull the ring of cardboard out from the inside of the neck of the shirt. This is the easiest part of the job and you should take a break now and enjoy the moment. Afterward, you have to take out the cardboard underneath the collar and the little plastic clippy thing that goes over the top button of the shirt. These can be tricky, but not terribly difficult; but once you’re done, it’s back to the pins. Usually two, above and below the top button, these are even harder to remove than the ones pressed through the cardboard in the back.

Remove the cardboard and the tissue paper from the back of the shirt. Use the tissue to wipe the sweat from your armpits and forehead, but not in that order. Now it is time to unbutton the shirt. Plan to find at least two more pins, probably in the cuffs where they are hardest to remove. You will develop calluses on your fingertips unbuttoning the shirt for the first time and you should plan on finding at least one button stitched on to the button hole and another button that falls off before you even finish the job.

Once you’ve reached this step, you can now launder and iron your shirt. Congratulations.

What I want to know is: if a flat, pressed shirt is desirable, why do they package shirts this way? There would be less wrinkles if men’s dress shirts were balled up and stuffed into a paper bag.

Forgiveness, in old testament times was like opening up a dress shirt. There were ten to twelve steps just to get to it. Today we want things fast, like getting a shirt at the dry cleaners. Just take it off the hangar and wear it.

My wife did a very Christ-like thing when she bought me two new shirts this past Christmas. She knows how I feel about the subject and so she went through all the toil and pain to open my shirts and then she ironed them and presented them to me on a hangar – ready to wear. She bore the pain and I received the benefit.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself. It is enough to say that receiving forgiveness from God in Old Testament times was difficult at best. After reading a few chapters of Leviticus, I can’t help but wonder why they would go through all that. Which brings me to our reading from Psalms today.

Why do we need to be forgiven? Because God is Holy and hates sin. If we are to be accepted by Him, we need to be free from sin. Psalm 32 says we can’t be “blessed” without forgiveness. We can’t get to heaven without being forgiven and that is where true blessedness will ultimately be found. David, the psalmist, relates the state of being unforgiven to being dried up as by the heat of summer. It seems a long time away right now, but six months from now, in the heat of summer, it is quite possible that the grass in my yard will be browner than it is right now under all this snow. The heat of August may dry it out and kill it.

The message that I get from this reading is that each of us can become dried out and dead if we remain outside God’s grace, remaining unforgiven, keeping silent when we should be honestly acknowledging our sins to God. We get dried up if we deny that we are sinning or even if we diminish our sins before God in our own minds.

There are a few different ways we do that. You know how I do it? I find some really despicable person to compare myself with. I’ll think of some jerk I used to work with, or some miserable person I read about in the paper and pat myself on the back for being so good in comparison. It’s like the prayer that people on a diet sometimes say, “Dear Lord – If you won’t make me skinny, at least make my friends fat.”

That is a very common human tactic. It’s easy to convince myself that I’m not as bad as “that guy” over there. But I know deep down (and it scares me a lot), that God will not be comparing me to “that guy.” God will compare me to the one perfect human being who lived, Jesus. And I assure you, I’m going to fall short in that comparison. I’m afraid we all will. Since we’re not going to measure up to Jesus, our only hope is to be honest about our shortcomings and pray for God’s good mercy.

Confessing our sins to God is a personal thing, and I don’t want to get too specific in my message, but what I’m getting at is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves about sin and we shouldn’t try to kid God about it either. Keeping silent about a full and open confession will have us wasting away like the grass in the dog days of summer. Like I said, this is a very personal thing and it is enough to say that forgiveness from God can’t happen without honest repentance from us as the first step.

This brings us to our reading from Ephesians where we are told by Paul to do  some really easy things like speaking only the truth, saying only what is helpful to others, getting rid of all anger, fighting and back biting; being kind to each other and forgiving each other as God has forgiven us. Nothing to it, right? I don’t know about you, but for me, when faced with a list like that, I’d rather open up ten new shirts or maybe sacrifice a bull.

Verse 32 in the reading from Ephesians is the crux of the message, “Be kind to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” There’s a very small word in that verse that means more than some of the big ones. The word “in.” “Forgiving others, just as *in* Christ God forgave you.” In Christ, God forgives. This can not be stressed enough. It is only through the Cross that we are forgiven. Certainly, we have to repent of our sins and forgive others their sins, but being able to do those things (to repent and forgive) is a gift of God’s grace that is an outcome of the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross.

If you remember only one thing from me today, please make it this: We won’t be forgiven because we are doing God’s work. We won’t get to heaven because we’re better than somebody else or even because we confess our sins. We will be saved, only because of the work of Jesus on the cross. Make no mistake about it. What Jesus did on the cross was difficult and flew in the face of justice. It seems so wrong that one completely without blemish should die so that we, flawed beings, should have an eternal life that we don’t deserve.

But if going through such a sacrifice was worth doing for Jesus, it should be worth doing all the things that Paul outlines in order to live in harmony with each other.

I heard a story last week about two people walking along a beach in perfect harmony with each other.

A woman and a little boy were walking along a beach on a beautiful, warm Florida morning. The little boy, the apple of his grandmothers eye, was playing along the water’s edge and the grandmother was blissfully watching him at play. Suddenly, a huge wave crashed over the little tike and he disappeared under the water.

The woman ran into the surf, screaming the boy’s name and looking all over for him. After a few minutes, she gave up; her grandson was nowhere to be found. She dropped to her knees at the water’s edge and prayed aloud to God, “Please! Please don’t take my little grandson. Please take me instead. I’ve lived a full life and he has everything to look forward to. Please! Please take me instead!”

Just then another huge wave washed onto the beach and knocked the woman backward, pushed her up onto the beach and then receded leaving her flat on her back with her grandson right beside her in the sand. He was coughing and crying, but other than that, he was fine. The woman looked him over, pulled herself up to her knees and looked up toward heaven and said, “You know… He had a hat!

I guess the point is that even though we get what we want, we still tend to focus on the things that don’t really matter so much to God’s plan. They matter to us because they go against our sense of justice. We’re receiving eternal life but, like the old woman who got back her grandson, we’re obsessed with the hat that doesn’t make any difference as far as our eternal soul is concerned.

Well, I’m getting ahead of myself again.

In today’s Gospel reading, we read the Lord’s Prayer, and then these two verses: “For if you forgive others for their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your trespasses.” Every single Sunday, we recite the words that come before these, but we seldom hear these two verses. They are very hard to hear, and even harder to accept and harder still to put into practice.

Puritan preacher John Owen commented on this back in the 1600s saying, “Our forgiving others will not procure forgiveness for ourselves; but our not forgiving others proves that we ourselves are not forgiven.”

I was talking to my friend John about this subject after choir a couple of weeks ago and he said something that probably everybody here could say as well. I know I could say the same thing, “People have done some really, really nasty things to me in my life.” In preparing for today, I thought about people who done nasty things to me in my life and I came up with some hard questions that I’d like answers for.

How am I supposed to forgive someone who isn’t sorry for what they did?

How am I supposed to forgive someone who is now gone from my life or is dead?

How am I supposed to forgive a wrong that is unforgivable to me?

And last but not least, how are we supposed to forgive Pastor Keith for basking in the sun in Hawaii for two weeks while we were all freezing here in Ohio?

Of course that last one is a joke, but I really struggle with the other ones. How are we supposed to do this? Like I said, I want answers to these questions. Answers that I can live with and that apply justice to the injustices that I’ve endured. I spoke with Pastor Keith about this before he left, and he mentioned that there are probably many people in this congregation who feel the same way. There are some wrongs that we consider unforgivable; and it would be easier to walk a mile on hot coals than it would be to forgive that wrong. I guess all this comes down to one question, “Why should I?”

Obviously, the first and the most important reason to forgive others is because we are commanded by God to do so and we’ve heard plenty of relevant scripture to back that up today. But there is another reason to forgive that we haven’t addressed yet.

I’d like to read a couple paragraphs from a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey.

Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another, my enemy, and doom myself to suffer the consequences of the wrong. I once heard an immigrant rabbi make an astonishing statement. “Before coming to America, I had to forgive Adolf Hitler,” he said. “I did not want to bring Hitler inside me to my new country.”

Christian author Lewis Smedes, in his book, Shame and Grace, wrote “The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiveness… When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us.”

But oftentimes forgiveness goes against our feeling of justice. Is it justice to set a prisoner free? Ask a victim of a violent crime if granting the guilty person a complete pardon would be just. Ask the victim of fraud if the guilty person should get to keep all the money he stole.

A very wise man once said, “Never ask God for justice, He might just give it to you.” Leaving justice to God is what we are called to do. As hard as that is, the Lord says that He will repay.

There’s another aspect to forgiveness that can sometimes be difficult. And that brings up the last question that I probably won’t be able to answer today:

What if the person I need to forgive the most is myself? That’s kind of an odd question isn’t it? Can we sin against ourselves? Sure; sometimes we can. And sometimes sinning against ourselves is the most common wrong that we do.

Sins against ourselves are things that don’t seem to hurt anybody. They might include things like lack of faith, jealousy, self-righteousness, hatred, lust, gossip or greed; and the worst one of all: false guilt. Which is when we hold ourselves responsible for things that are not our fault. Remember what I said before about being honest with ourselves and with God about our sin? This is the same thing but in reverse. We can fool ourselves the wrong way by believing ourselves guilty when we are not. This includes continued feelings of guilt that remain long after God has forgiven us. Satan uses this tactic to make us weak.

So what if the person I need to forgive the most is myself? The same thing Philip Yancey wrote about forgiving others applies to forgiving ourselves. Listen to his words again and think about them in the light of self-forgiveness.

Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another… and doom myself to suffer the consequences of the wrong.

That is doubly true for sins against ourselves. Do we really want justice when it comes to these sins and shortcomings? I sure don’t. I want me to forgive me. I want you to forgive me. I want God to Forgive me. I want God to free me from my sins and free me from false guilt. Before that can happen, though, I believe that I first need to free myself and free others.

God listens to us honestly confess our sins. God watches for us to forgive others. God superimposes the perfect life of Jesus over all of our sins and imperfections. God pushes justice aside and blesses us with His presence forever. None of us deserve it. The people we forgive don’t deserve it. Jesus didn’t deserve what he got either. Having the ability to forgive others is a sign that we ourselves have been forgiven by God. Practice forgiveness on someone you love: yourself, then try it out on others.

Will you please join me in prayer?

Heavenly Father, we join together in prayer today feeling shame for what we’ve done in the past and at the same time, feeling great hope for the future. We are so blessed that you sent your son, our Lord, Jesus to die for our sins. Please help us to accept his sacrifice by not making our big sins seem small, and not making our small sins seem big. We really don’t deserve forgiveness, but we’ll take it, as you’ve promised it with thanks for all good things which come from you. Amen.

(c) 2007-2009 David J. Miller
This sermon was presented on February 11, 2007 at Mt. Zwingli Church in Wadsworth, Ohio