Sunday, September 14, 2014

Christians Are Forgiven And Forgiving

Matthew 18:21-35 In 1947, at a church in Munich, Germany, Corrie Ten Boom had just finished speaking about forgiveness, assuring her audience that when God forgives, our sins are cast into the depth of the sea.  As she was being greeted by the crowd, she saw a familiar face:  the face of a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where she and her family had been imprisoned.  He didn’t recognize her, but she recognized him.  She and her sister had been forced to walk in front of him naked while he beat them with a club. 
He admitted that he had been a guard there but had since become a Christian and wasn’t it a blessing that God forgives us and would she please forgive him too—and he put out his hand.  When she told this story she recounted how she struggled in that moment but then these words of Jesus entered her mind:  ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’  And she grasped the hand of this man who had shamed and beaten her and told him he was forgiven. 
On May 13, 1981 John Paul II entered St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.  A man named Mehmet Ali Agca ran up to him and shot him four times.  After the Pope recovered from his wounds recovered from his wounds he went to the prison where Mehmet was being held, took him in his arms and forgave him and asked the world’s Christians to pray for him.
On October 6, 2006 Charles Roberts IV drove up to an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, blockaded the door with his truck, went inside and killed five little girls, seriously wounding a number of others, and then killed himself, making his wife a widow and his three children orphans.  That same day members of the Amish community came to his home.  They assured his widow that they forgave him and bore his family no ill will.
To take the hand of the man who beat and shamed you and those you loved—to embrace the man who shot you and tried to kill you—to support and care for the children of the man who killed your own children—the world cannot understand these things and truth be told, we struggle to understand them as well.  But we at least know why:  Jesus Christ has forgiven us our sins and we are to forgive those who sin against us.  St. Matthew writes that:
Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 
            Last week we heard Jesus tell us that we are to go to those who have sinned against us and forgive them and bring them back to God’s flock. 
We understand the greatness and difficulty of that task.  We live in a broken world.  We are surrounded by fallen and frail people.  Surely there must be some kind of limit to this call to forgive—particularly when we are the ones who are wounded.
The rabbis of the day put the number at three—three times we can be expected to forgive the same sin by the same person.  And so with seven times Peter was being quite generous!  But Jesus said:  “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 
Several thousand years before this moment, a man name Lamech had promised that he would seek vengeance against his enemies seventy times seven.  Of course we know Lamech wasn’t really talking about 490 acts of vengeance and not one more-- and neither is Jesus talking about 490 acts of mercy and not one more.  Unlimited, unending vengeance and hatred is set aside by Jesus for unlimited, unending forgiveness and love.  Jesus explained why.  He said:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
            I have seen various ways to calculate this debt but what we need to know is that the amount is beyond imagination, a debt beyond the man’s calculations-- but not the king’s.  Such is our sin debt in God’s sight.  Such is the ledger of our lawless deeds.
All of us can point to this failure or that in our lives.  All of us can bring to mind our pet sins.  All of us have some regrets about the past.  But none of us can truly know the greatness of our sins.  The psalmist says, “Who can discern their errors”? No one!  But that we cannot reckon our sin debt, does not mean it is not owed.  That we cannot pay it does not mean that a payment will not be required. Jesus said that:
Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
            The man in the parable owed a debt that he could never repay but that did not mean that a payment would not be required.  The justice of the king demanded it and so does our own sense of justice.  For example:
Bernie Madoff stole billions of dollars from investors.  That money is long gone.  Thousands of people will never be repaid.  But that does not mean we do not want our pound of flesh.  Madoff is in federal prison and will die there.  Justice demands it and the law requires it.  
            At the close of the Ten Commandments, God says:  I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.  In Romans chapter six Paul says that the wages of sin is death.
            We owe a sin debt that cannot be paid by the generations that follow us.  We owe a sin debt that is greater than our own life.  We owe a sin debt that an eternity in hell still will not remove.  Such is the judgment of the king’s law.  Such is the king’s justice.  Jesus said that:
The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
            It is only because of the greatness and majesty and nobility of the king that he does not fall out of his throne, holding his sides, laughing out loud, saying, “You fool”! 
The servant still had no idea as to the gravity of his situation—no real idea of what was owed—no ability to calculate what was required to pay back his debt.  He thought that what he needed was just a bit more time and then he could make things right. Sounds familiar…
            “Just one more chance Lord, then I will straighten out for good”.  “Give me one more opportunity to love those around me and then I’ll have it down pat”.  “Lift me up just this once Lord, and I’ll never fall again”.  “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
But of course we can’t.  The ledger of the law not only reveals our debt—it reveals our spiritual bankruptcy—that we have no spiritual assets to offer for our lawless liabilities.  If there is any hope, it must come from outside of us.  Jesus said that:  out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Please understand…
It wasn’t because the man was overwhelmed by the greatness of his debt—not because he was grieved over what his debt would do to his family—not because he was afraid of prison—not because sorrow drove him to his knees-- that the king forgave him his debt.  It was because of the mercy and pity that resided in the king’s heart that the man was set free that day.  A debt that the man could never repay—was wiped clean by a word from the king. 
So it is for us.  Our freedom and our forgiveness do not begin with us or continue with us or end with us.  Our freedom and our forgiveness are found in the mercy and compassion of a king who was crowned with thorns—it flows from a heart that was pierced with a lance—it is given by word that was spoken from a cross:  Father, forgive them.  Father, forgive them spoken from the font and altar and pulpit.  That is how our sin debt is paid.  That is how the kingdom of heaven works.  Jesus said that:
When that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
            Let’s be clear:  a debt was owed and simple justice demanded that it should be paid.  But where the first debt owed to the king was unimaginably large, this second debt owed to a fellow servant was incredibly small—especially in comparison. 
Let me ask you, what debts are you owed?  Is it the debt of an unkind word spoken about you by a co-worker?  Is it the debt of a friend who has failed you?  Is it the debt of a family who has treated you badly? 
That debt is real.  Justice demands that it be paid.  But grace asks:  what is that debt owed to you, compared to the debt you once owed to God?  How do your demands for justice sound compared to the king’s words of forgiveness?  Jesus said that:     
his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 
            What is so shocking about this scene is the complete inability of the first servant to see himself in the second servant.  But they were mirror images of one another.  They had the same need for forgiveness of a debt.  They take the same posture of a supplicant.  They spoke the same words begging for mercy.  All of us stand as equals at the foot of the cross, beggars all.
In that moment, the first servant had a remarkable opportunity to extend the mercy and generosity of the king into the life of a fellow servant-- but all he could see, was not the love of the king for this servant too, not the desire of the servant to be forgiven, but only what he was owed.  It is an ugly but familiar picture.
    Christian spouses alienated from one another.  Congregation members at odds with one another.  Battle lines drawn through church bodies.  Fellow Christians who won’t speak to one another at church.  And you can be sure that those around us take note.  Jesus said that:
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
            When Christians forgive—the world takes note.  A book was written about Corrie Ten Boom and her ministry of forgiveness after WWII.  Newspapers all over the world carried the stories about the forgiveness of John Paul II and the Amish in Pennsylvania.   
But as much as people take note when Christians forgive—they also take note when we don’t.  The world may not know all the details of Christian doctrine—but even unbelievers know that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith.  They know that we Christians are supposed to be different than the angry, vengeful world around us.
How much more do we Christians know that what defines us and makes us who we are, is forgiveness—forgiveness received and forgiveness given.  And so, when the world howls in protest at our lack of forgiveness—when a brother cries out to God because we hold a grudge against him—you can be sure that the complaint makes its way to the king.  Jesus said:
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
            Our text today began with a question:  how often do we have to forgive others when they sin against us?  And the answer of Jesus is that we are to forgive and keep on forgiving.  As long as there are sins against us, there will be forgiveness from us.
That is a difficult thing to do!  Our flesh rebels against it.  We are tempted to fall back into the pattern of the world: standing in judgment over others—demanding a strict accounting of every word and action—and seeking to hurt rather than to heal.  In essence, living just like this unforgiving servant.
With this stern warning that concludes the parable, Jesus wants us to make sure we understand that when we choose to live like that, we are also choosing to leave his kingdom, outside of which is only judgment and punishment and death.
How much better to live under our King’s gracious rule and receive his forgiveness and extend that to others!  May we forgive as we have been forgiven!  Amen.

General Prayer Pentecost 14 Proper 19a

Hear our prayer, O LORD!  Give ear to our pleas for mercy and answer us in Your righteousness:

In the midst of war and terror and violence, deliver us from our enemies and help us find refuge in You.  Guide our leaders as they make decisions and enact laws, that the wisdom and prudence You give would work for our common good.  Protect our military men and women and support their families.

When there is conflict in our families, set before us Joseph’s example and make us people of peace who are ready to forgive the transgressions committed against us.  When we are tempted to vengeance, remind us that we do not stand in Your place as judge but instead are called to deal kindly with all people.

We give You thanks that You have welcomed us into Your family through Holy Baptism and made us brothers and sisters in Christ.  Help us to set aside conflict over things that do not matter.  Bless our congregation and church body with peace and humility so that the way we treat one another would be a witness to the world as to the life we have in Your Son Jesus.

We praise You for Your great mercy in sending Your Son Jesus Christ to take upon himself the burden of our sin debt and pay it completely by his shed blood on the cross.  Having been forgiven this great debt, help us to forgive those who sin against us.

Be with us through all the trials and troubles of life.  According to Your wise, fatherly will, grant healing to those who are ill and meet the needs of those who suffer any lack of material goods.  Protect expectant mothers and grant them safe deliveries and healthy children.

Because Jesus Christ is the Lord of both the living and the dead, we know that those we love who die in the faith are never really lost to us.  We give You thanks for the life of Your servant Harry and pray that You would bring us safely to our heavenly home.

As we look forward to that day when every knee will bow before You, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, we pray that you would grant us a willingness to live for others and that You would keep us firm in our faith.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Our Heavenly Father Does Not Want Anyone To Perish

Matthew 18:1-20 This section of Matthew’s Gospel is divided into four different headings:  Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom, Temptations to Sin, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and If Your Brother Sins Against You.  In other words, the editor views these twenty verses as four different topics—and you could certainly study them separately. 
But there is a common theme that binds them together and it’s found in verse 14:  Our heavenly Father does not want anyone to perish.  That is the theme of these verses and that is the theme of the whole Bible:  For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him SHOULD NOT PERISH but have eternal life.
From the very beginning, when God promised Adam and Eve that he would send a Savior to destroy the works of Satan, our heavenly Father has done everything necessary for every person in the world to go to heaven rather than to perish in hell. 
The Bible says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins but not for our sins, but for the sins of the WORLD.  The Bible says that God was in Christ, reconciling the WORLD to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.
God loves every person in this world.  Each of us are his creation.  And he earnestly desires that everyone would be saved and spend eternity with him in heaven rather than perish in hell.
The illustration that Jesus used in these verses to make this point is familiar:  a shepherd with a flock of one hundred sheep- and yet such is his concern for each of them that he seeks even one who wanders away—99 percent not being good enough for the shepherd. 
Of course the real wonder is that this same principle is true even if the flock numbers a thousand or a million or a billion.  Our heavenly Father’s love extends even to the one and he wants each of us to be a part of his kingdom.  And so how does that happen, that we take our place in the kingdom of heaven?  The Bible says that:
The disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.   Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
            This is the way that we gain a place in the kingdom of heaven:  we are called into it and placed there by Jesus.  That is the only way!  The disciples were so concerned about whether or not they were important to the kingdom that they never thought to ask themselves:  am I even a member of the kingdom? 
Such is the spiritual danger of self- importance because life in the kingdom is not based upon what we do, not by our status, not be what others think of us—but that we are called there and placed there by Jesus.
That call goes out every time the Gospel is preached.  When the old, old story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is told, when his presence in Holy Communion is proclaimed, when we hear the Good News that in Baptism we have been buried and raised with Christ, there in those words God is graciously calling us to come and take our place in his kingdom as his children.
Insisting on a place based on who we are or what we have done will not work.  Demanding that we be acknowledged because we are better than others will fall on deaf, divine ears.  Putting ourselves forward will make us last. 
Can you imagine anything more absurd than the little child in the Gospel pushing past all those grown men demanding to be treated as an equal?  It’s laughable.  And yet when called there and placed there by Jesus that little child had an honored place in the kingdom with Jesus—a place and relationship that must not be destroyed by our sins.  Jesus says that:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.  “Woe to the world for temptations to sin!  For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 
            When we understand the love that God has for every person in the world, when we consider what Jesus has done to make it possible for us to have a place in his kingdom—the thought of hurting the faith of a fellow believer, of causing them to stumble and perish and lose their salvation ought to make us very thoughtful about how we live our lives. 
Just imagine one of the disciples laying his hands on the little child that Jesus had just welcomed into his presence and throwing him out of the circle.  Who would do such a thing?!  And yet that is exactly what happens when we lead those around us into sin. 
So that we might understand this warning, what are some examples or situations where this happens?  Jesus is talking about:
Heads of homes who do not lead their family to worship and bible study and so cause their loved ones to break the Third Commandment.  Spouses who speak ill of one another and fight with one another so that marriage is not held in honor by their children and the Sixth Commandment is broken.  Church members who gossip and church members who listen to gossip so that the Eighth Commandment is broken.  Citizens who publicly tear down their leaders so that the Fourth Commandment is broken.  And so on.
The sinful world around us is full enough of temptations that entice the child of God away from the fold without Christians tempting other Christians to sin.  We have a responsibility to lead our lives in such a way that the faith of those around us is strengthened rather than harmed.  That begins with us repenting of the sin in our own life and being done with it and amending our lives accordingly.  Jesus says:
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
            If all this talk about cutting of hands and feet and plucking out eyes seems a little extreme it is only because we do not really understand: the holiness of God- or his expectations for our lives as his people- or what is at stake eternally when it comes to sin.  Now then…
Jesus knows full well that cutting off our arms and legs and plucking out our eyes will not fix our sin problem (which lies in our heart and mind) but he wants us to understand just how serious the problem is.  Eternity is at stake.  Eternity in the unending, tormenting fires of hell. 
The point Jesus makes here is the same as he made last week:  what good does it do to gain the world and lose your soul?  In other words, what is your soul worth?  At what cost will your eternal salvation be sold away?
Is it worth going to hell to gossip?  Of course not!  Is it worth going to hell to lust?  No!  Is it worth going to hell to do what I want to do on the Lord’s Day rather than worship God?  Never!  Is it worth going to hell to nourish the petty hatred I have in my heart?  God forbid!  And yet those are the kind of trade-offs that people sitting in pews make all the time, counting their life with God a small thing --when God has done everything for our salvation.
God has known us and loved us for eternity.  Jesus has died for us on the cross.  The Holy Spirit has called us to take our place in the kingdom.  Our heavenly Father does not want anyone to perish which is why Jesus tells us to not lead others astray-- and take the sin in our life seriously—and help our fellow Christians when they fall into sin.  Jesus says:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  
            Our heavenly Father does not want anyone to perish.  That is why we are careful about how we live our life so that others are not led into sin.  That is why we are serious about amending our own live when we fall into sin.  But our life in the kingdom does not end with us only being concerned about our sin.  It is also includes being concerned for our fellow believer when they sin.
            When this happens, and when it affects us, we are to care for our brother’s soul by going to him privately, talking with him about, and doing all that we can to restore him to God through the same repentance that we exercise in our own life.  Accusation.  Gloating.  Judgment.  These have no part because that’s not how God deals with us when we sin. 
Rather, in times when our brother sins against us, we have the same spirit and love and care and concern as the Shepherd who sought us out—not to condemn us or judge us—but to see us returned to the flock.  The same desire that our heavenly Father has (that no one would perish) is what we desire for our brother who has fallen into sin.
If need be, it may involve others, so that the one who has fallen can see his sin for it is and repent.  And if there is no repentance, then we recognize they are no longer part of the kingdom and must once again be called and claimed by Jesus.  This is ultimately God’s work and he promises to work with us.  Jesus says:
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
            When we tell our brother that they are on the wrong track and they need to repent, that is not just our opinion—that is God’s judgment too.  When we tell our sister that they are forgiven and that God loves them, that is not just our opinion—that’s God’s judgment too. 
Every time we deal with one another according to God’s Word we can be confident that it is God’s voice that is heard:  speaking words of warning and forgiveness- because it is his will that we repent and believe so that we do not perish.
None of this is easy to do!  None of it!  It’s not easy living a life so that those around us are not wounded by our sins.  It’s not easy to repent of our sins and amend our ways.  And it’s certainly not easy to say to a fellow believer:  you’ve done wrong. 
But we have a wonderful promise from Jesus that we are not alone in this.  We have brothers and sisters to share in our life our life of discipleship and help us along the way.  And we have Jesus’ promise that wherever his people are found—even if they are but a few, he will be right there with them, strengthening them and lifting them up to bring them safely to their heavenly home.  Amen.