We’ve been asking the question all during the Lenten season…Why Jesus? What does Jesus reveal about God that is unique, that we would not discover through any other religious leader? And today we are going to look at the whole nature of forgiveness.
Not that long ago, I was in Israel, and it was the Sabbath…Shabbat is how the Jews would refer to it. On Friday evening, they have the Sabbath meal, and a law professor invited us to Shabbat on Friday evening, and so there was an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, a United States Ambassador and myself…sounds like I’m about ready to tell a joke, doesn’t it? The Orthodox Jewish professor who was leading us through the liturgy of the Shabbat said to me, “I wish we would have a concept like you Christians have of grace. Christianity has this concept of grace that no one else has, it’s called forgiveness.” Now, what we see that other religions identify, properly so, is the whole idea of justice.
Open your Bibles to John 8:5. Men have just caught this woman in adultery. So, they bring the woman to Jesus, citing the law that Moses commanded them to stone such a woman, and the real issue this morning is what does Jesus say about this? Today, stoning still is carried as a form of execution in Muslim countries. Here is a picture that was taken in 2005, of how stoning is done. They bury someone past their waist with their arms covered so that they can’t defend themselves. The men then stand in a line, very much like a line of execution, and stone the person. You can get online and google this and watch it. I was very careful with the picture that I chose to show this morning because there are some gruesome photos of what continues to be carried out today, because adultery is a capital offense in Muslim countries.
What other religions rightly identify is this whole issue of justice, that yes, we are accountable for the commitments we make, our actions, and the consequences for those actions. Adultery is not only a sin against a person that has ramifications to generations, what it does to children, how often it is repeated through future generations, but it is also a sin against God. God has designed the universe with moral laws, and when you make a commitment to another person…this is why you’ve got to be so careful before you say “I do”….because marriage is not only a contractual commitment to a person, it is a covenantal commitment to God. In America, in a secular culture, everyone determines their own right and wrong, it is that morality is a moving target, we are going to find out on the day of judgment that it wasn’t, and that God is a God of justice. What is unique about Christianity, what Jesus demonstrates, is that God is a God of mercy. We don’t get what we deserve.
Now, I don’t know about you, and I still battle some of these negative pictures I have about God, but as a kid, I used to think that God had this big, black book. Did your mother ever threaten you with that? And every time you did something wrong, that God marked it down in that big, black book, and that God was a God of vengeance that was just ready to always burn my behind. We know that scripture, John 3:16, I hope we know that scripture, it’s the first one I learned as a four year old, that my grandmother taught to me: “For God so loved the world, that God gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” What’s amazing is that most people don’t know the verse that follows it, 3:17. ”For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” So, God is not on a mission of vengeance or destruction, God is on a mission of search and rescue.
What is so amazing about what Jesus reveals here, is that God’s mercy proceeds repentance. No where in this story do we get any sense the woman was just caught in the act of adultery, brought immediately to Jesus, we have no sense that this woman at this stage had repented. Often, when people get caught doing something wrong, they don’t feel sorry for what they did wrong, they feel sorry for getting caught. But, Jesus says to this woman before there is ever any semblance of repentance, “neither do I condemn you,” but you see this is consistent of what we read in the gospels, for it says in Romans, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” So, God didn’t say let’s wait and see what your commitment is going to be towards me, and then I’ll commit all of myself to you. God commits all of God’s self to us before we ever give a response.
Now, also what we see is that mercy supersedes vengeance. The night before Jesus’ execution, He was arrested in the garden right after the Last Supper. Peter drew his sword, swung it and sliced the ear of one of the soldiers…and Jesus told Peter to put the sword away, “whoever fights with the sword will perish by the sword.” And then He made this incredible statement, “don’t you know that I can command 12 legions of angels to protect myself? Twelve legions of angels stand ready at my command.” But He never pulled that card, because mercy trumps vengeance. Then, on the cross…this is so amazing…here he is, nailed to the cross, soldiers are playing blackjack for his clothes, the people are hurling insults and mocking Jesus from the ground, and yet what does He pray? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” I would’ve called the 12 legions of angels. One legion was 6,000 soldiers, then they were broken down into sentries. But, grace supersedes vengeance. I need a God that looks like Jesus, how about you?
What we see here, what Jesus is revealing and demonstrating is that mercy is grace to the undeserving. Mercy is defined as the giving of love and favor where it is not merited or earned. In fact, it’s given in the place of the rejection or punishment that’s deserved. God suspends His demands for perfection in order to give you His forgiveness and love. And it’s why the religious leaders had so much struggle with Jesus: how can this guy be Messiah, when he is a friend to sinners? Jesus eats with sinners and any good Jew knew that you can’t break bread with unclean people and not become unclean yourself.
One of the most powerful stories to me is Peter. Again, it was during the Last Supper, what we call Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, Jesus said to His twelve disciples, “One of you here will betray me.” And Peter said, “I would never betray you!” Did you ever say to God that you’ll never do something again and then you did it again? Jesus looked back at Peter, and I’m sure he kind of smiles knowing our nature, Peter’s intentions were good intentions. Jesus said, “Peter, you are not only going to fail me once, you are going to fail me three times.” What is amazing, is that in Jewish tradition, the “third strike, you’re out” Jewish tradition said that you had to forgive someone up to three times. So, if you blew it once, I’ll forgive you. You blow it twice, I’ll forgive you again. You blow it after three times. So, Peter was going to, by Jewish tradition, have struck out. What does Peter do? He denies Jesus three times. Right after the resurrection, the women come to the tomb, because the men were afraid and hiding behind locked doors. Jesus said to the women, “Go tell my disciples and Peter I want to meet with them.” Now, why did he add “and Peter”? Because as soon as the women went back, Peter would think that he didn’t mean Peter, because he was “out.” What Jesus was demonstrating to Peter is that mercy is grace to the undeserving.
You’ve heard me share, and I’ve written about it in the past how I failed fourth grade. I was too young when I started school, I had just turned five at the end of August and my mom sent me off to first grade, so I was always physically and socially immature. I was about 106 pounds as a senior in high school, I looked like a fetus in Nikes. So, I remember when my teacher sent me to the principal’s office, telling me I had failed the fourth grade. What a cold feeling, if any of you have ever failed a grade in school and having to go home and tell your mom and dad. Then, there was a moment of silence while the principal was going through this moral dilemma, when she said that she was going to override the teacher and pass me on to the fifth grade because she believed I had more capability than what I was demonstrating. How I often look at that act of grace in my life, mercy to the undeserving, is how my life would be different. I would have never met Carolyn, I would have never had my children, I would have never had my grandchildren. I would have never been at Ginghamsburg Church, someone else would have been here because I would have been a year behind.
What my mom tells me is that she then had a meeting with my teacher, and the teacher was very angry because she said the action of the principal was unfair. Well, grace is not fair. It’s not based on fairness, because mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve. Mercy is unlimited in scope. Peter came to Jesus one time, and Peter was always trying to show Jesus that he was fully in. Peter said to Jesus, “How many times must you forgive a person?” And then Peter, being kind of wise and having hung around Jesus long enough and heard teachings on forgiveness, doubled the Jewish tradition of forgiving someone up to three times, and added one for good measure. Peter asked Jesus…”up to seven?” I’ll bet Peter thought that he was going to get an A on that paper. Jesus, said “No, seventy times seven.” Which, in the Jewish numerical system, means an infinite amount of times. So, it meant that no matter how many times a person sins against you, you never quit forgiving. Man, I need a God who looks like Jesus!
What we need to understand here, as it comes to our own capacity to forgive, struggling with forgiving, it hangs with you for years and years and years. As your pastor, who has met with you and counseled with you, there are some of you who have been divorced twenty years and you are still hanging on to bitterness and unforgiveness from twenty years ago, and it is infecting the relationships that you have today. Our capacity to forgive and receive forgiveness is intimately bound to each other, you can’t separate it. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” That is huge, because when we are giving mercy, what does that mean? Giving what a person doesn’t deserve. We are acting in the will and character of God. Jesus goes on to say, “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.” Our capacity to forgive and be forgiven is connected, you can’t separate it. What we have to understand is that unforgiveness kills. It is a poison that infects our spirit. It effects our relationships. Just like I said, if you’ve been divorced for twenty-plus years, you’ve been with a new spouse for eighteen, and because you haven’t let go of the bitterness from the past, it continues to infect the relationship you are in today. But it also kills physically, because there is a connection between unresolved anger and bitterness and coronary heart disease.
What we have to understand is that forgiveness is a process. It doesn’t just happen, you have to work it. And ignoring, or repressing, is not the same as forgiveness. It is just like any kind of recovery program that we work in our life, we have to work the steps. What is the first step? The first step of working the process of forgiveness is receiving God’s forgiveness. My ability to forgive others is tied to my own recognition of my own need in forgiveness. Can you get in touch with where God has been merciful to you? I think it’s important to remember my own failures. It helps me when I am struggling to forgive someone else, to remember my own failures and inadequacies, and how I’ve experienced God’s mercy. I know that some counselors would disagree with me, but I don’t think guilt is always bad. I don’t want to forget my past failures and pain that I have caused others, because that guilt (I’m not talking about a negative, destructive guilt) can be a part of my healing and transformation process. This whole forgiveness thing begins with really receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness in my life.
Secondly, what we need to remember in this process is that forgiveness is not primarily for the offender, it is that forgiveness is really also for release for the offended. If I’m hanging on to bitterness and unforgiveness, that person still has a strangle-hold on my spirit. So, forgiveness is letting go of the power that the person has over me. Forgiveness is not necessarily the same as reconciliation. There may never be reconciliation. I was meeting with a sister in Christ who has been divorced thirty years, and even though they had had children together, they refused to speak to each other, and having been married 24 years (to someone else), she has never released that bitterness. I asked her what she is waiting for, and she said for that “jack-donkey” to apologize. Well, let me tell you what…that “jack-donkey” is never going to apologize, you know what I mean? There is a difference between forgiveness and letting go of the power that person has over you and reconciliation. It’s okay to admit that you’re angry, but forgiveness is a willingness to let go of those feelings and leave the judgment to God.
There are some good reminders in the process of forgiveness. One is that the stupid neither forgive nor forget, so it continues to be a poison in their spirits and relationships. Second, is the naïve forgive and forget, so they’re doomed to repeat the same life patterns. A whole lot of people keep marrying the same person over again, even though they look different. Finally, the wise forgive, but do not forget. What does that mean? You don’t have to be a perpetual victim. As you forgive, you give yourself permission to disengage from a situation where a person continues destructive behavior, while you commit to being proactive and charting a healthy course for God’s purpose in your life.
In I Samuel 26, there is a great story in the account of David. I’ve always wondered why David is called a man after God’s own heart, because David had a lot of screw-ups. He committed adultery, put out a hit on the lady’s husband, and had some very negative parenting issues in his life. But God, in the New Testament, calls David “a man after my own heart.” There is this account where David represents a threat to Saul, who is king, because David is going to be anointed as the next king. Saul is pursuing David with an army of 3,000 men. One night, while Saul is on this pursuit out in the wilderness, King Saul and his army camp. David, with a few of his men, sneak into the camp at night while the army is asleep. They come up to King Saul, who is asleep on the ground and has his spear in the ground next to him; that is how they slept. Not with the pointed end into the ground, but the blunt end in the ground in case the enemy would come or attack, your weapon was right next to you. David grabs Saul’s spear. One of his men said that David should pin him to the ground right away, because he eventually will kill you. David said, “How can I raise my hand against God’s anointed?” So, David saw his enemy as anointed by God. David sneaks out of the camp, spends the night on a hill overlooking the Israeli camp, yells to Saul the next morning; lifting up Saul’s spirit. Saul, all of a sudden, is humbled and realized that David could have taken his life, and he apologizes to David.
What’s amazing is that David forgave Saul, but he never trusted Saul, and he knew that to go back and live where Saul lived could mean his death. So, David went to live with the Philistines. The wise forgive, but they don’t forget. There is one other thing about working through this process of forgiveness…don’t become a grace abuser. Remember what Jesus said, that mercy proceeds repentance. But what did He say to the woman? “I do not condemn you, now go and leave your life of sin.” Go and leave your life of sin. You see, a grace abuser is someone who, instead of living in grateful submission to Jesus’ will, they intentionally continue to rationalize and do the things that they know compromise the full purpose of God. Boy, I need a God that looks like Jesus, how about you? So, when we come to this table, we do two things this morning. One, we receive the mercy and grace that God offers, that we do not get what we deserve. But, we also come to this table with a willingness to give grace and mercy to the undeserving.
Transcribed from Mike Slaughter's April 3, 2011 message. Copyright 2011 Ginghamsburg Church. All rights reserved.