Sermon Series: Forgiveness

January 20th, 2012

2 Weeks

Week 1: Humans Before God

2 Samuel 12:1-14

The Sunday school teacher’s lesson for the day was forgiveness. She began with a question: “What do you have to do in order to be forgiven?” One little hand shot up. This boy was certain he had the answer. He said, “In order to be forgiven, you’ve got to sin!”

Sin is a word that dominates the Bible. The Bible’s first eleven chapters try to explain why the world is in such a mess. These chapters of Genesis trace the trouble to sin. Sin is the common condition of humans in every age. We all do wrong and fail to do right, whether we intend it or not, and we must find a way to deal with our sin.

The story of David and Bathsheba illustrates how we humans fall into sin and how we can find our way back to God. Six steps are involved.

The first step is the sin itself. In David’s case it begins as much wrongdoing does—with a single glance or desire. David desires Bathsheba. The biblical word for such desire is covet. Coveting has a way of evolving into action. That is why Jesus talked so much about impulses—about what goes on inside us. Desires are the springboards to actions. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he links coveting and adultery. By moving from coveting to adultery, David breaks the tenth and seventh of the Ten Commandments.

But the occasion of sin is not over. Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is still hanging around. In devising Uriah’s murder, David violates the sixth commandment. Notice how one wrongdoing leads to another. The king has fallen to what has been called the “imbecile earnestness of lust.”

Step two is a time of enjoying the benefits of the deed and justifying it. David and Bathsheba have a son and are happy for a while. Life feels good. David no doubt justifies his deed on several counts. He may even congratulate himself on rescuing Bathsheba from a life with a clod like Uriah (although the text hardly suggests this).

The third step is the piercing moment of discovery or the realization of guilt. In David’s case, God sends the prophet Nathan to uncover David’s deed and name it for what it is. In many cases this revelatory moment is less dramatic, and the messenger may be nothing more than the light of our own consciences.

Step four is a time of calculation or bargaining. The wrongdoer can respond to the situation in any of several ways: by proclaiming innocence, by trying to cover up the deed, by stonewalling, or by cutting some kind of a deal with God to contain the damage, such as making a limited confession or pleading “no contest.” Maybe that would work?

The process could end at step four, and, unfortunately, sometimes it does. But in David’s case there is a fifth step called confession. David quickly decides that the best thing for him to do is to confess. He says to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13). David’s deeds were terrible. Israel felt obliged to record them in her most sacred Scriptures. But there is another thing Israel could never forget about David—his truthfulness and his decisiveness. Being a person of power and action, David understood the importance of being decisive and taking responsibility. He chose not to dissipate his energy in a cover-up or in blaming. David said boldly, “I did it. The consequences are mine.”

There were consequences. There always are. Even the most complete forgiveness doesn’t cancel the consequences of our wrongdoings—not for David and not for us.

If there’s a fifth step in this process, then there’s a sixth step—restoration— a work of God. Restoration or forgiveness generates a kind of healing that is often sudden and miraculous. Once again things are right between God and us and between our neighbors and ourselves. It is a wonderful feeling, such a cleansing feeling, and we want everyone to have it!

The good news of the gospel is that with God, forgiveness is overflowing. Forgiveness is basic to God’s nature and is a mighty fountain from which all of us are invited to drink. It is a privilege for those who strive to know God and live in God’s will.

But the road to God’s wonderful gift of forgiveness goes through the difficult act of confession—our decision to admit our wrongdoing and seek restoration and also to confess that there are things we ought to have done but failed to do. This is the tough part. It’s our part. We must unflinchingly acknowledge our sins of both commission and omission. When we humans come before God, it must always be in the spirit of the old prayer of confession: “All of us like sheep have gone astray.” These are difficult words, but without them there can be no wholeness for us or for our neighbors.

Terry Anderson was kidnapped by Muslim extremists in Beirut in 1985 and held for six and a half harrowing years. During his confinement Anderson had an encounter with Father Jenco, a fellow hostage. Anderson had left the church when he was young but had recently resolved to return. Anderson had not gone to confession in many years and decided to take his first formal step back to the church by making confession with Father Jenco.

Anderson had spent months lying chained on a cot with little to do but read the Bible and examine his broken life. He poured out his heart to Jenko in a flood of emotions as both men wept. Anderson asked forgiveness for his sins in word and thought, in what he had done and not done. At the end, Jenco hugged Anderson and declared God’s forgiveness.

That confession was Terry Anderson’s first step back to the church. It seemed to him like the right and necessary thing to do. Its power was fed by a conviction that there is One who is always ready to forgive us, restore us, and welcome us home.

Week 2: Humans Before Each Other

Matthew 18:21-35

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning married Robert, her parents disapproved so strongly that they disowned her. For ten years Elizabeth wrote letters to her parents almost weekly. In the letters she expressed her love for them and asked for reconciliation. They never replied. Then one day Elizabeth received a large box in the mail. To her enormous heartbreak, it contained all of her letters. Not one of them had been opened.

Today those letters are considered to be among the most beautiful love letters in the English language. Had her parents read only a couple of them, their relationship with their daughter might very well have been mended. They missed out on one of the world’s greatest treasures and never even knew it; but more tragically, they missed out on an even bigger treasure: their daughter!

In our first sermon in this series, we noted that the Bible’s first eleven chapters try to explain why the world is in such a mess, why there is so much strife. The diagnosis is that we humans live in sin. Our sinful nature and behavior cause estrangement between God and us, between our neighbors and us, and between the natural order and us.

I don’t need to convince you that there are big problems in the human family. There always have been. The pages of history are filled with war and strife. The number of people killed in wars in the last five centuries is enormous: 1.5 million in the sixteenth century, 6 million in the seventeenth century, 6.5 million in the eighteenth century, 40 million in the nineteenth century, and 180 million in the twentieth century. War and murder have been sad facts of life throughout history; this new century may become the most violent yet. Of course, estrangement touches us at many levels other than war; and the closer it comes to home, the more it hurts.

The writer of Matthew’s Gospel is very attentive to estrangement and to the role that Jesus and the church play in overcoming it. Matthew portrays Jesus as “the Great Forgiver.” In Matthew, Jesus is constantly greeting those he meets with the news, “Your sins are forgiven!” Forgiveness is a common theme in Jesus’ teachings. Jesus wants us to voice forgiveness in our prayers, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6:12). Jesus especially wants us to practice forgiveness in the church. Just prior to our text (18:15-20), Jesus includes a method for resolving a case in which “another member of the church sins against you” (18:15).

The church is the worldly embodiment of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ ministry was strongly centered on forgiveness. Therefore, it is important for church people to model forgiveness for themselves and the rest of the world. God calls the church to pioneer in and witness to those virtues the world needs. Thus, for Christians, forgiveness isn’t an occasional act of heroism. It’s a way of life in Christ. It’s how we embody our relationship with God and extend such a relationship to others. It’s how we work with God to make all things new, including ourselves. It’s how we restore communion with God, with our neighbors, and with the whole creation.

First-century Judaism taught that one might forgive a neighbor once or twice or perhaps three times, but four times was beyond the limit. In our text, Jesus counters this notion by removing all limits to forgiveness. In some translations Jesus tells us to forgive 77 times; in other translations it’s 490 times. The exact number matters little because this is a figure of speech. Jesus is saying there should be no limit to forgiveness. Do it endlessly!

As is often the case, this parable of Jesus works by using extravagant contrasts. A slave owes his king ten thousand talents. This is such an astronomical amount of money as to be an inconceivable debt. Amazingly, the king snaps his fingers and forgives the debt completely! That forgiven slave then refuses to forgive a very small debt that a fellow slave owes him. How small? He refuses to forgive a debt that’s five hundred thousand times smaller than the amount he owed the king!

Jesus’ point is clear. God is forever merciful to us. We should be grateful for that mercy, internalize it, and model it in our behavior toward others. To do less is to dishonor God’s forgiveness.

I heard a story about a family that lived in the mountains of the West. The son had married a young Native American woman. His parents were against the marriage and shut out their daughter-in-law. One night during a raging blizzard the young man appears at his parents’ door to say that his wife is in labor. He needs help to get her to the closest hospital. His father refuses to help.

The child dies because the mother couldn’t get medical help in time. When the father of the young man hears the news, the enormity of his guilt overwhelms him. He knows that somehow he must go to the hospital to beg the forgiveness of his son’s wife. Holding a little bouquet of flowers in one hand and his hat in the other, he unexpectedly appears in the doorway of the hospital room. He wants to say the right thing, but words won’t come. Finally, with tears in his eyes, all he can manage to say is, “Spring is coming.”

The good news of the gospel is that spring is coming! Spring is coming for God’s children whenever they face one another to attend to the brokenness in their relationships. The hardest words any of us speak are the words by which we ask and grant forgiveness. But they are the most necessary words—because without them we all perish!

Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2007, © 2006 Abingdon Press.

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