Monday, February 18, 2013

The Forgiveness Equation


Teach Us to Pray:  Relationship Reboot
Matthew 6:12
February 10, 2013

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Introduction
I love technology. When it works, it increases my efficiency and broadens the horizon of creativity.  And I hate technology.  When I can’t get it to do what I want, I get very frustrated.  We kind of live and die by it in our day and age.   A couple of times when I’ve been practicing my sermon with PowerPoint in the sanctuary, the laptop would shut down and automatically start downloading updates.  I didn’t ask for those updates.  The stupid machine thinks it’s smarter than me and just went ahead and did it without asking.  (Yes, I know, I can stop the automatic updates. But that leads to other problems.)  I’m hoping that won’t happen some Sunday morning.  Something similar happened last week during the evening service.  We were showing a wonderful documentary through the laptop on George Mueller and the machine froze.  I tried everything - closing the program, fast-forwarding – nothing worked.   Finally, I just had to shut it down and restart it.  I had to reboot.

Sometimes relationships freeze or crash and we have to reboot.  I remember one of the most painful episodes I experienced in my relationship with my brother happened when I was in junior high.  He had this really cool dog, a cocker spaniel mix, named Kaiser.  If there ever was a perfect boy’s dog, Kaiser was it.  He was a bit of street dog, if there is such a term.  We were fortunate to live in a beach community and Kaiser lived outside.  We didn’t have a fenced yard – just an open lot with sand and ice-plant.  We made a little dog house for him and gave him a food and water dish.  But we never kept him on a leash.  (I know; we were bad owners.)  Kaiser ruled the beach.  He would chase seagulls up and down the waterfront and would occasionally dine on one of birds that would occasionally wash up on the shore.  Talk about dog breath!  Cool dog.

Well, Kaiser had one particularly bad habit and that was chasing cars.  We tried to break him of it and he seemed to be getting better.  That was until I took him fishing with me and my other brother one day.  I think we rode our bikes to the bridge and Kaiser followed along.  No leash, as usual.  But he was cool.  He didn’t chase any cars and he pretty much behaved himself.  Until we decided it was time to go home.  I can still picture it.  We were riding our bikes and the road was a rather busy one.  A big truck went by and Kaiser took off after it.  I was in a panic but there was nothing I could do.  The traffic was busy that day.  Kaiser survived chasing the truck but the station wagon right behind the truck killed right in front of my eyes in an instant.  I was devastated.  The driver stopped and was very kind.  He loaded up my bike and Kaiser’s broken body and took me home.  

My brother, Dave, was a sophomore in high school at the time.  I think my mom told him what happened.  I had taken his dog in a dangerous situation without his permission.  It was all my fault.  He was devastated and there was nothing I could do to bring Kaiser back.  Dave and I were always very close.  But I think it took us years to restore the relationship.  I don’t believe we ever talked about it.  Not then.  Not ever.  I had deeply wounded him.  I owed him a debt I could never pay.  Our relationship needed a reboot.  

Ever had a relationship crash or freeze?  We all need to know how to reboot.  In the Kingdom of God, it’s called “forgiveness.”

Transgressions, Trespasses, Debts or Sins
It’s always interesting when you pray the Lord’s Prayer with people from other traditions.  The forgiveness petition becomes just a bit awkward.  Do we say “transgressions,” “trespasses,” “debts,” or do we use the more up-to-date translations and say “sins?”  And what difference does it make anyway?  Catholics and older traditions usually say “trespasses” or “transgressions.”  Many Protestants and new translations use the word, “debts.”  Newer versions use the word “sin.”  

Each of those words has a useful meaning.  “Transgressions” and “trespasses’ carry the idea of crossing a boundary or breaking the law.  Certainly, they are actions that incur some sort of moral debt.  The word, “sins” conveys the same idea and that is the word Luke uses in his version of the Lord’s Prayer found in chapter eleven of his gospel.  Neither of these words, “transgressions,” “trespasses,” or “sins” is wrong.  But the word “debt” probably carries the fullest and clearest meaning of the word that Matthew used in his version of the Lord’s Prayer.  And I think the word “debt” is the most helpful in understanding the issues that are in play here.  My irresponsible actions caused my brother the loss of his beloved dog.  He had experienced a great injustice in circumstances which he did not deserve.  I had done that.  I needed to make it right but I couldn’t.  I carried a load of debt to him which he could hold against me or release me through forgiveness. 

In the great cosmic drama of the universe, sin has made debtors of us all to God.  When he created the heavens and the earth, it was perfect.  Everything was in its place. There was perfect peace and nature had no hiccups.  But when Adam and Eve were disobedient to God, they turned the world over to sin and death.  God’s perfect world was now broken and under a curse.  Men would have to work hard to earn a living and women would have pain in childbirth.  It wasn’t long before murder and all kinds of corruption infected the world.  You can read about it in the first few chapters of Genesis.  God suffered the loss of his perfect world, not through his actions, but through the actions of men.  And as the descendants of the first man and woman, we are guilty as well.  We are all morally indebted to God.  There is no way that we can make the payment.  And that indebtedness is an awful burden to carry until we receive the forgiveness that the Father offers us by his grace.  

The Blessedness of Forgiveness
The death that Christ endured on the cross paid the debt that sinners like you and I could not afford.  But even before Christ came, God offered to reboot the relationship with his people if they would only come to him in faith and confess their sins.  Psalm 32 reflects the joy of a moral debt that has been forgiven after confession. It was written by King David, who knew a thing or two about sinning.  You may recall that he committed adultery with the wife of one of his generals and then had him murdered to cover it up.  This psalm was most likely written in the aftermath of his indictment and confession of sin. 

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the LORD does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

The first two verses speak of the joy that is found when one’s debt is released.  David had sinned greatly and his guilt was overwhelming.  God forgave him and canceled his debt.  Notice, however, in verse two a condition that is necessary for forgiveness. 

Blessed is the one…in whose spirit is no deceit.  

You cannot hide your sin from God.  You cannot manipulate or play games with him.  It is pointless.  When you come to God for forgiveness, you must be completely honest if you want your debt cancelled. David continued:

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

If you are God’s child, you cannot run from him.  Carry the debt of sin in your life – try and cover it up – and you will be miserable.  David says, “day and night your hand was heavy on me.”  The misery you experience when you don’t confess your sin to God is his grace, prodding you to reboot your relationship with him through the forgiveness he offers. 

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

This is the narrative of David’s experience.  Notice he didn’t try to cover it up like we so often do.  He came clean.  And there we have the turning point.  Just a few words.  “And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  Done.  The debt was cancelled.  The relationship restored.  Out of his experience, David, the great sinner, but still the “man after God’s own heart,” urges people:

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.

A once devastated king, who has now been released from his debt by forgiveness, exults in praise:

You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

Pleading with the faithful, David now gives voice to God’s heart for his people:

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. 
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.

“Learn your lesson from me,” David says.  Put your faith and trust in God and keep your heart right with him. 

Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the LORD’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.
Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

In the Lord’s Prayer
It strikes me as strange that the request for forgiveness is more than halfway through the Lord’s Prayer.  In many of the worship liturgies of the church, confession and forgiveness comes early in the service.  It seems if our relationship with God is strained through sin that confession would be the first thing we would do.  

But God demonstrates his grace and mercy in still allowing us to come to him in prayer.  His operating system hasn’t crashed, even if ours has.  We must recognize that the Lord’s Prayer – this model that he is teaching us – is a whole.  Even though we are breaking it down into phrases to teach and understand it, we must recognize that the prayer is not fragmented pieces but one prayer to be prayed in its fullness.  When we pray that God’s name would be honored and that his kingdom would come and his will would be done, it becomes very obvious in our spirit if our actions have not lined up with our prayer.  Jesus then gives us the words to alleviate our burden and cancel our debt.  “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” 

Beyond the prayer, Jesus elaborates further:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14).

This statement by Jesus is troubling.  And we dare not take it lightly.  Is our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us a requirement for salvation?  If we don’t forgive others, can we lose our salvation?  Troubling questions indeed!

We receive our salvation through grace alone.  We can do nothing to earn it.  In the same way, I believe we can do nothing to lose it.  So we’re off the hook and we don’t need to really worry about Jesus said, right?  No.  Not really.  I think the implications are perhaps even more disturbing.  

As We Forgive Those…
When we say, “As we forgive those who sin against us,” we are making a kingdom of God statement.  What Jesus was implying in this prayer is that those who’ve known the Father’s forgiveness will naturally forgive others.  If you cannot forgive others, in other words, you have probably not experienced the Father’s forgiveness.  

I cannot imagine the horror of having a loved one murdered.  I have not known habitual or even occasional abuse, whether it might be emotional, physical, or sexual.  But I am certain many in this room have known it.  I cannot imagine the difficulty of forgiving the offender in such horrific crimes.  The offences I’ve suffered have been miniscule by comparison and I’ve often struggled to not bear a grudge.  Whatever the offense – and this is radical – those who have been forgiven by God can and must forgive those who are morally indebted to them.  I’m no doctor, but I’ve read about the physiology of Christ’s crucifixion.  I think Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ came pretty close to being accurate in all its horror and gore. Perhaps you’ve seen it.  And yet, after all their murderous abuse, Christ looked with compassion on his tormentors and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Amazing love!  Amazing grace!  And we have been called to follow Christ since we have known his forgiveness. 

Forgiving Is Not Always Forgetting
Friends, if you know the Father’s forgiveness, you are compelled to forgive others.  If you cannot forgive, you must conclude somehow that you have not experienced the Father’s forgiveness.  And that is a sobering thought.  But does forgiving mean forgetting?  Not always.  If a spouse is unfaithful, the moral debt can be forgiven, but trust has been forfeited.  It is foolish to think that things will be as nothing ever happened.  Trust can be restored, but it will take time.  That doesn’t mean forgiveness hasn’t transpired.  In the same way, forgiveness can be extended to an abuser, but it would be dangerous and naïve to act as if nothing ever happened.  In that case, trust may never be regained even though forgiveness has been extended.  

The Company of the Forgiven 
I am reminded every week that the Lord’s Prayer is a corporate prayer.  Jesus taught us, “And forgive us our debts…”  So often we find ourselves comparing our lives with others.  “Well, at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so.”  We do that so we don’t really have to come clean with God.  We make excuses and try to avoid responsibility.  But as David told us in the psalm, our lack of integrity before God is only to our detriment.  I think the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is a corporate prayer for our church of forgiven sinners keeps us from making those comparisons. It keeps us honest before God. 

An Invitation
There is lot to think about in this message.  I want to leave you with a profound and beautiful picture. This, from a chapter in a book about the Lord’s Prayer:

"These days, people of all sorts run to keep fit.  Even presidents and politicians have been known to don jogging suits, and even to be photographed taking exercise.  But in Jesus’ world, the more senior you were in a community, the less likely you were even to walk fast.  It shows a lack of dignity, of gravitas.

So when Jesus told a story about a man running, this was designed to have the same effect on his audience as we would experience if, say, the [President of the United States] were to show up for [his inauguration] wearing a [bathing suit].  It’s a total loss of dignity. 

And when we discover why this man is running, the effect is even more shocking.  This man is running to greet someone:  someone who has put a curse on him, who has brought disgrace on the whole family.  We call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), but it might be called the Parable of the Running Father." (N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer, p. 49-50)

We often – even daily - need to reboot our relationship with God.  When we pray, “Forgive us our sins…” the heavenly Father, in all his glory, runs to us and embraces us in his arms of forgiveness. 





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