Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Palm Sunday 2018: Behold Your King

Have you ever found yourself having to reevaluate things that you believed and thought?  And in the midst of doing that, have you ever discovered that things that you once thought and said in front of folks may have been wrong?  And have you ever felt really embarrassed that you once believed as you did and were as outspoken as you once were?

I hate it when this happens. 

You know, for years, I rebelled against using a lot of technology in church.  I didn’t think it was a good idea to put my sermons online.  If folks wanted to hear the sermon, they needed to come to church.  We didn’t need screes in worship.  Folks have a bulletin and hymn books.  All of this stuff was just gimmicks anyway.  What really counted was the Word of God and its power to change hearts.  There was no need to dress things up. There was no need to put all of this extra stuff into it.  Technology was just a bunch of fluff that was unnecessary.

But then in 2016, a study came out written by David Millard Haskell and Kevin Flatt.  It was titled, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.”  I read the study.  The authors studied mainline protestant congregations in Canada where church decline has been even steeper than here in the U.S.  This study confirmed what I had thought before: In every church that was growing, it was the Word of God and it’s power to change hearts that took center stage.  It was a robust, orthodox, evangelical faith that took hold and helped bring people to Christ.  But that was not the only thing these churches had in common.  Guess what every one of those churches used?  They made liberal use of technology in spreading the Gospel.  They connected with people’s smart phones. They had screens in their worship areas.  They connected online. 

When I reached this point in my reading, I knew I was faced with a choice: recant what I had said earlier in my life or continue in my stubbornness.  I could acknowledge what these researchers had found and get with the program, or I could turn a blind eye and pretend what they found didn’t really matter.  Well, most of you know that every Sunday I am recording the sermon that is delivered here and putting it online.  I’ve also started recording the Adult Bible study and putting that online as well.  It’s a start, but if I take seriously what this study said, then this is the avenue that should be traveled.  I’ve got to be humble enough to change my stance and do the things that help bring people to Christ.

That also means that I have to sometimes reevaluate the things that I have said throughout my time as a pastor and preacher.  For instance, back in 2008, I preached a Palm Sunday sermon where I talked about how the Roman soldiers viewed what was happening when Jesus came riding in on that donkey.  I said the following, “Straining his eyes, the captain [of the guard] looked and saw the focal point of the crowd’s attention.  There, sitting on a donkey, was a man.  He was waving to the crowd, smiling, and basking in their attention.  ‘How odd these people are,’ thought the captain.  ‘They celebrate a man riding on a donkey.’  With that, he turned to the rest of his men, ‘Stand down!’ he told them.  ‘There is nothing to fear.  They have no weapons.’  After saying this, he looked back down at the man on the steed.  ‘Who is this?’ he wondered to himself.  ‘Who is this man that so many welcome him in this manner?’”

I am no longer quite so sure that this Roman captain would have approached this situation in such a fashion.  Through my readings and growth in understanding, I have come to see that the Romans were not ignorant of Jewish thought and belief. The Romans knew that the Jews were a cantankerous group of people.  They had their factions and groups, for sure.  There were Jewish folks who collaborated with the Roman occupiers–including the Puppet King Herod.  This group was very, very small. There were other folks who begrudgingly worked with the Roman occupiers but who resented their rule to the nth degree–these were folks like the Pharisees. This was a much larger group. Then you had those who were in rebellion–those who assassinated Romans soldiers and diplomats at every chance claiming that they owed allegiance to God and God alone.  These were the zealots.  The vast, vast majority of the Jews believed that they were destined to be an independent kingdom, ruled by the Messiah who would bring them power and prestige throughout the world.

They only needed someone to follow.
They only needed someone who might have power and authority and might.
They only needed someone who seemed to fulfill the Old Testament prophesies.
And they had Jesus.

Oh, they had heard the stories of Jesus. They had heard about his miracles, and they had liked what they heard.  He could produce food out of thin air.  He could calm storms.  He could heal the sick and raise the dead.  He had untold of power.

Of course, there had been other stories that had caused a bit of consternation.  In his hometown, the people had tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.  On a couple of occasions, crowds had tried to stone him for things that he had said.  But these were ignored for the time being.  Perhaps he was controversial because he needed to stir people to action.  Perhaps they were just misguided in their understanding of Jesus.  Perhaps they just needed to channel their anger in the right direction–toward the Romans.

And those Romans were probably worried when they saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on that donkey.  They knew what that meant.  They knew the Jewish tradition of how a king was to enter the city.  The prophet Zechariah had talked about such matters hundreds of years earlier.  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The fact that Jesus was doing this could only mean one thing: Rebellion.  Jesus’ actions this day made himself public enemy number one in the eyes of the Roman occupiers. 

And Jesus was no fool.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He knew that riding in on that donkey was putting a target on his back.  He knew that he would not be well received by the Romans.  He knew they brooked no talk of rebellion or revolution.  He knew they would not be happy at all.

But the crowd was.  The crowd was exuberant.  They wanted to get rid of the Romans.  They wanted to get out from under their oppression.  They wanted to get out from under their burdens of taxation.  They wanted a true king, not the puppet king Herod who was of questionable Jewish heritage.  They welcomed Jesus with open arms.  They put palm branches and robes in his path.  They shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

They were in a festive mood.  Just as God had once saved them from the Egyptians by mighty deeds of power and might on the first Passover, God was now going to use Jesus and his acts of power and might to deliver them from the Romans on this Passover. 

But what the crowd did not understand was that Jesus was throwing down the gauntlet not only to the Romans, but to his fellow Jews.  Jesus was not only challenging the Roman’s ideas of power and might and authority, he was also challenging his fellow Jews to examine their own ideas of what they thought the kingdom of God would look like–to examine their own relationship with God.  And once the crowd discovered this, their shouts would change.  Their shouts would go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Why?  They were not willing to reevaluate their understandings.  They were not willing to change their belief in the face of new information.

Look at it this way.  All their lives, these folks had been told that the Messiah was coming.  They had been taught that their Messiah would usher in a time of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and power for the Kingdom of Israel.  They had been taught that the Messiah would overthrow their enemies with the strength and power of God.  Israel would no longer be subject to anyone.  Israel would be feared and respected throughout the world.  Israel would be the top dog, and it would be an honor and a joy to be a part of this kingdom!!  That’s why they celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Ah, but when Jesus challenged this notion of the kingdom; when Jesus began telling everyone that his kingdom was not of this world; when Jesus told everyone that they should love the Romans–the enemies of the Jews–and bless them when they were persecuted; this was more than they could handle.  This was more than they could bear.  This wasn’t how the Messiah was supposed to act.  In their eyes, Jesus became a false Messiah.  He deserved crucifixion.  But why couldn’t they accept what Jesus was saying? 

Here’s the question: what were the people really longing for?  What did the people most desire?  What did the people have their hearts set on?  Prosperity.  Peace. Honor. Power.  Riches.  These were the things that the people craved. These were the things promised in the Kingdom.  They were longing for these things more than they were actually longing for the rule of God.  In other words, they wanted what God could give them, they did not actually want to submit to God themselves. 

And Jesus would not accept that.
Jesus does not accept that.
Jesus says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.”
Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Jesus says, “The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Jesus says set your deepest heart’s desire upon God and nothing else.

You know, the crowds that gathered that Palm Sunday were waving their palms for the wrong reasons.  They wanted a king who would deliver them from the Romans.  They didn’t want a king who would confront them with their own selfish desires and demand repentance.  But that is who Jesus was and is.  He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He already reigns over the universe, but he wants to reign most of all in our hearts.  But as long as our hearts cling to the desires of wealth, power, prestige, possessions, or whatever we so choose, he can never be king.  Oh, we may make him a king for a day or for a few hours, but he will never be Lord of our lives. 

Maybe it’s a good thing that next year when Lent begins, these palm fronds will be burned and used to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday.  It’s a good reminder of how we should welcome Jesus.  It’s a good reminder that all of the things that would draw us away from Jesus should burn away leaving a desire for repentance and a clean heart; leaving a desire to have Jesus sit enthroned upon our hearts as the Lord and Master of our lives.

And hear now the good news.  Hear now where Jesus is going.  Hear now what Jesus will do to capture your heart that you may fall in love with your Lord and Savior.  For He will not rain down fire and brimstone on your head for failing to follow Him.  He will not impose His will on you by force.  He will not try to scare you into trusting Him or believing in Him.  He will not ride that donkey to a great throne of power and might.

Instead, he will give up his heavenly power and glory.  Even “though he is in the form of God, he will not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but he will empty himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he will humble himself and become obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  He will take your brokenness upon himself.  He will take your pain upon himself.  He will take your fear upon himself.  He will take your distrust upon himself.  He will take your sickness upon himself.  He will take your anxiety upon himself.  He will take your sin upon himself, and he will put it to death.  He will die for you to cleanse your heart; to cleanse your being.  And then he will pour his righteousness into you.  He will pour his grace into you.  He will pour his status as Son of God or Daughter of God into you.  He will wash you, and he will clothe you.  And He will do this not because you have earned it.  Not because you have been all that you should be.  Not because you are good.  He will do this because He loves you.  He loves you so much that he is willing to die for you.  He wants that love to claim your heart so that you put your trust in him–you put your trust in the King.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, let us see past the pomp and circumstance.  Let us see past the palm branches.  Let us see past all the things that we think that Jesus can give us, and instead, let us see Jesus alone.  Let us see the King of kings.  Let us see the Lord of Lords.  Let us see the one who has come to take our sin away.  Let us behold our king.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Heart of Forgiveness: Part 5

Long ago, before I came here to St. John, I taught a Bible study titled “Finding God in Harry Potter.”  It was based on the book The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal, and I will forever remember an anecdote that Neal used in the book.  To illustrate a point that she was making, she said, “When you look at a fly through a microscope, it looks like a monster.” 

Indeed, it does.  In fact, if we saw flies from that perspective all the time, we would be terrified of them.  But we don’t.  Instead, we see flies as miserable little insects that are a minor nuisance at times and a major one at others.  We are unafraid of them, and we swat them with fly swatters with little concern for ourselves.  They are tiny and insignificant compared to how big we are in comparison.  That perspective makes a big difference–a very big difference indeed.

Sometimes in life, we are offered a choice in perspectives.  We are given an opportunity to view a problem; view a challenge; view a course of action in a different manner.  We are given a chance to change our focus; change our way of looking at things; see a new reality.  When this happens, sometimes it forever changes how we look at reality as we know it.  There are stories of atheists becoming believers; believers becoming atheists; Republicans becoming Democrats; Democrats becoming Republicans; Republicans and Democrats becoming Libertarian, and so on and so forth.  When these shifts occur, it changes the very core of a person.  They become completely and totally different, and because of this, these changes are not easy to make or undertake.  A shift in perspective is very, very difficult.

You might be wondering what this has to do with forgiveness?  Essentially everything.  To really, truly learn how to forgive requires a fundamental shift of being.  It requires a new perspective.  It requires a change of heart.

This is why the Bible does not offer any sort of 12 step process of forgiveness.  You simply can’t change a heart with any sort of program.  It’s not that easy.  I mean, let’s think about this with our working definition of forgiveness: the change in our emotional state when we choose to absorb the cost of someone else’s actions that have hurt us.  No one really wants to do this.  No one really wants to absorb the cost: the pain, the frustration, the anxiety, the misery, of someone else wronging us.  We want revenge.  We want restitution.  We want justice.  We want the other person to hurt just as badly as we hurt.  But forgiveness says, “No.”  Forgiveness says, “I will willingly bear this pain for the other person so that in the long run I will be free from it.”  Forgiveness says, “I will erase the debt that someone else owes me so that I am no longer burdened by the anger and frustration of holding onto that debt.”  That’s no easy task.  No easy task at all.  It fundamentally goes against the grain of our very being.

Generally, something has to happen to us to change our perspective.  Generally, something has to happen to us to reorient our lives and our hearts.  Generally, something has to jar us out of our anger and frustration so that we can become new beings and practice forgiveness.

This is what Jesus is fundamentally getting at when He tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  We are now going to put everything together that this parable is trying to convey to us, and maybe, just maybe it will hit home to the extent that it will open our hearts and minds so that we change our perspective; change our focus; and find the path to forgiveness.

As we have worked through this parable in the past couple of weeks, we have found that God is a God of unimaginable justice and unimaginable love.  God is just.  There is no way of getting around that, and God will demand justice out of us.  This is the message of the opening scene of this parable.  A servant has racked up an extraordinary debt–10,000 talents.  In today’s money, that would be roughly $6 billion.  You’d have to spend one million dollars a day for nearly 16 and a half years in order to incur that much debt.  It’s overwhelming.  And the Master to whom this debt is owed renders judgment on the servant.  The debt is due.  Payment must be made.  That’s the way the world works.  If you owe someone, you must pay.  We all know this.  If you need a reminder, go borrow a bit of money from the bank and fail to pay a payment.  I guarantee you, you will be reminded very quickly.  The Master is rendering justice on this servant when He declares that the servant will be sold along with his family and his possessions as payment for the debt.  This is God’s justice at work.  It is only right.

But the servant is desperate.  He does not want this to happen to him.  He does not want to lose what freedom he has.  He does not want to lose his family.  He does not want to lose what he has.  His life might as well be over if these things happen.  So, the servant begs and pleads with his Master.  He falls to his knees; he kisses his Master’s feet; he lies and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  We know there is no way this can happen.  A person was lucky to make one talent in his lifetime.  This guy owes 10,000 lifetimes of debt.  There is no way he can repay.  It’s a lie.  He knows it, but he is desperate.  He has yet to understand his Master.

And speaking of the Master, the Master is deeply moved by the plight of His servant.  Despite the enormous debt; despite the lies; despite the servant’s unworthiness, the Master forgives the debt.  The Master wipes the books clean.  The Master incurs the cost of $6 billion dollars.  Can you imagine losing that much money with a simple word?  The Master’s forgiveness does not come cheap.  Not for Him at least.

And as I said last week, we know that this parable isn’t about money. It’s about sin.  It’s about our debt of sin, for we are like that servant who owes $6 billion.  We have sinned against God.  We know that God owns everything.  God created everything. He created you.  He created me. He created this world that we live on.  We know that a sin against anything or anyone is ultimately a sin against God.  Just like if our car is damaged by someone who runs into us, we are owed payment for the damages–because we own the car, we are owed when someone damages it.   Therefore if we sin against our neighbor, we sin against God.  When we sin against the planet, we sin against God.  And as we confess each Sunday, when we have an unholy thought, we sin.  When we say and unholy word, we sin. When we do an unholy deed, we sin.  But we also sin when we leave things undone.  When we do not feed the hungry, we sin. When we do not clothe the naked, we sin.  When we keep more than we need, we sin.  When we allow injustice to continue, we sin.  In this fashion. We rack up a terrible debt toward God.  Indeed, it is comparable to $6 billion worth of debt, but unlike $6 billion of inanimate currency, our sin is deadly. $6 billion can sit in a vault forever and not hurt a soul, but our sin certainly does.  Our sin harms people.  Our sin harms the planet.  Our sin harms society.  And for this reason, the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death.” 

One illustration will help us see this.  It’s an illustration that I’ve used years ago, but it is still pertinent.  There is a popular story about a man who had confessed the sin of gossip. For his penance he was told to go to the top of a nearby hill, pillow in hand, and cut it open. Shaking all the feathers into the wind, he had to go collect every last feather from the wilderness into which they had blown. Only then would his penance would be complete.  So it goes with each time we speak a word against another; we can never hope to recover all the information from whence it has been carried.  This is what our sin causes over and over and over again.

But though we deserve death, we do not have to face death, for our Master takes on human flesh.  Our Master, our God, comes to earth as Jesus of Nazareth.  He lives without sin to become the payment for our sins.  He becomes the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He becomes the spotless Lamb of God who takes away your sin; my sin.  God dies so that we do not have to.  God absorbs the cost of our sin.  Your debt has been paid.  It has been wiped out; forgiven.

But there is more that happens than the debt being paid.  Jesus does not only take your sin upon Himself, He also gives His righteousness to you.   2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "He [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."  What this means is that God credits righteousness to us.  God gives us Jesus’ righteousness.  Not only is our debt wiped clean, we are given a full bank account of never ending grace. 

To show this in the parable, Jesus might have said, “And in deeper compassion for the servant, the Master granted him 10,000 talents that he may never be in debt again.”  This is the reality of life in God.  This is the reality of the grace of the Master.  It is overwhelming.  It is unbelievable.  Our debt has been paid, and we have been given the righteousness of Jesus!

And as I asked last week, so I now ask again, “What would you do if you had been forgiven such a debt?  What would you do if the Master looked at you and said, “You know that $6 billion you owe me. It’s gone.  You don’t have to pay it.  You are free to go.”?  What would your insides do?  What would you feel down deep?  What would your heart do?  And how would you feel toward the Master who had just paid that debt for you?  What would your thoughts be toward Him?  What would you think about the One who just lost $6 billion of His own money because you pleaded with Him?”  And now add: What would you think about the Master who also invested in you and credited you even more?  What would your insides do if you knew the Master then added another $6 billion to your account?  What would you feel toward your Master?

Can you feel that toward God?  Can you feel the joy welling up in you knowing that this is exactly what God has done for you in Jesus Christ?  Can you feel the deep appreciation and love of God starting at the bottom of your heart and coursing through your veins?  You have been forgiven the debt that you owed.  Jesus paid it for you.  Your account has been filled because Jesus righteousness has been given to you.  This is why grace is so doggone amazing!!

Ah, but now we are back to perspective.  For the servant who was forgiven does something rather mind boggling.  He seeks out a fellow servant who owes him a pittance–at least compared to what he once owed.  We see that forgiven servant fail to forgive.  Why?  Because all he can see is what he is owed.  All he can see is what is due him.  All he can see is what he deserves from someone else.  He has no change of heart.  Instead of focusing on what his Master has done for him; he focuses on other things.  In so doing, he is unable to extend the grace that was given to him.  And the consequences are dire.  The consequences are horrendous.  This unforgiving servant has his debt reinstated; is cast into prison; and is tortured until he can repay the debt.  And since he owes 10,000 lifetimes of debt and now has no way of earning money, that means, forever.  He can never repay what was once forgiven.  It’s tragic.

But for us, the story never has to go that far.  For us the story doesn’t have to end there.  For us, the story can end with experiencing the Master’s forgiveness.  For us the story can end when we focus on what has been done for us.  We can have that change of perspective.  We can have that change of heart, if we keep our attention; if we keep our focus in the right place.  If we realize the extent of our debt and see the graciousness of the master, we now see that the debt we are owed by others is not as significant as might think it is.  It’s not a fly in a microscope.  It’s much, much smaller.

Oh, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.  It does.  It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make you angry.  It does.  It doesn’t mean that you haven’t been wronged.  You have.  It doesn’t mean that you will be able to forget.  You won’t.  It doesn’t mean that you will be able to let go right away.  You probably won’t.  But what it does mean is that you will not be consumed by what is owed to you.  You will not be consumed with anger.  You will not walk around in a perpetual state of depression.  Instead, you will be full of hope and joy.  You will be full of praise and thanksgiving.  You know the joy of your Master.  You know the grace of your Master.  You bask in His light.  Your focus remains on Him.  Your perspective is changed.  Your heart is changed.  And you can practice forgiveness because you have been forgiven.  Amen. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Unforgiving Servant: Forgiveness Part 4

Every once in a while, you will hear a story about good deeds being passed on and on and on.  I can remember about a year ago hearing about a chain reaction of good deeds at a McDonald’s restaurant.  Someone in the drive thru decided to pay for the person waiting in line behind them.  Touched by this person’s generosity, the person who was paid for, decided to pay for the next person.  Touched by that person’s act of kindness, the next person decided to pay for the next person, and so on and so forth.  According to a CNN article, 167 people paid it forward that day before the chain was broken.  Kindness and compassion begat kindness and compassion.  Every once in a while such stories break forth and help us see the goodness of humanity.

At such times, the Golden Rule seems to come to life, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Most of us whole-heartedly agree that this is the way it should work.  This is the way the world should operate.  We see that ideal looming before us.  Sometimes we catch glimpses of it actually happening, but then, we also are reminded of just how far we have to go.  We see things that make us shake our heads in bewilderment.  We see man’s inhumanity toward man.  We see that acts of kindness are met with acts of hatred and enmity.  Sometimes such acts make us think deeply about the world that we live in, and we ask, “What is wrong with people?”  It is an age old question.  It has been wrestled with for many, many centuries. 

The Bible wrestles with this question as well, but the Bible does not lead those of us who follow its teachings to say, “What’s wrong with people?”  No.  The Bible makes it more personal.  The Bible leads us ultimately to ask the question, “What is wrong with me?”  That’s not a popular question.  It’s not a popular question at all.  For the most part, we don’t like looking at ourselves and seeing that we might be flawed.  We don’t like looking at ourselves and admitting that we are broken individuals and that we are capable of causing pain, grief, and harm to others.  But if we delve into the Bible, if we consider it’s teachings honestly, there is no escaping what it says about us.  I cannot escape the Bible telling me, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  You, Kevin Haug are a sinner who has fallen short of God’s glory.”  This means that the relationship that I have with God is not where it should be.  This means that there is a strain in my relationship with the One who created me.  And if that relationship is to be maintained, forgiveness will need to enter into the picture–not on my behalf, but on God’s behalf.  God hasn’t messed up the relationship.  I have.  I need forgiveness.

This is a very crucial point in helping all of us become better at forgiving one another.  As we have worked through this topic we have learned a lot.  We have learned that forgiveness is very beneficial to our health and well being.  Science has confirmed this through numerous studies.  We have learned that God expects us to forgive one another, and that if we don’t forgive one another, we will not be forgiven.  We have also learned that despite these benefits and warnings, we still have an extremely difficult time forgiving because when we forgive someone, we absorb the cost of their wrongdoing.  No one really wants to pay for someone else’s wrongdoing–it flies in the face of justice as we know it!!  Forgiveness is extremely difficult because of this. 

Yet, as Christians, we are called to practice forgiveness, so we must learn how.  Unfortunately, we have discovered that the Bible does not give us a step by step program on how to forgive.  But, we did learn that Jesus gives us a step by step program on how to try and get someone to take responsibility for their sin.  This means we wouldn’t have to pay the cost ourselves.  Yet, the process does not always work, therefore we learned that we must move into the hard work of forgiveness.  And the first step we took in that endeavor was to look at God.  Jesus told a story of a Lord and Master who was unimaginably wealthy; who was unimaginably compassionate; who was unimaginably just.  We finished our time together last week holding in dynamic tension God’s great love and God’s great justice. 

Today, we look at the unforgiving servant in that story, and it’s not exactly the most pleasant thing to look at.  Why?  Well, in every story that Jesus tells, He expects His audience to find themselves in that story.  He expects us to relate to at least one or more of the characters.  It is quite obvious from this story that we are not the Lord and Master.  That spot is reserved for God.  We are also not those who are standing around watching.  That’s a bit part to move the story along.  We certainly can find ourselves like the second servant–at the receiving end of someone who fails to forgive us; however, I don’t think Jesus means for us to identify with this servant because He is answering Peter’s question: “How many times must I forgive someone who sins against me?”   We are put in the place of someone who is owed a debt.  As far as we know, the second servant is not owed anything, therefore, we are not to relate to this man.  Given all of that, Jesus tells this parable with the idea that we will be most closely associated with the servant who was forgiven a massive debt but then fails to forgive. 

Now, before I go further, I would like to ask you to hang in there through this whole sermon series.  I’m not up here to scare the living daylights out of you.  I’m not here to suggest that you and I have a one way ticket to hell.  I am not up here telling you that fear is the ultimate motivation for forgiveness.  No.  That’s not it at all.  But as I said last week, if we understand this parable and what it is pointing out, then we will understand forgiveness and we will be better able to forgive.  We simply need to hang in there, and once we wade through everything, things will become much more clear. So, with that being said, let’s now look at this servant in the parable.

Sometimes, you can read something over and over again and never notice things until someone else points that thing out.  Such is the case with me with this parable.  I had never really noticed the fact that this servant was brought before the Lord.  I’m not too sure he willingly came before his master.  He had to be dragged there.  Why?  Well, because he knew how much he owed the Lord.  He owed the Lord 10,000 talents.  Last week we put a modern dollar figure on that amount.  This servant owed $6 billion.  If you know you owe that much and you know your Lord is settling accounts, you don’t want to appear in front of Him.  You don’t want to face the music.  You are scared out of your mind.  You wouldn’t voluntarily head into such a meeting. You’d do everything possible to try and avoid it.  So, this servant had to be brought before his Master. 

And the Master demanded a reckoning.  The Master demanded repayment.  At this point, I can’t help but ask this question: who in the world can rack up $6 billion in debt?  I mean, that’s a staggering amount.  How do you do that?  I mean, I was crunching the numbers on this.  Do you realize that you would have to spend $1 million per day for 16 and a half years before you spent $6 billion?  How do you do that?  I cannot even begin to fathom that.  That number is almost beyond my comprehension.  And yet, this guy owed that much money.

Now, of course, this parable isn’t about money.  It’s about sin, so the point of this comparison is that we are in debt to God in a similar fashion.  We have sinned against God in an amount that is beyond comprehension.  As I read this parable, Jesus is saying to me, “Kevin, you have racked up a debt towards God that is comparable to $6 billion dollars.  Your sin is overwhelming.”  That is not a comforting thought.  How can I rack up so much sin?  How can I be in debt to God that much?  Haven’t I tried to be a good person?  Haven’t I worked for God in the church?  Haven’t I been a Christian all my life?  How could I rack up so much sin?  And then I remember the confession and forgiveness that we do each and every Sunday.  “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed; by things that we have done and by things that we have left undone.”  Sin takes the form of thought, word and deed.  Whenever we think an unholy thought, we sin. Whenever we speak an unholy word, we sin.  Whenever we do an unholy deed, we sin.  But it goes beyond what we do.  It is also the things we don’t do.  Whenever we don’t feed the hungry, we sin. Whenever we don’t speak well of our neighbor and defend him or her, we sin.  Whenever we allow injustice to continue, we sin.  Whenever we keep more than we need, we sin.  Whenever we fail to give to God the things that are due God, we sin.  If we honestly look at what God commands, and if we honestly look at ourselves, we begin to see just how sinful we are.  We begin to see just how in debt to God we are.  We resonate deeply with St. Paul when he says in 1 Timothy 1:15, “15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”  Yes, I am in debt beyond imagination.

And the Master demands an account.  The Master demands repayment.  “You will be sold along with your family and all your possessions as payment for the debt.”  This is far too little to satisfy the debt, but it is everything that the servant has.  The servant sees what is happening.  He knows that he will never experience any sort of freedom again.  He sees that his family will be gone; that his possessions will be taken.  He knows that the only thing he can do is plead for mercy.  And so he does.  He falls face down in front of the Master; he kisses the Master’s feet.  And he lies.  Yes, he lies. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  This servant owed 10,000 talents.  At best, a slave could expect to earn one talent in his entire lifetime.  This slave owes 10,000 lifetimes worth of debt.  There is no way he could ever repay it.  There is no way he could ever come close.  But he is desperate.  He needs a way out.  He wants salvation.  He will do whatever it takes to get it in light of the alternative.

But what the servant does not realize is the grace of his Master.  The servant does not realize the compassion the Master has.  The Master is moved with pity for the servant, and in a move of sheer grace, the master releases the servant and forgives the debt. 

Now, the important question comes forth.  What would you do if you had been forgiven such a debt?  What would you do if the Master looked at you and said, “You know that $6 billion you owe me. It’s gone.  You don’t have to pay it.  You are free to go.”?  What would your insides do?  What would you feel down deep?  What would your heart do?  And how would you feel toward the Master who had just paid that debt for you?  What would your thoughts be toward Him?  What would you think about the One who just lost $6 billion of His own money because you pleaded with Him?

These are vastly important questions.  They are the crux of the whole problem of forgiveness.  They are the lynch pin on helping us to forgive.  Therefore, we will focus on them in depth next week.

What we do know now is the direction this servant took.  What we do know is that unlike those 167 people in that McDonald’s drive thru, this servant does not pay things forward.  Instead of passing on what he had received, he sought out a fellow servant who owed him money.  Please note that Jesus purposely tells us that this is a fellow servant.  This is an equal.  This is someone who has the same status as the servant who was just forgiven.  And in a scene of horror, the forgiven servant refuses to forgive.  The one who was forgiven 10,000 lifetimes of debt, refuses to forgive three month’s wages.  Even though his fellow servant begged and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  You will note that the only difference between what this servant said and what the unforgiving servant said to the Master is only one word.  “Everything” is missing.  Almost the exact same words produce vastly different results.

Why?  I mean, we know what happens next.  We know the Master finds out what happens and reinstates the debt; throws the servant into prison; and allows him to be tortured.  It’s not a happy ending.  But why did it get that far?  Why did the one who was forgiven fail to forgive?  Answering these questions will bring us to the heart of forgiveness.  Answering these questions will help us see how we can forgive.  But I do not have time to answer them now.  They will have to wait until next week.  I don’t like leaving you hanging out there with little direction, so I’ll give you a little bit to think about in the week ahead.  Why does the servant focus on what is owed him instead of focusing on what he was forgiven?  Consider that question as next week we bring things full circle.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Lord: Forgiveness (Part 3)

Today, the rubber begins to hit the road.  Today we come to the pivotal biblical teaching on forgiveness.  This teaching is actually so deep and rich that we will spend three Sundays delving into it, and hopefully, at the end of it all, we will come to a deep and full appreciation of forgiveness and find out how indeed we can forgive.

But before we get there, let me take just a moment to recap where we have been so far for anyone who might have missed the first two sermons. First, we delved into what forgiveness is.  We found that it has scientifically proven health and mental benefits.  We also found that it is commanded by God.  We found that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven.  Yet, despite all of this, we also found that forgiveness is extremely difficult because it means that we pay for the wrongdoing of someone else.  We bear the cost of someone else hurting us.  Our working definition of forgiveness for this series then is this: the change in our emotional state when we choose to absorb the cost of someone else’s actions that have hurt us. 

Last week, we discovered that the Bible doesn’t give much instruction on how we can forgive.  We found that it commands forgiveness; that it expects forgiveness, but there is no direct process on how it can be accomplished in our lives.  Instead, Jesus begins his teachings on forgiveness with an emphasis on first getting those who have hurt us to take responsibility for their actions.  We are called to seek out those who have hurt us to win them back–win them because they are in danger of losing their salvation.  Jesus outlines a process in doing this, but if that process doesn’t work–if those who have wronged us fail to take responsibility, then we must move on to the hard work of forgiveness.  We must move on to shouldering the cost of how we were wronged.

This leads us straight to our Bible lesson this morning from Matthew chapter 18.  Peter, the spokesman of the disciples picks up on what Jesus is saying.  He understands what Jesus is saying about forgiveness.  He knows that Jesus is asking them to pay the cost of another’s wrong doing.  So Peter asks, “Lord, how many times must I forgive someone?  Seven times?”  Now, Peter thinks that he should receive a pat on the back or two for this question.  The religious teachers of his day had talked of forgiveness as well.  They had decided in their deliberations that one was obligated to forgive another person two times.  After the third offense, one was no longer obligated to forgive.  Does this sound like someone playing baseball?  Three strikes, and you are out!!  Peter is going well above what the religious authorities taught.  He has doubled their number and then added one: seven.  Seven is also considered the perfect number–the number of godliness.  Surely this is accurate.

Jesus actually will have none of it.  Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Now, the Greek is a little bit difficult to parse here.  You could also translate this seventy times seven–which some of you may have been exposed to in other translations of the Bible.  Either way, Jesus is purposely expanding the number greatly–so much so, that Jesus is truly saying, “Look Peter, you don’t keep count.” If you are keeping count; if you are keeping score; you have not yet understood the idea of forgiveness.

I am quite sure that Peter was taken aback by Jesus reply.  I am quite sure that Peter looked at Jesus with those deer in the headlights eyes.  I’m sure Peter stood there for a moment with his mouth agape before trying to form the words, “”  How can I forgive someone like that?  How can I bear that much cost?  How can I bear that much pain?  How can I do such an impossible thing?

Like the Master Teacher he is, Jesus responds with a story.  It is a powerful story.  A frightening story.  A story packed with imagery and detail and a wallop of a punch.  And within this story, when we come to understand it. When we come to understand all that is being said.  When it clicks within our minds and our hearts, then, yes, then we will understand and know how to forgive. 

Oh but we need to spend some time in this story.  We need to examine it.  We need to see what this story tells us about God, about ourselves, and then about forgiveness.  And to do this, we will spend today focusing on the Master.  We will spend next Sunday focusing on the servant, and we will spend the last Sunday putting it all together.

As we look at the parable Jesus told, we first see that the Lord and Master in this parable is unimaginably rich.  How do we come to this conclusion.  Well, we come to this conclusion by seeing how much the servant owes him.  This servant is in debt to his master 10,000 talents.  Now, how much is that?  Anyone out there who is a mathematician will appreciate this.  One talent is worth 6,000 denarii, and one denarii is a day’s wage.  Day laborers generally work for $100 a day, so let’s do all the multiplication.  One hundred times 6,000 is $600,000. $600,000 times 10,000 is six billion.  The Lord’s servant owes him six billion dollars!!!  And this is not the only servant. There are more servants to go, and we know from the outset of this parable that they owe the master money as well.  Who has that kind of money to loan?  Only someone who is unimaginably rich! 

This is an important part of this parable because it leads to an important tenet of the Christian faith.  We believe and proclaim that all sin is a sin against God.  Yes, when we sin against another person, we wrong that other person, but we also wrong our Heavenly Father.  There have been a few folks in my time who I have heard who have a hard time wrapping their heads around this.  They will say, “Sure, I may have sinned against this person, but it wasn’t against God.”  I get that argument.  I understand it, but you’ve got to expand your thinking a bit.  For it’s like this: let’s say you drive down to Houston to do some shopping.  You pull into Memorial City Mall, and you see a parking spot open up–that’s a rare thing, you know!!  So you speed up a little bit, and you pull in just in time.  But another patron, who had also seen that parking spot bumps into your car and dents it.  You are not happy with the situation, and you confront the person who hit you.  You demand an apology and payment for the damages.  The person looks at you and says, “You know, I didn’t hit you.  I hit the car.  I don’t owe you and apology.  I owe the car an apology, and I don’t owe you damages.  I owe the car damages.  What is your car’s name so that I can make a check out to it?”  I know that sounds stupid. Why?  Because we all know, that if you own the car, you are due the damages.  If you are driving the car, they hit you. As the owner, you are the one who was sinned against!!! 

So here is the question: what does God own?  What belongs to God?  God is unimaginably wealthy.  God owns everything–including you; including me.  When we sin against one another, we are sinning against the one who owns us.  We are sinning against God.  We will need to remember this next week as well as we talk about the servant, but for now, let’s move on.

The second thing we see about the Lord and Master is that He is unimaginably compassionate.  He is unimaginably gracious.  The servant who owes him six billion dollars is brought before Him, and He demands payment.  The Lord has kept an account of everything owed to Him.  He knows every cent due.  He knows what is rightfully His.  Just like us when our car is damaged and we want things set to right; the Lord wants things set to right.  It is only just.  It is only fair.  You can’t have people squandering your wealth without an accounting.  You can’t have people causing damage without demanding responsibility!  Imagine the chaos such things would cause!!  Payment for the debt must be made!!! 

But how can $6 billion be accounted for?  The only way the Lord can recoup the debt is by selling the servant, his family, and all his possessions.  This is only a drop in the bucket, but the debt must be paid. 

Such a thing is devastating for the servant, so he pleads with the Lord not to do such a thing.  “Give me time, and I will repay everything!!”  We’ll talk more about this next week.

What is important to us today is to see the Lord’s response.  The Lord has compassion.  Literally, in the Greek, the Lord’s insides melted.  When the Lord heard His servant’s plea, He was moved deeply.  How deeply.  The Lord released the servant and wiped out the debt.  The wording here is very important–the slave was literally a prisoner.  He was in bondage, but he is now freed.  He is now released, and his debt is gone; wiped out; completely erased. 

But that forgiveness wasn’t cheap, was it?  Oh, it was cheap for the slave, but it wasn’t cheap for the Lord.  The Lord just incurred a $6 billion expense.  The Lord just had $6 billion erased from His net worth.  Can you imagine swallowing that much?  Can you imagine doing that for someone?  Can you imagine the generosity?  The compassion? The grace?  That is unimaginable.  No one does this.  No one. No one cancels that much debt.  No one pays that cost themselves.  Except for this Lord.  Except for our Lord.  Can you see the generosity of God?  Can you see the compassion of God?  Can you see what God is willing to do for His servants?  Oh ponder the depths of God’s grace and love and mercy!!!

Oh, and if the parable would have ended here, perhaps we could be happy.  Perhaps we could simply revel in the glories of God and His generosity.  But Jesus doesn’t simply stop with the forgiveness of the debt.  There is more.

The servant who was forgiven–who was released, seeks out a fellow servant who owes him money.  Using the mathematics of earlier.  This fellow servant owes the forgiven servant $10,000.  Not insignificant, but completely manageable.  But there is no scene of forgiveness to be played out.  There is no release. There is imprisonment.  We will speak of these things further next week, but for now, let us simply see that the one who was forgiven refuses to forgive, and that initiates another sequence of events–a sequence of events that takes us right back to the Master and Lord.

The Lord is told about the actions of the forgiven servant.  The Lord is told of how the one who was forgiven refused to forgive.  The Lord is told of how the one who was released turned around and made a captive.  And the Lord’s wrath is kindled.  “You evil slave!”  Yes, that’s the Greek word.  Wicked seems to tone things down a bit.  A judgment is rendered here, and it is not pleasant.  “You evil slave!  I forgave you because you pleaded with me.  Shouldn’t you have done the same?!” 

God is not mocked.  God’s forgiveness is not mocked.  God’s righteous anger burns against those who have been forgiven and who fail to forgive.  God’s wrath falls upon them with the heaviest possible consequences.

The $6 billion debt is reinstated.  The slave is thrown into prison.  And the slave is tortured.  That might make us squeamish hearing Jesus say those words.  That may makes our stomachs turn.  We like hearing about God’s love.  We like hearing about Christ’s love.  But judgement?  Torture?  Really?  Surely this is just over the top language.  Surely this is just an interpretation.  Surely this isn’t the “real” Jesus.

Yes. It is.  It is the real Jesus talking about the real God.  We must remember that God is a God of justice.  God’s anger and wrath burns hot against sin.  God will not let sin go unchecked.  And if you have been forgiven $6 billion dollars, it is unjust to demand payment of $10,000.  Look at it this way–if you were lucky and a hard worker, you could expect to make one talent in your LIFETIME.  This servant was forgiven 10,000 lifetimes’ worth of debt, and he refuses to excuse three month’s of wages!  Do you consider that just?  Do you consider that fair?  Do you consider that worthy of the one who forgave $6 billion becoming angry?  Of course you do.  At a deep level, you recognize the injustice.  You recognize that the punishment fits the crime.

And so, is this where we are left?  Are we left here looking at God who punishes if we do not forgive?  Are we left here now thinking, “Geez, I’d better think twice about holding onto my grudges.  I’d better think twice about not forgiving someone else.  I’d better start letting go of my anger towards others lest I end up in hell being tortured because I ticked God off.” 

Stop.  Breathe.  The long answer is no.  We do not forgive others because we are scared to death of God.  We do not forgive others because we fear ending up in hell being tortured for eternity.  There is no comfort in such forgiveness.  There is no peace in such forgiveness.  It is forced and compelled forgiveness, and it certainly is not from the heart.  We will arrive there, but today it is sufficient for us to ponder both the love and the justice of God.   Hold these two things in dynamic tension.  For to see God’s love and God’s justice in tension in this manner is an important step in the process of learning how to forgive.  Amen.