Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Promises of God: Forgiveness (1 of 6)

Pentecost 13 2014a
Trinity Lutheran Church (NALC)
Special Sermon Series: “The Promises of God: Forgiveness”
Jeremiah 33:4-9; I John 1:5-10; Luke 12:29-34

Hundreds of years ago Christian missionaries first stepped ashore on the cold, windy coast of what we know today as Labrador in Canada.  The conditions in that frozen wilderness were pretty harsh, but the missionaries came anyway and tried to convert the native Eskimos to Christianity.  They organized a meeting of several villages, and they engaged an interpreter to translate their English into the native language, and they set about telling the Eskimos about God’s plan for salvation: how Jesus Christ had come into the world to suffer and die so that their sins could be forgiven.  But all of a sudden the interpreter stopped talking; just stood there with a blank look on her face.   The missionary saw that and he said, “What’s the matter?”  And the interpreter said, “In our language there are many words for snow; we have even more words for ice: but we have no word for what you call ‘forgiveness’.”
Over these next few weeks during our sermon time together we’re going to explore some of the promises that God gives us in Scripture.  And one of the greatest promises is FORGIVENESS. We use that word a lot.  “Forgive us our trespasses” we pray; but even though we use that word a lot, the meaning can still be kind of ‘foggy’ sometimes; sometimes we seem to be like those Eskimos, not really understanding what the forgiveness of God really is.  And perhaps that’s because another word has fallen out of popular usage in contemporary language: the word “SIN”.  Without understanding sin, we can’t really understand forgiveness.
SIN… IS AN ACT OF DISOBEDIENCE AGAINST GOD’S WILL.  Sin may be something we do, it may be something we say, it may be something we just think.  Whatever it is, sin is a disruption of God’s intended order for our lives.  And the hard and fast fact of our human condition is that we all sin; everyone does.
But people don’t like to talk about sin; not even in some churches.  Because if we talk about sin as God uses the word, than we’re forced to recognize that sin has consequences. Sin separates us from God.
God is wholeness (shalom in Hebrew), separated from God we live lives that are not whole; God is love, but separated from God we never experience real love; God is light, separated from God we live in the shadows. Sin separates us from our Father in Heaven; and when we live separated from God… life just isn’t much fun – it isn’t all that it was intended to be.
We don’t want to live that way, and neither does God. So the Lord works to remove our sin from the equation of our relationship with God.
 Verse 9 of our reading from 1st John, “But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 
God cleans up our messes, even the messes that we think can’t be cleaned up.
A while back I spilled some wine on a table cloth at home.  Not a lot, but it was red wine, and those few deep purple drops looked to me like they would mark that tablecloth forever. I thought maybe we could just cover it up and pretend it wasn’t there at all.  Maybe whenever we used that tablecloth ever after we could arrange it so that stain was under a vase or a bowl or something. In my mind: I had ruined that linen and nothing could ever fix it.
 But, my wife told me it was okay… and she pre-spotted the stain with detergent of some kind, and she washed the tablecloth… and it came out crisp and clean and as good as new.  The stain was gone… because two things had happened.  First, I had acknowledged the stain I had made.  And secondly, I allowed one who had the ability… to take away the stain that I had made.
God wants to remove the stain of our sin.  That’s what we read in verse 8 of our reading from Jeremiah this morning.  The Lord speaks through the prophet and says, “I will cleanse them from the guilt of their sin.”  Now, the people of Judah had a lot of sin to account for.  The nation had given itself over to political leaders who turned away from the Lord and led the people to turn away, too.  And pagan gods began to appear among the Hebrews.  Ishtar and Venus were popular among the Jewish woman, and they would pray to the statues and even make sacrifices for fertility. What did it hurt? After all, it really didn’t mean anything! And throughout the land, shrines and worship of the old Canaanite gods of Molech and Baal were reappearing; this time it was the Hebrews who were worshipping them. But, what did it hurt?  After all, it was really just a cultural thing.  Couldn’t they be both Jews AND give some attention to the pagan gods.  Besides, it was more fun to worship the pagans: worship Baal and you got to get drunk and have orgys.  Try doing THAT in the synagogues.  The people were turning their backs on God and were intentionally disobeying His will for them; they were intentionally sinning.
And seeing their willful blasphemy, what does God do?   He offers them forgiveness. Folks, this is the nature of the Lord.  God offers to wipe away the stain of their sin, IF the people confess and repent.  Verse 3 (just before our reading for this morning) “Call to me and I will answer you.”  All the people had to do was admit that they were sinning and turn away from their sin.  But they didn’t.  And the Lord allowed the nation to be conquered and the people carried off in exile to Babylon.  They suffered… because they refused to accept the mercy that God offered them; they refused to acknowledge their sin.
People have always been that way.  We want to cover up the stain on the tablecloth rather than admit that it exists as a result of our actions.  Our sin becomes a barrier between our Father in Heaven and us.  God wants to get rid of the barrier, he doesn’t want anything to separate us from him because he loves us.  This is what Jesus means when he tells us in verse 32 of our reading from Luke: “…it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
We’ve all sinned; we all need forgiveness.  God promises to give us forgiveness.  But something within people often keeps them from experiencing this promise of forgiveness.  The most common thing that blocks God’s mercy is denying that something is a sin at all.
This is perhaps the most insidious obstruction to forgiveness: they simply pretend that what they like to do isn’t a sin at all.  We hear this denial in a lot of forms; maybe we’ve even used this ourselves.  ‘Well, that part of the Bible only applied back in the olden days. Those old ‘dos and don’ts’ are quaint now; they don’t really apply today.’  Or maybe they get creative and simply reinterpret Scripture. Revisionist theologians love to do this.  ‘Well, you know, this old Greek verb seems to say this is wrong; yeah, it says that kind of lust was wrong, but it probably only meant if you were forcing a slave to do it.  If both people were okay with it, then this passage didn’t really say it was wrong.’ Really?  As if the Word of God came to us with asterisks: ‘This applies here but it doesn’t apply there.’
Or, my personal favorite form of denial: ‘Well, Jesus never talked about that, so it must be okay.’  This is the most ridiculous argument.  First, many of the sins that people use this argument for are addressed in the Old Testament, and Jesus said in Matthew 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law…”  If the Son of God Himself tells us that we need to pay attention to the Old Testament, then maybe we’d better listen.  And secondly, we need to consider the ethics of a lot of things that Jesus never mentioned: genetic cloning, biological or chemical warfare, ending human life for personal convenience… Jesus never talked specifically about brainwashing or heroin addiction, either, but I’ll wager he has some pretty strong feelings about them!
In James 4:17 God tells us “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  The Holy Spirit reveals God’s will in all situations through the Word of God, whether Jesus explicitly spoke about it or not.
When we deny something we’ve done or are still doing is a sin, we’re like the salesman who went to the doctor for an ear infection, and while he was examining him the doctor noticed a rash all over his hands.  The doctor said, “Do you want me to do something about that rash on your hands, too?  It looks kind of bad.” And the salesman said, “Oh, that’s perfectly normal.  Half the customers I shake hands with have the same rash.”
Unless we admit that we’re sick, how can we be healed?  Unless we admit that something is a sin, how can we experience forgiveness for it?
God wants to forgive us.  …it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  When we come to God seeking forgiveness… we experience something wonderful.  We are set free from all that has been.
          In our adoption system, teenagers who have had life problems are deemed ‘special needs’ children.  When the adoptive family accepts a special needs child for placement, the social services agency gives the potential adoptive parents a folder of the child’s history; often it contains the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly things that the child has endured.
          Another pastor writes about a family who was considering adopting a special needs teen-aged girl.  She was only 15, but her life had been a little piece of hell on earth: all chronicled in the folder that the adoptive family received when she was placed with them for a trial period.  When she was 9 the abuse began from her mother’s boyfriend.  When she was 11 her mother was imprisoned and the girl was placed with foster families.  It didn’t work.  Time and again she got into trouble from stealing or fighting… drugs.  Time and again she ran away.   For a while she managed to live on the streets.  That ended when police arrested her for prostitution.  She was 13 years old when that happened.
          Now she’d been placed with a family who was considering adopting her. But the girl couldn’t believe that they were serious; that they wouldn’t reject her like all the others had. So… she stole a necklace from the mother’s dresser one day.  And when it was discovered, the mother and father called her down to the living room.  She said, “I suppose you’re going to send me back now.  Why would you want someone who steals from you  living here.”  And the mother shook her head.  She said, “No, we want you to know that we forgive you, and we want you to stay.”  And the girl got up and began to pace.  She said, “How could you want me to stay knowing all the things that I’ve done?”  She pointed to her case folder that was on the coffee table.  She said, “How can you want me after you’ve seen all the stuff in that folder?”  And the father picked up, the folder… the record of all of her misdeeds… and he carried it over to the fireplace and carefully set it in the flames.  Then he turned and said to the crying girl, “What folder?”
The great poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”  And that is  our condition in a nutshell.  We are human and humans sin.  God is divine and God forgives.  He promises that is how it is; and we can experience that promise fulfilled for ourselves over and over – every time we humble ourselves and confess and repent.  And the stains we have made… well, it’s like they never even happened.
Years ago up in frigid Labrador, missionaries discovered that the native people had no word for forgiveness; it was a new and foreign concept to those tribes.  So the missionaries set out to find words in that Eskimo language that could convey just what God’s forgiveness was all about.  It took awhile, but finally they settled on this phrase: “not being able to think about it anymore.”  Forgiveness, you see, is a promise that it will be like it never even happened.
          It is God’s good pleasure to forgive us through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Let us confess our sins, and God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins; he promises.  AMEN

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
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