Monday, May 5, 2014

The Power of Forgiveness

To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story:  “A man had two sons.  The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’  So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.  “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living.  About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve.  He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs.  The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him.  But no one gave him anything.  “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger!  I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.  Please take me on as a hired servant.”’  
“So he returned home to his father.  And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming.  Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.  His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’  “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him.  Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.  And kill the calf we have been fattening.  We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life.  He was lost, but now he is found.’  So the party began.  
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working.  When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on.  ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf.  We are celebrating because of his safe return.’  “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in.  His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to.  And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends.  Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’  “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours.  We had to celebrate this happy day.  For your brother was dead and has come back to life!  He was lost, but now he is found!’”       Luke 15:11 - 32 (NLT)
The first time I saw the statue outside Duke Divinity School’s Refectory I knew one day I would display it in a sermon.  It is entitled simply, “Reconciliation”.  It is the picture of one man’s anger toward another, with yet a third man interceding.  That is the gospel story.  You and I are the first two; Jesus is the one interceding.
Forgiveness!  There are many things for which we need forgiveness.  And that is the central point of God’s message to the human race, grace; the God who made us knows us, and is still willing to forgive us. 
This passage is a sharp reminder of our main task as believers, followers of Jesus Christ.  It tells us four truths about forgiveness:

Truth #1.
Forgiveness is Necessary

Everything about why Jesus came into this world, and how He lived and died, and rose again is about our need for forgiveness from sin.  In fact if forgiveness was not necessary, Christ’s death was a mistake.
But God’s wisdom knew that any time there is an offense there must be forgiveness to set things straight.  Jesus reminded His disciples – Messiah had to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sin.  It is central to Christianity that sin has a penalty,
The person who sins shall die.  Ezekiel 18:20 (NRSVA)
…and because of that penalty there had to be a sacrifice:
…Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
  Ephesians 5:2 (NRSVA)
In order for God to extend forgiveness for our sin there had to be a death; Jesus became that sacrifice.  He never sinned, yet he allowed himself to be executed in our place.  Forgiveness was necessary for the broken relationship between God and mankind.
Forgiveness is just as necessary between people as it is between God and people.  It’s necessary unless you want continual war and violence.  Forgiveness is necessary, and…

Truth #2.
Forgiveness is Not Easy or Cheap

Just because we can receive the forgiveness of God without paying does not make God’s grace easy or cheap.  Our salvation is the most costly gift ever given. 
When it comes to human relationships it is so much easier to hold a grudge than to initiate reconciliation with a forgiving spirit.  Yet, God takes the initiative to forgive and He tells us to be like Him:
…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Eph4:32 (NRSVA)
Initiating is the operative word.  If we are to be imitators of God, we must see clearly that God always makes the first move…
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8 (NRSVA)
Grudges and pride keep us from reconciling with each other.   They destroy even the thought of forgiveness. 
A number of years ago the church I was serving became polarized and slugged it out almost weekly in public meetings; it was a mess!  The events led to an impossible atmosphere of distrust, accusations and a ministry that was dead in the water.  I had no choice but to leave, in hopes the next pastor could find a way to help that congregation get back on track. 
But the experience was deeply hurtful, and when I next stepped into a pulpit as pastor, I simply wanted to teach, preach and be left alone.  The truth is that I had unforgiveness towards those who had hurt me creeping back into my heart.  I had a grudge that I found excruciatingly hard to let go.  Then, the church did what the church is supposed to do – they got under my skin by loving me.  They crept in and I found that my frost-bitten heart was beginning to melt.  They helped me care and love again.  And I found forgiveness for the past. 
It was not been easy to find that forgiveness; it was not cheap!  Letting go of your pride and anger is the hardest and most costly work you can undertake.  It takes you way past your comfort zone….but I am here to tell you today that it is worth forgiving, because without doing so you will never find the freedom of being forgiven.  Matthew told us that Jesus said,
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.    Matthew 6:14-15
Forgiveness is necessary and costly, and…

Truth #3.
Forgiveness is Always the Right Answer

Forgiveness, starting with me, is always the right answer.  The reason is because, like the first disciples, I am not only the messenger of God’s forgiveness; I am THE MESSAGE as well.  What people see in my life is as important (if not more important) than what they hear me say about the God who is in my life.  It is like the old saying that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.
The burden of starting the process of forgiveness is always on the person who was wronged.  That is difficult.  But the way the Lord has created us does not, even for one minute, come close to entertaining the notion that you can shift the responsibility of the first move from the one who has been wronged to the one who has done the wrong.  If someone has done you wrong, it is up to you to make the first move; the ball is in YOUR court!
The reason for that is, especially in our society nobody thinks he is wrong – or at least no-one admits it!  Friend, if you’re waiting for someone to come and admit he is wrong and beg your forgiveness before you’ll begin to consider forgiveness, you’re going to be waiting until pigs sprout wings!
Had God waited until we asked for forgiveness, there would have been no Christmas…no Easter….you would never have been born, because God wouldn’t have given Adam and Eve a second chance, or Cain, or allowed Noah to start the human race again after the flood; He would’ve just destroyed the whole mess.  But God is loving and patient.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.    2 Peter 3:9 (NRSVA)
Notice the order of that last part of the verse…God doesn’t want anyone to perish…go to Hell.  What stands in the way of perishing?  Nothing but repentance and the patient tolerance of God.  He is waiting to forgive anyone who is truly repentant, willing to admit sin and turn away from sin.
I went to a concert a several years ago.  My granddaughter, Chelsea had a flute solo in her 8th Grade Band Awards concert.  She was excellent!  (Better than your grandchildren).  But it was the Band Teacher who got me thinking about real forgiveness and how it’s always in order.
After all the awards were given out there was one more song to play.  The band teacher introduced it by saying, “Before we finish I have something to say.  We all have our boiling point, and this week I guess I reached mine.  I yelled; I mean I REALLY yelled at two of my band students this week.  They know who they are.  I want to publicly apologize to them.  I love my students and I had no business losing it with them.  I’m sorry guys”.
Now listen…I know 8th graders – those guys probably earned 99.8% of the yelling.  Eighth-grade boys can drive anyone over the brink…it’s their job description!  But that band teacher recognized the principle that it is on the shoulders of the one who realizes a split has happened between people to go to the other party…and quickly.  You don’t let grudges and anger build up.  I was proud of the teacher.  He apologized to his students in front of the other students and their parents…about 600 of them.  He was THE man!
Forgiveness is necessary, costly, always in order, and…

Truth #4.
Forgiveness is the Beginning of Great Blessing

It is the truth that forgiveness, either the kind that comes your way when you’ve messed-up and been given a second chance – or – when someone has crossed you and you’ve been the one to extend forgiveness…is the beginning of great blessing...either way!
Listen to these words:  “I had a brother once, and I betrayed him.”  With these words, African writer Laurens Van der Post begins a wonderful book The Seed and the Sower.  The story is of two brothers from a small South African village.  The elder brother is tall, athletic, good student and a natural leader.  The younger brother was not.  He had a back deformity and was very sensitive to the fact.  But he had a beautiful singing voice.  They both attended the same private school.

One night some of the older boys dragged the younger brother out and ripped off his shirt and made fun of his deformity until he cried.  They threw him into an abandoned water tank and forced him to sing.  The older brother was aware of what was going on but did nothing to rescue his younger brother.  The younger brother survived but with a crushed spirit.  He returned to the family farm and lived a reclusive life and never sang again.
During World War II the older brother had a dream in which he realized he had been Judas to his younger brother.  He made the incredibly difficult journey back to South Africa to ask his brother’s forgiveness.  Later that night in the dark of the night he hears a beautiful sound – it is his brother singing a song that the older brother had written when they were boys.[1]  Forgiveness brings the song back into life. 
What are you going to do with your debts?  Not the money you owe…but the debts of transgression either owed by you to others and God, or the ones owed by others to you? 
Let’s talk about those debts in your life…
The debt of your sin can be settled in the next moment…you can pray and ask forgiveness…it is necessary to set things right with your God.
The debt others owe to you….are you going to wait until the long grey beard appears on your pride before you’ll get it straight with the one with whom you’ve disagreed…or will today be the beginning path of reconciliation?  Are you willing to start the path of forgiveness?

What’s waiting on down that pathway? 

Just ask the band leader who released his eighth-graders from their guilt of driving him crazy.
Just ask the wife who’s taken back an unfaithful husband.
Just ask the parent who’s received back a prodigal with no strings attached.
Just ask the one who’s forgiven a huge monetary debt.
·        It is the release of yourself from the kind prison that happens when you’ve tried to hold someone else prisoner to your anger and pride. 
·        It’s the release of your own soul when you forgive someone. 
      And when that happens the power of God’s Spirit is also released in your life, and there is a song that comes to help you spread that message of repentance and forgiveness and joy!
Forgiveness is so powerful it turns you into a child of God; that’s not a small thing!
Will you be forgiven?  Will you forgive?  Will you start now?

[1] Freedom in Forgiveness by Alan McCann, quoted on 

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