Sunday, September 4, 2011

Forgiveness: As Far as the East is from the West – Psalm 32:1-5 & Romans 4:1-8

Today we are going to begin a new preaching series focusing on forgiveness. That issue that we all face at some point in our lives. What is it about forgiveness that stirs so many emotions within us? That cause us to spend so much energy in its midst? Over the next several weeks we will take a look at forgiveness as it pertains to our relationship with God, the intimate relationships with others and our need for forgiveness in those relationships, the others; those people around us, neighbors, co-workers, enemies, and conclude with our families and how we receive and how we seek forgiveness from our parents and from our children. Each week as our target shifts, our foundation will always be to look at forgiveness through its two dimensions; our willingness to ask for it and how we receive it; and our willingness to extend forgiveness to others. Today we will begin by focusing on the forgiveness we seek from God and the forgiveness that God offers us.

What is Forgiveness?
I have been praying this week that God will use this sermon to speak to you. And I am counting on the fact that somewhere in this message will be something just for you. If you look in your bulletin there you will find an insert with our Scriptures for today. On the front of that is a place for you to take notes. I encourage you, if something speaks to you today, write it down.

Let us begin by gaining a basic understanding of the truth of forgiveness. First of all, forgiveness is absolutely essential to our lives. You cannot survive in a marriage without extending or asking for forgiveness. You cannot see a working relationship survive without forgiveness. You will not have any longtime friends. Sure will have friends for a bit, but for the rest of your life when things go wrong, if you do not know how to forgive or to ask for forgiveness, those relationships will not last. If you back it up and look at the bigger picture, even societies cannot stand unless the two sides on any given situation agree to forgive those they disagree with.

To talk about forgiveness, there are six words, that if you know these, there is at least a moderate chance that you will have some success in life. If you do not know how to say these words and practice them, you are going to struggle in life.

First three, I am sorry. If you cannot say that then you will find that your life is going to be much more difficult that it was meant to be. The other three, if you cannot say these three words, I forgive you, then you will find your life will be filled with bitterness and hurt and pain. These six words are essential to our lives.

There are all sorts of apologies. There are even websites where you can go and apologize online. Some are silly, like one that says to the person whose parking space I stole, I am sorry, I really needed to get into the store in a hurry. Signed, the owner of the gray Honda. However, some are more serious. Like this one from a mother to her child. It begins, “for all of the things that happened to you as a kid that I never knew about. Maybe you were told not to tell me. But I should have been there for you and should have been able to tell me anything. For the fact that you weren't and I wasn't I am truly sorry. Mom.”

I was reading this week a sermon by 20th century existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, To Whom Much is Forgiven, and there was line in there rich with meaning that I wanted to share with you today as you ponder the importance of forgiveness. He says, “Forgiveness is an answer. Not just an answer. It's the divine answer to the question implied in our existence.” Did you hear that? It is God's answer to the question implied in our existence.

What is the question implied in our existence? I actually suggest there are three questions. If you are the child in that online apology, the question of your existence is:
how do I keep bitterness and anger and hate and the desire for revenge from consuming me? Forgiveness is the answer to that question.

If you are the mother in that apology, who feels great guilt that you did not step in and wished you had, and wished that you had only known, or maybe you did know but you did not do anything. Then perhaps there are two questions that forgiveness is the answer too. First, how can I be reconciled to the one I wronged and make this right? Second, how can my burden of guilt be removed? Forgiveness is God's answer to these questions. We all ask these questions. We all struggle with these questions because we are human. Because we're human we are all going to make mistakes. Because we're human we are all going to hurt other people people. And because other people are human they are going to hurt us. We have to know this answer. If we do not know this answer then we are stumbling in the dark as human beings. To these questions the answer is and always will be forgiveness.

The Need for Forgiveness
In order to make sense of forgiveness we have to diagnose the problem first. And the problem is sin. Sin is one of those topics that the word itself, if you are outside of the church, can make you cringe, just a bit. You have in your mind those preachers that tried to beat people down. You remember those things people told you not to do because they were sins and now you realize that they are not sins, like dancing and listening to certain types of music. And then when you grow up and think about it you realize that God probably was not upset that you listened to the Beatles or danced at your high school prom and had fun. Those types of experiences cause a person to not want to talk about sin. But we have to talk about sin and we have to understand what sin is.

If you look in the Old Testament, there are a number of Hebrew words used that we translate into the English word sin. But the one most commonly used in the Old Testament is very similar the one commonly used in the Greek New Testament. In the Old Testament the word means, to stray from the path. In the New Testament the word means, to miss the mark. In both cases the implication is that there is a way we are to live as human beings. Love, justice, care for people, putting the needs of others before ourselves, telling the truth, and a whole host of other things are part of the path that God has laid out for us. Even you if you are not a believer, if you are an atheist or an agnostic, you still agree with this premise. You know there is a certain way we are meant to live as human beings. But most of us struggle with this. We miss the mark and we stray from the path.

The the problem comes as we continue to stray and what happens is the gulf between where we should be and we are, keeps increasing. This allows for walls to be built between others and ourselves. These acts that create these walls, the walls that separate us from God, ourselves, and those around us, we can all capture by the term sin. We have all sinned, we have all fallen short. In the process of this happening we all say and do things that hurt other people. One reason we struggle in this area is our ego. While a healthy ego is important for good self identification, when it becomes the most important aspect of our existence, then we find ourselves not caring when we say and do things to hurt other people. Then they are going to hurt us, and this cycle is created, causing us to stray farther and farther from each other. And of course forgiveness is the answer to this entire problem, the solution to this entire cycle. It is the answer we seek and when we seek forgiveness, we find ourselves brought back, the gap between where we are and where we should begins to close. The sin gets removed and we are reconciled with the other person. Therefore, forgiveness is about being brought back to the right path and being reconciled to those that we have wronged.

Now this not only affects our relationships with others. It affects our relationship with God. Because when we hurt others, when we wrong others, we are wounding God as well and straying from God's path for us. Now sometimes we feel the hurt we caused, we understand what we did. Then we begin to feel God's absence, we sense that we are drifting farther and farther away from God, that our prayer life has diminished or vanished, and we find ourselves wondering if God is even listening to us at all anymore.

We then begin to notice struggles in our life. That our life is becoming harder and harder and that is because we not walking on the path, we are not living as God intended for us to live.

Our Psalm from this morning is a powerful metaphor about the guilt and shame and sin and how that is a burden to heavy to bear, “For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” Sometimes these burdens are small and easily hidden. Sometimes they are so large that if discovered by others could cost us our job, our freedom, our souls. Eventually all of these burdens will become so heavy that we simply cannot carry them anymore. Your joy is gone, your excitement for life is gone, your strength is sapped. “For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” God feels farther away and that gulf between us seems more distant.

There is Hope!
But the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ shows us the hope that can be ours. Look at the adulterous woman, when brought before Christ for punishment of her sins, to be stoned to death. Christ tells the crowd, you who have no sin may throw the first stone. As everyone left Christ said to her, “where are your accusers...neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” How about Zacheaeus, a prolific sinner; called to be Jesus' follower who that day gave up half of his possessions and followed Christ. Every Sunday morning we pray together the Lord's prayer, “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us. Do not forget the Prodigal Son, that when he came home and asked for forgiveness, his father ran to greet him, wrapped his arms around him and gave forgiveness. By Jesus' own example, during the last meal he shared with his disciples, he took a loaf of bread from the table and a glass of wine, and after giving thanks to the Father, gave it to them and said, “Take and eat. For this is my body and my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus continued on the cross, as he is being tortured, calling out to God, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” And during his resurrection as he told the disciples to go and announce the forgiveness and whoever you forgive I forgive them also. This continues with the Apostle Paul. A great apostle that initially killed Christians but was redeemed and forgiven.

Psalm 103:8-12 lays all of this out for us as this what God does for us. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” This is extravagant grace. We know that with our heads, but getting it to our hearts is the issue. We continue to carry around those thoughts and feelings that he is prepared to remove. That he is willing to carry for us. But we cannot let go.

We need to trust that “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. And as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

The hardest thing for us to do sometimes is to accept God acceptance of us. When you are ready to go back to God, to return to God, God is already there waiting with open arms to receive you. God has already done everything necessary for you to come back to him and has already accepted you. This is God's grace. Grace that came at a great price. And all you have to do is accept that this is the nature and character of God and that God offers that love to you.

What Do We Do?
Repentance is to see something different and to turn away and back towards the right path. It is to make that confession that you are not where you want to be, that you do not want to feel that gulf between you and God and intentionally begin to take those steps to return to God. We must confess, ask for God's mercy, and realize that we do not want to walk that way anymore. And it is not hard to do this.
  • First, you have to feel burden and gap
  • Then, turn towards god
  • Express your remorse
  • Make amends
  • Ask for forgiveness
  • Then God forgives
“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them." (Romans 4:7-8, NIV) Now we will all relapse at some point. But Jesus covers that too when he says we are to forgive others 7 time 70, basically infinite forgiveness.

It also works for that way for God. Jeremiah 31 tells us, "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (31-34, NIV) It would be if you asked God what sins you have committed, and God replied, “I just don't remember."

The choice is can keep trying to carry your sin and burden around. But the Lord would love to take from you today and set you free and forgive ALL of your sins.

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