Sunday, October 24, 2010

forgiveness

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At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!


We live in an unforgiving world. There’s a Newtonian-like law governing our world – Isaac that is, not John. You remember Newton’s third law, don’t you? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well, our world’s governed by the law of retaliation. “For every injury suffered there is an unequal and infinitely greater injury inflicted.”


I found a great website this week – thepayback.com – whose vision statement reads, “revenge at its best.” Revenge is big business. According to the site’s founder, “there’s nothing that gets your message across better than a smelly, dead fish! These packages are very popular and are typically sent to your ex, a backstabbing friend, or to anyone who has pissed you off.” What a perfect example of the law that governs our world – for every injury suffered there is an unequal and infinitely greater injury inflicted.


Now, I’m not trying to be na├»ve. People hurt us, and when that happens we can’t just pretend that they didn’t. Forgetting that someone’s wronged us simply is not realistic. For example, let’s say a wife cheats on her husband. The husband has two options. Option one, he can live by the law of retaliation. He can rub her nose in the dirt, tell her she’s awful, tell their kids she’s awful, and send her a dead fish. Or, option two, he can forgive her. But if the husband chooses to forgive he’s at the same time making another choice. He’s choosing to absorb the pain. Now, think about this. He can’t just pretend that his wife didn’t cheat. If he chooses to forgive he’s at the same time choosing to absorb the pain, to feel the pain, to take that pain into the center of his heart. No wonder we prefer option one. It’s so much easier than forgiving.


With the time we have left, here’s what I’d like to do. First, I want to give you the cliff notes version of revenge and forgiveness in the Bible. Second, I want to tell you what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. Third, I want to tell you the only place you’ll ever find the power to forgive others.


First, the history; right after the fall, Genesis chapter four, there’s this odd dude named Lamech who comes out of nowhere and says this. “I killed a man for wounding me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech is avenged seventy-sevenfold.” In other words, this is where the law of retaliation first surfaces in the bible – that awful law that says, “you hurt me, and I’ll make it seventy-seven times worst.” Now, fast forward a couple thousand years – God gives Israel “the Law,” and what does the Law say to do when someone hurts us? “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, the Law says we can hurt people back but not an ounce more than they hurt us – no doubt an improvement. But, is “an eye for an eye” the fullest expression of God’s heart? No. The fullest expression of God’s heart is seen in Jesus Christ, who says: “you’ve heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” In other words, Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s heart when he tells his disciples, “Take option two. Turn the cheek. Absorb the pain. Be like Me. Forgive others so freely and completely that the world thinks you’re crazy.”


There’s this great scene in the Gospel of Matthew where Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a person that sins against him over and over again – “is seven times enough” Peter wonders. “Not seven times,” Jesus replies, “but I tell you seventy-seven times.” 77? Why not 78 or 76 – why 77? Jesus was reversing the law of Lamech. Lamech says, “you hurt me, I’ll make it seventy-seven times worst.” Jesus Christ says, “you hurt me, I’ll take it seventy-seven times over.” These are two very different ways of living in this world.


To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to forgive people so freely and completely that the world thinks we’re crazy – to absorb the pain, to turn the cheek, to forgive seventy-seven times over. In tonight’s reading from II Timothy Paul gives us a great example of this reckless forgiveness. Apparently, Paul’s been deserted and his friends have withdrawn their support. And what does Paul say? “May it not be counted against them!” Paul prays for their forgiveness. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death. His last words are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, which says, “Stephen knelt down and cried in a loud voice, Lord do not hold this sin against them.” Of course, Paul and Stephen weren’t the first to forgive so recklessly. Luke tells us that in the midst of being crucified Jesus cried out, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” To be a Christian is to forgive people so freely and so completely that the world thinks we’re crazy. So really quickly, what is forgiveness, and where do we find the power to forgive?


What is forgiveness? Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not. Forgiveness is not forgetting. All forgetting requires is a bad memory. In fact, the reason forgiveness is so important is because, practically speaking, we can’t forget. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It’s also not reconciliation. Does God want us to be reconciled to each other? Of course! But reconciliation takes two people – it’s about rebuilding a relationship. Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t the same thing. So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness begins when we quit – when we quit the quest to get even, which is the natural inclination of our wounded soul. Forgiveness is an act of the will, an intentional choice to absorb the pain instead of inflicting it back on whoever caused it. Forgiveness is not withdrawing. Forgiveness is engaging. Meeting the pain head on. Taking the pain into our heart and praying with Paul, “May it not be counted against them!”


So here’s the million-dollar question. In an unforgiving world, how do we forgive people so freely and so completely that the world thinks we’re crazy? We have to see how much it cost for God to forgive us. I can’t tell you how often people ask me, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why couldn’t God just forgive us? Isn’t He God? Can’t He just wave a wand around and pretend it never happened? Well, let me ask you this – can you? I mean, do we believe in a personal God, or don’t we? Do we believe that God is love – that He’s vulnerable and that He allows Himself to be hurt – or don’t we? Think of a time you’ve been really hurt. Lied to. Humiliated. Cheated on. Betrayed. Could you just forgive? No. You either made them pay, or you said I forgive you and you absorbed the pain yourself. You took it into your heart. Now, if it’s true that no one can hurt us more than the people we love the most, and if it’s also true that God’s capacity to love is infinitely greater than ours, then isn’t God’s capacity to be hurt infinitely greater as well? You know that metaphor I used earlier about the wife that cheats on her husband – that’s perhaps the most common metaphor the Bible uses to describe humanity’s broken relationship with God. In other words, God loves us with a perfect love. But we – we reject that love in such a way that God feels lied to. Humiliated. Cheated on. Betrayed.


Can God just forgive? No, like us God has two options. One, He can make us pay. God can withdraw. He can give us the cold shoulder. And theologically speaking, that’s what Hell is – God removing His presence from us. But, God also has option two. God could choose to absorb all the pain of the entire human race Himself. The accumulation of our lies, our unfaithfulness and our betrayal and all the pain that comes with that – God could absorb it all Himself. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that God chose option two; that on the cross Jesus Christ, in a cosmic and mystical way, turned the other cheek seventy-seven times over and cried “may it not be counted against them!’


Now, if that’s true – and for the record, my deepest belief about the world is that it is true – if Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is true, then everything has changed. If it’s true, we have to forgive. We must choose to absorb the pain when others hurt us. We can’t return it. You see forgiving others isn’t something we have to put up with as Christians. No, forgiveness – absorbing the pain, turning the cheek – this is our privilege as Christians. It’s our calling as Christians. Its what makes us more like Jesus.


Now, when worship ends I’ll be sending us out into an unforgiving world. Just to be clear, we only have two options when people hurt us, and they will. We can live by the law of Lamech or we can live by the grace of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus means living by a different law – for every injury suffered there has to be an unequal and infinitely greater blessing returned. Where do we get the power to do that? Look to the cross. Jesus has forgiven us seventy-seven times over. Our job is to forgive others so freely and completely that the world thinks we’re crazy.


The law of Lamech or the grace of Jesus Christ. God chose option 2. My hope and my prayer is that you will, too.

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