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Sermon Text for December 15, 2013
"Forgiveness, the Gift That Keeps on Giving" #81-15 Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 15, 2013 By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker Copyright 2013 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the powerful forgiving grace of Jesus Christ, a gift that keeps on giving. Amen.
I love the holidays, don't you? It's the time to listen, to sing Christmas carols, the songs of the season! One song that I hear regularly is "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It's an old carol, the lyrics originally were written in 1780. It goes back a long way. The song recaps the tradition of giving gift after gift from the time of Christmas Day through January 5th--just before Epiphany. That was the original Christmas season. I think kids would love it if that tradition continued, how about you? But honestly, the song gets kind of long for me. A partridge in a pear tree, two turtledoves, three French hens, four calling birds, and, of course, five golden rings. Should I keep on going? When the song finally gets to drummers drumming, pipers piping, lords a-leaping, ladies dancing, maids a-milking, swans a-swimming, and geese a-laying, it's almost too much, right? The giving goes on and on and on!
Well, maybe that song can get too long for some or maybe those aren't your kind of gifts; but, I know a gift that everyone needs this season, one that is always on time, one that needs to be received and shared today more than ever. And Jesus speaks of this most important gift of all, when He teaches us to pray, "Father, forgive us our trespasses, our sins, our debts, as we forgive those who sin against us."
That's a gift that you can never receive too much, and it's a gift that keeps on giving in a world that is up to its neck in guilt, grief, and shame. It's God's gift for relationships that are broken and fractured in resentment, in need of His reconciliation and restoration when all seems lost!
Forgiveness, God's gift in Christ to you and me, it's the gift that keeps on giving when our giving gives out. It's the power of the Lord's Prayer unleashed in your life and mine in the relationships that we hold dear.
Peter came up to Jesus one day and asked, "Lord, how often when my brother sin against me, shall I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times."
The Apostle Peter knew the power of forgiveness. He was a man of the Bible after all. But, he still didn't get the fact that because we all are sinners ourselves, real, enduring, reconciling forgiveness is beyond our capacity and control. It has to be a gift received from God to be a gift unleashed and shared for others.
Instead, Peter was playing religious games with Jesus. He was asking, "Lord, what do I have to do to make things right with God and with others." Implied in his question was his thought that he was being more than fair. In Peter's mind and in the mind of many today, he was being generous, even overly generous. The old Jewish teaching was that forgiving one who sinned against you, up to three times, that was enough. Peter, think about it, he doubled that plus one. He thought, "Hey Jesus, I'm willing to be a forgiving kind of guy. Lord, look, I'm willing to do even more than is required!" But real forgiveness, real forgiveness is so much more.
Forgiveness is not just a sinful person's best effort to let something go or to let "bygones be bygones." No, forgiveness is something that has to originate in the character of God, to flow out from Him, to be received on God's gracious terms so as to be shared with one another. Forgiveness has to deal with eternal justice for sin, not just temporal fairness. It has to be rooted in the holiness and righteousness of God to be the kind of enduring forgiveness that the Bible speaks about, one that truly overcomes real guilt and pain.
Jesus teaches us to pray, "Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" not as a quid-pro-quo, you know, "Father, okay, we'll forgive so that you forgive us." No, it is rather, in the forgiveness that God has earned and made available to us as a gift, just as we are forgiven in Christ, put that forgiveness to work in your relationships in His Name.
When Jesus replied to Peter, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:22 ESV), this statement blew Peter and all of His listeners away. It was a dramatic statement that showed what forgiveness really meant, how radical it was. Jesus ventured into the territory of the gift that keeps on giving, the gift of forgiveness resourced and given from the heart of God. Like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" keeps going and going and going, Jesus dove into the never-ending song of forgiveness from the heart of God; it keeps going and giving, going and giving.
You see, the enduring and perpetuating gift of forgiveness began at the cross of Jesus Christ. He paid the price for your sin. God forgave your debt because Jesus paid it in your place. You owed your life to a Holy God because of your sins and failures; but God took the payment of Jesus' life in your place. Because of God's great love for you in Christ, He forgives you. He lets you go in His peace. He releases you from the burden of debt and allows you to live in His freedom. At Christmas we see the amazing sacrifice of God for you as He sent His only Son to be born in a manger, to live a perfect life in your place, to die on a cross for your forgiveness, and to rise from the dead so that you can walk in new life today and forever. Forgiveness received, so that forgiveness can be shared. That's the gift that keeps on giving!
And, boy, does that gift keep on giving and giving. And that's the point.
It's a gift to be used. It is the power of letting go when so many still keep holding on to the wrong things instead. I realize that the holidays are often not times of unity and brotherhood. So often they are times of brokenness, hurt feelings, and pain. There are those family grudges; why can't we let go of these things. There are wounds and sadness that you can't seem to release. There are broken hearts and difficult memories that won't seem to go away. So when Christmas comes, you feel weighed down, burdened, sad, angry, even frustrated. You hold on to the old junk that fouls up the holidays and you end up in the dark prison of despair.
And that's why it is so important to come back to the Lord's Prayer daily in our lives, to come back to the true gift of Christmas in the Babe of Bethlehem. This isn't merely a human holiday, this is Christmas; this is a God-sent holy day, when He comes into the world to forgive, to reconcile, to deal with your guilt and pain, and to give you an abundant life that He has made possible for you. Come back to Him first in faith and in prayer and let His blessing of forgiveness and peace rule your heart no matter what is happening in the things all around you.
To make His point even more clear, Jesus told Peter and the Apostles a parable, a story that would drive home this gift into their hearts. He said this: "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents..... So the servant (who couldn't pay it, by the way) he fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity, mercy, for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt" (Matthew 18:23-27 ESV).
"Forgive, as I have forgiven you." You see, when the King forgives your debt, it is forgiven. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter had come for the servant in this story! As he approached the king, he was in debt up to his eyeballs. Ten thousand talents was the equivalent of ten to twenty million dollars today. It was an impossible debt. Feeling the full force of what he owed, how he had fallen short, and the pain it would cause him and his family, this servant begged the king for patience and mercy. Amazingly, the king's heart went out to the man. He had mercy on him. The servant's debt became the king's and the king's freedom became the servants. Debt paid, mercy given, servant released, set free.
But Jesus isn't giving an economics lesson or a philanthropy illustration here. He is pointing out the fact that there is something even greater than a 20 million dollar debt paid; it's the eternal mercy, love, and forgiveness of God overcoming the debt of your sin. When you receive that kind of love and forgiveness, it changes things. It is the power and blessing of God, received by faith that is to be put to good use in our lives and in our relationships.
"Forgive as I have forgiven you."
When I was young, I used to really enjoy skipping rocks on the smooth morning waters on the lake where my grandparents lived. Do you remember doing that? Do you also remember when you got a really big stone, or the water would be a bit rough, and it not only wouldn't skip, it would make a big splash? And remember with that huge splash came those rippling waves. Well, if you think about it, God's grace is like those rippling waves in the midst of the rough waters of our lives. Like a boulder that makes an enormous splash in the pond, sending rippling waves from shore to shore, forgiven sinners let the big splash of God's grace in their lives flow wave after wave into the lives of others. When you pray, you are asking God to let His forgiveness ripple effect happen through your life too. You give back.
When Peter asked, "How many times must I forgive," he missed the whole point, didn't he? Jesus is saying, "You don't want God to limit His forgiveness for your life, do you; why would you limit it through your life to others."
In His parable, Jesus warns of what an unforgiving attitude can do in our relationship to others, but even more importantly, to God. In His story, incredibly, the one forgiven the huge 20 million dollar debt paid by the king, instead of joyfully forgiving petty debts owed to him, he couldn't wait to get out there and demand immediate payment from those who owed him pennies in comparison. He not only misused the grace given to him, he renounced it, he abandoned it. What kind of mercifully forgiven person does that, Jesus would ask. What kind of cad would do that? But such an attitude is not only unacceptable here on earth, it destroys the relationship with the God who forgave us in the first place.
Forgiven sinners in Christ, believers in Him, that's not how we do things as His people, is it? Forgiveness received, is forgiveness ready to be shared. Forgive us our trespasses, or more literally, our debts; our debts before God due to our sinfulness, forgive as we forgive those who sin against us. We get to forgive others. We get to see the joy of their debt forgiven, their guilt removed. We get to see what God's love and grace can do in the lives of others as it has done in our life too.
You might say with that forgiveness, we get to pay God's grace forward.
Do you remember that movie, "Pay It Forward"? An eleven-year-old little boy, Trevor, was given a project by his social studies teacher. He and the other students in the class were given the assignment to create a project that would make the world a better place. Trevor decided to start a chain reaction of good deeds. He called the project "Pay It Forward." The twists and turns of selfless help begin to ripple throughout the community. When one person receives a good deed, a blessing, he or she is asked to do favors for three other people in their life. In the movie, lives are changed, attitudes are renewed, hope is given, and, ultimately, Trevor sacrifices his own life for his project as he defends a classmate from bullies. But, above all, people are freed; they're freed from grudges, revenge, and imprisoning selfishness as they serve others. At the end of the movie, crowds of people pay their respects to Trevor and testify to the renewing and powerful ripple effect of paying it forward.
But our life in Christ is so much more than that, isn't it? In this petition of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus isn't just telling us to "pay it forward," for even the ripple effects of our best deeds get overwhelmed by the tsunamis of humanity's sin. If that were all that was needed to overcome humanity's ills, there wouldn't have needed to be a cross in the middle of lasting forgiveness.
We can't ultimately "pay it forward," only Jesus can do that. But, Jesus is inviting us to receive what He has paid for, to receive it in faith and to "pray it forward;" to hand over the grudges, the hurts, the sins to Him and let Him remove them in the power of His forgiveness. To receive God's mercy by grace so that He can unleash the power of His forgiveness through your life to others! The challenge of the Lord's Prayer is to put that to work, to pray it forward with a forgiveness that overflows from your heart by the power of the Holy Spirit to let love and forgiveness flow into the lives of people around you. Forgiveness frees you from the prison of failing God and resenting others. It lets you live in and share in His love. We forgive as we have been forgiven.
Author Lewis Smedes offers good counsel in his book Forgive and Forget. He understands that forgiveness is not simply dismissing a hurtful action in your life. It's truly, as he says, the act of letting go. First, forgiveness means releasing your pain to God. Trusting that Jesus has truly borne all your burdens on the cross and has conquered everything that imprisons you, you are free to let go of your hurt and let your Savior carry it for you. In prayer, you surrender your right to get even and you let God carry that load.
Second, as time goes on, you let go of the toxic feelings swirling in your heart toward the person who hurt you and you wish him or her well. You pray for God's work in their life. The gift of forgiveness in our lives molds our very lives with God, then, and with each other.
Forgiveness is a gift that keeps on giving. It's not only a prayer to God; it is a prayerful way of life with Him. And it is a journey, a life to be lived. Jesus paid the price for sin once and for all, but the pain of broken relationships and deep hurt in our lives simply do not disappear. We face them, we deal with them as we cast our cares upon Jesus, trusting that He cares for us and as we love and forgive others as He has forgiven us.
When Jesus tells us to "Forgive as we have been forgiven," such words can sound frightening, even overwhelming until you realized that it is not by your might or power, but by the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, in the reality of forgiveness received as a gift.
The holy days of Christmas and Easter, they sure have great music, don't they? And I do like the song, the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" even though it can get a little long at times. But there is one Christmas carol I never tire of singing, and that's "Joy to the World." The third verse of that beautiful song says it well. No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found.
The gift of Christ's forgiveness removes the curse, clears out the thorns that invade our lives and allows the blessings of our Savior to flow into us and to everyone around us. It is the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving! Get to know this Savior this season. Receive the love and the forgiveness that only He can give you. And pray in a way that will change your life now and forever, pray, "Father, forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." God bless you.
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for December 15, 2013 Topic: Peter and the Pearly Gates?
ANNOUNCER: Now, Pastor Gregory Seltz responds to questions from listeners. I'm Mark Eischer. Today, more on the subject of forgiveness. Someone very close to the program asks, "How did St. Peter come to be associated in the popular mind with guarding the Pearly Gates? What's the Bible's teaching on that?"
SELTZ: Mark, I think I know who asked this one, and yes, it is a popular notion and a great question because the main power and purpose of the Christian Church is exercising Christ's blessing, the "power of the keys."
ANNOUNCER: Keys are a powerful metaphor that speaks to this spiritual reality of heaven being either opened or shut.
SELTZ: Exactly. And this idea, actually, this reality of forgiveness from God being a real thing in the world; that's a radical notion if you really think about it.
ANNOUNCER: What do you mean?
SELTZ: Let me explain...I think one problem today is amidst all this talk about justice, there is this false notion that we aren't going to be held accountable to God's eternal justice; that forgiveness with God is no big deal. People somehow think that God should just give us a pass, no matter who we are or what we've done.
ANNOUNCER: Ironically, some of those same people would be completely outraged if a judge were to publicly let someone go who's truly guilty, a hardened criminal, just because this judge felt good about it.
SELTZ: Right, and they would be even more outraged if the criminal committed the crimes against them. So, in truth, real forgiveness will have to account for God's eternal justice and judgment, and if people are honest with themselves, they know now, like then, that's beyond our capability as sinful people.
ANNOUNCER: But Jesus, thankfully, isn't like most people.
SELTZ: Exactly, He's the Son of God who came into the world to deal with humanity's just, eternal punishment for sin and He alone makes God's merciful forgiveness available to all.
ANNOUNCER: But, back to the question, how did St. Peter get associated with all of this?
SELTZ: I think that comes from reading Matthew 16, where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ and then Jesus Himself says, "on this rock I will build my church... I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
ANNOUNCER: So, Jesus, here, seems to be handing over His forgiving power to Peter, and so this picture of Peter as the guard of the pearly gates makes sense.
SELTZ: Some might make sense of it that way, but that still misses the Bible's full discussion of what Jesus is doing with Peter, the apostles, and the whole church. It's important to realize that when Jesus says, "I give you the keys to kingdom," in this passage, Peter had just confessed Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, speaking on behalf of all the disciples, and this is clear later in John 20 where Jesus says to all the disciples, "If you all forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you all withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." The you there is plural.
ANNOUNCER: The Apostles, then, represent the whole church here.
SELTZ: Correct. But even here there is a "Both/and" answer to your question of Peter, the Apostles, the whole church, and the keys.
ANNOUNCER: And I suppose there are those who teach otherwise?
SELTZ: Well, some emphasize Matthew 16, "Peter alone" with the keys. So, in that tradition, even in their art, this 'in the world spiritual blessing of forgiveness' is located with St. Peter and later with popes who they say "fill the office of St. Peter."
ANNOUNCER: And, don't other Christians say, "Peter and the Apostles have no ongoing special blessing for the church? They would say the power to forgive is given to all Christians who confess Christ. There is not a unique, enduring, Apostolic connection.
SELTZ: Yeah, they sure teach that, Mark, and I think they also miss the point. It's true that every believer has been given the power of the keys in their baptism, in the world, we are to be dispensers of God's grace as "forgiven, forgivers." But, God, in His mercy, knows how truly difficult it is to believe that there is real forgiveness of our sin, all sin before Him. So, He established a public, enduring apostolic ministry in the midst of His church, to proclaim and deliver His Grace to God's people publicly. That Public Ministry is always, "In the stead and by the command of Jesus," for the sake of the church, then as now.
ANNOUNCER: So we see Pastor and people, God's gift of the keys in action in the church, and then through the church, for the world.
SELTZ: Right, Mark, and maybe that's the picture that should be painted at the pearly gates.
ANNOUNCER: Thank you Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" by Healey Willan, arr. Henry Gerike. From Gentle Stranger by the
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