Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon - Matthew 18:21-35 - Pentecost 15

Matthew 18:21-35
“Forgiveness, Continued...”

Today Matthew's Gospel continues to take us on a survey of forgiveness. We've seen Jesus' great concern for even the least of his people. We've heard how Christians ought to seek reconciliation with the brother who sins against us, always seeking to win the brother. So far so good.

But now Peter asks for some qualification. How often do I have to do this, Lord? Let's throw out a generous number. 7? The Pharisees might only say you have to forgive three times before the sinner proves he's not deserving. I'll say 7, and shoot for the safe side. How about that, Jesus, aren't you impressed?

But no. Not 7. Not 17. 70 times 7. In other words, forgiveness is unlimited. By it's very nature, forgiveness is not about keeping score – it's about wiping the slate clean. That's what Christ does for us in his saving work of death and resurrection. That's what Christians are to reflect and practice in our own relationships – especially with other Christians.

The question itself is flawed. “How often, how many, how much MUST I forgive?” Rather, we would ask, “How much do I get to forgive?” “How can I NOT forgive, in light of God forgiving me in Christ?” And to prod us in this direction, Jesus reminds us how much we've been forgiven. He does so, of course, with a parable.

A king is settling accounts with his servants or slaves. But these aren't the bottom of the food chain slaves out doing the manual labor. These are his high ranking ministers and advisors, those in charge of his household and business affairs. They've got the purse strings. They don't have to ask him every time they spend a denarius. But they do have to give account from time to time, and when the books are opened, it becomes clear that one servant has a debt to pay. And it's outrageous. 10,000 talents. Or in today's dollars – estimates range somewhere between several million to several billion. In any case, the debt was huge.

As Americans, we know about debts. We are perhaps one of the most debt-ridden societies in history. The national debt is in the trillions. $20 Trillion last I checked. $61,000 per citizen. Individually, we owe money on mortgages and cars, student loans and credit cards. So maybe we can relate to this parable of Jesus especially well – a story in which a man is forgiven a great debt. But can we relate enough? Even in a nightmare scenario, if all our debts came due at once, if we had to somehow pay everything right now -we might declare bankruptcy or end up on welfare. But this man faced imprisonment, along with his entire family. And Jesus even hints at torment that happens there. Scary stuff.

Of course the heavenly meaning hidden in this earthly story is not a debt of money, but the debt of sin that you and I owe, and the punishments of eternal condemnation we deserve. Just as hopeless as paying back billions of dollars with a job making license plates in prison – so are our prospects of paying off our debt of sin. We can't even make a dent in it.

And if you don't think your sin is that great, maybe you ought to do some tallying. How many times do you put other gods before the true God? How often do you misuse his name, or despise his word? How do you measure such things? Or how often you rebel against rightful authority or harm your neighbor's body or reputation. Or take what isn't rightly yours, or lust after or scheme to get it? 10 times a day? 100 times a day? 1000? Even a conservative, lowball of 50 sins a day, times 365 days a year and the average lifespan of 78 years leaves you with 1,423,500 sins. And this isn't counting the sinning that comes with failure to act, or the original sin and guilt that corrupts our very nature. No, if you are honest, you'll see your sin is beyond human measure. Even the Psalmist puts it succinctly, “who can know his errors?”. The debt is greater than we can know, but we know it is great.

There's only one way out of the debt. Forgiveness. Now, the servant in the story begged for time to pay – “patience, master!” he pleaded. But that was a pipe dream. And the kind master knew it. Shockingly, he forgave the debt – no strings attached. Such is the nature of our master, our heavenly Father. We, too, would beg and plead – but don't bother offering to repay. Rather trust in the mercy of the king who sends his beloved Son to pay every last bit of your debt. Forgiveness is the only way out for us. And that's just what he provides.

Consider the debt Christ paid. Sure, he bore the sins of the world – and what an awful load that was! If we can't even imagine or calculate one sinner's debt – how much more to pay all sinners's debts? But only the most precious commodity will do – the holy, innocent, suffering and death of the spotless lamb of God. Only the precious blood of Jesus could pay the price. Only his perfect sacrifice was enough to settle the debt. But settled it is. Forgiveness is won. Debt retired. It is finished.

The same Jesus who won and offers forgiveness is the Jesus who also teaches us to forgive. He teaches us to pray for it in his model prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. He teaches us explicitly to forgive as we have been forgiven. It's assumed that we will do so. And he shows in this parable, by contrast, the outrageous actions and dreadful end of the servant who has no mercy on his fellow servant.

It should shock us. That the man who had been forgiven so much couldn't forgive even a much smaller debt. Something on the order of $15,000. Nothing to sneeze at, but in the scheme of what his own debt forgiven by the master... why wouldn't he forgive his neighbor. Why couldn't he?

Perhaps the urgency to squeeze every last penny from his own debtor sprang from his own lack of trust that his debt was actually forgiven. Was it a futile attempt to settle his own accounts, and cash in where he could, just in case the king called in his debt after all? We're not really told. But one thing is clear, that forgiveness ought to beget forgiveness, and mercy to inspire mercy. And woe to the one who fails to reflect the forgiveness he himself has been shown.

This wicked servant wouldn't get away with it. His peers reported it to the king, who did rebuke and punish the man for his failure to show mercy. And so in this way, he had thrown away the precious forgiveness he'd been given, and instead having to pay the debt anyway from jail.

And now the hard words of Jesus, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Let those words sink in. I'm not going to explain them away, couch or cushion them with caveats. Jesus is deadly serious here.

Forgiveness, forgiving your neighbor, is not an option for Christians. It is a necessity. Holding a grudge against your neighbor is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian. To be forgiven is to forgive. It's that simple. But not so easy, is it?

This is harsh law, friends. The threat is terrifying. How do we, then, approach the forgiveness Jesus would have us show for those who trespass against us?

One way is to come back around to our own sin. Look in the mirror. Check the log in your own eye. Remember how much you've been forgiven. And trust in the king, the master, the Savior who does the forgiving. This will help your perspective when it comes to the really very small debts your neighbor could possibly owe you.

Another helpful idea – take the example of Joseph from our Old Testament reading. His brothers had wronged him greatly – sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead. Separated from his family, deprived of his freedom, later thrown in prison – Joseph had more reason to hold a grudge than most. And yet, he foreshadows Christ by loving and forgiving his brothers. When the tables are turned and Joseph has the upper hand, he doesn't exact his revenge, but instead offers a tearful embrace and welcome. His words are so memorable, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. So could we say to any sinner whom God gives us the opportunity to forgive. See in it the good that God will bring from reconciliation and restoration.

For in showing forgiveness we not only fulfill the law of love, but we also give expression to our faith. We confess in word and deed the love that we have received in Christ. We give some of the most powerful witness to the unbelieving world of what Christianity is about, and what Christ is like. There is, really, perhaps no more Christ-like thing than to forgive, from the heart.

That doesn't make it easy. And it doesn't mean we'll do it perfectly. We pray for the strength to forgive. And we always circle back to the forgiveness we have received in the Christ of the cross. Your debt has been paid. So freely forgive, for the sake of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28
“What Kind of Christ?”

Last Sunday we heard of Peter's bright, shining moment.  Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” and Peter, speaking for the disciples, speaks what was revealed to him by the Father, and answers:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.  Jesus commends and blesses Peter for this answer. He confirms he is, in fact, the Christ.  And we heard about the importance of confessing that faith in Christ – even for us – and confessing it rightly.

Today, Jesus goes on from that point.  “Ok, you've said it well.  I'm the Christ.  Now let me tell you what that means:  The Christ, “ must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Now, just who exactly does Peter think he is?  Correcting Jesus?  Telling Jesus he's wrong? Contradicting what Jesus just said?  Now, maybe he didn't do it very harshly – indeed, Peter tries to take him aside and so as not to embarrass poor Jesus in front of the other disciples, “but you know, Jesus, this kind of talk is scaring people.  We all know that you have enemies, and what you preach isn't always popular.  But let's stay positive here.  Look at all the miracles you've been doing.  God has given you great power!  That's got to be for a reason.  Why don't you just use those powers to protect yourself then we can leave aside all of this worry and fuss about suffering and crosses and all.  Far be it from you, Lord.  You're not a loser, you're a winner.  You're the Christ, after all, like I said, and you've got some work to do here....”

And I wonder just how much of this kind of talk Jesus tolerated before he blasted Peter with some of the harshest words he's ever uttered.  “Get behind me Satan!”  Peter, you're not even Peter anymore. These aren't your words.  They are satanic.

Now you might think Jesus was being a little too harsh.  After all, Peter meant well.  He was looking out for Jesus.  He didn't want to see his beloved teacher arrested, suffer, or even die at the hands of his foes.  Who wants to see their loved ones suffer, be humiliated, and die?  For most of us, that's our greatest fear.  Some of us have had to face it, even numerous times.  And we want to avoid such pain, thank you very much.

But Jesus hears in these words, this perhaps well-meaning rebuke of Peter, the very voice of the Tempter himself.  The same devil who accosted him three times in the wilderness.  There, the Devil also tried to get Jesus to take the easy way out – don't suffer hunger.  Don't suffer your enemies.  Just bow down and worship me, and it'll all be yours.  No need to fuss with that suffering and cross business.  But Jesus never buys what the devil is selling.  He's not here to be taken in, but to crush the old serpent's head, even though it means he'd bruise his foot to do it.

Jesus was telling the disciples exactly what kind of Christ he is to be.  He is a suffering Christ.  He is a dying Christ.  He's not the Christ that many expected.  He's not the Christ you may have wanted.  But he is the Christ you need.

If I were God (and thank God I'm not), I might have done it differently.  If I were writing the plan of salvation, it probably wouldn't include pain and sorrow, suffering and grief.  I don't want it in my life.  And so I wouldn't want it in my Savior.  In fact if any of us were to concoct a Christ we'd probably have one that always conquers his enemies, triumphs over evil, leaves us with warm fuzzies and good vibrations, and throws a party for us all to boot.  I doubt any sinful, fallen human would put forth a Christ who dies on a cross.  Certainly Peter didn't have that in mind.

But anything other than a Christ that suffers and dies for you – any kind of Jesus without the cross – is a satanic Jesus.  It's a Jesus cooked up in the minds of men, or in the bowels of hell.  But it's not the Jesus he truly is.  It's a false Christ.  It's a Christ who can't save.  It's a Jesus of your imagination and a lie of the devil.

But you and I are no better. We, like Peter, fall for the tempter's tricks and  try for a way without the cross.  You see it in our constant temptations to be our own savior, to work off our own debt, make a deal with God and get what we want.  And then we are indignant when our prayers aren't answered our way.  You see us buying into the lie when we imagine a Jesus who never lets us suffer, and that if we suffer he must have forsaken us.  We close our ears and stomp our feet, inwardly at least, when we hear talk about crosses and cross-bearing.  This isn't “your best life now”.  This isn't “glorious living”.  This isn't what we signed up for, is it?

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” Peter rightly confessed.  And we confess the same.  But a Christ rightly confessed is the Christ of the cross, and so we must join our voices in that accord.  We must listen to what Jesus says, first, of himself.  And not talk over him.  And not think we know better.  And not rebuke him for getting it wrong.  But simply say what he says.

The Christ must suffer and die.  And let's not forget this, on the third day rise again!  The satanic lie doesn't want to hear about the cross, but that means it also takes away the resurrection!  Yes, Jesus suffers greatly – for the sins of the world.  Yes, Jesus dies a terrible death, the man of sorrows bearing the sins and infirmities of all.  But this is not the end of him.  There is a resurrection to follow.  He's a dying Christ, but he's a rising again Christ.  He's a Christ who lives, even now, and lives forever.  Death has no power over him.  He will never die again.

And a Christ of the resurrection is exactly the kind of Christ we need.  For we too face death all the day long.  We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.  Christians are no better than our master, and we must endure the same kinds of hardships in this life.  Persecution, danger, nakedness, sword.  Fightings and fears within and without.  Trouble of all kinds.  Sickness.  And finally death.  We are to take up, not shun our crosses.  We are to called to take them up and follow him.

But we know where his cross leads.  It leads not only to slate wiped clean of sin.  It leads not only to a reconciliation with our estranged Father.  It leads also to a tomb cracked open by the power of the Lord of Life.  There's no Christ without the cross – but the cross is nothing without the resurrection. Thanks be to God, that in Jesus Christ, we have it all.  That's the kind of Christ he is.  A suffering and dying and living and reigning Christ who's done it all for you and gives it all to you and promises you the world – a new heaven and new earth – and the mansions he's preparing there for you to live in forever.

Who could turn all that down?  Who wants a savior only for this world?  That's a pretty lame Christ. If our hope in him is only for this world, then we are to be pitied more than all men.  But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of a great harvest of the dead that God will receive to himself at the last.

And what a day that will be.  Then all who die in Christ, all who have confessed him with our mouths and believed in our hearts – then with Peter and Paul and all the apostles, then with Moses and Elijah and all the prophets, then with all the Christian martyrs who've spilled their blood for this confession, then with all the faithful who've lived and died in Christ... then with the whole company of heaven we will stand, like Job says, in the flesh, and see with our own eyes, and not another – that our Redeemer lives.

So deny yourself.  Put yourself behind yourself.  Give up on your own half-baked, ill-conceived, man-made and hell-pleasing ideas of who Jesus is or should be.  And tune your ears and hearts once again to the kind of Christ that he really is.  The Christ who dies for you.  The Christ who lives for you.  The Christ of the cross, who calls you to take up your cross.  Set your mind of the things of God.  And if you taste death, so be it, for death is not the end of him and death is not the end of you.

Repent and believe.  Lose your life, and gain it in Christ.  Forfeit the world – for he has gained for you your soul.  Hear him clearly, confess him rightly, and trust in him only.  This is the kind of Christ he is – the suffering and dying and rising Christ.  Let us follow him.  Amen.