While the Hebrews sat through the nine plagues – they had to have had a thought, at least a time or two, “What the heck?!” In a time span of 2 or 3 months up to a year max, the people had endured, along with the Egyptians, water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness – honestly, it sounds a little like our last 6 months, although ‘what the heck’ is assuredly the ‘G’ version of many of our comments.
As we consider the plight of the Hebrews during this time, we have to keep a couple of things in mind.
1. The Hebrews were slaves, subservients, and oppressed by the Egyptians.
2. The Hebrews were foreigners in the land of Egypt and treated as such. Even though they knew of no other home, they were still ‘away from their home.’
3. The Hebrews knew very little of their God. They were immersed in the gods of Egypt. To them, their God was a very distant being. Primarily, they knew enough about God to cry out to him when they had no one, and no where else, to cry out to.
4. Even before ‘The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them’ (Exodus 2:23-25). God had already heard and answered their cries, Moses, the answer to their cries, was already living in the Pharoah’s palace.
The Hebrews had suffered their own afflictions during the first nine plagues, plus more placed on them by a vindictive Pharoah, but they were spared the tenth plague, the plague of death. Following this plague, the Egyptians were ready for the Hebrews to leave.
The Hebrews had to have been in a state of wide eyes and wide open mouths as they left Egypt. The wonder of leaving, the wonder of freedom, the wonder of deliverance had to have been overwhelming and unfathomable. They looked ahead with excitement and back in shock.
Their eyes got a little wider, soon they were on the run. Pharoah was after them and they were in need of God again.
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
God heard their cries and rescued them by parting the waters. Then they were hungry
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” they screamed. “We are hungry,” they complained.
God gave them food…for every day. Then they were thirsty,
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
And, God gave them water.
Then, they had to battle Amalek and his people.
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
And God gave Moses his staff, the staff that had turned the water, and now, he gave the people the mission of helping Moses hold up the staff during the battle.
God gave them victory.
God took a people who did not know him, therefore could not trust him, and he grew them up. He heard their cries, his rescue of them was in place before they recognized their need, he strengthened them in struggle, and along that way he introduced himself.
He taught little by little as they were ready to hear, ready to receive, ready to apply.
He did this as the lessons were appropriate, as the people were ready to hear. He said things through Moses like:
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.”
When our oldest son, Caleb, was around 3 years old, one afternoon he purposely threw a toy at his sister Grace, hitting her on the head. It hurt and as she was crying Caleb was asked if there is anything he wanted to say to his sister. Without a moments thought he looked at Grace and said, ‘Catch the ball next time Grace.’ We realized that question was probably not going to work with him so we switched the question to ‘Was that a good choice?’
It is a very simple question for a little person who was just learning about choices. Over the years since, we have asked that question in progressively more complex forms, as he grew in his maturity enough to consider the nuanced complexities. Those increasingly difficult questions were finalized a couple of weeks ago, when I, on the final time I would ask that question with any authority, asked ‘Do you take this woman….’
He was ready for that question, he was ready to answer.
God is working this way with the Hebrews, accepting them where they are and growing them up. They will not always be successful, they will not always listen, they will not always follow, regardless, God still starts where they are.
It all begins with us being honest before God, it is that same honesty through out our life that permits God to continue leading with us from where we are taking us where he needs us to be next.
Oddly, it was the honesty of the Hebrews before God that produced their complaining. They had no pretense before God, their complaining was truly honest.
That complaining place soon, after they learn and grow, will not be an honest place, however, right now, right there, it was.
Soon, they will understand their choices and God will begin asking, “Is that a good choice?”
Later, complaining is not going to be a good choice because it will not longer come from a place of honesty. The complaining will instead come from laziness, from self inflicted ignorance, from disobedience. It will no longer be honest.
But for now it is honest, for now this was an honest place for them to be, for now it was exactly where God was able to meet them.
This is the grace we spoke of last week, it is God’s ‘patience through the complaining’, it is a ‘multiple chances’ mindset, it is a ‘as long as you can be pursued, I will pursue’ determination of God, it is the honest state of the character and nature of God. It flows through God’s love and bathes us in his mercy as long as we are willing to be in the tub.
Thousands of years later, during the week of the cross, Jesus is in the Temple square teaching his followers and other interested bystanders. This was not an unusual situation, it was a very typical ordinary sight. After all, it was a very Holy Week. It was the week that many Jewish pilgrims would make their way to Jerusalem for the week long festival of Pesach, or Passover, commemorating the Jewish deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
The streets, and the Temple Square, were packed. Rabbis would be in the different areas of the square teaching there followers and others, just as Jesus was doing. However, the presence of Jesus was of particular interest on this day to everyone, including the High Priests and other religious leaders.
These leaders in Jerusalem, as opposed to the Pharisees and others leaders that we have seen conflict with Jesus up to this point, these leaders had a much more powerful responsibilities and authority. It would not have been uncommon for them to be listening to the various lectures being given by the teachers and rabbis, checking for accuracy and attempting to weed out any false teaching and heretics. They also had actually authority and power to confront and remove heretics if needed, in extreme cases they had the authority to discipline or turn over to the Roman government for punishment.
On this day, Jesus was teaching, and there was a lot of interest.
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The leaders asked Jesus.
Jesus heard their question, it was not a bad or inappropriate question to be asking, it was their job. The problem, however, was their heart. Jesus knew that this was not an honest question, they, in asking, were not being genuine. Their goal was not about authority, their goal was to discredit Jesus’ actions and words. Jesus answered their hearts instead of their words.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Jesus, in looking at their dishonest hearts, knew that they wanted to get rid of this ‘Jesus Problem.’ He had entered the city to the cheers of the people, and when these leaders had requested that he calm the people down before they get out of control, Jesus’ response had been,
“If I quiet them then the rocks will start to scream and shake.”
Jesus was a problem, the leaders were hoping to squelch the problem right now. However, now their dishonesty was seen by Jesus. They had known that Jesus would ascribe his authority to the Father, and would back it up scripturally – however, they had also known that the crowd would be easy to manipulate. If the leaders could fashion their words just right, they could easily appear to be the ‘real spiritual authority’ to these ‘mindless’ followers of Jesus. The leaders, like many political and religious leaders before and after them, felt certain that a few key vague words and ambiguous accusations would easily manipulate the crowd. Which, by the end of the week, they did.
Now, however, Jesus saw their dishonesty, he answered their hearts not their manipulative words.
Jesus asked again “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The leaders huddled up. The usual deceitful tactics of calling Jesus a ‘liberal’ or saying that he ‘was not really Jewish’ were not going to work, at least not now. Jesus, in front of the crowd, had placed the leaders in a corner where their dishonesty was on display
This crowd still loved John the Baptizer and to say he was not from God would make the crowd upset. If they said that John’s authority was from God, they would be affirming the authority of Jesus.
It was a lose-lose situation. Either way, they were not going to walk away winners, and either way, they were going to walk away in a mess of trouble.
Finally, they dishonestly said, “We don’t know.”
To this, Jesus responds with a parable of two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One of the sons says that he will work but does not, the other says that he will not work but does.
One had dishonestly said ‘yes’, the other had honestly answered ‘no’. The dishonest son was not pursuable, he had no intention to work, so he used deceptive words to hide his heart. The other had no intention to work, was honest about it, and then, was open to change. He was pursuable. He worked in the vineyard.
Jesus was comparing the religious leaders to the dishonest son. They knew God, they had the avenue to read the prophets, they had the ability to recognize Jesus. In accepting their roles as leaders they had said that they would look for the Messiah, now, when it was time to do the hard work, they rolled over and went back to sleep.
It was an odd comparison, the crowds probably didn’t realize what was happening except that it was uncomfortable, but these leaders did. They had made the choice to not be pursuable by God, so they rolled back over and looked for an easier way to rid themself of this ‘Jesus problem’.
God had listened to the hearts of the freed Hebrews as they entered the unknown and learned to relate to an unfamiliar God. God listened to the hearts of the religious leaders in the Temple Square. God listens to our hearts.
Midway between the Hebrews deliverance and the moment of Jesus in the temple, we have another applicable moment. Isaiah and Jeremiah were working to bring the people back to God before the destruction and exile took place. God called the religious practices of the people phony, he called their personal faith insincere, he called the religious establishment corrupt and in collusion with the politicians. He called them dishonest.
God listens to our hearts; God responds to the cries, our questions, our struggles; God takes our hearts where they are and, with our honesty, takes us to where we are ready to be. This is the outflow of love that carries God’s grace.
The constant question for us is –
What is your heart honestly screaming out to God?
In our epistle reading this week we returned to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church at Philippi had a special place in Paul’s heart, he had a special affinity for the the folks at Philippi. I will be honest, the manner in which he writes to this group has always been difficult for me to justify. He tells the church that they are to have the same love, the same mind, that they are to always agree – but then, at the same time he says to them ‘Work out your own salvation.’ It would seem that he was saying be the same and, recognize your personal individuality. He is calling the church to do two opposing things at the same time.
Be the same, and be different.
Aristotelian thought was very common at the time, it emphasized the importance of the whole, of the group. The processing of this train of thought was that the health of the group is more important that the views of the individual. So, if you thought differently than your group you were to acquiesce, to just accept the group think and rid yourself of your thoughts and views. This meant that if you had a problem with the thinking or actions of the group it was best to go along, if you struggled with something the group had made a definitive decision on you were to go along and not ever let the group know of your struggle, if you were to feel a need to stick with your views, if you needed to share about your struggles, if you couldn’t agree entirely with the group, you needed to leave the group if you couldn’t change.
This thought process has been mastered by the church, especially since the American evangelical movement begin in the 1940s. It was also having a potentially devastating impact on the church at Philippi. We will learn in chapter four that there is a battle going on within the church between two individuals. The rest of the church is being forced to take a side, to agree with one or the other of these disgruntled individuals. It was not permissible to be objective, you could only love both sides if it was conditional and at a distance.
So, Paul said ‘be of the same mind, be of the same love, agree.’
How was this a solution? It would seem to affirm their Aristotelian leanings! I was still struggling with this as I woke up this morning.
Then, we found that our Presidential campaign sign had been removed from our yard overnight. As we went out to look, we saw that everyone who was supporting the same candidate as us was also missing their campaign signs. Our street is a political anomaly for Oklahoma, our yard signs consistently support the ultimate loser of the race.
In many ways, Norman as a whole has that reputation. We are, at least, more diverse as a population than most of the state.
That is not to say we don’t disagree. This past year this has become obvious as a group has made a very strong backdoor effort to take control and change our city codes, our education system, and more. This group has used the word ‘unite’ for their identity. However, as they have progressed their ‘unite’ has not been very unifying. As I considered our missing sign, the evidence that it was a problem for someone that our opinion was different that their opinion, God brought Paul’s plea to the Philippians to my mind and my heart. Paul was not saying they all had to be the same, but that the core of their thinking, the strength of their love, their fellowship, their mercy, their compassion was to be the same regardless of their own particular journey of salvation. Christ was their center, their journey was guided by him. It would not always look the same however.
When our political agenda, our economic strategies, our income, our education, our money, our poverty, our individual journeys begins to divide us within our faith – when we easily accept someone called a ‘liberal’ as bad, a ‘radical’ as too extreme, oddly, both of these words were used to describe Jesus, when we quickly accept, we have left Jesus for the group.
The church is called to called to be a place where individuals can be honest with each other and honest before God. Not judged or condemmed. The church is called to be a place where everyone is permitted their honest struggles and questions. If people cannot be honest the church can never encourage each person in their salvation journey.
Paul, said that if we can grasp this Godly form of unity, of honesty, we will show your love for each other. You will be united in your goals and in the way you think.You will not let selfishness or pride be your guide. You will be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. You will not be interested only in your own life, but you will care about the lives of others too.
It is a picture of a people who love God and others, all others. It is a people who are honest before God.
On the evening of February 19, 1982, CBS Evening News correspondent, Bob Schieffer, reported many important stories of the day including President Reagan’s budget, the Polish Solidarity movement, human atrocities in El Salvador, and a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. However, a different story seemed to attract as much attention as any of these other stories.
“After a lot of hoopla and millions of tax dollars spent on commercials and other things to tell us why we needed to go metric, it is the metric system that’s about to go,”
Schieffer said the dismantling of the Metric Board, a board set up to guide America to changing their form of measurement to match the accepted system of most other nations..
You may remember that attempt to change the way we measure things in the early 1980s, or you may remember it from another attempt in the early 1960s, as well as many other moments in our nation’s history. The switch from a measurement of halves and quarters, and even thirds, is so engrained in our thinking that switching to a measurement system that uses tens to measure is just a too big of leap to make. The United States, along with Liberia and Myanmar are the only three nations in the world that still do not use the metric system of measurement.
Despite many business that have made the addition of the metric system to assist in their global trade and some remaining traces of our attempts to switch systems – such as the section of Interstate 19 connecting Tucson to Mexico – the only highway in the US to have distance signs in kilometers – we remain a nation that measures differently than most of the world.
While there was surely a measure of nationalistic pride at stake in the public’s refusal to make the switch, it was mainly because it is next to impossible, as human beings, to switch our ways of thinking. I admit, I am one of those humans, while I could adapt to seeing Coca Cola measured in liters, I found it impossible to make the switch to metrics when helping my kids with their third grade math. There could not be enough cheat sheets for me to be able to figure out the number of kilometers Joe was going to have to travel if his trip from Denver to Albuquerque was 449 miles.
As the close of Jesus earthly ministry was coming to a crescendo, and he was beginning to recognize the shadow of the cross looming a short distance ahead, he began to urgently focus on the things his disciples needed to fully understand. They were going to be the ones to lead the believers and there were certain things they needed grasp. Things like forgiveness and trust, things that would be essential elements of their teaching and leading, but even more, things that they would need to persevere and survive as leaders.
Grace was at the top of that list.
You may remember singing ‘Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.’ Even as we would sing it, a full understanding of Grace was, and is, a difficult concept to fully grasp. It is even a greater trait for us to absorb and practice.
The precipitating moment that led Jesus to share the parable about grace in our gospel passage for today, was a discussion with his disciples who inquired ‘What are we going to get for giving up everything to follow you?’
It was an extraordinarily blunt, and, I would think, inappropriate, question, yet it was met with no resistance from Jesus, he seemed to understand the measurement system these men automatically defaulted to. He understood it was difficult to change the measurement systems of our expectations.
He began, and ended, his response with a very odd and difficult to swallow, statement:
‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’
A statement that I am sure solicited the same response it would receive today,
‘Well, that’s not fair!’
If we are the first in line, we expect to be the first to enter.
If we are the first to work, we expect to be the first to be noticed.
If we are the first to raise our hand, we expect to be the first to receive praise.
If we are the first to be born, we expect to be the first to be blessed.
If we are the first, we do not expect to be last.
Even more, if we are last, we are not expecting to be first.
Let’s face it, it is a crazy system of measurement. It may work in heaven but it is preposterous here on earth. But still, it is the measurement system that God uses because it is the driving characteristic of God, it is his undeniable nature.
Jesus explained Grace by telling his disciple a parable. A parable of a system of measurement that was totally foreign to any system on earth. It was a system designed in heaven, for heaven.
The fact that this alien system was now being used on earth only made sense if you remember that Jesus told his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is the standard in heaven.
This is why it was essential that these men, who would be the leaders of Jesus’ followers, understood, it was their calling – they were to switch their system of measurement. They had to understand!
In this parable there was a farmer that had a field that was ready for workers. The farmer went to the community market square where workers who needed a field were waiting. The farmer found out the need of the workers, agreed on the measurement of addressing their need and took them to his field. Later that morning, the farmer recognized that his field had room for more workers so he returned to the market square where he loaded more workers needing a field, in the afternoon, he once again did the same. At five o clock in the afternoon, basically almost quitting time, as we was in the marketplace again, he noticed more workers standing in the square.
‘Why are you not working?’ He asked them.
“Because no one will hire us,’ they said.
He looked at them, this was not an uncommon collection of people to still be looking for work. They were seldom taken to a field. For all sorts of reasons, these people could never get to a field. Some talked to much while some didn’t talk at all, some didn’t understand, some couldn’t be understood, some looked weird, some were not from around there, some smelled bad, some were just plain odd, some were the wrong gender, while the gender of some was not identifiable, some didn’t fit in, some were trying too hard to fit in, none of these workers met the measurements of the hiring system for being taken to the fields.
This farmer used a different system. These people wanted to go to a field, that was his measurement criteria, so this farmer loaded them up and took them to his field.
At the end of the day, the farmer paid the workers. As the original workers watched the system of payment, they were liking this system, it surely meant that they were going to be paid more than they had been promised. They saw that these undesirable workers were paid what they had expected to be paid. These all day, original workers were shocked, then, at the injustice when they discovered that they were being paid the same as the five pm workers.
“That is not fair, that is not just!’ They loudly complained.
“Are you upset because I am generous?’ The farmer asked, ‘Have I not paid you exactly what I promised?’
Quite honestly, the workers were correct, according to our earthy forms of measurement, the system of this farmer was unjust, it was unfair.
This was Jesus’ explanation of grace. This was the heavenly measurement that was demanded by grace. A measurement that was not dependent on an amount, a numerical figure, it was about entry into the field. It was about the need to be in the field.
Much like when Peter wanted to know a number for forgiveness, numbers are our system of measurement. Now, once again, Jesus is teaching a system that does not depend on numbers, it cannot even be calculated through addition or subtraction.
When the Hebrews were liberated from slavery, they were heading to their field – the field they had been promised through Abraham. They had been enslaved subtly over generations until the ever increasing brutality of their existence had become their normal. They did not recognize life outside of Egypt, they didn’t expect freedom to be so difficult, they never imagined that they would think fondly on their lives in slavery, they had not realized that they didn’t really know their God, the God of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.
Outside of Egypt, however, they were getting a crash course in ‘God’. They saw his power as he parted the waters for them to escape Pharoah and his armies. They began to see God, to really know God, not in his power, but in his grace. It was in God’s grace that he became personal – he began to be known.
This is the principle of provision, it is not in God’s power that we know & trust him, it is in his grace.
Oddly, it was because of their complaining that they became acutely aware of God’s presence daily. It was in his response to their complaining about him that he revealed himself to them.
God met them where they had to be met, where they were able to see their need. Only there would they be able to begin to receive. Only then, could they be able to begin their journey of knowing him.
Grace is a singular trait that governs from within. Grace and pride cannot mutually exist. Grace fuels God’s pursuit of us as long as we are pursuable.
‘We are hungry, at least in Egypt we had food. We are tired, at least in Egypt we had rest. We don’t know what to expect, at least in Egypt we knew what was happening. We are afraid the unknown ahead, at least in Egypt we knew what we had to fear.”
Moses was frustrated, Aaron was tired of dealing with their complaining, God, however, showed his grace through his patience and provision. He provided them what they needed while giving them a lesson in who he is. Everyday, their food would be there for them, enough for that day. It would be there again the next day, and on weekends, he would give them enough on Friday for two days, to cover the Sabbath, on that day he would give them rest.
This was God’s way of measuring out his provision. God didn’t have a set template of how to respond to needs, nor did he have a set pattern of how to deal with those who were ungrateful. He didn’t respond with a earthly system of screaming, “I delivered you, I gave you freedom, I welcomed you into the field, I protected you…and still, you are complaining. I am washing my hands of you ingrates!”
Instead, he recognized their cognitive, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual level of development and began there. He did not say ‘quit complaining’, instead he said, ‘I am going to help you know me, everyday when your food is there, remember, I gave it to you. That is what I do, that is who I am. I see your needs and will meet them. Trust me, for you will need to know me in the fields where I am placing you.’
Grace takes a lot of unlearning, and then re-learning, and it takes open eyes to understand. The disciples were not the only ones that need to understand grace. It is only when we understand grace that we can then begin to grasp God’s presence in our lives. Understanding life in God’s field is dependent on understanding the grace character and grace nature of God.
Jonah missed the full immersion into God’s grace and therefore missed God while he was measuring who should not be benefactors of grace. His judgement, born out of hatred of a people, replaced the grace of God in his own life. He missed the joy of being in the field.
God is grace, to not know that grace, to not fully ascribe to that grace, to not seek to live in that grace, to not approve of the moments of that grace, to judge who should be in the field of grace, restricts our own immersion in God’s grace.
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. I can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt.”
Imagine the world if we were to see with the grace vision of God.
God, you took chaos and created order. You took nothingness and created harmony. You took, darkness and made it light. You took love and created life. You took death and made it life. You created and gave it to us.
Lord, we have taken the order and turned it into anarchy. We have taken the harmony and turned it into conflict. We have taken the light and returned to darkness. We have taken the life and dismissed, devalued, and oppressed it. We have taken this creation for granted it and missed you in the middle of it.
We have taken your gift and thrown it to the swine.
Father, we have lied and slander others, just as we have experienced the same from others. We have experienced hurt and we have caused hurt. We have felt the sting of pain, just as we have created pain We have been led astray and we have led others down the same paths. We have known the agony of disappointment and have felt the guilt of disappointing others. We have been humiliated and we have humiliated. We have chosen evil and ignored good. We have turned from right and destroyed trust.
God, we are in need of forgiveness. God, we need to grant forgiveness. God, we know the pain of unforgiveness. God, we know the uncertainty of withheld forgiveness. God we need forgiveness. God we need to grant forgiveness.
God may we experience the freeing power of giving and receiving forgiveness. May we know the joy of letting go of those things that accompany forgiveness. May we recognize the power in the release of hurt, resentment, and vengeance. May we replace those things with love, may we do so in love.
A slave owed his master almost $500,000.00 dollars in todays equivalent. Since the man could not pay at the requested time, the master did not take what he could from the man to settle a portion of the debt, but the master actually forgave the debt. That same slave, the one who was forgiven his almost half a million dollar debt, went to a fellow slave who owed him less that $50.00. When this debtor could not repay, the forgiven debtor refused to offer forgiveness and had him thrown into prison. Now, when the master of these slaves heard about this, he had the first slave thrown into prison until he his original debt was paid, which was an impossibility.
Forgiveness is an ambiguous practice which, as a concept, has a variety of different forms and interpretations. There are many different, and often opposing, definitions and uses of the word Forgiveness. As believers in Christ, it has been exampled and explained to us, it has been given to and, in some traditions, it has been taken away, it is an emotional act, an ‘I’ll deal with it later, or I’ll forget or ignore it’ offering, a long awaited gift, and a difficult and overwhelming barrier.
As a practice, forgiveness is a shot in the dark, seldom do we even understand our own words when we ask for it or give it to another. On some occasions we assume the power to forgive when the option is not ours. It is, often, the most difficult to give to ourselves and to receive from another. We may not feel a need to be forgiven yet we, consciously and subconsciously, we are relieved when it has been granted.
Along with prayer, forgiveness may be one of the two most misdefined, misused, abused, and sincerely abandoned concept and practice in our faith.
One of the most bizarre misuses of ‘forgiveness’ took place during the 2016 presidential elections. The rumors of infidelities that dogged Donald Trump had been quickly dismissed by his supporters until an audio tape presented him boasting of his own sexual prowess. Evangelical supporters were in a quandary to justify their continued support, soon, the celebrity religious leaders, and others, took up the mantra of ‘we have forgiven him.’ This was not a applicable use of the concept of forgiveness. Trump did not need their ‘forgiveness’, he never asked for it, truth be told his offense had not been against them – any action on their part was judgment, not forgiveness. Their dilemma was not a problem forgiveness would solve, however, instead of struggling through their decision of support, they chose to hide behind a failed use of forgiveness. Forgiveness was not theirs’ to give.
Basic Truths about Forgiveness
1. Forgiveness is a concept and it is an action, it is difficult, but it is worth the struggle, and essential to harmony and unity.
2. Forgiveness was not a part of God’s creative process, nor did it need to be, there was no offense, there was no sin.
3. Forgiveness is a noun and a verb, it is not fully either until it is both.
4. Forgiveness was born out of human need and perfected by God.
5. God had no obligation to create anything else. Love propelled him. God returned to the creator’s bench.
6. Love does that.
Let me briefly explain:
After turning from God humans found themself in a struggle – it was a struggle with their own human offenses. They had been removed from the garden to engage in this struggle. This struggle would bring them to a realization of their need for God. This is why everything, and almost everyone, in the book of Genesis, is such a mess – it all takes place at the beginning of this human struggle. As humans attempted to fix their need through might and power, the solution was elusive, they didn’t know where to begin because they were not clear on what they needed – there was no way they could devise a strategy to create it forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a holy creation, holy creations cannot be created by fallen humans. We see early attempts at forgiveness, Esau accepts and embraces Jacob, Joseph forgives his brothers – otherwise humans met conflict and offense with a ‘let’s just move on mentality’ which never lasted, or, more often, they just created more offense. Humans cried out to God, they cried out from Babble, they cried out from Ninevah, they cried out from Sodom, they cried out from the home of Jacob, they cried out from deep pit. There was a need, but the cries of humans were only a shell of their actual need – they needed forgiveness. God still heard their cries – the Father perfected their shell of forgiveness from their need, the son manifested it through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, the Spirit ran with it and made lives whole through forgiveness.
When mankind chose to turn away from God they, then, turned on each other – the human need for forgiveness was presented. Humans found themselves mentally and physically unable to live with themself and with each other when wrongs done to them, and wrongs done by them, were left to fester inside of them. They also found that this same festering messed, muddled, and mangled their relationships and coexistence with God. Life was difficult at best, and impossible in most situations.
Without forgiveness there cannot be love, without love there cannot be forgiveness – without both of these, there will be no respect. Without respect there cannot not be unity, without unity there cannot be community.
When the early believers began to feel the strain of unforgiveness on their communities of faith, Christ addressed the practice of forgiveness. Peter approached Jesus and asked,
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Peter was attempting to quantify forgiveness, ‘How many times…..?’ Whether this was a low number for Peter, or, if Peter felt that this was a fully appropriate number – no number would have been correct.
It is not a question that can be given a number,
it is incalculable.
‘Without forgiveness, there is no future.’
As Jesus was speaking to community, how to have, and how to maintain, true community. The type of community where members work together to sustain and grow.
Community is formed on a common center, a town or city is formed on a geographical commonality, a club or organization is formed on a common interest or belief, a church is a community of those with a common faith.
Jesus was preparing the coming church leaders to lead out with this most essential element of their earthly existence. It would prove to be the most essential building block of the local communities of faith. It was the blueprint for the church.
Peter knew himself, more importantly, he knew people. Seven times may not have been a low number, it may not have been a holy number, it is quite possible that, in Peter’s assertion, it was going to be a truly arduous number.
At Peter’s question, Jesus answered with the parable of the two unforgiven slaves, both of whom, in the end, suffered. One suffered because he did not receive forgiveness, the other suffered, because he would not give forgiveness.
As I said in the beginning, Forgiveness is an ambiguous concept and an even more ambiguous intentional action.
The absence of forgiveness is blatantly apparent in the first fifty chapters, or 1,533 verses of the bible. Most of the actions of forgiveness we see in the book of Genesis are centered on just two men. One is the man Esau, who without petition, forgives his brother Jacob of the horrible transgressions acted out in the destruction of their relationship. The second is the man Joseph, who faced every brutality up to death from his older brothers. It is in the forgiveness given by Joseph, we see visual of how God takes on this essential concept and practice of the human journey.
It is doubtful that you need a reminder of the sins committed by brothers against Joesph. Their countless, often quickly calculated acts, culminated with the selling of their brother Joseph into slavery. We do not see much of the brothers following their betrayal of Joseph, nor do we truly know any of the mental and emotional suffering that this memory possibly created in them. We do, however, see the torment surface when they, along with their people, face true physical crisis that requires they travel to a different nation for their own survival.
‘This is because of what we did to our brother, Joesph,’ they began to whisper to each other. ‘We are being punished for our sin.’
We have read of the life and existence of Joseph up to the point, however. We have not heard of a dwelling on the pain caused by his brothers, rather we see a man who has carried on, in a tradition of doing right, trough very rough, and some surprisingly good times. When these journey of these bothers, once again, intersects with the life of Joseph we begin to see his forgiveness journey.
The fact that there is not a documented struggle with forgiveness by Joesph towards his brothers, in the midst of a story that details all the other significant aspects of his story – brings us to a conclusion that he had not carried unforgiveness, hatred, or even resentment.
In our Tuesday bible project a couple of months ago, Mitch said (I paraphrase), ‘Joseph was so focused on God’s leading, and his own calling by God, that unforgiveness was not even a factor, there was no room for that to be given a thought.’ His decision had been made – withholding forgiveness, and instead, holding onto resentment and hatred, would have only held him back from God’s call.
As Joseph observed his bothers during the tests he set up, Joseph was not deciding forgiveness, that had already been given, he was, instead, determining the potential of their relationship from this point forward. ‘Could they be trusted?’ ‘Would it work for him to bring them to Egypt to live out out the drought?’, ‘How were the others in his family, especially his younger brother Benjamin, had they been treated properly?’
He was determining the ‘what’ of his future with his family, during his time of non-disclosure.
Eventually, his love would not permit him to hold back his expression of forgiveness. He could hold it in no longer, it had to come out, he had to embrace each of these that had treated him so poorly.
When he revealed himself to his brothers and acted by proclaiming his forgiveness to them, this did not happen in that moment. The forgiveness by Joesph of these undeserving bothers preceded this action. He had already released the forgiveness and now he was acting in a way that released it in them. But, the forgiveness was not yet complete.
It is in the final chapter of the story of Joesph that we see a human reality, and full circle of forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers realize, at the death of their father, that Joseph’s forgiveness of them was surely a deceitful display for their father – probably just to reinforce his position of favorite.
In their own humanness, they expressed the thoughts they had been suppressing since Joseph revealed himself, ‘Everything that Joesph had done, all that he had forgiven, was not real, it had been an act, there was no way he could have forgiven……we could’t have done that,’ they were thinking.
They had not fully received the forgiveness of Joseph, not because he had withheld it, but because they were unable to receive it. They were unable to fully accept the forgiveness from Joseph because they were not able to give forgiveness to others, that is the way it works. When we hold on to unforgiveness, when we cannot release our grasp, our hand is closed tight and therefore unable to open up to receive the forgiveness.
Joseph wept because the forgiveness had abruptly halted without his knowledge. He wept because his brothers had been living in the unforgiven state of their relationship. Joseph wept for the unforgiven state his brothers had made their home.
This brings us to a full picture of all the realities of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is our own organic choice to let go or hold on. Holding on takes a lot of work, we have to remember, we have to go through the offense over and over again. In doing this we permit the offense to ferment and grow, negatively impacting every other area of our life. The resentment, hatred, and vengeance that is a biproduct of unforgiveness is a torture and suffering that it, in a very real sense, a self imposed punishment of imprisonment.
Forgiveness frees us to live, unforgiveness reckons us to death in our life. Much like Ishmael reports of Captain Ahab’s unforgiving grudge towards the whale Moby Dick, climaxing with the death of Ahab in the vengeful pursuit, unforgiveness wraps its rope around our neck and takes us down.
Forgiveness is not a naive and dangerous forgetfulness. Joseph, who did not withhold forgiveness from his brothers, also did not set him self up to be thrown, once again, into a pit by his brothers.
Forgiveness is seldom easy to receive. Although the brothers lived ‘in’ the forgiveness of Joseph for several years, at the father’s death it was obvious they had not been able to fully accept it. We can only fully accept forgiveness when we have freely given forgiveness.
Forgiveness, when fully received, is a blessing to the giver. Only then can a relationship be fully restored and recognized.
Forgiveness is only complete when we are able to see through and past the offending actions. Joseph says to his brother, each time he presents them with the forgiveness, ‘You intended evil, but God used [your actions] for good.’
In regard to Forgiveness, what is God saying to you?
God, you have defined love as being patient, kind; not envious, not boastful, and not arrogant or rude. You have said that love does not insist on its own way, that it is not irritable or resentful, that it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but instead it rejoices in the truth. You have beautifully painted a portrait of love as bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.
Lord, it it not our natural tendency to be patient or kind. Often times we are envious, boastful, rude and arrogant. Sadly, we do frequently insist on our own way, and, in all honesty, we can be irritable and rude, not to mention that we occasionally side with lies instead of favoring truth. And, full disclosure, we are not really fluent in hanging in there through all things, expecting the best in all all things, trusting beyond our vision in all things or in persevering through all things.
Father you have said that if we do not have love, we do not have anything. You have assured us that if we have love we have everything, yet, if we do not have love, all that we have it of no value.
Our human nature is to give love out sparingly, giving it only to those, and in those situations, where we are given back more than we give, refusing to give to those we do not agree with, those who follow our expectations, those we understand, those we tolerate, those we approve of, those we cannot see.
Spectacularly, you have promised that Love Never Ends.
Sadly, here on earth, we can allow Hate to have an even more powerful and lasting impact.
We define love in selfish ways. Love is a feeling, love can be withheld as an act of control and abuse, love is without cost or sacrifice, love is free. The truth is, love is given freely, but it fully costs the giver everything. Love requires sacrifice, selflessness, vulnerability, compromise, risk, and honesty.
God, remind us that Love is always a choice. Lord, may our lives be motivated by your call to love. Father, please nudge us in the direction of love in every moment of our lives.
God, may we always hold on to the fact that your Love has already been given freely to each of us.
Dr. Michael J. Chan, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary
If we think of it, the Passover observance truly is designed for times of war, times of adversity, times or oppression, times of hatred and abuse, times of pandemics. It is any time when we need to remember that we are not alone, and that we have not been forgotten. A time when we celebrate a renewed trust and faithfulness by remembering the trust worthiness and faithfulness of God.
Passover, Pesach, the first of the three annual Jewish festivals celebrated yearly. They are celebrations yet holy and solemn moments of remembrance of God and the fact that he has redeemed his people. Passover is not only a remembrance of the faithfulness of God in the Egyptian exodus, but the history of the passover celebration is a building block of faith and community. Meaning, that the celebration itself is as much a part of the remembrance as is the reason for the celebration.
Imagine a football game where the championship title was handed out amongst the exuberant cheers of the crowd before either team had taken the field. Or a spelling bee where a young person is handed the trophy before a single letter had been uttered. An academy award announced prior to a camera being turned on or a stage actor taking a bow before ever entering the theater. And…what if this recognition of award was scheduled to be faithfully remembered annually, before there was ever a ball hiked, a word spelled, a camera loaded, a curtain opened?
As Moses, and his helper Aaron, left the palace of Pharoah, after their tenth time of speaking God’s words to ‘Let my people go,’ and being rejected – God began to give these two men instructions for celebration of the peoples’ release. They were to organize a party to celebrate the deliverance of their first born male children during the tenth plagued, and, at the same time, to prepare the community to be ready to leave on a minutes moment.
They were about to a joyful event before they even understood what they were celebrating because the focus of the celebration had not yet happened.
So, Get this – The actual act of preparing, and then taking part in, the celebration was the first step in their trust of God, the first act of faith in their pursuit of God, and the first grasp of their coming liberation.
See, the Passover event, the deliverance of the first born sons, was the sounding call for the coming act of God – an act of liberation. The passover celebration is a yearly time of remembrance of God’s act of liberation. A reminder that God is the God of liberation for all people, the God of freedom for all of humanity.
‘The Passover meal,’ according to Michael Chan, ‘assures that the people are regularly attentive to the memory of liberation. The time when God began teaching Israel to live, no longer as citizens within a system of domination, but rather recipients of the fierce benevolence of God.’
Passover is a reminder of how the ruler, the Pharoah was fighting against the freedom the liberating God demanded, the ruler was fighting against the lifegiving freedom of God, Moses, however was fighting for all of creation.
It was the time that the people were ready to make the transformation from slaves to freed men and women. It is a time, much like our current times, when God is calling us to a very similar transition.
God called the people to trust that he was the God of deliverance and that they were to be ready for his calling of them out of slavery at any minute. They were to have their eyes open and ears listening to the call to liberation.
He was calling the people to trust him with the what without understanding or comprehend the how. God was calling the people to prepare for a transition from slavery to freedom, a change of mind as well as a change of status, a change of the way they talk to themself, the way they see themself, the way the consider others. God was calling them to an individual transformation and a community transformation.
A Transformation that began with Trust, and landed on a power as a people. A people called to the the hands and feet of God. God was calling them to live out of the Love that was going to deliver them.
They made their bread without yeast to reduce the needed time. They painted their doorposts in an act of trust and freed obedience. They look to God for the transformation on earth.
Let’s take a leap forward, about 1,600 years, past the birth, life and ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, past the conversion of Paul, to the time when Paul is addressing the believers living in Rome. A time when he is carrying on this mission of liberation. Delivering a people, not from a diabolical ruler who keeps the people in a physical slavery, to a time when the slavery and oppression is much more subtle, a much more civilized oppressive time, a time when the message is targeted to a problem within each person, a time when the issue of slavery and the need for deliverance is an internal matter for the community of faith, a time much like our time.
Let’s look at one of the most abused, most misused, more perverted passage in the Bible, a passage used to enslave and oppress since the beginning of time.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
In there early years of our own country, this passage was used by slave owners to keep the black slaves in submission, it was used during the American Revolution to keep the rebellion down, it was used as part of the physical and emotional propaganda forcing native Americans off their ancestoral land to a death march across the United States to the land many of us now call home, It was used recently in June of 2018 when our then US attorney General, Jeff Sessions, supporting the action of separating families at the border, said:
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes, orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”
It was used in In July 1933, during Hitler’s first summer in power, a young German pastor named Joachim Hossenfelder preached a sermon in the towering Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin’s most important church. He used the words of Romans 13 to remind worshippers of the importance of obedience to those in authority. The church was festooned with Nazi banners and … flags, its pews packed with the Nazi Party faithful — including men in the brown shirts of the [Stormtroopers], the Nazis’ paramilitary movement.
Ironically, as Paul wrote to the church at Rome, his message was in direct opposition to these misuses of the passage. If we go back to his previous writings in chapter 12, we see that he is not talking about blind loyalty to oppressive states, but, instead he was speaking to a life lived in opposition that is still founded on God’s law. A love that is not motivated by hate and oppression, a love that let’s us live in a deliverance that then enables us to speak that love through our lives regardless of the oppression or freedom we live in.
Paul is calling the believers, in the midst of a very subtle oppression unseen to the outsiders, calling them to live without uncalled for risk, instead, he is, calling them to live in the same way that the Hebrews were led to live prior to their deliverance, a call to celebrate deliverance even before the deliverance, a call to live always ready, in haste, to receive the message from God to pick up and go, a call to love, care for, see to, a call to trust and look to God, even while we are following the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
It is a calling of an individual walk, a calling of a community looking ahead in unity, a calling of love. And, in this calling, Paul makes the powerful statement, the statement that was as profound, yet controversial, then as it is now.
‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’
Imagine, summing up everything that a religious faith had called for, everything that a faithful person had adhered to, everything that had been used, and abused, by religious institutions and political powers to control and oppress, to sum it up in these three simple words,
‘Love one another.’
It was as outrageous as Moses and Aaron telling the people to celebrate deliverance before it had taken place. Paul was telling the people that very code they had been governed by, the law and it’s man made additional restrictions, could be summed up in a single word, that word being Love.
Love your neighbor, clearly it was not that easy, Jesus has complicated it when he made sure that they understood that the ‘everyone’ applied also to the Samaritans, those we are most ingrained to hate. Now Paul is telling the believers that love is also to those that oppress, to those that speak hate and division, to rulers that abuse, to religious leaders who manipulate. I am sure that the listeners to the words of Paul couldn’t help but think ‘this guy has now taken LOVE pretty much as far as it will it will spread.’
And, now, Paul is reminding them of the furthest stretches of love that had already been given by Jesus, the stretch to ‘love each other.’
The full covering of God’s Love, as well as our order to love, surely spreads to all, there is now not one outside of God compassionate and merciful love.
‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another’
Now, here is the thing, God’s love is so full, and overflowing, that when the believers fail to live is, fail to answer the call, fail to make our own sacrifices – his love is forced to find another path. God chose Moses, who was not an accepted member of the Hebrew community by the Hebrew community to show the Love of God through their deliverance, God chose a man named Paul, who was not a Christian, but, instead was a devout persecutor of Christians, to tell the Romans this message of Love, because it was overflowing and had to find a new path.
God is calling us to Love, to recognize our own deliverance that has taken place, to step out of the bonds that we allow to restrict and control us, to love all people. It is interesting how the phrase ‘Love all others’ is showing up on shirts and signs, in places totally unfaith related, the message of love has failed to be revealed to the world through the followers of Christ, so it is overflowing. It is accompanied by outflows of the Love of God, statements like, ‘Listen to the Oppressed.’ You can walk into a store downtown, a store that does not carry the label of ‘Christian’ yet you will find shirts with statements like these hanging on the racks, you can enter a Christian labeled store and find t-shirts with labels such as ‘I put the stud into Bible Study.’ We have failed to love, and we live in a world that is screaming out, ‘Love Me.” A world where Jesus told us to live and go teaching and showing the world everything that he has taught and shown us.
It is time for the church to celebrate our deliverance through our love.