Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I Don't Want to Forgive (Matthew 18:21-35)

Grace Anglican Church
Date: I forget
Matthew 18:21-35

(I preached the following sermon a few years ago at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, PA.  I'm a little embarrassed by it.  It's overly personal and I was trying too hard (and I hadn't taken homiletics--an art of preaching class--yet!).  Despite these shortcomings--and others--I still like it.  Hope you do too...)

Holy Spirit… Your words make sense, but they are hard words.  Birth in us the desire to forgive those who have hurt us the most.  In Jesus’ name, Amen

In my junior of college I was functionally engaged to a girl who I thought was “The ONE.”  How we got together was pretty epic.  I asked her out, she said maybe.  I pursued, she said no.  I gave up, her feelings changed, and we got together.  From there the relationship was much like an emotional free fall.  I was on top of the world, she was too, and I dropped the L-bomb for the first time in my life.  We were on a collision course for marriage by the end of the school year. 
The summer months consisted of daily telephone conversations that wreaked havoc on my cell phone bill, and bi-weekly treks from the Jersey Shore to downtown Pittsburgh.  I was smitten, she was too, and the relationship only intensified.        

Two weeks before the school year began; I had gone to visit her at her apartment.   I remember searching the internet looking for teaching jobs, when she drastically limited my options.  She said, “I’m applying to grad schools here, here, and here… you can only work in these areas.

She had given me what I wanted, a not so subtle indication that by the time we graduated we’d be married.  And so I decided not to waste time applying to jobs in other locations.

By this time I had “called off the search.”  This girl was it. 

But now we’ve gotta fast-forward to the not so cool part of the story—to the day before my senior year of college began.  I called her up and we chatted just like we always did.  As the conversation drew to a close I distinctively remember her saying, “When you get to school, we need to talk about something.”  I didn’t like the sound of that, so I said, “Why don’t you tell me now?”  But she insisted that we wait till tomorrow. 

By this point, I was getting kinda angry.  My headstrong tendencies surfaced and I said, “No, you’re gonna tell me now.”

And then she laid the bomb on me.  We were through and I didn’t know why.  I was wreck. 

A week after the initial breakup she told me that she missed me so much, and she wanted to get back together but that she needed time and space.  So I gave it to her, until those weeks turned into months. 

When I knew for a fact that it was 100% over I remember pulling her aside, and giving her a piece of my mind.  I made sure that she knew just how much she had hurt me; dropping a few f-bombs along the way.    

I hated her, and I wanted nothing to do with forgiving her. 

In fact, I remember singing along with the poet, Bruce Springsteen, “You’ll be fine long as your pretty face holds out, but then it’s gonna get pretty cold out.  An empty stream of stars shooting by You got your hopes on high you’ll be coming down now baby, you’ll be coming down, what goes around it comes around you’ll be coming down.”  I was bitter.  I was angry with her, angry with God and I had no intentions of doing any forgiving.      

So with that said let’s turn to Matthew 18 and take a look at another person who had no intentions of doing any forgiving.  (There’s a method to all this narcissism, I promise you.)

So Matthew 18:

The story is rather simple.  In verses 23-24 we see a king examining his finances and notices missing funds.  The king summons his chief steward to account for the deficit.  The steward is responsible for the debt, but cannot repay it.  As a result, he and his family shall be sold.

As we read the text, we sense that 10,000 talents is kind of a big deal, and the scholars confirm us in our suspicions.  They say that 10,000 talents equal 200,000 years’ wages.  That’s akin to a humble servant owing billions (not millions) billions of dollars today.  It’s meant to give the impression of an infinite debt.   

And so this servant is obviously in a powerless position.  But instead of begging for mercy, he decides to beg for more time to pay it off promising to gather funds to pay the insurmountable debt. 

Now it’s important to note that there is no sign of repentance here, yet the text says the king felt pity on him, and instead of selling him and his wife and children, he has mercy and forgives the infinite debt.

For anyone reared in a Protestant tradition, this beginning of this story should sound awfully familiar.  For in this parable we find a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do for miserable sinners like you and me.  For just as the king forgave the infinite debt of the unrepentant servant; Jesus forgave our own debts while we were sinners, rebels, God-haters.  This servant had an insurmountable debt owed to his king, and before he was even sorry for what he had done, the king took the servant’s debt upon himself.  The king is a figure of Christ. 

In this parable we have a picture of radical, unmerited grace to a person who does not have his act together.  We see “one-way” love.

God’s love is relentless.  His grace is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Christian life.  The Reformers were dead on, we are saved by Grace, through Faith, in Christ Alone, and this has nothing to do with what we bring to the table at any point in our lives… This love is too-good-to-be-true and yet is. 

But this love does not leave us in our bondage.  We are not left as slaves to that which kills us.  We are made more “human,” more like Jesus, day by day. 

This is all to say—as Ethan Magness said a few weeks ago—there is a “necessary response” of faith that is birthed from an internalization of the Gospel.

The servant in the story was not repentant.  He was not overwhelmed by the radical grace of his king.  We, the readers, are supposed to see that he did not internalize the Gospel, he did not have faith.

And so the story progresses with the servant going out from the king’s chamber and seeing a friend who owes him 100 denarii.  It is important to note that contrary to the Sunday school version of the story, this is not a mere 10 dollars.  A denarius is 1 day’s wages, so this fellow slave owed him a 100 days’ worth of wages—which is about 4 months’ pay.  Now I’m convinced that you and I would probably be quite concerned if someone owed us 4 months’ wages.  So let’s not pretend that we wouldn’t be tempted to act just like our ungrateful friend. 

At this point in the parable, verse 29, the text reads that the second servant “fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’”  This plea should sound familiar; for if you look back at verse 26, these are almost the same words the steward used before the king when asking for mercy.  We hear the similarity but evidently the steward does not (or he just doesn’t care.)  And so he tosses his fellow servant into debtor’s prison “until he could pay the debt.”  

Unfortunately, for our friend, other servants witness this event and are appalled by it.  So they report it to the king, who calls his steward to account for a second time.  In the middle of verse 32, the king says “You wicked servant,” I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.

The parable is pretty self-explanatory, but in case we had any doubts about its meaning, Jesus gives us a key to its interpretation in the last verse of the chapter: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."

Talk about conviction of sin.  That is a heavy final line.

What Jesus is saying here to the Apostles is that there is no room in the Christian faith for un-forgiveness.

This is why I find the parable to be difficult.

For isn’t it natural to want revenge—to hate those who’ve hurt us deeply.
Forgiveness, that’s what’s unnatural. 

This parable is saying that we shouldn’t find ourselves saying “I could never forgive him” or “I could never forgive her,” because it’s antithetical to the Gospel.  It is un-Christian. 

How can a God of mercy make such a command? 

The answer is two-fold:

One, He can make this command because he has forgiven those who’ve hurt him deeply.  He has forgiven me and you while we were yet sinners, rebels, God-haters.  We were his enemies because of our sin, and he loved us anyway.

He can also make this demand because for those who have been given—as the Rev. Dr. T. David Gordon said a few weeks ago— “eyes to see, and ears to hear,” we will forgive those who’ve hurt us.  Maybe not an instant after the occurrence, maybe not a month later, maybe not even a year later, but eventually we will be drawn to forgive no matter how much we don’t want to now.
You and I should see aspects of ourselves in the antagonist of the story, but hear me when I tell you; that you are not the unforgiving servant.  When we take a good look at his character we are reminded of ourselves, but because we have “eyes to see and ears to hear,” he is not a mirror-image of ourselves.  In fact, we have been declared by God not to be him.

While you and I may at times find it difficult to forgive, we know we’re that supposed to.  At the same time, we also know that we can’t just force ourselves to forgive someone.  That’s not how the Christian life works.  We need the Holy Spirit to change our hearts not only at conversion, but throughout our lives.  Sometimes He works quickly, other times He seems to take forever. 

But if you are struggling to forgive someone tonight, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its most of you, I have 3 things to say to you.  

ONE: pray for the desire to forgive (and if you’re not even there, acknowledge it, and wrestle it out with Him; He can take it).  You know you can’t just force it, so stop trying, pray for a heart transplant. 

TWO: you desperately need to hear the unfiltered Gospel preached week-in and week-out with “if”, “and’s”, or “but’s” added at the end.  We need this type of preaching because most of the time we don’t really believe that God loves us.  At least I know I don’t.  When the Holy Spirit gives us “eyes to see and ears to hear” the unbreakable, “one way love” of God for sinners like you and me, forgiveness actually does become a bit more natural. 

THIRD: Find a friend you can trust to talk to and pray with, who will not only share your pain, but who will also help you stop dwelling on your pain.  For me, God used a crazy kid from California—who just happens to be here tonight—in the healing process.    

And this leads us back to my narcissistic splurge that began the sermon.

As I said before, after the breakup I hated my X-girlfriend for a couple months.  But during that time I started attending this church and I heard the unfiltered Gospel I was just talking about.  And I’ll admit it was like therapy for the soul.  The Holy Spirit used Ethan’s sermons to mend the broken places.
And then one Sunday I remember Ethan preached a sermon on reconciliation, and even though I wasn’t thrilled about it, I knew it was time to forgive this girl, not only in my heart, but also I needed to tell it to her face.  And after we reconciled, I felt a freedom that had evaded me for some time.  I was given the grace to let go of that which was killing me.
I’m sure there are similar stories out there.  Maybe you’ve had an abusive father, or you’ve been betrayed by a best friend.  Maybe you’re boyfriend broke your heart, or your spouse left you for someone else.  We’ve all been scarred, we’re all broken.  But thanks be to God, that while this world often fails us, His love never will.

If during this sermon anyone in particular came to mind that you’re at odds with, I invite you to find freedom in seeking reconciliation this week. 

And if that person is in this room, I invite you to use the time for the passing of the peace to make your peace. 

Thank you gracious Lord for loving us while we were God-haters, please give us the grace to love those who’ve burned us.  We love you…

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