Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017
“One Tough Step”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Have you had “the talk” with your kids? Do you remember it? Uncomfortable for you; misery for them!! When the questions got too hard you gave the right answer – “Go ask your mom!!”, “Go ask your dad!!”, “Go ask the Internet…Alexa, what about…?”
Today we are going to have the talk. Though the subject is a little different, but it is just as important. Pope Francis is down in Colombia, a strongly Catholic country. 1.3 million folks came to an open- air Mass in Bogota on Thursday. Colombia is a country that has known intense division and unrest and armed rebellion for more than 100 years. During that time 250,000 have been murdered, 60,000 are missing and millions of Colombians have been displaced. On Thursday, Francis insisted that “the country’s elite and ordinary resist the temptation for vengeance, the corrupting darkness of self-interest, and instead build bridges to help the nation heal.” On Friday he was going to meet with victims of the conflict and those who victimized them, seeking reconciliation. Pope, which means “Father” was having “the talk” with his children.
Today “the talk” is a talk about reconciliation and forgiveness. The text is Matthew 18:15 – a word about forgiveness, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens you have won your brother over.” The whole goal is reconciliation. But that is one tough step, isn’t it? For three weeks in a row the readings that have been assigned in Christian churches all over the world have been passages about forgiveness. Last week in Romans 12 part of that list of imperatives was, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Verses 17-19a, 21)
Next week the Gospel reading will be the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Peter asks Jesus a specific question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus then tells the account of the one who was forgiven a debt that the debtor could never pay. He owed the king millions of dollars. But he was broke. The king forgave him – canceled the debt. But the lucky guy forgot what he had just received and needing the twenty bucks that his buddy had borrowed, when asked to forgive that debt, became incensed. He first tried to choke him to death and then decided death was too permanent and so had him thrown into prison. He couldn’t take the tough step and forgive. The king caught up to this guy and said, “You wicked servant, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33)
That is one tough step, though. To go to another person when there is a difference between us is hard. Sometimes we don’t want to forgive. Sometimes we don’t want to deal with the problem anymore. We keep it. We hide it. We use it as ammunition for the right moment of getting even.
Quite a few years ago my wife, Marilyn, and I had a fight. She said something to me that hurt me deeply. I left that conversation angry and hurt. Though the Scripture clearly says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold,” (Ephesians 4:26b-27), I was unwilling to talk about it. I went to bed angry that night and a few others after that. For the first number of days I was quiet. If she asked if anything was wrong, I answered her, “No, nothing.” I was going to punish her with my silence!! Now after a few days I was acting “normal” (whatever that is!!) again.
But we hadn’t spoken about our difference. And I had NOT forgiven her. In fact, I didn’t forgive her for years. I didn’t go around with a frown on my face all that time, but every time I didn’t think things were right, that I wasn’t being treated fairly, I would go back to that moment, I would remember that event. I kept it. I didn’t want to give it up. I didn’t want to talk about it with her – she might ask for forgiveness and then I wouldn’t have that event to make my present anger righteous and holy!!
Am I screwed up or what??!! “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” I knew I had to do it. Holding that grudge, having bitterness, was not good for me and it wasn’t good for us. So now, when we spoke, the words of “I’m sorry, I sinned against you, please forgive me” wasn’t the word of one person to another, it was the word of both of us. Marilyn had sinned against me and she was sorry for that. She apologized deeply. But I was even more guilty!! I had lied when she asked if something was wrong. I had held onto that grudge for years. I had sinned against the one who loves me dearly.
You talk about one tough step!! Our Lord knew how hard this thing of forgiveness would be when He gave us the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12) We ask God to treat us in the very same way that we treat others!! Or these words from Matthew 5: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
Today, the service was to be a much different one than what you are experiencing. Mr. Steve Cohen, a Messianic Jew who is Lutheran, was going to preach and lead Bible Class. He comes from Texas and got caught in Hurricane Harvey and then got ill. Cohen was going to speak about the fall Jewish festivals. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is September 21 and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is September 30.
God is very concerned about forgiveness, not just how we treat others, but how He treats us. He is concerned about our forgiveness. Leviticus 16 is the chapter about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a goat, a scapegoat, who is the substitute for God’s people. Look at these images of substitution and atonement from Leviticus 16, “But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat…He [Aaron] is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all the sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert…on this day, atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” (Leviticus 16:10, 21-22, 30)
When Jesus came to begin His ministry, to restore us to God’s presence, to make us His own, John would say of Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus was this sacrificial lamb, the scapegoat bearing the sins of all. This forgiveness is no easy thing. It is costly and personal. It would mean sins placed on His head and on His body so that we would be healed. I know that we receive forgiveness in quite the easy ways – words spoken, water sprinkled and bread and wine consumed, but look deeper – it was one tough step for Jesus.
But how blessed!! We have peace with God through the work of Jesus. We are a new creation. We are given eternal hope. We have a faith in Jesus who took many tough steps so that we would be saved.
The tough step is forgiveness and reconciliation. I wish everyone trusted in Jesus and treasured and trusted everything He has done. But another research poll that came out this week mentions that fewer and fewer Americans trust Jesus. Fewer and fewer believe. That is one tough reality that hurts the hearts of those who love Jesus.
And not always does the attempt for harmony and peace between us and others materialize. Matthew 18 says, “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along…if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Portions of verses 16-17)
Sometimes reconciliation doesn’t happen. Sometimes repentance is resisted. Though you took a tough step you didn’t see success. So, did it fail? No. Now it didn’t do everything you had desired and hoped – but in you it produced the right heart, a godly desire and pure love.
It began with God, as all things do, and it continued to you. One person, when asked if she had forgotten the sin that another had committed against her said, “Yes, I have. I distinctly remember forgetting that sin.” She took one tough step – the right one.
One tough step is always a good one – God to you and you towards others. Amen!!