Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Gift of Forgiveness” (Acts 10:43)
January 8, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every year after the rush of holiday shopping and spending there is another rush as people return gifts they did not want or did not ask for or perhaps already had. This creates even more work for companies like UPS. Last week there was an online article from Money magazine about this:
The amount of people who didn’t like their Christmas gifts appears to have peaked. That’s according to UPS. Thursday January 5 is known as National Returns Day, when UPS returns the most packages back to retailers. And according to the company, holiday shoppers are projected to return 1.3 million packages Thursday, and another 5.8 million during the first full week of this month (http://time.com/money/4623541/national-returns-day-ups-christmas-gifts/?iid=sr-link1).
Regardless of how many gifts you may have returned this year, today I am preaching about a gift from God, a gift God offers all of us, a gift that is best not to return: God’s gift of forgiveness.
On a perfect spring afternoon when I was in college I remember driving my old Fold station wagon with the windows rolled down when a song came on the radio that caught my attention, a song called “The Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley, former drummer and vocalist of The Eagles, in which he sings:
These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?…
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter…
I think it’s about forgiveness, forgiveness
(From his 1989 album The End of the Innocence).
When it comes to the gospel, the heart of the matter is indeed forgiveness, God’s gift of forgiveness. In “Baba O’Riley”, the opening track of the epic 1971 album Who’s Next Roger Daltrey sings, “I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right; I don’t need to be forgiven”—great song, not so great theology. The truth is we all need to be forgiven, and we know it.
To forgive others means to pardon them, to absolve them, to release them from debt, to let them off the hook. Scripture is replete with metaphors of what the gift of God’s forgiveness looks like. In Psalm 103 we read that God has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (103:12). The Old Testament prophet Isaiah assures us that although our sins make us as red as crimson, God’s forgiveness makes us as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18), that God has cast all our sins behind his back (38:17). Another Old Testament prophet, Micah, tells us that God tramples our sins underfoot and casts them into the “depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). And yet another Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, proclaims that God “will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
Perhaps this new year some of you have begun working on New Year’s resolutions. As you know, one of the most popular resolutions is to get into better shape. Along these lines I came across a workout that pokes fun at this. It is a 30-day regimen intended for dads entitled “30 Day Dad Bod Challenge.” Here is what the first week of this challenge requires: Day 1: 10 sit-ups, Day 2: beer, Day 3: cupcakes, Day 4: pizza, Day 5: t-ball practice, Day 6: tacos, Day 7: rest day…and of course on Day 8 you start again. Such a regimen will yield a “dad bod” for sure.
When it comes to sin and guilt there is often a different kind of regimen people devise for themselves: Day 1: beat yourself up about past sins you cannot change, Day 2: promise God you will not sin again, Day 3: wallow in self-loathing, Day 4: blame other people for your sins, Day 5: nurse grudges, Day 6: pick someone new to resent, Day 7: resolve to do better next time…and of course on Day 8, start again. When it comes to sin and guilt there is, of course, no “rest day.”
Each year on the first Sunday after the Epiphany the gospel lesson is an account of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. John the Baptist had been preaching in the wilderness about repentance, and people had been flocking to him in droves to hear him preach and to be baptized.
Jesus, who had nothing of which to repent—Jesus, whom John the Baptist identified as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)—took his place in line with sinners, and when his turn came, waded into the Jordan River to be baptized.
At his baptism Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit. At his baptism Jesus was proclaimed by God the Father as his beloved Son. But at his baptism something else also happened: Jesus completely and totally identified himself with sinners—or as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah foretold, Jesus “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). Why? Because as the Letter to the Hebrews states:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).
So when it comes to our need for forgiveness of our sins, what does it look like to “approach the throne of grace with boldness”?
In the 1996 film Courage under Fire Denzel Washington plays Lieutenant Colonel Serling, who during the confusion of a nighttime battle in the Gulf War accidentally shot an American tank, killing his close friend, Captain Tom Boylar. In spite of the Army’s initial cover-up, the truth eventually came out, and near the end of the film Serling goes to Boylar’s parents to tell them the truth.
As they sit in their family room Boylar’s father says, “I guess we’ve been expecting you.” Serling, nervously fumbling with his hat, clears his throat and responds, “First of all, let me just say that there was nothing that Tom and I would not do for each other, nothing. He was a good soldier, and he was like a brother to me. That night, 25 February, there were enemy tanks in our lines.” As his eyes begin to glisten Serling pauses and then continues, “We thought…I thought…that Tom’s tank was an enemy tank, and I gave the order to fire. God help me, yeah, I killed him.” Tom’s parents look at each other as Serling’s words sink in. Serling goes on, “As for the funeral, the lies the Army told, and the lies that I told, to you, I can only beg for your forgiveness. As far as that night, I guess there’s no way that I could even begin to ask you to forgive me.”
How would you respond? Captain Boylar’s father responded by looking Serling in the eyes and gently saying, “I know that, but it’s a burden you’re going to have to put down sometime.” Serling’s face is filled with relief, “Thank you, Sir.”
Serling boldly went to Captain Boylar’s parents’ home and told them the truth, a truth the parents already knew, and the father’s response to Serling—“I know that, but it’s a burden you’re going to have to put down sometime”—mirrors God’s response to us.
Confession does not mean telling God something God does not already know. Confession means being done with the cover up. Confession means telling God the truth about what you have done and taking responsibility for it. Confession means putting the burden of your sin down and receiving God’s gift of forgiveness.
Scripture tells us it was our sins that resulted in Jesus’ being killed in the dark confusion of Good Friday—or as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In today’s lesson from the Book of Acts the Apostle Peter identifies what Jesus’ baptism foreshadowed: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:39-40, 43). In the same way that Jesus allowed himself to be submerged under the Jordan River and then raised above it again by John the Baptist, Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and was raised again—all to atone for your sin, all to offer you God’s gift of forgiveness.
And it is God’s gift of forgiveness that the church is called to share with one another and with the world, as Pope Francis wrote in his 2016 book The Name of God is mercy:
To follow the way of the Lord, the Church is called on to pour its mercy over all those who recognize themselves as sinners, who assume responsibility for the evil they have committed, and who feel in need of forgiveness. The Church does not exist to condemn people but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy (52).
This “visceral love of God’s mercy” means God has pardoned you, God has absolved you, God has released you from your debt, God has let you off the hook. And the gift of God’s forgiveness is something you are also called to share with the one person you may find hardest to do so…yourself.
In 1997 Mitch Albom published his moving book, Tuesdays with Morrie. As a young man Mitch had attended Brandeis University and had been particularly influenced by a sociology professor named Morrie Schwartz. Many years later Mitch heard that Morrie was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). For fourteen straight weeks Mitch flew from Michigan to Massachusetts every Tuesday morning, spent the afternoon with his dying friend, and then flew back to Michigan that night. On the twelfth Tuesday, just a couple weeks before he died, Morrie spoke to Mitch about forgiveness:
Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others… It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch. We also need to forgive ourselves… for all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am. I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good… Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky (164-167).
Receiving God’s gift of forgiveness means a radically different regimen for sinners: Day 1: confess your sins and receive God’s gift of forgiveness and rest, Day 2: confess your sins and receive God’s gift of forgiveness and rest, Day 3…well, you get the picture. Scripture assures us, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
The gospel is good news because when it comes to the gospel, the heart of the matter is indeed God’s gift of forgiveness, a gift you never need to return.