Unimaginable Forgiveness

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

You don’t become a pastor because you are good at math. I’ve always known that because I am not good at math, but I had it confirmed for me some time ago when I was helping my dad with a project at his house. My dad is also a pastor. We were working on an archway that he was building for their back yard and some of the pieces just weren’t fitting right. We could not figure out the spacing for some of the boards. We were each trying to do the math but kept getting different answers. We’d try each answer out and neither of them would work. Then, thankfully, my sister came home. She is an engineering student. She’s good at math. We told her the problem we were having and in a matter of minutes the boards were all fitting perfectly. Pastors are not good at math. For this reason I am thankful this week for calculators because our gospel reading today is full of math.

Jesus told a parable in our gospel about a man who owed a debt. This man, a servant, owed his king 10,000 talents, Jesus said. For us that number doesn’t mean much because we don’t deal in talents anymore, but 1 talent was equal to about 6,000 day’s wages for the average servant. It’s a lot of money. By my calculations, if an average person working an average job worked six days a week and did not take any extra holiday time it would take them more than 19 years to come up with 1 talent. It would take 6,000 days of work. This man, however, owes much more than that. He owes his king 10,000 talents. He owes 60 million days wages to the king. According to my faulty math it would take more than 190,000 years for him to make enough to pay that debt. I read a few things this week that tried to put this debt in modern terms. One author I read suggested that in today’s economy this man would owe 16 billion dollars to his master. Wow. The first question we want to ask is how did that happen? How could he owe so much money? Why would the king let him run up a debt like that? We’ll, as we are about to find out this king is a little crazy.

The king decided one day that it was time to settle all of his accounts. He was going to call in all the debts. Not surprisingly, this servant who owed 16 billion dollars did not have the money. So, recognizing that he still isn’t going to get all his money back but wanted to at least get something the king orders that this man, his wife, and his children be sold into slavery and that everything that they owe should also be sold for as much as they can get.

Faced with the reality of being ripped away from his family and having all his possessions taken away, the servant is brought to his knees. He begs for mercy, “Give me more time,” he pleads, “and I will pay back everything!” At this point we’ve got to wonder if this servant really understood the magnitude of the situation. Does he know how much he owes? Is he aware of how bad it is? Does he really think that he can pay it all back? Unless he wins the lottery 10 times over it seems pretty much impossible to pay back the debt. And yet, the servant insists that he can do it. He just needs more time, he says.

The king, the same one who just finished ordering that this man and his family be sold into slavery, hears his servant’s plea for mercy and changes his mind. He has pity on this poor, miserable, foolish servant who owes him more money than we could ever imagine. Rather than selling him and his family into slavery he lets them all go. And, most amazingly of all, he forgives the whole debt. In an instant the 16 billion dollar debt that this servant owed to his master is gone.

Imagine what that must have felt like. Imagine having such a massive debt suddenly lifted from your shoulders. Imagine being moments from having your family split apart and all your earthy possessions sold for pennies on the dollar and then finding out that all is forgiven, the debt is gone. It’s unimaginable really.

As unimaginable as it might seem, this story is our reality. That servant’s debt is our debt. We don’t owe 16 billion dollars to anyone and likely (hopefully!) never will, but our debt of sin is of an even greater magnitude. Our sin debt is unimaginable. It is unpayable. It is beyond our understanding. We are 16 billion dollar sinners. Actually, 16 billion dollars would not even be a drop in a bucket against our debt of sin. Our debt is so massive, so overwhelming, that we could never even begin pay it.

That might sound a little over the top. We don’t think of our situation being that bad. Sure we’re sinners, but we aren’t that bad, are we? Part of what Jesus is showing us here in this parable is that we are that bad. Our situation is that bad. We are in debt way over our head.

The mistake we make when thinking about sin is that we think that sin is only the bad things that we do. We look around at our lives we don’t see that many bad things and we start thinking that our problem isn’t that bad. The thing is, though, that sin is not just that bad things that we do from time to time. Sin is a corruption of the very core of our human nature. A corruption we are born with. If it were possible for us to never think an evil though, if we never said an evil word, if we never did anything evil to anyone, if we just sat in a dark room not thinking, saying, or doing much of anything we would still be 16 billion dollar in the hole sinners. We are born with that debt and we only add to it with our sinful, evil thoughts, words, and deeds. Left on our own to pay that debt we would be lost, sold into slavery to sin, unable to pay eternally.

We have not, however, been left on our own to pay. God our Father, seeing that there was no way that we could pay our debt (despite our claims to the contrary) and having infinite mercy and pity for poor, miserable servants like us, forgave our debt in full. He sent His Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to pay that debt in our place. On the cross He paid the full debt, every penny of it, for you, for me, and for every other person who ever has or ever will walk on this earth. Our overwhelming, 16 billion dollar debt, was paid in His blood and we owe nothing, not a cent. Your debt is paid, your sin is gone, all by the blood of Jesus.

The story, of course, does not end there. The servant in the parable, having been forgiven his unimaginable debt, himself goes and does something unimaginable. Walking out of the king’s palace having just been forgiven his debt he came across one of his fellow servants who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed that servant by the throat and demanded that he pay his debt immediately. When his fellow servant begged for mercy the servant who had been forgiven a 16 billion dollar debt refused to forgive.

This brings us to the crux of the story. Like that servant we have been forgiven a massive debt. We have been forgiven a debt that we can’t really begin to comprehend or understand. And yet, despite that forgiveness that has been poured out on us we are often unwilling to forgive those who sin against us. We hold grudges, we cling to old hurts, and we refuse to let others get off the hook without paying the price. As much as we know that we ought to forgive others for what they have done our hearts remain unwilling. We know it’s not right, so what should we do?

If we look inside ourselves to try and find the strength to forgive it will never work. Peter, at the beginning of our gospel reading, asked if forgiving his brother 7 times was enough. To Peter and to us 7 times seems like plenty. But Jesus says not 7 times, but 70 times 7. An infinite number of times. Where does the strength come from to do that?

This is where we need to remember that forgiveness is not our strength, but it is what Jesus does best. He came to this world, was born as a child in Bethlehem, and died on a cross for the purpose of bringing forgiveness to our broken, sinful lives.

It is Jesus and His forgiveness for us that will change our hearts to forgive. His forgiveness as it comes to us in our baptism, in God’s Word, in the words of Absolution spoken by the pastor, and in His body and blood in Holy Communion transforms our hearts to forgive. As that magnificent, overwhelming, incomprehensible forgiveness, forgiveness that would cover 16 billion dollars of sin debt, comes to us again and again it changes us. It changes us so that we can forgive. Are there people in your life that you have trouble forgiving? Are there things that people have done to you that you could never even imagine forgiving?  Come to Jesus in His Word and Sacraments, receive His unimaginable, incomprehensible forgiveness for you again and again and therein you will find the strength to forgive.

In Jesus your debt of sin is forgiven, now and always, and by His grace working in your heart you will forgive your brother who sins against you. Amen.

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My Brother’s Keeper?

Text: Matthew 18:1-20

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

A number of years ago my wife Leah read a book called “My Sister’s Keeper.” It was a relatively popular book and has since been made into a movie so maybe you have heard of it. This kind of book is not really the kind of book that I am inclined to read, so I can’t say that I bothered to read the book for myself. Instead, as Leah read through the book, I gleaned the important details from her. Here is the basic idea of the story:

The story is about two sisters. The older sister is diagnosed with leukemia as a child. Aware the need for bone marrow transplants and other aspects of their daughter’s treatment, the parents of the girl decide to have second child, another daughter, who will be genetically compatible with the older sister and thus provide the various transplants and donations needed to save her older sister. However, when this younger sister becomes a teenager and is more aware of her own life and individuality she begins to push back against the idea that she should be required to provide whatever organs or tissue her older sister needs. I won’t spoil the ending for you or anything, but the basis of the whole book is whether or not the younger sister ought to be her old sister’s “keeper.” Should she be required to provide everything for her sister? Is she responsible for her older sister’s life?

The ethics and morals of something like that are too complex and too hypothetical for us to discuss at much length here and now, but my reason for bringing this story up is that the title of the book and the main idea behind the whole story is an allusion to a Biblical story. The title “My Sister’s Keeper” points us back to our Old Testaments to the book or Genesis and to chapter 4 of that book, to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel were brothers. The first two brothers to ever walk on this earth. The first two children of Adam and Eve. Cain, however, murders his younger brother Abel in a fit of jealousy, frustration, and rage. After Cain kills his brother God comes looking for Abel. God comes to Cain and says, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain, trying in vain to hide his guilt, says, “How would I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The implied answer to Cain’s question is no, he does not believe he is his brother’s keeper. Aside from the fact that Cain is trying to hide the guilt of what he has done and wants to deflect God’s judgment away from himself, we see here that in his own eyes Cain does not feel that he is responsible for the life of his brother Abel. Cain refuses to be his brother’s keeper, to be responsible for the well-being of his brother, to care and provide for him. For that reason, Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has been bouncing around in my head all week as I contemplated our gospel reading today.

Jesus talks in our gospel reading about our “brother” and His words make it clear that we are, to a certain degree, our brother’s keeper. Contrary to what Cain might think and what we might think sometimes, we are responsible for our brother. Unlike the situation with Cain and Abel, however, Jesus is not talking about our biological brothers and sisters. Instead He is talking about our spiritual brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus says, “If your brother (or sister) sins against you go and tell him his fault…”

What does that have to do with being our brother or sister’s keeper? Jesus’ point is that when someone sins against us we should seek them out in order to restore them through the forgiveness of sins. As brothers and sisters in faith we are responsible to one another. We have a responsibility to encourage one another in faith and especially to correct one another when we go astray. In this way we are our brother’s keeper.

When someone sins against us there are three ways that we typically react. The first way we respond to conflict is to sit back and do nothing. When someone sins against us we are often inclined to think that since they harmed us, since they are the one who sinned against us, that we are not responsible for going to them. They need to come to us and apologize we think. So, rather than going and telling our brother his fault we sit back and wait for him or her to come to us. We could call this the “silent treatment” response.

Another way we respond to conflict when someone sins against us is to go to other people and tell them all about it. Rather than going to the person who has harmed us and restoring them through the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation we often just drag more and more people into the conflict. We could call this the “gossip” response.

Finally, we also respond to conflict sometimes by confronting the person who has wronged us. However, rather than seeking to restore and forgive that person we just want to make them know how much they have hurt us. We confront them in anger and frustration and seek our revenge through angry words and actions. We could call this the “look what you did to me” response.

These are not the kinds of responses that Jesus teaches us in our gospel reading today. Instead, when our brother or sister sins against us Jesus teaches us here to go to them directly. We are not to sit back and wait for them to come to us and we are not to go to other people instead. “If your brother sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” We are not to drag others into the conflict, we are not to gossip with others about what has been done to us. Only if we have confronted our brother and they have refused to listen to us are we authorized by Jesus to include any others in the conversation and even then the purpose is never for gossip. When we go to confront our brother or sister our intention should never be to bring them down, punish them, or hurt them in any way. Instead our intention should be to bring glory to God in every situation. Our intention in confronting our brother or sister in Christ is to bring glory to God by restore them, by forgive them just as God has forgiven each of us in Christ. This means putting aside the anger and frustration that builds up inside of us and seeking what is best for our brother or sister. As brothers and sisters in Christ this is what it means to be our brother’s keeper. Out of Christian love for one another we are to seek out our brother or sister with the love and forgiveness of Christ.

That love, love that seeks out, is the kind of love Jesus speaks about in the part of our gospel reading where He tells the parable of a shepherd who loses 1 of his 100 sheep. That shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind for the sake of 1. The Father loves each of His little ones so much that He would seek them like that. That is, in one sense, an example for us. We are too seek our brother like that too. But, in a much more significant way, it is a reminder for us that we have a Saviour who has sought us out like that: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We fail every day at being our brother’s keeper. Our love for our brothers and sisters is often overcome by our love for our self. We are more intent on keeping and preserving ourselves our own interest than we are on keeping and preserving our brothers and sisters in the faith that we share. But Jesus, our Saviour, is our perfect brother and keeper. He, taking on our human flesh, became in every way imaginable our brother; like us in every way. But, unlike us, the singular purpose of His life was not to build up himself or to keep Himself, but to seek out the lost ones like us and restore you as children of God to the family of God. And by His death on the cross He has done precisely that. He has sought you out, a lost sheep wandering far from the fold of God, and brought you home.

Even now, as we are gathered here together as brothers and sisters in His name He is here among us forgiving us, renewing us, and strengthening us so that we can be our brother’s keeper. So that we can love one another with such a love that we would seek out those who have sinned against us so that, rejoining in what Christ has done for us, we can forgive them. In His body and blood given and shed for us that we come to the altar to eat and drink today He gives us this forgiveness, a perfect, total, complete forgiveness for all our sins, and fills our hearts with His love, a love that seeks and reaches out with that same forgiveness that was first poured out on us when we were baptized.

You are your brother’s keeper. You have a responsibility to your brothers and sisters in Christ. A responsibility to love them with the kind of love that you would normally reserve for yourself. A responsibility to seek them out and forgive them. It is a steep responsibility but it is also a wonderful responsibility. It’s a wonderful responsibility because it is not your work or your job, it is the work of your Lord Jesus. He is your bother and He is Your keeper. He will keep you in life, He will keep you in death, He will keep you into life everlasting. Psalm 121 says, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” The Lord Jesus will keep you. He has forgiven you and made you His own. He paid for you with His life and will keep you for life everlasting. In Jesus name. Amen.

 

Suffering with Christ

Text: Jeremiah 15:15-21

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jeremiah had a pretty rough life. He was a prophet sent by God to the people of Israel. A lot of the prophets sent to Israel by God had a rough life, but Jeremiah might have had the roughest time of all of them. Like most of the prophets in the Old Testament, Jeremiah was sent by God to tell the people that they were sinning, they were not keeping God’s commandments. That kind of message is one that people very rarely like to hear. The people did not like Jeremiah or his message and they did not hesitate to let him know. Here’s just a brief list of some of the things that the people did to Jeremiah because they did not like his message:

  • They refused to listen to Jeremiah and found replacement prophets who preached “better” messages.
  • Some leaders made plans to silence Jeremiah by saying terrible things about him. They thought slandering him might shut him up.
  • Jeremiah’s own family would not talk to him and he was not welcome in anyone’s home for a meal.
  • He was beaten and locked up in the stocks by a priest who was in charge of the temple.
  • He was repeatedly thrown in jail. One day some men tossed him into a cistern and left him to die without food.
  • Some of the leaders made plans to kill Jeremiah and tradition has it that he was eventually stoned to death.

Those are just the “highlights.” A person could find more if they wanted to. Needless to say, Jeremiah suffered a lot.

All that suffering took a toll on Jeremiah and sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the suffering was so overwhelming that he cried out to God in anger and frustration. Our Old Testament reading today is one of those times.

Jeremiah starts out by saying, “O Lord, you know everything that has happened to me. You understand how awful this has been. Do something about it, please! Take vengeance on these people who are doing all of these terrible things to me!” He calls out to God for help knowing and trusting that it is the Lord who can deliver him. So far, so good.

Then Jeremiah says, “Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became a joy to me.” He is saying here that he read God’s word (ate it, took it in) and loved it. God’s word was a joy to Jeremiah. Not only did he love it for himself, he loved sharing it with other too. Not only that, but Jeremiah also “did not sit in the company of revelers.” He didn’t hang out with people who did evil and rejected God’s commands. He did his best to do what is right and avoid evil. Jeremiah says to God here, “I’ve tried my best. I’ve studied the Bible and I’ve lived a good life.”

Finally, Jeremiah concludes, “Why then is my pain unceasing? Why is my wound incurable? Why can’t I be healed? Why won’t my suffering end? Why are you doing this to me? You make great promises, God, but right now those promises are like a brook or stream that dries up right when you really need a drink?” Jeremiah is angry. He’s frustrated. Everything that has happened to him seems so unfair and God seems so far away in all of it. “Why is God letting this happen to me?” Jeremiah wonders, “I’m a good person.” That is a feeling that we can all relate to at some point in our lives, I think.

Anyone who has ever suffered in anyway (body, mind, or soul) knows this feeling. Question like, “Why is this happening to me?” are right there on the tip of our tongues when things are not going well. We might not ask that question out loud, but it goes through our head. And, like Jeremiah, we who are Christians and have faith that God is good and caring can start to wonder why God is letting this kind of thing happen to us. We might even, like Jeremiah, get angry and frustrated with God over what is happening to us.

In his anger and frustration though Jeremiah forgot something. It is something that we often forget or misunderstand too. Jeremiah forgot (and we forget) that the Lord our God works through suffering to bring salvation.

The purpose of our gospel reading today is to remind us of this truth and to assure us that in our suffering the Lord our God is present and working. Our expectation of God is that He would take our suffering away and make our lives better right now, but Jesus shows us here that our perspective is skewed. Instead, through suffering our God is bringing us salvation.

Right after Peter confessed in our reading last week that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus began to teach His disciples that it was necessary for Him to go to Jerusalem, suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed. Essentially, Jesus began teaching His disciples about how much He would need to suffer for their salvation and ours. God the Father did not send a Saviour who would never run into any trouble or suffer. Instead, He sent His own Son to endure the suffering of this world and the suffering of death on the cross. Through the suffering of His Son He would save people through the forgiveness of sins. Salvation would come through suffering.

“If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up His cross and follow me.” Jesus’ words here are not that complicated. He is saying that if we are to follow Him as His disciples then we are going to need to be prepared to suffer. Our salvation was won on the cross and the suffering necessary for us to inherit eternal life is finished by Jesus, but as we live out our lives in this world as followers of Jesus suffering is part of our lives. And even in that suffering, our own regular everyday suffering, Jesus is working.

Through suffering and the hardships that we face in life our independence and self sufficiency are torn away and we are forced to rely on the Lord our God who sent His Son into our flesh to suffer in our place for our salvation. Suffering kicks the last leg we have to stand on out from underneath us sometimes so that we fall back into the arms of our Saviour who bled and died for us. Suffering, as much as we want to avoid it at all costs, blessedly draws us closer to Jesus our Saviour. The Lord brought about our salvation through the suffering of His Son and now, through the suffering that we endure in this life, He continues to draw us to Himself. He tears down our sense of independence and self-sufficiency and teaches us to rely on Him.

That is why many times in the New Testament the apostles can say that for Christians suffering is a joy. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says, “we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint.” Our hope does not disappoint because it is founded on Jesus our Saviour who suffered in our place and rose from the dead! James, in his letter says, “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials.” Suffering can be joy, James says, because it joins us closer to our Saviour. Finally, Peter says in his first letter, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Having been joined with Christ in His suffering we will surely be joined with Him in His glory. The glory of eternal life.

God heard Jeremiah’s complaint in our Old Testament reading today. The first half of the reading was Jeremiah speaking to God, but the second half is God responding to Jeremiah. God does not ignore His suffering prophet and He does not ignore us either. But God does not respond to Jeremiah by taking His suffering away. Instead, God makes three promises to Jeremiah. First God promises to forgive Jeremiah. God says, “Return to me and I will restore you.” In his anger and frustration Jeremiah had lashed out at God. Jeremiah doubted and even questioned God’s goodness, but for the sake of Jesus and His suffering and death God is quick to forgive even those who speak out against Him like this. For us this is good news. It means that God also offers to freely forgive us for Jesus sake in the times when our pain and suffering leads us to questions God’s goodness or love for us.

God’s second promise to Jeremiah is that He will make Jeremiah to be a “fortified wall of bronze” to withstand those enemies that are persecuting him and causing him to suffer. God doesn’t promise to take all the suffering away, but He does promise to give Jeremiah the strength to endure the suffering and trials set before him. God promises you this strength too. He may not take your suffering away, but He promises you the strength to endure the crosses set before you in this life. In His Word and in Holy Communion He strengthens you to endure life in this world even in the midst of suffering for the sake of Jesus His Son.

Finally God promise to save Jeremiah. He says “I will deliver you.” There will come a day when the suffering will be over. The day when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. On that day the Lord your God will deliver you from all evil, He will deliver your life up from death, and He will deliver you into life everlasting. On that day there will be no more suffering, no more crosses, no more death. On that day there will be only life, resurrection new life, in the unending Easter of the Kingdom of God.

These promises are what Jesus places in your hand when He calls you to take up your cross and follow Him. The way of suffering is not easy, but He assures us that even in suffering He is with us always and He is working in us to bring salvation. Cling to Christ and His promises in good times and in bad for they lead to salvation. In Jesus name. Amen.