Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
After C.S. Lewis’s death, his friends found a collection of letters to a fictitious friend named Malcolm. In these letters, Lewis wrestled with the question of prayer - he focused on the questions of why do we pray and what do we accomplish when we pray. In one letter he wrote the following words that are relevant to us today:
I really must digress to tell you a bit of good news. Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered - or felt as if I did - that I had forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might. When the thing actually happened - sudden as the longed-for cessation of one’s neighbor's radio- my feeling was “but it’s so easy. Why didn’t you do it ages ago?” So many things are done easily the moment you can do them at all. But till then, sheerly impossible, like learning to swim. There are months during which no efforts will keep you up; then comes the day and hour and minute after which, and ever after, it becomes almost impossible to sink. It also seemed to me that forgiving (that man’s cruelty) and being forgiven (my resentment) were the very same thing. “Forgive and you shall be forgiven” sounds like a bargain. But perhaps it is something much more. By heavenly standards, that is, for pure intelligence, it is perhaps a tautology - forgiving and being forgiven are two names for the same thing. The important thing is that a discord has been resolved, and it is certainly the great Resolver who has one it. Finally, and perhaps best of all, I believed anew what is taught us in the parable of the Unjust Judge. No evil habit is so ingrained nor so long prayed against (as it seemed) in vain, that it cannot, even in dry old age, be whisked away.
When I first read these words, it was a winter night in a rectory of a church in the mountains of North Carolina. I had just taken a leap of faith, I had walked away from a well paying job, I was serving at a church that couldn’t pay me, in a new diocese, in the previous few months I had wild things said about my by people I had once trusted.
It was a weird season of deep heartache, fear, and faith.
Amidst all this Lewis’s words hit me hard - so much had happened to bring me to North Carolina. I needed to forgive some serious wounds others had caused, in order that I could be freed of the bitterness I felt almost daily and experience all the more fully the incredible grace God had poured out on me.
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
This morning Peter asks Jesus - How often shall I let go of the pain.
How often - shall I release my brother from the unkindness he has shown me?
Perhaps, if you’ve had a friend, a family member, who you feel lets you down a lot - you feel Peter’s question and you think - “sheesh, seven times feels like a lot of times! That seems reasonable.”
Perhaps - you are tired of forgiving someone, perhaps you are worn out from the pain that they have caused.
We often want to look for excuses not to be compassionate, not to be forgiving towards others. And to be honest, there is a lot of pain in the world. People can be very disappointing.
If we want to - it is not hard to find reasons not to forgive.
But one thing we must remember is the call where here in the Psalms and elsewhere. It is not that we would learn to trust others perfectly but that we would learn to trust God perfectly.
God, the king who lets go of sin, the king who lets go of our debt, the king who brings us back to life has called us to trust Him perfectly.
How would our lives be transformed, if we recognized that God is the only one who is worthy of our perfect trust? How would our interactions with our spouses, our families, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ be transformed, if we first trusted God perfectly?
If we truly believed that God is our good shepherd - that yes - these people may disappoint us, may hurt us - but still God will be with us there.
Still God will shepherd us.
Still God will comfort us.
Still God will redeem, even the evil that we may experience.
How would our lives look, how would our interactions with people be if we looked to the Lord and leaned on him, even in our darkest night? Instead of looking to justify ourselves.
For Jesus’ response to Peter is jarring.
So often seven times feels like enough, seven times feels sufficient, but Christ responds “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
This is an interesting verse and translators debate - should it be seventy-seven times, or seven times seven. Even different editions of the ESV, which we use as our pew Bibles disagree. But Jesus does not mean for us to keep a tally. He does not mean for us to say, “well, today I forgave Jonny once, so he can sin against me 76 more times, and then he’s donezo.”
No - whether Jesus meant 77 times or 490 times he is being hyperbolic - he is saying:
Forgiving your Christian brother.
Forgiving your Christian sister.
We are not called to keep a tally of our hurts, we are not called to keep the pain inside us where it eats away at us.
No, my friends - we are called to to first take it to the Lord, to cry out, “this hurts, this is too much, please help my dear heart.”
We are called to do this because
The Kingdom of Heaven - a place of profound forgiveness
But - what Christ has called us to is not simply to be a doormat - is not simply to let by-gones be by-gones and pretending everything is a-okay.
In the church we learn to be in community with people who are as imperfect as we are. We learn to speak up about hurts, we learn to listen to people when they tell us that we’ve hurt them, we learn to repent, and we learn to forgive and in all this we learn to draw nearer to Christ.
Peter’s question does not come out of the blue, but comes in response to Jesus’ previous statement:
English Standard Version, Matthew 18:15-18 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
We are not called to simply forgive, but to be willing to speak of when harm is done. We are not called simply to be doormats, to be trampled upon, but we are called into healthy relationships with one another - ones of love and respect.
Have you ever found yourself in over your head?
Maybe you suddenly found that you have more work than you can ever possibly handle, and you knew that you’d need to talk to your boss about it?
Perhaps, you weren’t monitoring your spending as much as you should have, and you have no idea how you’ll ever dig yourself out of that debt?
I suspect we’ve all felt some sense of being overwhelmed - perhaps it was a sense that we could never get out of debt - perhaps that we’d never get caught back up - perhaps that what we are experiencing in the world is far more than we can handle.
For this is what the kingdom of heaven is like
it may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
As this king brings each servant in, he tells them, “you owe me this much,” and his expectations to receive payment in full.
and servant felt must have felt overwhelmed - he owed him ten thousand talents
- my friends perhaps as we read this - we don’t see how much this was, we know it must be a lot, 10,000 is a big number. But one talent - and to be clear - I am saying a single talent was worth about 20 years wages for the average person in Jesus’ time.
So the servant owed him two hundred thousand years worth of salaries.
Did your chest get a little tight there?
The other day, as I was writing those words, I grew anxious. It’s so much money!
If you didn’t get just a little anxious - maybe you didn’t hear me correctly. So let me say this again
- The servant owed the king two hundred thousand years worth of work.
Let me say this a different way, if Jesus was telling this story to us as Americans he may have said - and the servant owed the king - twelve-billion dollars.
I honestly can’t imagine how one could actually spend twelve-billion dollars, and I like things, but I don’t know what I’d blow twelve-billion dollars on. The debt he owes is astronomical.
But the point to be made isn’t simply that the servant liked to spend, spend, spend - though it is clear that he was oblivious to his own behaviors. It was clear that he was at least oblivious or at worse ambivalent to how deeply in trouble he was.
To be clear,
The debt is a metaphor for sin -
and it reminds us of how oblivious we can be - it reminds us of how deeply indebted to God we become when we turn our back on him and march resolutely away.
Sin has a horrible way of compounding upon itself - of adding up, of growing exponentially.
I have noticed this in my own life - if I fail to nip a sin in the bud right away - if I don’t cut it off, it grows slowly at first, and then suddenly - I wonder how I have become this way.
And I think this is how we end up with so many prominent Christian leaders falling into disgrace. It is not that they started in a place where they were committing these horrible and glaring sins.
But unchecked sin grows.
And perhaps at first, no one thinks anything of it. “He’s such a gifted teacher, I know he can be a little ornery, but it’s okay.”
Then maybe someone, maybe even he notices that pride or anger has become a problem, but instead of addressing it, instead of repenting of it, they justify it, or ignore it, and then suddenly, it is discovered that he is spiritually abusive.
Sin - unchecked builds up beyond what we can imagine - builds up like one who has somehow built up 12 billion dollars of debt.
And we notice his debt - our sin - does not just affect us.
We notice that it was not only him that will be thrown into jail - his wife and children will as well.
If we take sin lightly, we end up hurting others - we end up hurting those whom we love the most, we end up hurting out families, our friends, our church.
My friend sin compounds upon itself and it hurts those around us.
but the king has pity - Christ has pity.
We notice that the king doesn’t give him a payment plan, doesn’t tell him, well just pay me back some of it.
The king has forgiven the totality of the man’s debt.
And Christ - his work on the cross has paid it all for us.
It is not that we has gotten us part way, and we owe him a little bit still, it is not as though he has given us a nice boost in the right direction or given us seven steps to a better you.
Let me say this one more time - Christ has forgiven us our sin.
Christ has paid for all our sins.
Christ has atoned for every dark thing you’ve done, has wiped away every sinful action and thought, has made way for you to be a citizen, in good standing, without any debt or hardship in the kingdom of heaven.
And my friends - here is the beautiful thing - when we realize how little we have to offer - when we are driven to our knees - Christ meets us there. Not as an aloof master - not as some far off sky god - but as our compassionate Redeemer, as our sympathetic friend, as our good shepherd who pursues us, who brings us back.
And it is there that he walks with us out of our place of sin. Christ pursues us and forgives us.
But are our hearts miserly?
We learn that the servant refuses to forgive another. The other’s debt is substantial, about three month’s wages, for us, maybe $15,000. Certainly not inconsequential. But the servant had also just become free of 12 billion dollars in debt.
And so, this morning - as we come near to the end of our sermon I want to ask two challenge questions for you to pray through -
The first challenge question is what have you been forgiven?
Each week we pray the prayer of repentance - but do you take it seriously? Do you see what Christ does for you, even in the week to week? Do you see him drawing us closer to him?
I want to encourage you to pray this week for an awareness of Christ’s forgiveness. And then pray that the Lord guide you to a deeper ability to show mercy.
I say this as one who has been hurt, as one who has struggled to forgive, who still has hurts that boil up, inexplicably and I need to go back to the Lord in prayer and say “I still struggle, I still have a hard heart - help me to forgive.”
Last summer - I traveled across the country to a conference. I woke up early, drove to Phoenix and spent the day flying.
I got to the hotel, and started to settle in. Parts of the conference were already underway - it had been a long day, but I was eager to see friends. I opened the door to the hall where the meeting was happening and the first person I saw was someone I had struggled to forgive.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I stood there for a minute, I had not expected to see this person, and I thought “what do I do?”
I honestly thought about turning around, walking back, getting my stuff, and getting a ride back to the airport.
If you had asked me that morning, “Have you forgiven this person?” I would have said “yes! of course.”
But, the pain was still deep, still dreadful, still dark. Even though I know the depth and breadth of the forgiveness of God - I still needed to let go of the pain this person had caused me. I still needed to give this pain to the Lord in prayer.
Please make no mistake -
I know letting go of this pain can be so dreadfully hard -
I know it from personal experience - but I also know that when do forgive someone - we no longer focus on their evil - we are no longer captured by the terrible things that they have done to us - but rather we find freedom in God.
This doesn’t mean they become our best friend - this doesn’t we need to hang out with them - but it does mean that God starts to heal us from the pain which they have caused us. It does mean, that God starts to set us free from those very real wounds.
And so this brings us to the second challenge question - Are there pains that you have no let go of?
Are there people in your lives whose sins need to be let go of?
I know this second question is harder than the first - but, I think it is a worthwhile question to ask, if for no other reason than so you can be at peace. If for no other reason than so you can rest easy with God.
If you find there is pain - there is hurt - I would invite you pray to God for help, and invite a brother or sister in Christ to walk with you in that. Then continue to give that pain to God, until like Lewis one day you may find that the pain is gone as well.
In Christ we find freedom
- in Christ we find the freedom from our sin, we find the freedom from the bondage that had once controlled us.
In that freedom, we find freedom to forgive others their sins.
And we find freedom to live in gracious and joyous relationships with others.
Let us dwell in Christ, let us dwell as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Let us be quick to repent and quick to forgive that in that we would dwell in the peace of God which surpasses our understanding.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.