This Laetare Sunday, which means we have passed the half way point of Lent and this is a day we lighten the hearts as we focus on God’s forgiving love and grace given through Jesus.
Bible Reading Numbers 21:4-9
4 Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, 5 and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” 6 So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. 7 Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!”9 So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!
Message Preparing for Forgiveness” John 3:14-21
with Responsive Reading from Matthew 18:10-35
Edom refused entry, and rather than warring their way through the land, God directed his people to take a longer, harder route to the promised land. This was at least the 4th time the recently liberated people of God got impatient, (literally short-souled, the opposite what is sometimes translated in the New Testament as long-suffering. Poisonous snakes, (literally, fiery serpents (seraphim)), perhaps because they were red, or because of the burning feeling of the poison entering and teaching the survivors the error of their attitude; and Moses puts a bronze (or brass or copper (it is the same word in Hebrew) – likely copper because it would most resemble the fiery snakes (and archeological evidence) puts this figure on a pole and everyone who is bitten could look at it and be healed.
This story is fraught with problems. As the story is expressed by the ancient writers, the people -- granted, repeatedly, even consistently rebellious; evoke a reaction from God that doesn’t sync with the more common description, even in the Old Testament, of a gracious, slow to anger and quick to forgive God. The other glaring problem, of course, is that shortly after God instructs us to never make anything in the image of anything in heaven, on the earth, or in the waters, he instructs Moses to make a copper snake.
I’ll follow the model of Jesus. When this story comes up in a conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus ignores all these problems and pulls from the story only one point – how we find healing. The essence of the conversation is this (See John 3:1ff) Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus has come from God. Jesus says you cannot see the kingdom of God unless you are born again. Nicodemus asks, how can a person be born when they are old? Jesus says they must be born of God’s Spirit. Nicodemus asks, “How this can be? How can these things happen?” Jesus weaves his way to this answer:
And as Moses lifted up the [copper] snake on a pole in the wilderness,
so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes
in him will have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)
Just as those in the desert experienced the penalty of death because they sinfully rebelled against God who they forgot had done so much for them -- they were to look up at that symbol of death, and remember God, and trust God, and be healed. They would, as a hymn writer put it – Look and Live. Now, Jesus explains, the people would look at him lifted up (Nicodemus would not understand this yet, but it refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up (ascending) to the throne of God in heaven. And as they looked on that Roman symbol of death they would remember God, and believe, and be healed from the power and penalty of their sins. We would, as the hymn writer put it: we find a precious healing stream of love and mercy and light – a symbol that informs us how to live daily.
As we lift our eyes to the cross, there are 3 things to remember.
Remember the cost
We remember the cost. Ron Rand wrote about Michael. He took his family on an outing each week. When they returned home they’d make a fire in the fireplace and pop popcorn. One evening, little Billy was disobedient and so was sent to his room while the rest of the family got the fire and popcorn going. Once they got it all started, Michael went to Billy’s room and said, “You go out with the others, I’ll stay here and take your punishment.” Through this action, the entire family experienced a small, but vivid example of what Jesus did for everyone.
(For Fathers Who Aren’t in Heaven)
When we look at the cross, we remember that Jesus perished so we would not have to. Read that next verse with me:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever
believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16 NKJV)
Remember the love
We also need to remember God’s love. Despite the Numbers text, Jesus makes it clear in the text we just read that God loves us beyond what we can fathom. Some people look at all that is going on in their life, in the world, and act and speak as if God’s power and/or love is still on trial. But Christ was already arrested, tried, hung and crucified, and God’s verdict (resurrection) has already passed the test of time. For
God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through
him. “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. (John 3:17-18a)
Remember to Respond
It is not God who is on trial but we who are on trial about how we will or will not respond to God. We must remember to respond.
In November 1829, postal clerk George Wilson committed robberies that endangered drivers of the US Mail. For this first-time offense, he pleaded not guilty, but the court convicted and sentenced him to death. Later, he withdrew his not guilty plea. Public sentiment against capital punishment initiated a movement to secure a presidential pardon, not for the prison term, but for the death penalty. President Jackson granted a pardon. Wilson refused it. The Supreme Court had to decide if this was even possible. They determined that a pardon is a deed that is only valid when tendered. A prisoner cannot receive any advantage from a pardon without presenting it before the court. When the court asked if he had anything to say, and if he wished to avail of the pardon; he answered he had nothing to say and did not want to avail himself of the pardon. If the pardon is not presented, the Supreme Court determined they could discover “no power in a court to force [a pardon] on him.”
Jesus goes on to say that he was sent and came to offer pardon and create for himself a people who will receive and offer forgiveness. Will we accept / respond to God’s cost of love on the cross – Will we discover and offer his forgiveness?
Or will we be like those who choose to not believe in Jesus, who love and desire to hide sin more than find grace and forgiveness? and by so doing, in essence, refusing the pardon offered and are already judged. (See John 3:18-20)
But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing
what God wants.” (John 3:21 NLT)
Prior to the Matthew text, Jesus is walking with the disciples and telling them how critical it is to not lead others into sin, to deal with our own sin problem, and how to deal with sin’s disunity and dissension by going out of our way to work it out. This is challenging.
Like our ancient grumbling travelers, we fail multiple times and we need to be able to receive and offer forgiveness multiple times. Nevertheless, being sorry has always meant that we truly regret what we have done (or not done) and will strive correct the situation and not repeat that action or inaction in the future.
Forgiveness: Depth and Width
How many times? The 1st century standard was three. The assumption was if it happened a 4th time -- well, they probably weren’t truly sorry in the first place. [Is it reading too much into the Numbers text to note that this is at least the 4th time the Israelites complained?]. Peter more than doubled the graciousness of his time when he asked Jesus if we should forgive 7 times. But Jesus answer makes us stop in our tracks. Some translate it 77 times, others 70 x 7. If we are turning to our calculators and tabulators, we’ve completely missed the point. Jesus is saying that there are no limits to our striving to be willing to forgive.
Forgiveness: Loopholes Defined
If the number of times isn’t limited, the next thing we want to figure out is the small print – the loopholes, the conditions, and the exceptions to this expansive directive. In the New Testament, the word “forgive” means "to send off," "to hurl," "to release," "to let go." Therefore, to forgive is more than a passive sentiment. To forgive is an active process, almost a violent act of dismissal. It declares, "I will attempt to go on loving the life in you, the divine in you, the soul in you, even when I totally abhor what you have done. What's more, I will attempt to see your life as having equal value to my own, even when I don’t agree with what you have done and what if I perceive you stand for is different than myself." In other words, Jesus says forgiveness is limitless and loophole-less. And it sounds as absurd now as it did to them then.
Therefore, Jesus tells a story to explain why this is the only possibility in God’s kingdom.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like [this, (and he should know since he came from there -
it is like)] a king who decided to collect the money his servants owed him. So the king began
to collect his money. One servant owed him several million dollars. [The number given equaled
the wages of 10,000 manual laborers working for 15 years. This man is in way over his
head. It is an understatement to say that]
“But the servant did not have enough money to pay his master, the king. So the master
ordered that everything the servant owned should be sold, even the servant’s wife and children.
The money would be used to pay the king what the servant owed. “But the servant fell on his
knees and begged, ‘Be patient with me. I will pay you everything I owe.’ The master
felt sorry for his servant. [The master – felt sorry -- for his servants] So the master told the
servant he did not have to pay. He let the servant go free.
“Later, that same servant found another servant who owed him a few dollars. [The number
was equal to the wages of one manual laborer working one day] The servant grabbed the
other servant around the neck and said, ‘Pay me the money you owe me!’
“The other servant fell on his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me.
I will pay you everything I owe.’
“But the first servant refused to be patient. He threw the other servant into prison
until he could pay everything he owed. All the other servants saw what happened. They were
very sorry. So they went and told their master all that had happened.
“Then the master called his servant in and said, ‘You evil servant! You begged me to forget
what you owed. So I told you that you did not have to pay anything. I had mercy on you.
You should have had the same mercy on that other servant.’ The master was very
angry, and he put the servant in prison to be punished. The servant had to stay in prison until
he could pay everything he owed. “This king did what my heavenly Father will do to you
if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
(John 3:21-35 (ICB) Words in brackets are commentary
and not quoting the Bible. Bold underlined words
are the congregation’s part in the Bible reading.
Jesus teaches limitless loophole-less forgiveness, then “parables” an illustration that seems to teach the opposite. Let’s see if we can hear Jesus’ words this way: Let's use your illustration, Peter. The kingdom of God is like a king who begins with over the top forgiveness, (7 instead of 4) but then limits and removes it if someone doesn't follow suit. What would that kingdom look like, Peter? Well let's see. I receive initial forgiveness and that is great. I see God's forgiving relationship with me, how even though I fail, I receive mercy after mercy.
But as I see my relationship with another -- the focus shifts from the mercy I need and receive to how I am wronged and/or wounded and that they don't deserve grace. I don't pass mercy on. Then my peers see my judgmentalism and don't forgive me, and in fact, they rat me out to the king. Then the king hauls me back in and I lose my initial forgiveness. This is your proposal, Peter, for the kingdom of God? to offer generous, but limited grace? When we encourage individual exceptions, Peter, where do you draw the line, and who draws it? Who decides and divides who is worthy or not worthy of the next helping of grace? Is that the kind of God and kingdom you want? Surely this can't describe God's kingdom -- it is an escalation -- of unforgiveness after unforgiveness, growing the scope of judgment and hate and revenge. Where will it ever end?
In contrast to this escalation, God's kingdom is based on an escalation of mercy and pardon. As God is limitlessly merciful to us, we are merciful to one another. Forgiveness must spread and escalate from the individual choices to form a way of living in community. There is an unbreakable bond between the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness we are to offer one another, making it illogical and impossible for us to accept the mercy of the Lord and then refuse to extend mercy to others. Jesus summarizes this in his teaching of the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). Forgive us our debts — that's what we ask of God. As we have forgiven our debtors —that's what we offer others. God is challenging us to be transformed by his forgiveness into the kind of people who can do the hard work of forgiving others, so that it escalates into a community -- a society -- of merciful people.
The kingdom of God is not about receiving what we deserve -- justice meted out to sinners; but it is about the character of God, and Jesus says the character of God is wrapped up in limitless grace and mercy and love. If we want to live in His kingdom, we will follow the kingdom’s culture, which is to display overwhelming heart felt mercy to others because that is what we have received from God.
Therefore, as we, and people, struggle with sin and its consequences, we find hope when, through our heart’s eye of faith, we see Jesus lifted up, trusting that he is saving, restoring, healing, and transforming. He will never change his mind about our process and progress. His faithful love endures forever. He will help us move more fully into his realm of forgiveness where we will find God is already there forgiving us and helping us find forgiveness in our hearts for others. Let’s pray.
Prayers and Meditation
Lord, as we picture you lifted up, as we remember what you did for us, we consider today’s question, Do I need to confess something to you to receive your forgiveness? Is there someone with whom I need to reconcile? We let you search our hearts and realize we are still in the wilderness. We are learning your way and praying that by your strength we are getting better at following. Yet the closer we follow, the more aware we become of how much more we have to learn, and how much farther we have to travel to truly live as Jesus taught us to pray. LORD’S PRAYER
Merciful God, we confess that we are less than you created and called us to be. We have forgotten your blessings toward us and in so doing, we have failed to be a blessing to others. We have taken for granted the limitless depth of your love and forgiveness. In so doing, we have withheld love and forgiveness from others. In our misguided efforts to maintain control, we have clung to bitterness, hurt, anger and disappointment, rather than letting go in faith and trust, releasing ourselves to the healing and cleansing power of your Spirit. Forgive us where we go astray and keep us on the path of life. Forgive us for our willingness to settle for so much less than you desire to give us and to do in us. Restore us to right relationship with you and with one another.
We give you thanks, for you are good and your faithful love endures forever. You redeem us, rescue us, and gather us from our lost wanderings. You lead us to safety and satisfy our every need. You snatched us from the power of sin and death. You snap our chains and lead us out of distress and gloom – you send your word and heal us. We praise you for your great love and for the wonderful works you have done and are doing for us. (Based on Psalm 107)
Your healing love is known among all peoples. And so we pray for those listed in our bulletin and those we named earlier in the service, and those that are in our hearts; as well as anything else you place in our hearts in this moment of silence… PAUSE
Receive the prayers of your people, most merciful God. As you are lifted on the cross, in your wounds we see our wounding, in your cries of anguish we hear our angry complaining, in your torn flesh, we see the lashes we inflict on others and on you. Have mercy on us. In your compassion, forgive our sins, encourage us in the work you are already doing in us to free us, and keep us faithful to our journey’s end. We know we’re still broken, but we also know that by your forgiving grace, we’re getting better, more loving, more like Jesus. So as we hear the instrumental music of our closing song, guide us to what we need to be and do to drive us to your cross and move us further on your path, until we finally feast with you in your new creation.
As the music plays, we jot down on the slip of paper what you are revealing to us, and when the pianist has completed the first verse, we will begin singing the first verse and bring our slips of paper to the living water (Pour water here) where I will stir the waters to dissolve your paper into a cloud of prayers to God… We look to you because we belong - completely -- to you.
Closing Hymn # 452 (vv 1,2,3) My Faith Looks Up to Thee
Now having experienced the joy of forgiveness, be done with lesser things so that you will be made holy; prepared to be God’s useful instruments for his good and special purposes at all times. Amen.