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Ash Wednesday slide "Unforgivable"

Ash Wednesday

Unforgivable Book, Sermon 1

February 14, 2024

For the season of Lent, we are going to consider the book, “Unforgivable,” by Dr. Ted Kober and Rev. Dr. Mark Rockenbach, both of the Missouri Synod. Kober is a Christian Conciliator and manages family conflict, church conflict, lawsuits, and personal disputes. Rockenbach is an associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

The first few chapters of the book build the framework for the matter at hand, “unforgiveness,” and how it looks in real life. The very first words of the first chapter of the book are, “I hope she burns in hell.”

It begins with the author telling the story of his elderly and very ill father who is in the hospital and near death, and of a pastor who was asked to come and pray for him. As the pastor is praying, the stepmother walks into the room and screams, get the _____ out of here, and chases the pastor away.

The author explains that the relationship he had with his stepmother was very eggshell and that she was a hard lady to love. And after his father died a few weeks later, he and his stepmother were responsible for his father’s estate. As he was forced to share a room with his stepmother on a day-to-day basis, as they liquidated the estate, paid off bills, etc., he discovered that his stepmother was abused as a child, that her parents were angry and verbally abusive parents and her father even tried to kill her, and that she held a deep grudge against the church and against Christians in general because of something a church member said to her when she was a child.

This lifetime of anger and resentment had turned her into a monster when it came to pastors and prayer, not to mention toward a lot of other people over the years.

The author, her stepson, forgave her, and in forgiving her he was able to see her in a different light, not as this beast out to destroy and devour everyone she didn’t like, but as someone who, like him, suffered from the effects of sin.

He learned that a person’s life and value is not summed up by what we might see in a single moment, but every person has a history, has pain, has “baggage” from things long past, things we may never know about, and that as Christians who have been forgiven by God and given the Spirit of forgiveness, we have, not only a duty, but a choice to forgive others as God, in Christ, has forgiven us.

But we must keep forgiveness in its proper context. We do not deserve forgiveness, not one of us. We deserve for God to hold every sin we’ve ever committed and ever will commit against us, and hold it against us such that we are eternally condemned. The author’s stepmother DESERVED God’s wrath, just as he.

But the God who created the universe and every person who walks within it, rather than doing what is deserved, He sends His only Son to bear on Himself what we deserve, His Father’s wrath and punishment for our sin. In Christ, humanity stands forgiven, and we who are being saved must learn, by the Holy Spirit who draws us to repentance and faith, we must learn to forgive likewise.

This is forgiveness. It is a totally undeserved, freely given gift from God which makes us into new people, sets us free from sin and death, and makes us into a people, a nation of priests who forgive others.

So then, what is “unforgiveness”? Well, as we look at unforgiveness, we will very quickly discover how we Christians who are set free in Christ, renewed in Christ, and given eternal life in Christ on account of His perfect forgiveness, that we are not, in turn, perfect at forgiving others, that we struggle, every day, pastors, laypeople, men, women, children, husbands, wives, classmates, that we all struggle to be forgiving toward others.

And not only that, but sometimes we see another struggle in ourselves. We see unforgiveness playing out as either A), I don’t NEED to be forgiven; or B) I don’t WANT to be forgiven. And this is when unforgiveness is really unrepentance. It’s when you or I say, “I’m not doing anything wrong, how dare you tell me I need to repent, I don’t need to,” or, “It may be wrong, but I just don’t care.” And in this situation, the church has a special authority to say, “no, you are not forgiven.” Again, sometimes the church – through her pastors – will do this, but it’s not from a place of anger or malice, but it is from a desperate hope that an impenitent person will come to feel God’s Law as the thunderbolt it is, repent, and lean on the mercies of Christ. Forgiveness is always the objective of what is called the Office of the Keys. And the hope is that the person’s knowledge of his situation, that he is inviting the wrath of God, will draw him to repent. We’ll get more into this in a few weeks.

But forgiveness that isn’t concerning this formal church discipline use, but just day-to-day stuff, is sharing God’s gift of forgiveness with others. It’s not only saying, “I forgive you,” but it is also saying, “I intentionally forget what you’ve said or done.” And yes, you can forgive an unbeliever with the hope that your forgiving him will one day draw him to repent and believe. Because forgiveness, whether it’s a church discipline issue where forgiveness is held back until the person repents, or the absolution is proclaimed boldly to the repentant, whether it’s spousal forgiveness, parent and child forgiveness, employee and employer forgiveness, whatever, forgiveness is the ultimate service for the neighbor. Forgiveness is the very foundation of the Christian faith.

Unforgiveness, then, is the opposite, isn’t it? “I do not forgive you,” and “I will intentionally NOT forget what you’ve said or done.” Unforgiveness is an unwarranted withholding of the gift of forgiveness which God has given you, such that the person is clearly repentant and may even ask for forgiveness, but you say, “I refuse to forgive you” anyway. It is that grudge bearing, that sour look, that passive aggressive, “I’ll be nice to your face, but treat you like dirt behind your back” thing that lacks forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love.

And here’s the thing, a person who is unforgiving may cause some degree of suffering or discomfort to the person whom he refuses to forgive, but he himself suffers far more and in ways far more devastating. Anger, which is a facet of an unforgiving heart, breeds resentment and bitterness and rage. This unforgiving rage can lead to such things as physical harm, or even murder. He may not do the murderous deed, but likely it is playing like a loop in his head. Unforgiveness also causes physical problems to a person’s body and mind. I suspect that heart disease and heart failure isn’t just because of the food we eat, but also because so many of us Americans carry so much bitterness and unforgiveness that it just eats away at us.

The unforgiver may demand justice and that what the unforgiver perceives as wrong be put right or forgiveness is off the table. And what about unbelievers? Can an unbeliever forgive in the way God calls us believers to forgive? Well simply put, no. And unbeliever can…cope, they can perform exercises or meditation to keep the anger and rage at bay, but no person can truly forgive without God the Holy Spriit working in them through faith. We who believe, yes, we CAN forgive others, but even we, with our old sinful nature biding for repossession of our minds and hearts, struggle with this perfect gift of God.

A Christian who refuses to forgive is like a dog who refuses to bark, a cat who refuses to get on people’s nerves, a car that refuses to drive, a rain cloud that refuses to drop rain. A Christian who lives and embraces anger and bitterness and resentment and uses such anger and bitterness for his own gain or to control others, that person is not living by the mercies of God in Christ, and is very far from Christ. Is he, therefore, “unforgivable”? Absolutely not. God calls all sinners to repentance, every day, and not just the “righteous” or “deserving.”

Forgiveness is born from repentance and faith. Our forgiveness isn’t always perfect, but because of Christ and His Holy Spirit, it is there.

No one in this life is unforgivable, no one. No one “deserves” to be forgiven, but God’s forgiveness, given in Christ, is for all people. And if God can forgive us, we can learn to forgive one another.

So, on this day of self-reflection and repentance, ask yourself these questions:

1, who is the most unforgivable person in your life?

2, what was the offense that seems so unforgivable?

3, how have you been responding to the unforgivable person?

4, if you are unforgiving someone, is it a struggle to forgive or a refusal to forgive?

5, do you need forgiveness from someone else who is unforgiving toward you? If so, consider the passages I listed in the “Sermon” section of the bulletin and seek the comfort they give.

6, in your walk with the Lord who has forgiven you all your sins of thought, word, and deed, how can you learn to more readily exhibit that same forgiveness toward the unforgivable which may be people in your past, in your present, your spouse, your parents, your kids, how can you learn to forgive them from your heart and not just forgive but intentionally forget, just as in Christ, God has forgiven and forgotten all your sin?

Today we only scratched the surface of this book. We will get more into it next week when we get more into the theology of unforgiveness. Amen.