St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Lent Midweek I Hebrews 11:17—12:3 February 21, 2024 Our Scripture reading this evening talks about the faith of people like Abraham, Moses, Samson, the many and great Cloud of Witnesses who we can look to and look up to as examples of God’s work and how He works faith and confidence in His people, even should they suffer or endure trials. But there is one other thing we can confidently say about all these men of faith that, if we read their stories, we very quickly discover. These men of faith were also very much sinners through and through. While they may be…famous…regarding the Biblical history on account of their faith, they are no different than each one of us who suffer from sin, who go our own way, and who fall short of God’s glory and wholly depend on Him for mercy. And what is the message they proclaim and which the author of Hebrews proclaims? Look to Jesus, the author and perfector of your faith, because like all of them, He Himself suffered, but unlike any other human who has ever existed, He did not sin. What better person to look to in times of trouble, and what better person to cling to in times of painful unforgiveness than God in the flesh, Christ Jesus? And that’s really what’s at the core of unforgiveness, isn’t it? What makes us people who might refuse to forgive? It’s forgetting our forgiveness in Christ. And we forget our forgiveness in Christ when we, on account of temptation, put the cares and concerns of this world ahead of God and His Word. It’s when we make idols from creation, and our idols may be in the form of money, possessions, people, relationships, careers, sports, education, and the like. And in a deeper sense, an unwillingness to forgive our neighbor comes from a much more carnal place. Unforgiveness comes from idolatry of the self, when we put ourself ahead of our neighbor and ahead of God. It’s when we conclude that we have a right to be unforgiving toward our neighbor because, as we might conclude, our neighbor has wronged us in ways far worse than we could ever wrong our neighbor. But as we consider again this “great cloud of witnesses,” we know that every one of them committed sins that might even make us uneasy as we read their stories. Abraham was an adulterer, Moses was a murderer, Jacob was a thief from birth, Rahab a prostitute. But God forgave them all. And here’s the thing. There are a number of teachings and theological persuasions out there that try and pin down the process by which a person converts, the order of operations, if you will, concerning how a person comes to faith. Well, us Lutherans, we tend to get a bit uneasy when it comes to rationalizing God the Holy Spirit or making God into a mathematical formula. Does God’s forgiveness come before faith, or does faith come before forgiveness? Is a person forgiven and THEN saved, or is he saved and THEN forgiven? Does God give the gift of forgiveness so that a person repents and believes, or does God give the gift of faith so that a believer repents and is forgiven? Does God already forgive a repentant sinner prior to baptism, or does He hold back forgiveness until the moment water is applied in God’s Triune name? We humans love to systematize these things. There is an entire church body that so systematizes God and His Word that they are very comfortable with asserting “logical conclusions” such as “God intentionally condemns people to hell” when the Scripture says no such thing. And we sinners do this; we want answers, and so we try to put all of God’s ducks in a row, so things make sense. But in doing so, what we’re really doing is trying to make the infinite fit into a finite box. We’re trying to rationalize things that we simply cannot fully understand by forcing matters of timelessness onto a clock. It is a foolish waste of time. God forgives sins. This we know. God uses means such as water, bread, and wine as a way to bring His forgiveness to us. This we know, but it is certainly not the only way God forgives. God forgives the whole world on account of Christ Jesus His only Son who died on the cross. This we know. But we also know that not all people of the world are saved and in fact, a very small number are saved when compared to the total population of the world’s history. We know repentance is fundamental to the Christian faith, that person must turn from his sins and rebelliousness, to stop running FROM God and instead run TO Him, but we also know that person cannot repent without God the Holy Spirit drawing him and causing repentance. We know that a person cannot willfully accept or choose to believe in God because every human being, by nature, is hostile toward God. Believing in Christ is a gift from God but how it all works out in the wash – and I mean that literally – in Baptism, how a person goes from unbelief to belief, there is some bit of mystery there and we would do well to let that mystery stand. But what we DO know is that at the center of all this is the forgiveness of sins. In Christ, God forgives the sin of the world. See, salvation isn’t about us changing for God. And this is so important. So much of American Evangelicalism focuses on the individual changing and committing to being good. It’s why they love testimonies, when people stand up in front of the church to talk about how they dropped all their addictions and on such and such a day at such and such a time they gave their life to Christ and now everything is so much better. But the Scripture does not prescribe the Sacrament of Public Testimony. In fact, what we learn from this great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews is that these people, these men and women of faith still sinned and they still fell headlong into the sins of the flesh. But, they trusted in God’s promises. And I’m not saying that you can keep on living as the world does; I’m not saying that you can treat sin but lightly or presume that evil isn’t all that bad. What I’m saying is that, like these people of faith, this great cloud of witnesses, we sin, we fall short of God’s glory. But on account of faith, we also learn to repent and to acknowledge our sin to the Lord because we trust His mercy. Fix your eyes on Jesus! See, fixing your eyes on how someone hurt you or mistreated you and obsessing over that episode in your life is contrary or damaging to the faith. Reliving in your mind, over, and over again how you were hurt, how you were damaged, how you were disrespected, physically or mentally abused, you may think it just and deserving that your offender be held in a torcher chamber in your mind and heart, that it’s just to remain endlessly angry and vengeful, that even if it’s just in your mind that he suffer for what he did or said, that such obsession makes things better. But, no, and in fact, it does not make your life better or your faith stronger to dwell and obsess over sins committed. Your unforgiveness toward a brother or sister who sinned against you isn’t hurting anyone but you. Think of Joseph. He had every right to condemn his brothers for selling him into slavery. He had every right to give them the death penalty for lying to their father Jacob, telling Jacob that he was killed by a wild animal. But what does Joseph do instead? He forgives, and not only does he forgive, but he gives his brothers and the Hebrew people land and food so they might survive the famine. Consider king David. His son, Absolom, out of pure jealousy, attempted to overthrow his father’s kingdom and throne. And we can debate as to whether Absolom had a good reason for wanting to destroy David, but his actions were from jealousy and revenge. And David could very much have acted the same way toward Absolom. Instead, David weeps at his son’s death. God forgiving us of our sins teaches us how we should also forgive one another, even the worst of offenders in our lives. God is not on His throne obsessing over your many sins against Him even though He would have every right to do it. He is not obsessing over your sins. Instead, He is forgiving them. Does He want you to sin? No. Does He revel in your disobedience? Absolutely not. And in the church, we have the Office of the Keys in order to draw people out of sinful lifestyles and choices because sinning is not good and it never ever leads to good outcomes. But God’s wrath has already been appeased. His anger and judgment has already been taken out on His only Son who died in your place. God does not count your sins against you. And the faith that He gives you, the family He brings you into, the kingdom He imparts to you because of Christ, it is a kingdom and family and a faith of forgiveness. No, not permissiveness, but forgiveness. No, not making sin to be okay, but forgiving sin and its horribleness. In this new life God has given us, this life of faith and salvation, God calls us to learn and shape our lives by two things: First, His Spirit helps us learn and understand that we need Christ and the forgiveness of sins more and more every day. We sin much and we need His forgiveness much. Second, by His forgiving us so generously, by His endless mercy, we learn to likewise forgive others. See, Satan and his wily ways will try and convince you that the Christian faith is about self-improvement. That it’s about being a better person, a better spouse, a better child, a better student, a better this, a better that, and that if you’re not improving yourself, if things in your life aren’t getting better for you, that you must be doing something wrong. Satan is always going to try and convince you that you can be like God if you try. That if you just commit yourself and push yourself and, when faced with temptation, say a few words, say a special prayer, do a special dance, you can overcome with your own strength of will. The devil is always trying to find a way to resurrect your old, sinful nature and to convince you that your old nature can be redeemed. Well, the old nature can’t be redeemed. And fundamentally, the Christian faith is not about self-improvement. And the one thing the devil is always trying to steer you away from is…forgiveness. But unlike the devil, God is always forgiving, and He is calling us and making us to be a people of forgiveness as well. If you are unforgiving toward another person because that person has wronged you or hurt you or abused you in whatever way, then I appeal to you: look to Jesus the author and perfector of your faith. Look to what God has done in His only Son and how, because of His death on the cross, God has forgiven you of every sin, of every abuse of His holy name, of every time you’ve hurt His reputation among others, of how many times you have wronged Him by breaking His commandments; He has forgiven you of making your life and your choices and your career paths and your money and your future and your plans and wants and desires more important in your life than Him. He has forgiven you of making your life into your idol. Look to how God has forgiven you and will not stop forgiving you, and from His forgiving you, discover the joy and peace that comes from forgiving others, even the worst of sinners. Because it is by forgiveness of sins that the devil is defeated. No, God is not calling us to be laxed or indifferent toward sin – He’s not calling us to look at sinful behavior or living and say, “who cares.” And next week we are going to get into the issue of repentance. Should we forgive the unrepentant, or not, as we continue through this book, “Unforgivable.” Amen.