Season of Lent: Forgiveness
February 18, 2018 Total forgiveness: an introduction
*PSALTER (Psalm 25:4-11, NIV)
4 Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
5 Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.
6 Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,
for they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you, Lord, are good.
8 Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
9 He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way.
10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful
toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.
11 For the sake of your name, Lord,
forgive my iniquity, though it is great.
Genesis 45:1-15 (tell enough of the story prior for this to make sense)
Joseph was no longer able to control his feelings in front of his servants, so he ordered them all to leave the room. No one else was with him when Joseph told his brothers who he was. 2 He cried with such loud sobs that the Egyptians heard it, and the news was taken to the king's palace. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But when his brothers heard this, they were so terrified that they could not answer. 4 Then Joseph said to them, “Please come closer.” They did, and he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 Now do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me here. It was really God who sent me ahead of you to save people's lives. 6 This is only the second year of famine in the land; there will be five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor reaping. 7 God sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way and to make sure that you and your descendants survive. 8 So it was not really you who sent me here, but God. He has made me the king's highest official. I am in charge of his whole country; I am the ruler of all Egypt.
9 “Now hurry back to my father and tell him that this is what his son Joseph says: ‘God has made me ruler of all Egypt; come to me without delay. 10 You can live in the region of Goshen, where you can be near me—you, your children, your grandchildren, your sheep, your goats, your cattle, and everything else that you have. 11 If you are in Goshen, I can take care of you. There will still be five years of famine; and I do not want you, your family, and your livestock to starve.’”
12 Joseph continued, “Now all of you, and you too, Benjamin, can see that I am really Joseph. 13 Tell my father how powerful I am here in Egypt and tell him about everything that you have seen. Then hurry and bring him here.”
14 He threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and began to cry; Benjamin also cried as he hugged him. 15 Then, still weeping, he embraced each of his brothers and kissed them. After that, his brothers began to talk with him.
Matthew 6:9-15, NIV
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NLT
4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God!
MESSAGE Total Forgiveness: An Introduction
As we enter into the season of Lent, we are going to explore one of its most significant themes, but perhaps with some perspectives you are not used to hearing or you've avoided pursuing. Christians are used to hearing that we must confess our sins and repent. In other words, we know we are supposed to to admit the things we have done wrong, intentionally or unintentionally, and even the good we have failed to do. We know we are called to literally turn away from sin and turn our lives toward God, to live more fully the life God intended for us. All of this goes along with the well known Lenten tradition of giving something up for the season and the lesser known tradition of taking on a new spiritual discipline for Lent.
This year, we are going beyond the practice of confession, though you will be invited each week to a particular confessional practice called examination of conscience. We are going beyond repentance, though you will indeed be asked to turn your lives around or, as the Common English Bible often puts it, to change your hearts and lives.
We are going to focus on the next step, forgiveness. Yours, mine, and ours. Forgiveness of others, forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness even of God. Forgiveness from us and the model of God forgiving us.
In order to work toward total forgiveness, what I am urging each of us to surrender for Lent is our bitterness, our resentment, our judgmental attitudes, our anger, our hate, our grudges, even our pain. It won't be easy. I've pictured it as weeding the garden. We have to keep going in to pull the weeds these attitudes represent. Some of them have been there a long time. Some of them have deep or complex root systems. They won't come out easily, and, if you only clip them at the stem, they will grow back.
This is going to be a life long battle, to forgive ourselves and others, as completely as God forgives us. But it's going to be worth it! A beautiful and fruitful garden of life awaits! Imagine ahead to the blossoms of Easter and Spring, and get ready to tackle our weeds.
Before we begin to select tools for the task, let's take inspiration from a story in the Old Testament. Joseph had a lot of opportunities to hold a grudge and harbor resentment.
His brothers planned to kill him, selling him into slavery was a profitable compromise. Joseph had every reason to hate his brothers. Then, working for a chief security guard, Joseph had the misfortune to become the object of lust for the lady of the house. [Joseph, you'll note, was wise enough not to be seduced by that temptation. Would that more people then and today had that wisdom and discipline! ] However, Joseph was falsely accused of sexual harrasment and misconduct. It landed him in jail. Joseph had plenty of reason to be angry with his former master and feel rage toward that man's wife. In prison, Joseph used his gift of dream interpretation to bring God's message to two former government employees. One was destined to die soon, but the other would be released and returned to service. That man promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph, but of course as soon as he got out he forgot all about his promise. Joseph could have let frustration and impatience turn to bitterness. But he didn't!
Joseph continued to go about whatever tasks and opportunities God put in front of him. Eventually his fellow prisoner remembered his ability to interpret dreams, and through that talent, Joseph became administrator of all the resources of Egypt! Eventually even Joseph's brothers showed up before him begging for food. There are lots of ways Joseph could have responded to pay them back for all he had suffered in the years since he last saw them. He could have sent them home empty handed. He could have had them thrown in jail or killed. He did set them up to keep them under his thumb while he decided what to do. He didn't reveal his identity or the fact that he knew their language. He held one hostage to make sure they would return and bring his little brother with them. He asked them mostly about his father. Ultimately he was more concerned about reuniting the family than he was about punishment, but he did take time to test them.
Our Old Testament reading today was the story of the big reveal, when Joseph admits who he is and how he then treats his brothers. First, he did it privately, sending all the Egyptians out of the room. Then he broke down in a flood of tears and let out years of pain and sorrow as he wept. He told them who he was as he drew them closer to see for themselves. Second, and this is important so don't miss it, he chose not to blame them. He didn't release an angry torent of "Why?" He didn't vent all his frustration and hurt in harsh words, only those tears, and they were tears of joy for finding his brothers not of pain. Third, you could say he looked for the silver lining, but I prefer to say he found the Romans 8:28 of the situation, you know the good that God pulls out of something bad. Joseph chose not to focus on the horrible thing his brothers had done to him years ago, but instead he concentrated on what good God brought out of that situation. He saw that God had placed him in Egypt and put him eventually in a position where he could help his brothers and his father back home. He let go of dwelling on the struggle. He focused only on the resulting opportunity. God put Joseph in a position to save the lives of those who had thrown Joseph's life away, literally in a pit. Joseph said yes to that opportunity without hesitation. He not only provided the food they need, he didn't make them pay for it. Hear that again in a new way. He didn't make them pay for their relief or pay him back for the years of pain. What Joseph offered them was grace with mercy and an invitation to reconciliation and reunion. He wanted the whole family to come and live with him, and they did.
As we pack up our tools now to go pull the weeds of resentment, grudges, bitterness and the like from the gardens of our souls, I want to give you an overview of the work ahead of us. The main book I will be using is R.T.Kendall's work Total Forgiveness. It was written nearly 20 years ago, and has been updated and revised along the way. Kendall was pastor at Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years. But even in that auspicious position he had to deal with the fact that he harbored these weeds against someone in his past. It was a friend and colleague from Romania who gently, but firmly and let's say bluntly told Kendall this truth. "RT, you must totally forgiven them. Until you totally forgive them, you will be in chains. Release them, and you will be released." (p. 1) Wrestling with that truth led to his study of forgiveness in God's Word and ultimately this book.
What about you? Are there situations or persons in your past that you have yet to forgive? Are there any grudges you hold against others? against yourself? against God? It is for your own health that you need to surrender any unforgiveness found within you. The effects of unforgiveness extend to your physical, mental and emotional health. Here are a few highlights Kendall shares related to our spiritual health:
What does it mean to totally forgive? It means as completely as God forgives us. That is going to be our model. It means to forgive everyone for every thing, and that is not going to be easy! But consider our Gospel lesson for today from the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our debts, trespasses, sins, as we forgive our debtors, those who trespass against us and sin against us." The admonition that follows the prayer is significant. This is what Jesus teaches us. "14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6) You can see the stumbling block unforgiveness creates in relationship with God. To remove that obstacle Jesus is telling us, forgive others as I forgive you, in the same what that he said to his disciples, "Love one another, as I have loved you." (John 13:34) More on this aspect in future weeks.
So, what does Kendall mean by total forgiveness? For today, let me share the gist of what he says it is, and what it is not. We will expand on these themes as we go through this series.
(These lists come from R.T.Kendall's first chapter, "What Is Total Forgiveness?")
As Kendall discusses Joseph's story, he shares many insights. As you listen, think about situations you have been in, where someone has wronged you, and see if any of these also apply to your story. The truth is, Joseph did have some things to learn. As a teenager, he was, if we're honest, a bit obnoxious about sharing those dreams he had in which his brothers bowed down to him or the fact that he was obviously daddy's favorite as he ran around flaunting that fancy coat. God had a plan for Joseph, but he needed some refining and growing up before he was fit to fulfill it.
Through difficult experiences, Joseph learned to trust God, obey God, and serve God. We need to learn that, too, and like it or not our happy days don't teach us those lessons as well as our "why did I even get out of bed this morning" days do. Joseph also had to learn patience in the pit, in Potiphar's house and certainly in prison. Kendall reminds us that "delays can actually be part of God's purpose." (p. 55) The delays gave God time to help Joseph overcome two major obstacles, "bitterness and self-pity." If Joseph had clung to either of these, God could not have used him in the powerful way God eventually did to save not only Joseph's own family but also the entire foreign nation of Egypt. By the time Joseph meets his brothers again, he is an entirely changed man. Only out of this new character God has developed in him could Joseph totally forgive them.
What can we take away from Joseph's story to apply to our own? First, remember that he cleared the room and spoke to his brothers privately when he finally revealed the truth to them. You don't have to tell everyone else the story of wrong done to you. That holds onto the hurt, rehearsing it with each telling while doing harm to the other person simultaneously. The Egyptians did not need to know what Joseph's brothers had done. It would affect their welcome of the brothers; it might affect their regard for Joseph. There just wasn't a reason for them to know. Joseph kept it to the parties involved, and God already knew. This is also how God treats us in our sinful state. God doesn't publish a list of everything we have each done wrong for the rest of the world to read. Thank God! And I do mean, Thank you, God!!! Joseph exercised what Paul later wrote to the Ephesians, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph. 4:32)
Second, Joseph didn't use his position or his information to intimidate his brothers. He could have lorded it over them; he was second in command in all of Egypt. Neither did he blackmail them with it. He didn't intentionally leave them in fear for the rest of their lives. You can't have a healthy relationship with someone when one of you is afraid of the other. The Bible tells us in 1 John 4:18, "perfect love drives out fear...[but] fear expects punishment." Kendall points out that Joseph "wanted to be loved rather than admired" by his brothers, and in the same way, "God does not want us to be afraid of Him." God wants our respect and worship but not fear. (p. 62) God wants us to experience God's tenderness as well as God's glory. In the same way we don't need to belittle or intimidate others, even if they hurt us.
Third, Kendall suggests that what Joseph wanted for his brothers was to know genuine forgiveness, not only from him but even for each other and for themselves without an aftertaste of guilt. He said to them, "now don't be upset or blame yourselves." Can we really say that to others? Usually our response is that we want them to feel the weight of what they have done and be burdened by it. Instead, Joseph showed them how God used for good what they had intended for harm. God could have left us wallowing in our own guilt for millennia, but it was never God's intention for us to be miserable. What God wants for us is healing and renewal. That's why God sent Jesus to forgive us. That's why God also urges us to forgive one another.
Fourth, Joseph let his brothers save face. As a society today we are not very good at that. We seem to delight in seeing public figures publicly taken down for their sins, for their crimes, and for their indiscretions. I am not saying we ignore it; I am saying perhaps it is better to respond with "There but for the grace of God go I" rather than sitting before the nightly news as if we were watching a movie for our entertainment. It is not our job to humiliate others, and if we are wise enough to be humble ourselves, God will not need to humiliate us either.
Fifth, Joseph helped alleviate their fears. Can you imagine how long they have been afraid that their father would find out what they did to his favorite son? Now they would have to admit their fault, but Joseph gave them a message and invitation to their father to work through some of that confession without sharing any more details than necessary. Joseph did not hold it over their heads threatening to tell dad later. Neither should we. Once forgiveness is given, it takes the story and seals it away, never to be seen again. I have a friend who stored up evidence for many years of a wrong done to her. Once the breakthrough finally occurred, and she was able to forgive those who hurt her, she gave me that file. Someday we promised to go on a picnic and burn it in a campfire, never to see the light of day, never to hurt any of them again. This may be the hardest step for all for you, but that is what God asks you to do. Put the painful story in God's hands and choose not to hold it over and against the person you have forgiven.
Sixth, this means that Joseph made a life long commitment to continue in that forgiveness. He didn't get to change his mind once they all settled next door in Goshen. Neither do we. Once we forgive someone, we don't get to turn around and bring it back up again. That would be keeping a record of wrongs. Love doesn't do that. Psalm 130:3 says, "If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?" The truth is we couldn't. God doesn't want us to stockpile that burden of sins upon others either. Years later, after their father died, the brothers became afraid that now Joseph would unleash his anger and take revenge for the past. Maybe he had just held off all these years for dad's sake. But that is not what Joseph did. He repeated that what they had intended for harm, God had used for good. So, with kind words he reassured them. (Genesis 50:19-20) God asks us to do the same.
Seventh, instead Joseph sought blessing for his brothers and their families. Joseph wanted them all to come live in Goshen where he could provide for their needs out of the resources God had told him to prepare, so that along with the Egyptians, they would survive the remaining years of famine. Rather than their demise, Joseph wanted their well being. This is another aspect I really hadn't thought about before, but Kendall urges that beyond forgiving we are called to pray for God to bless those who hurt us. Isn't that exactly what Jesus said, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44) Again, this may be difficult for you, but I encourage you to try.
As we are going to see in the weeks to come. Forgiveness is more than words. It's more about the change in our own hearts than it is about change in the other person. It may even be more about our own relationship with God than it is about our relationship with the other person. It is for our own healing as well as any healing or protection that comes to others. Total forgiveness is not easy, but it is essential to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being. The good news is God already totally forgives us and stands ready to help us think and behave and live in new ways. That is God's gift to us and the gift we can offer to others.
As you ponder that mind boggling depth of what forgiveness can truly mean, listen to a bit of a story from the Lakota Sioux. It comes from today's lesson in the Adult Class.
A man murdered another member of the tribe, and the grieving family came to their elder to discuss their desire to seek revenge. The elder listened carefully, but then rendered a decision they had not expected. He told them to each go home and choose their most prized possession. Then the guilty man was to be brought before them and given all these gifts. He was to be fully adopted into the family to replace the member who had been lost to them, the man he had killed.
Can you even imagine being told to do that and saying yes? Can you imagine what that felt like to the one who had committed the crime? It is a sense of justice that doesn't match what we usually consider. But I can't help think that God sees the justice in that decision. Maybe God's justice is more about healing what is broken than it is about punishment. I think that is true in Joseph's story. I pray it will be true in yours.
(Many of today's ideas come from Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall. The Lakota story is in Bible Study for Lent titled Forgiveness by Marjorie Thompson.)
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