You Keep Using That Word…

Genesis 1:1-15

1 John 4:7-21

How many of you remember the cult classic movie The Princess Bride? Early on in the story, there are a trio of kidnappers, one of whom is a Sicilian named Vizzini. Many of us have words or phrases we favor in our everyday speech, and Vizzini’s is the word “Inconceivable!” Someone could be following us? “Inconceivable!” Someone is following us?! “Inconceivable!” He’s climbing the rope after us? “Inconceivable!” Vizzini the Sicilian cuts the rope, then comes over to the cliff-face again and observes, “He didn’t fall?! Inconceivable!” And finally, Inigo Montoya’s had enough of that, and he says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It’s hard to avoid pop-culture references to love, especially in music. In today’s world, ‘love’ is an unstoppable force, a feeling which completely transforms who we are and what we do, something outside of us that isn’t in our control and often controls us instead. We chase after love, we long for it, we use it to excuse or justify our decisions, we feel we’d die without it. In a lot of ways, that’s why we keep arguing over who can marry whom, who can be with whom—both as a society and as a church. We make our feelings our god, we turn love into an idol. We turn the Bible-saying around: “God is love,” and make it into “Love is God.”

But the word ‘love’ in English isn’t limited to just the kind of sexual or romantic sentiment we have toward someone else. We love our pets, we love our parents, we love our friends, we love our cars or our houses or our lifestyles or our hobbies. We love God. But we don’t love our parents or our friends or our pets or our possessions in the same ways. Our English translations of the Bible use the same word ‘love’ to describe several different concepts in the original Greek: philia, or friendship; eros, or romantic love; storge, or affection. There is a fourth, and when the Bible says “God is love” that’s what it says: God is agape. Love in this sense of the word is self-giving, sacrificial, faithful. In the Old Testament, much is made of God’s chesed, his “steadfast love”—his covenant faithfulness to the Israelites.

If you want to know what Love is, then don’t look to Taylor Swift or Justin Timberlake—look to the God whose chosen people constantly complained, constantly grumbled, constantly chased after other gods and other priorities. Look to the God who is himself Love.

 

Look at Abraham, decades older and he has no children by Sarah. In our Old Testament reading this morning, he’s almost a hundred years old when the LORD appears to him again. Decades of waiting for the promise—and even of taking matters into his own hands, in the form of fathering Ishmael by Sarah’s servant Hagar.

See God appear to Abraham as three men, three figures—and see Abraham run out to greet them, see him “bow down to the earth” before them, see him as he “sees three and worships one,” as the Early Church Fathers said.

“Welcome, welcome! Please, be my guest and stay a while!” Abraham said. “Let me get you some water, and you can wash your feet and relax a while in the shade of this tree, this oak of Mamre. Let me fix some food for you; you must have been journeying for so long already, so stay a while and rest.”

“Very well, do as you say.”

See Abraham run to Sarah: “Quickly, prepare some bread!” And see him run to his flock, to have a calf butchered and prepared; see him set down a feast before the men.

“Where’s your wife Sarah?” How did they know her name?!

“Over there in the tent.” Why didn’t Abraham seem surprised?

“Around this time next year, I will return and Sarah will bear a son.” This was the LORD!

See Sarah laugh in disbelief—she was far too old now. But was anything impossible for God?

“Why did Sarah laugh?” the LORD said.

“I didn’t laugh!” Sarah said fearfully.

“No, but you did laugh.”

If you want to know what Love is, look to the God who is himself Love, and who is faithful to his promises even when we go astray, even when we turn back; even when we laugh.

 

What does it mean that God is Love? It means that God is Three and One.

God is Love—and love requires some sort of relationship. It requires a lover, a beloved, and a love that unites them. That’s why Christians say that God is Three Persons but one God, why we talk about the Holy Trinity. Because if there was ever a time when God was alone, then there was a time when he was not Love. But because God is Love, the basic fact of reality, the Reality behind everything else, is loving relationship.

Since God created everything else, there was a point when he was the sole Being in existence. But before there was a world, there was a loving family. “God is in himself a sweet society,” as the Puritans used to say. God is Triune, God is Trinity, because he is Love.

We can’t say that we understand how God is both Three and One—and for some people, that’s not good enough. Some people refuse to accept what they don’t understand, even about God. But if we understood God, he wouldn’t be God—because God is wholly Other, totally outside of our experience, separate from the universe he created.

We don’t have much of a place for mystery in our lives any more. As a society, we have to know how things work, whether that’s a car or a phone…or a magnet. We’re ashamed to wonder, afraid to say the word ‘mystery.’ But we already know that God is totally outside our experience. And that’s okay. We don’t need to understand. Faith and love can grasp this truth, even if our minds can’t. What matters is not that we understand, but that it is true: God is Three and One.

God is Love, and he reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the begetter, the begotten, and the proceeding. The Church throughout the ages has recognized that God has revealed himself in relational terms, and so she has always avoided naming the Persons of the Trinity by actions like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—because God is not just one or three, but God is One and Three. God desires one thing, does one thing; there are no ‘parts’ to God; what the Father wants and does, the Son wants and does; what the Son wants and does, the Spirit wants and does.

So in different places, the Bible says that the Father created the world, the Son created the world, and the Spirit created the world; the Father resurrected the Son, the Son resurrected the Son, and the Spirit resurrected the Son; the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father, and the Son sends the Spirit into us. What God does, he does with all of himself. How God acts toward his creation, he does with all of himself. When Scripture declares that God is Love, it means that all of God is love—the Father is Love, the Son is Love, the Holy Spirit is Love.

 

At Mamre, Abraham encountered the one God in the three strangers. “Around this time next year, Sarah will bear a son.” Was anything too hard for God? Could God keep his promise? Could God show his covenant faithfulness, his steadfast love? Sarah laughed at the thought of bearing a child in her old age. “Why did Sarah laugh?”

“I didn’t laugh!”

“No, but you did laugh.” And God fulfilled his promise, showed his steadfast love—she named her son Isaac, “laughter.”

But the Triune name of God, the revelation of God as Love, could only come after Jesus’ work was finished and the Holy Spirit had been poured out. The people of God could only vaguely glimpse his nature before, even in the promise to Abraham and the birth of Isaac.

Jesus’ finished work on the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit finally, fully revealed that God is Love. Love comes from God, and defines those who know God, as the Apostle John says. Love isn’t found in what we do—“in this is love, not that we love God”—but that “God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Love doesn’t define who we are; it isn’t who we are. It is who God is.

Kind of makes you think of sin in a different light, doesn’t it? When you sin against God, you sin against Love.

 

Holiness means that God is completely outside of our experience. True Love is completely outside of our experience, too, because God is Love—and God is holy. We can’t understand the one without the other. And nowhere do we learn more about this God who is Love than the cross of Christ, where God shows himself to be both holy and Love.

He shows himself to be holy in that he seeks to make whole his fallen creation, he destroys sin; he shows himself to be Love in that he redeems rather than destroys what has fallen—us. And because he has made us holy, has made us whole, he gives us the ability to love. “We love because he first loved us.” We become whole by becoming like him; we become holy by becoming loving: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

 

In the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, each word depends on the word “love” for its definition. Same thing in 1 Corinthians 13, the “love” chapter. Try comparing the two, and notice the similarities. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy—goodness. Love does not boast—gentleness. Love is not self-seeking, is not easily angered—self-control. Love rejoices in the truth—joy. Love always protects, always trusts—peace. Love always hopes, always perseveres; love never fails—faithfulness.

If you want to know what Love is, look to the Gardener Saint of Sinope, Phocas, who was known for his hospitality. He lived just outside the city, and would often invite complete strangers in to rest a while before they completed their journeys.  Yet when the Diocletian persecution broke out around 300 AD, he was placed on the list, and two Roman soldiers were sent to execute him. They approached the city, and he invited them in as he often did.  He asked them their business in the city, and they thought he was trustworthy—they were looking for a man named Phocas.

He was a dangerous Christian; did he know of the man?  “I know him well,” Phocas said.  “Let’s deal with it in the morning.” So it was that his guests went to sleep for the evening, and Phocas went outside to his garden to pray.  He dug, partially because it helped him to think and to focus on his prayers to God. If he ran, he thought, he could be twenty miles away before dawn, and then he could hide with other Christians until the whole thing blew over. Yet that would put those fellow Christians in danger.  And did Christ run from his Garden of Gethsemane?  He continued digging.  What about the Roman soldiers themselves? They seemed decent enough people, just trying to do their jobs.  Would they or their families be punished if he escaped?  Finally, he made up his mind.  He had dug his own grave.

In the morning, he told them. “I am he.” The soldiers were horrified at the idea that their orders were to kill such a kind man. But he overcame their reluctance for them. He was not afraid to die, he said. And think of your families, and your duty. “I have only love in my heart for you.”

If you want to know what Love is, look to the God who is himself Love—and see what work he does in the people he makes holy.

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God Is Not…

God Is Not…

2 Samuel 6:1-11

Acts 17:22-28

Back around the late ‘90s or early 2000s, there was a contemporary Christian song called “Is There Anybody Out There?” More recently, the band Collective Soul released a song several years ago called “Are You The Answer?” Polls show that many people aren’t particularly attached to a religion. My own generation has seen the rise of the so-called “Nones” (as in, ‘None of the above’)—atheists, agnostics, and people with no attachment to a particular religion account for something like 35% of all Millennials. But as those songs show, that’s not to say that there isn’t a yearning to know; it’s just that they don’t know.

In fact, in some ways, what sets these songs I just mentioned apart from some other more overtly-Christian songs is that they leave you with the mystery of the unanswered question, and don’t try to give you the answer too.

In the passage from the Book of Acts we heard this morning, the Apostle Paul preaches to the crowded forum on Mars Hill about a shrine he found there dedicated ‘to an unknown god’ (to agnosto theo—from which we get “agnostic,” ‘don’t know’). “You don’t even know who you’re worshiping, so let me tell you about him,” Paul says. “He’s the Creator of the universe, and much bigger than the little stone and wood carvings you make and worship. This unknown God is the only reason we exist, or still draw breath. He is beyond our ability to see or touch or know, but he wants us to seek him and reveals himself to us when we do.”

Whether in America’s popular music or the Church’s history in Acts, it’s obvious that people question the meaning of life, but we often stop at the first answer: “I don’t know.” As Christians, we believe that Jesus reveals God to us; but at the same time, there’s a lot we don’t know about God because he hasn’t revealed it to us. And some of what we know about God, is what God is not. Probably the biggest thing we know about God is that he is not like us.

First Samuel puts it this way: “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at outward appearances, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

In the book of Numbers, it’s written, “God is not a human being, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.” God is not a gift-dispenser, or a vending machine.

Now, when many people think of God, they think he’s distant, but there to answer your prayers when you need him, and that he doesn’t demand much from you except he wants you to be ‘nice.’ This view is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and it’s not what the Bible says about God.

One of the key concepts in all religions is that of holiness—this sense of mystery about the supernatural, this feeling of awe and this inability to understand ‘what’s really out there’ in the universe, especially beyond what our five senses can interact with. The Bible says God is holy, and holiness means God is not ‘safe’—he’s not under our control, and he doesn’t exist simply to serve us. Like Paul said, he’s not an idol.

The motivation of much religion—whether we are talking about the Shinto religion of Japan, or the Greco-Roman religion, or the religions of the Amazon Rainforest—is to try to leverage spiritual power for our own ends. But God defies our attempts to get leverage on him; holiness means God is not ‘safe’ because he doesn’t let us treat him like an object, or a means to an end. I think this is especially clear when we look at our Old Testament reading from today. In it, the Israelites are using an ox cart to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to its new home in Jerusalem.

The people are all singing and dancing and playing music with all sorts of musical instruments as they make the nine-mile journey. Joe is dancing for joy; Liz’s skirts swirl about her as she taps out the beat of a song of praise on a timbrel (i.e. tambourine). It’s a scene of great celebration, a throng of all the Lord’s people keeping close to the symbol of the Lord’s presence, the God who revealed himself to their ancestors.

But then, one of the oxen stumbles and one of the Levites, Uzzah, reaches out a hand to steady the Ark so that it doesn’t fall—“the LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.”

If you’ve ever seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, you probably remember the scene at the end of the movie where the Nazis open the Ark and God’s power rushes out into the surrounding area, striking down Nazi soldiers left and right, even melting the skin from their leader and eventually disintegrating him. We don’t know that anything like that happened to Uzzah, but just like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, contact with God proved fatal. God isn’t like anything in this world; he is wholly Other, separate from his creation and like nothing else in our experience.

Or, as one of my seminary professors put it, “God is a live wire.” We can’t predict what he will do, we can’t control him, we can’t simply be casual about how we approach him. These are just a few of the things it means when we talk about God being holy. And this distance between God and humanity applies to everyone. On Mount Horeb, Moses asks to see God’s glory and God says, “I will show you everything about myself that you can bear. My goodness, my name, my character; I’ll show you all of these things. But my face, the most intimate part, you can’t see. No one can see my face and live.”

There is something about us as fallen human beings which makes it dangerous for us to encounter God; just look at Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 4. It’s a curious little encounter, barely seeming like more than a footnote. Moses is returning home to Egypt after his exile, and one night “at a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him.” God relented only when Moses’ wife circumcised their son. In the New Testament too, the Apostle John says more than once, “No one has ever seen God.”

We know in part, and we see in part. I know that I sometimes wonder if I am too casual about my relationship with God. Are you casual about your encounters with the living God? I had a friend in college who once described his way of praying to God as something like, “Hey God, I’m having some problems. Help me out here?”

Over and over again, the Bible speaks of those who meet God and are positively terrified. Abraham meets God, and lays his face to the ground to listen; Moses meets God in the burning bush, takes off his sandals and hides his face; Isaiah receives a vision of God and cries in terror, “Woe is me, for I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips.” Over and over again, when people even meet an angel, they have to be told, “Be not afraid.” If people were afraid even of angels, I can expect that meeting God will be just like the writer of Hebrews says: “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

It’s terrifying, because we can’t know God—God is the Great Unknown to many of us, the great mystery at the heart of the universe. But even though we can’t know God, it’s God himself who puts the desire to seek him in our hearts.

It’s also God who meets us there. We see it in Abraham, when God meets him in Genesis 15 and makes covenant with him. When God makes this covenant, he uses the language of a political treaty that Abraham would have already known: In it, the less-powerful pledges his loyalty to the more-powerful, in exchange for the more-powerful party’s blessing and protection. Then, an animal is sacrificed and cut in half, and the less-powerful party walks between the halves as if to say, “Let this happen to me if I break my covenant with you.”

Abraham follows this pattern to the letter, and God promises to bless him with children ‘more numerous than the stars.’ And then, as night falls, Abraham falls into a deep sleep and “a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Only then does God reveal himself more fully to Abraham. The darkness may hide God, and the Lord’s presence may be dreadful and awe-filled and terrifying, but in that deep and terrifying darkness is also precisely where we find God.

Holiness means God is not ‘safe’—Holiness is dangerous, because holiness is the gulf separating all of creation from its Creator. But God himself bridges that gulf, and his holiness flows outward from him like rivers of living water to touch people, places, and things. The Lord is found in deep sleep and deeper darkness, but he is also found in our sanctuaries, at our altar rails, at our Communion tables—and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion itself.

Like the wet footprints of a man coming in out of the rain, the Lord’s holiness leaves behind residue, echoes of his presence, that attach to places, things, and even people. The Temple—and the church sanctuary—are holy because God dwells in it. The capital-C Church (the one we call catholic and apostolic) is holy because God has set her apart for his Son, Jesus Christ. And you and I are holy because the Holy Spirit marked us for his own in our baptism, and dwells in us.

In Genesis, God performs acts of creation for six days; on each day, with each creation, he calls it ‘good.’ But on the seventh day, he ‘sets it apart’ (makes it holy) and doesn’t create anything—the focus of the seventh day is entirely upon God.

Holiness is who God is, as the Sabbath day (which we Christians celebrate on Sunday) shows; but holiness is also what God does. Everything God does is holy, because God himself is holy. His actions don’t just meet a standard; they are the standard.

A man once asked about a Hindu monk who was notoriously foul-tempered and a drunk to boot. “That’s your holy-man?”

“Yes, he is a holy man; but he is not a good man.”

But the Bible makes it clear, you can’t separate how you behave from who you are. “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning,” as the Apostle John writes. A bad man cannot be a holy man, because when God sets apart someone as holy, he separates that person from all the sinful, unrighteous things which God hates. When God sets someone apart as holy, he always sets them apart for godly living and righteous behavior.

God’s holiness means that he seeks to destroy sin and recreate and redeem creation; it means he makes whole that which was broken (the word ‘holy’ comes from a word which means ‘whole’). It means that even though there is an unbridgeable gulf between the creation and the Creator, God himself bridges that gap. As Paul puts it in our Scripture reading this morning, “God wants us to seek to find him, but he’s never far from us.”

God’s holiness means that he is both faithful and responsive—promising to always meet us in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion—and that he invades our lives in order to heal us and our fallen world. God looks at our fallen world and our broken lives, and he says over us, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.” ‘You will be made whole, because I am whole.’

Holiness means God is not ‘safe,’ but he is good.

I See the Night Sky

I see the night sky, terrible and dark,

Inky vastness, sable tapestry, expansive void,

Shot through with points of light,

Faint and weak and flickering.

 

Menacing, it looms so far above,

A testimony to entropy,

A monument to loss.

A hungering maw swallowing all,

Joy and pain and pleasure and sorrow

Life and death and memory and love.

 

I see the night sky

And feel myself so insignificant and small,

Feel the weight of outer darkness hovering,

Leering as it threatens to consume all.

Will I forget?  Will others forget me?

Will that void creep and nip and gnaw,

Whittling away all I am, every last memory?

Memory is all we are

O Father my Father

When I am with your people

I feel so alone

Only in solitude do I feel your presence.

 

What have I to do with men

Or their songs which arise

From hearts as isolated from the past

As from me?

 

Or what should I do when

I long for more than scraps,

Than glimpses of your glory

From ageless past-present-future?

All life’s a canvas

Upon which we all paint a scene

Blood, sweat, tears are the materials

We use to paint our dreams.

 

All life’s a canvas

A blank slate slowly filled

Each glaring mistake

Clashing and melding and mixing

Into something more whole

Than the holes and hurts we leave.

William Borden, missionary

Found this poem while going through some materials from when I attended what is now the Intervarsity Leadership Institute (IVLI) back in 2001. William Borden is perhaps best-known as the millionaire who walked away from his family fortune to become a missionary to China. He died while still training for his task, in Egypt–and despite the fact that he never made it to China, dying while still training in Egypt, he still serves as an inspiration to missionaries the world over. Despite giving up everything, including his life, he could still write in his Bible in the time leading up to his death, “No reserves. No retreat. No regrets.”

 

On the far reef the breakers
Recoil in shattered foam,
Yet still the sea behind them
Urges its forces home;
Its chant of triumph surges
Through all the thunderous din-
The wave may break in failure,
But the tide is sure to win.

O mighty sea, thy message
In changing spray is cast:
Within God’s plans of progress
It matters not at last
How wide the shores of evil,
How strong the reefs of sin-
The wave may be defeated,
But the tide is sure to win.

–William Borden (1887-1913)

The Ultimate U-Turn

The Ultimate U-Turn

Mark 11:12-25

The incident with the fig tree is one of the more interesting, and for some, troubling, passages in Scripture. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem when Jesus spots a fig tree on the side of the road. It’s not the time of year when you would harvest figs, but it seems to have been late enough in the year that Jesus thought there might be some fruit on it. But there is not, and so Jesus pronounces a curse upon it—“May you never bear fruit again”—and the group moves on toward Jerusalem. They spend the day in the city, and then return to the countryside that night. One of the disciples notices the following morning, as they’re returning to Jerusalem, that the fig tree Jesus had cursed had withered. They were astonished! Never before had they seen someone cause a tree to wither just by talking to it.

But really, the withering isn’t the point. It’s what you might call a ‘teachable moment.’ Jesus takes full advantage of it. If you have ‘the faith of God,’ strong faith, then you, too, can pray and mountains will be cast into the sea.  That’s pretty impressive! Have you ever seen a mountain cast into the sea? Neither had the disciples. In fact, to the Jews of that day, it was a literal impossibility to move a mountain. But strong faith could overcome even that.

Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t stop there, though? He doesn’t just say, “If you have faith and pray, you can overthrow mountains.” Not even ‘If you have the faith of God,’ that is, the strongest possible faith, ‘and pray.’ He continues, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”

Is it harder to throw mountains into the sea, or to forgive?

The desire for revenge and the nursing of a grudge are both rooted deep in our human nature, both hiding in the dark recesses of our hearts. It is the cause of wars and crimes, the flame that flares up from a simple hurt or disregard or slight into a blood-feud. At its heart, revenge and the nursing of a grudge are simply a failure to forgive.

Now, we’ve all been hurt in the past. Someone in the past has wronged you, and it has left a scar. Whatever that person did, you regarded them as an enemy. Or maybe they didn’t even start out as an enemy. You were simply on opposite sides of an issue, and slowly or maybe not so slowly, the lines blurred between opponent and enemy.

And even when you got over that hurt, that injury, that grudge, you keep finding it sneaking up on you again, even after you think your heart is clean, you find that poison bubbling up out of your heart again. Even when you thought you had forgiven, you keep finding yourself having to forgive, over and over.

Yeah, overthrowing mountains is impossible. But forgiveness? That’s even harder.

 

Take for example this real-life story.

On a morning in the fall of 1950, a lone American visited Sugamo Prison, the home of 850 of the Japanese prison guards who had overseen his stay as a POW during World War II.  He had spent two and a half miserable years as a POW.  While there, he was repeatedly beaten; like many prisoners, he was abused, starved, left to deal with dysentery untreated.  He was an Olympic runner before the war.  But the injuries and abuse he suffered in the days after his search-and-rescue plane crashed into the sea robbed him of his ability to compete when the Olympics resumed in 1948.  After the war ended, he suffered, like so many returning POWs, with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.  He would dive for cover at the sound of a car backfiring, stand at attention when he heard people yelling what sounded like the Japanese word for ‘salute,’ and had vivid flashbacks of the life he had endured at various prison camps on Japan’s main island.

Slowly, he turned toward alcohol to dull the memories.  At the same time, remembering the brutality of a particularly vicious Japanese NCO who had singled him out for special treatment, he slowly became obsessed with the idea that murdering this man, Mitsuhiro Watanabe, whom POWs nicknamed ‘the Bird,’ would free him of dreams tormented by the man.  He trained for the day that he could fly over to Japan and hunt the Bird down; but in the meantime, his marriage fell apart and his wife left him to return to her parents with their newborn daughter, intending on filing for divorce.

 

There was a lot of hurt in that man. There was a lot of justifiable anger and pain in him, as there was with many American veterans of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The atrocities that many Americans witnessed and endured—the Bataan Death March, the fanatical charges, the kamikaze attacks, the treatment that POWs received, not to mention witnessing the horrors of war itself and the mass forced suicide on Okinawa….

It doesn’t have to be a war crime to be a sin. Kidnapping and murder and theft all have the potential to put the poison of a desire for revenge in our hearts. It doesn’t even have to be a sin for it to hurt and require forgiveness; the man or woman who broke your heart needs forgiveness just as much for the unintentional pain as for any deliberate jab.

But forgiveness is the only thing that stops the vicious cycle of hatred and revenge. The African tribesman who kidnaps a woman from a rival tribe brings down the wrath of that tribe upon his own; they raid his tribe in return, and he feels the need to answer them in kind again.

It speaks to the depths of human depravity that forgiveness is so difficult. It’s a monumental undertaking. We hurt one another so often. But that forgiveness is so difficult speaks too of the depths of God’s grace: It is an impossibility to forgive, and yet God forgives.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus links our own forgiveness with our forgiving others. Forgive, so that your heavenly Father will forgive you too. We ask this whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, saying, “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We pray for forgiveness as we forgive others, because our offense, our transgression, is against God as much as it is any human being when we sin. It’s not just, not right, for us to hold sin against someone else even while we are asking God for forgiveness. When we hold sin against other people, we’re usurping God’s place as the final arbiter and corrector of the world’s brokenness. The Lord is the one who will set everything right, not us. God did not design us to fix all of the world’s problems. We are not God, and we can’t fix everything—we were never intended to do so.

So when we pray for forgiveness as we forgive others, we remind ourselves that forgiveness is difficult—if not impossible—and that God has the most reason to hold debts and trespasses, sins and transgressions, against people. And yet he forgives.

Unforgiveness and hatred and grudges all harm the one who bears them. Like someone who drinks poison in order to hurt someone else, or who takes ahold of a hot coal intending to throw it at someone, what we do not forgive festers in us. We may be motivated by that unforgiven injury, and then hurt someone—but the grudge itself does nothing to them. Instead, it only twists the knife in us further.

CS Lewis once wrote that every person was slowly being twisted or shaped by their actions into a creature meant for heaven or hell, a creature that belongs in heaven or hell. Even the slightest decision leaves its mark on a person’s soul. “Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature,” he says.

If a grudge nursed is one step closer to hell, then forgiveness is the essence of heaven. And just like heaven, it is beyond our reach. Forgiveness would heal us of everything that’s bent us out of shape, twisted us and defiled us. But we humans have fallen into a deep pit, and we cannot untwist ourselves, we cannot climb out again under our own power. Forgiveness is impossible—but God forgives, and what God forgives, he heals.

The new life God gives through Jesus Christ drains the swamp of our hearts, and the bitterness at the base of our being is washed away, replaced by the peace and the grace of forgiveness—of ourselves, and of others.

 

Remember that man I was speaking of earlier? His wife never did divorce the former Olympic runner; returning home to her husband to wait out the finalizing of the divorce papers, she went to hear Billy Graham preach in Los Angeles.  After her own conversion and surrender to Christ, she told the man she wasn’t going to divorce him, and that he should come listen to Rev Graham preach the following day.  He reluctantly agreed, but left early.  She convinced him to come back the next day, and as he turned to leave at the altar-call, something happened.

While stranded at sea, he and the surviving crew of his aircraft had run out of water quickly, and only rainfall was sustaining them.  But there had not been any rain for several days, and the survivors on their raft were in danger of dying of thirst.  But the man prayed, “God, if you send rain, I will serve you for the rest of my life.”  The next day, it had rained.

It had been key to his survival while he was at sea.  In the intervening years, the man had forgotten his promise.  But that night, as Louie Zamperini stormed out of the revival-tent—it started to rain.  He remembered his promise, and instead of storming out, he turned around and he gave his life to Christ at the altar. He was a new man.

The prisoners at Sugamo Prison, his former guards, had cause to be concerned that a former prisoner had come to see them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he had intended to hunt down and kill one of them.

Even Zamperini himself had wondered whether the peace he had known since his conversion was resilient enough to endure looking at his former captors once again.  When he arrived at Sugamo Prison, he had asked where the former guard called the Bird was; he was informed that he had committed suicide some time before. And Zamperini discovered just how resilient that peace was.  He felt nothing of the hatred or the desire for revenge that he had fostered only a few short years before, he felt no vindication or justification.

All he felt when he was told of Watanabe’s fate was compassion for a lost soul, for a life that had moved beyond redemption.

His former guards had been hesitant to see him; as they approached, though, he bounded to greet them with a radiant smile.  The man who had himself been adrift in a post-war haze of hurt and hatred was truly free.

He was truly free, because he had forgiven. The poison in his heart had been drained, the cycle of hatred had been broken.

Forgiveness may be impossible; but God forgives anyway—does the impossible—and gives us grace to do the same.