Monday, March 14, 2011

Christ: King of Forgiveness

Preached Sunday, March 13, 2011
Scripture Readings:

Exodus 33:18-23; 34:4-10 (note: “love to thousands” means “a thousand generations”, and “love” is “hesed” or “steadfast, covenant love”)

Mark 2:1-12

There is a game that God plays with us. It is sort of like the illegal business practice called “bait and switch”; where a store advertizes an irresistible price for a certain model of a certain product (say of an espresso machine). You go to the store and find that they don’t have any machines of that model, but they do have a slightly better and more expensive model, and so (since you have taken the trouble of going to that store in order to come home with a new espresso machine) you buy the model you did not plan to buy for a price you did not intend to pay.

Sometimes we feel attracted to God because we are motivated by the desire for a particular product. Even if we are a regular customer, we might be in the market for a particular product, and so we come closer to God, shopping for that product. Maybe the product is peace. Or it’s support. Or it’s friendship. Maybe it’s freedom. Or it’s answers. Or it’s fulfillment. That product is the bait, and God performs a switch.

This is what happened in both the stories we have read from the scriptures today. This is what happened to Moses and to the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus.

Here is the switch that God performs with Moses. You have to admit that the Lord did some pretty impressive special effects when he used Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. There were the plagues: turning the River Nile to blood; the frogs and the gnats and the flies; the vast darkness that overshadowed the Egyptians while the sun shined on the Israelites. There was the parting of the Red Sea with the Israelites passing safely through the parted sea, and the Egyptians, coming behind, being swept away and drowned. They were led by the presence of God that took the form of a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night: pretty impressive. You could say that all this showed the glory of the Lord.

This kind of action is most of what Moses knew about God, up to that time. And Moses was impressed by this, and attracted to it. He wanted to know more. It would be exciting if he knew more about that glory he was dealing with.

So Moses said to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass before you.” (Exodus 33:18-19) There is a subtle switch here: switching goodness for glory. At least goodness was probably a different model of glory than what Moses was looking for. Moses did not get what he asked.

The Lord knew what he was asking for and told him that he couldn’t give it to him. It would kill Moses to get what he wanted. There are things we want that seem good, but they are not good for us. Parents know this about their kids’ desires. God knows this about our desires.

Moses didn’t need God’s glory, no matter how deeply he wanted to see it. What Moses and his people needed most was God’s goodness even though they were not in the market for that goodness.

Most of the people actually found God’s glory highly inconvenient because they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt, where life was predictable (at least), and they were probably fed and housed as well as any free peasant in Egypt. All they saw in the glory of God was a threat; something to fear (and they had reason to fear).

Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, had a stronger appreciation of glory, and God’s glory had taken him under its wings. It made being God’s person exciting.

So glory was the bait, and goodness was the switch. Moses and his people needed God’s goodness, even though they were really in the market for other products. And then we notice that God seems to put a different kind of goodness on the counter than the goodness most of us think of.

It was the goodness of compassion and forgiveness. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger…” What!!! Did you hear that? “Slow to anger?” The Old Testament God!

There has been almost nothing but violence in the Book of Exodus so far: violence and terror. (Well, there has been sin as well. Israel had made and worshiped the golden calf, even while the smoke and fire of the presence of God thundered on the top of Mount Sinai right above their heads; while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments from God.)

Have you ever had to get along with a person on a perpetual short fuse? That’s what they thought God was like, and it is hard for us to see anything different when we read their story.

The Lord showed Moses his heart on the mountain top. Have you ever been badly wrong about someone? Yes! I have trusted people I should not have trusted, but I have also looked down on people who turned out to be a lot better than me. Moses knew to the depth of his heart how wrong he and his people had been about God.

Have you ever loved someone who didn’t know how much you loved them? Have your efforts to effectively love someone ever been misunderstood or misinterpreted? God is almost always in this boat: almost always. This is hard to see in Exodus, and in most of the Old Testament, but (even there) God says that he is much misunderstood.

The words are “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (34:6)” This means that there is always more love than anger; and, if the love and anger of God ran a race, love would win every time.

According to God (if we are to speak of any punishment of our sins) only continues for three or four generations. We all know families that have cycles of bad patterns (patterns of abuse, or neglect, or dysfunction) that last for generations, until there is a generation that comes along and learns to break the cycle. But, above that pattern, God maintains “steadfast love for thousands (for a thousand generations).”

Thousand is an ancient poetic term for countless and endless: steadfast love for endless, infinite generations. Someday I will ask myself this question. Did I ever feel like God was punishing me? Then I will realize that, if any such thing ever conceivably happened, it must have been ten billion light years ago. I can’t remember it any more. If it ever happened, it will have been swallowed up by the steadfast love of God.

This is the power of the infinite depth of the love that God says he feels. Do you understand the depths of the feelings of the person sitting next to you? Do you think they understand yours? Can any of us understand the depths of God’s feeling? We will think almost anything about God except about the infinity of his love.

God told Moses, “You will see my back.” (33:23) We can scarcely imagine what it might mean to say that neither Moses, nor we, have ever seen anything more than the backside of God’s love; because we are not strong enough, or good enough, to take the full-frontal image of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God.

What Moses saw and heard that day made him fall on his face and ask for the steadfast love of God, in the form of forgiveness, for him and his people. Moses saw, in what God showed him of his heart, that God was full of the steadfast love that had, in itself, the nature to forgive. Moses saw that their whole identity as God’s people had to be rooted in the forgiveness and grace of God. “Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” (Exodus 34:9)

God did so. God made them his inheritance; his covenant people. This covenant (which means promise) is rooted in the forgiveness and grace of God that we all need. So the glory of God was the bait, and the graciousness of forgiveness was the switch. They received the promise of “the God compassionate and gracious.”

There was a similar kind of bait and switch that Jesus played with the paralyzed man and his family and friends. They came to Jesus because he was a wonder worker. He was a healer. That was the bait and forgiveness was the switch. Well, the paralytic got both. That was quite a bargain!

Jesus unfolded his own story gradually. He was constantly tweaking what he wanted people to know about him. There were times when Jesus healed people and then ordered them not to tell anyone what he had done for them. (Mark 1:40-45)

So far, neither Jesus, nor Mark, has said a single word about the cross or the resurrection, but we know that those are coming. The cross and the resurrection are the great miracles that Jesus came to perform in order to defeat the power of sin and death.

That is the great purpose of Jesus. That is his authority as Christ the King; to defeat sin and death. He is building a kingdom that will be free from the power of sin and death. It is a realm where life will be truly abundant and everlasting.

Up to this point, neither Jesus, nor Mark, has said a word about the forgiveness of sins. But now Jesus said it. His kingdom rules by forgiving sins. It is by the forgiveness of sins that we enter his rule and his kingdom. Forgiveness is how we live as people who belong to the king.

“The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mark 2:10) Son of Man is a title for the messiah, the king, in the picture given to us by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14)

Mark tells us that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God. And Mark tells us that Jesus is the Son of Man: which means that Jesus is human (in this case the ultimate human). Jesus is God and human.

The Old Testament gave conditions under which a priest could declare a person to be forgiven by the Lord. It could only be given on the basis of repentance, restitution, and sacrifice. (Leviticus 4; 5; 16; 17:11 – see “The NIV Application Commentary” on Mark, by David Garland; p. 94) None of these reasons are mentioned in the forgiveness of Jesus. This man was forgiven because he had come to Jesus, carried by faithful friends, and Jesus had (and always has) the authority to forgive sins.

Now we need to understand that forgiveness (real forgiveness) is not a matter of words. Forgiveness is costly. The people who say, “I will forgive, but I will never forget,” are giving us an example of the costliness of forgiveness. This is why we don’t do it. Actually, when these people “bury the hatchet” they only bury the head or blade. They keep the handle for future use.

Sin is a kind of betrayal. It is a betrayal of God, who made us. It is a betrayal of others who may love us or be affected by us in any way. It is even a betrayal of ourselves, since we were not created for sin, but for love and goodness. It is hard to heal betrayal. Betrayal leaves wounds, and wounds leave scar tissue, and scar tissue is never quite the same as uninjured flesh and bone. It is never so flexible and tender again.

Jesus commands us to forgive. And we are instructed not to pray for our own forgiveness unless we forgive others. (Matthew 6:12) It almost always reopens our wounds in order to forgive those who wounded us.

Our forgiveness of others or ourselves is always imperfect. But we have an authority to forgive sins that is backed up by Jesus’ perfect authority.

Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, and authority, in the Biblical way of thinking, means that this forgiveness is really not just something Jesus says, and it is not even limited to what Jesus does. Authority, in the Bible, refers to substance. It is basically something you have, because it is you. It is your substance. It is what you are made of. It is what you are.

Jesus died to set us free from sins because Jesus is, in himself, the root of all forgiveness. Jesus, by his very nature, is the ransom paid for sin. In the Book of Revelation Jesus is said to be, “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8) Jesus did, in time, what he was, in his nature, beyond time.

The religious leaders were right when they said, “Who can forgive sin but God alone.” (Mark 2:7) The Lord had shown his heart to Moses, and it was the heart of a forgiver. Forgiveness is not a thing God says in words. It is a thing that God himself must do. Forgiveness is what God is.

It is not forgiveness without discipline, but forgiveness is what God is, because God is love. God’s love outruns his anger every time.

We are like Moses who came to God to experience his glory; or like the paralytic who came to Jesus for badly needed wonders. Neither of them came to the Lord for mercy or forgiveness. We want and ask for other things than what it is in the heart of God to give us.

When I go wrong I want to go to Jesus for self-assertion and self-justification. I want Jesus to recognize why I am right. I don’t want forgiveness, unless Jesus plays with me some game of bait and switch. He has to show me how such a substitution is what I truly need.

Like the friends of the paralytic, we carry people into the presence of Jesus for many reasons, but seldom for forgiveness.

The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Forgiveness. The host of this table is Jesus who is the King of Forgiveness. It was humans just like us who wounded Jesus (just as we wound ourselves and others). And, if we had been there, we would have played our own part in crucifying him; or in abandoning him to his cross. Our sins left Jesus scarred with wounds that even his resurrection has not erased. (Luke 24:39; John 20:20)

Because our sins are there upon him, he has the substance and the authority, and he can forgive us. At this table he invites us to receive his forgiveness and be filled by it.

Food gives us life. Here is the food that gives us freedom and life in its fullness. Since we are filled with the life that comes from his forgiveness, we can forgive others and carry them in prayer and love to Jesus Christ our king.


  1. Another brilliant and inspiring post!

    I needed that today especially the last lines spoke to my soul.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Have a great Wednesday!

    PLUS; I'm always grateful for your inspirational posts and for your wonderful comments on my blog.
    Highly appreciated!!

  2. My plate has been really full lately so my apologies I haven't been able to comment promptly.

  3. Betty! I could tell from your posts that you were pretty busy and all over the place. It is nice to hear from you. And your posts are always so generous-hearted and life-savoring. Have to create words for it!