Hebrews 8:1-13 – Deliverance through a Manger

God Is With Us, by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese, 2006

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Therefore, Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (NIV)

Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Day is almost here. The Messiah is coming. I genuinely believe that Jesus is the mid-point of history; everything for all time hinges upon Christ’s incarnation. The most cataclysmic event in the history of the world is a birth. The hopes of humanity are focused, of all things, in a stinky old feeding trough for animals – a manger.

Yes, Christians put a lot of focus on the cross and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation was the signature event of God’s breaking into this world. The inconceivable was conceived. God became human. Nothing would ever be the same again….

Nativity by African artist Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, 2001

Jesus is our great high priest, the nexus between heaven and earth. All else are only mere shadows of the real Savior. Christ is the hinge upon which our own personal lives turn. The old system of law fades and gives way to the person for whom it all pointed. For the law, as important as it was, has never been able to save. In Christ there is a new covenant established by grace, taking care of the sin issue once for all.

Through the Christ child, all other means of deliverance have become obsolete. No matter how much he washed his hands, Pilate could not wash away his guilt. Despite all our efforts to hide or undo our shame, it will not go away. It is through Jesus that all guilt and shame have been banished. Human iniquity is taken away. All that we have done and left undone is forgiven – our sin is purged forever.

A new age has dawned. A new era has been inaugurated. The miracle of the Nativity explodes with continuing effect throughout history. Its continuing effects can still be felt, two-thousand years later. Nothing will ever undo the power of love and grace which was unleashed in the little town of Bethlehem.

Here is a clear and confident declaration to any and all in despondency or despair, no matter the reasons why: We may feel crushed, dejected, confused, or broken because of this past year’s events; but our salvation depends not on our mood or the constant changing of circumstances. Christ has offered himself once for all. The work is finished. Our faithful high priest is even now interceding for you and me in heaven.

Our faith is grounded not in our pedigree, our position, or our ability to produce but forever in what Christ has done in becoming human on our behalf. See the manger where he lies. Know that salvation is before us. Believe the promise of God.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts:
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted his life
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the power of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Acts 2:36-42 – From Sorrow to Salvation

Baptism by American artist Ivey Hayes (1948-2012)

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NIV)

Imagine we are all standing around in a huge modern-day lobby, ready to listen to Peter. We understand big events like this must be well-organized, so everyone is getting a name tag.  But the name tags are given to us with not only our first names; they also include our hidden guilt and shame.  People walk up to the registration table. “Name?” “Bob.”  “What are you ashamed of, Bob?”  “I stole some money from my boss once, and he never found out.” The person takes a marker and writes, Bill: Embezzler. 

Next person: “Name?” “Jill.” “Jill, what are you guilty of?” “I deliberately slandered a group of people. I said things that were not true about them because I did not like them.” So, the person writes on Jill’s nametag, Jill: Slanderer. “Name?” “George.” “What kind of guilt and shame are you carrying?” “I’ve been coveting my neighbor’s Corvette… and his wife.” George: Coveter. Person after person comes. 

Then, up to the table comes Jesus. “What is your shame, Jesus?” Well, in truth, none. So, Jesus starts walking down the line. He comes to Bob and says, “Bob, give me your name tag,” and puts it on himself. “Jill, give me your name tag.” He puts it on himself. “George, give me your name tag.” It goes on himself.

Soon Jesus is covered with name tags and a bunch of icky shame and awful guilt. Apart from Jesus, we cannot take the name tags off because we cannot shed the labels of who we really are. Christ bore the cross covered with all our guilt and shame attached to him. It was all crucified with him.

When the people of the Apostle Peter’s day understood who Jesus was and what he had done for them, they were deeply troubled in their spirits and their souls were horribly upset. They were cut to the heart with the things they had done which sent Christ to the cross. The crowd’s remorse was so deep and profound that they were beside themselves with spiritual pain and asked Peter,

“What shall we do!?”

Peter called them to “repent and be baptized.” To repent is to have a complete change of mind and heart; it is to express a courageous naming of shame, guilt, and sin. Repentance, then, leads to a 180 degree turn of direction to our lives. Repentance is realizing what we have become, and seeing it is not a good place to be.

Sometimes we lack awareness of how serious our situation really is and how at risk we really are. It may be hard to imagine our offense is bad enough to crucify Jesus. Perhaps we have self-justified our morsels of gossip or our lack of attention to the poor, only choosing to see our hard work and sincere efforts to do good.

For others, the problem with repentance runs deeper, having been raised in a legalistic environment. These folks lug around a guilt-laden backpack that would bend the knees of a mule. And most of the guilt, they realize, is neurotic—not based on any real transgression.  Every bad thought and each failure of faith is obsessed over to the point that they cannot shake the pangs of constant shame.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is near. In the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, healing, and new life. If today there is a realization of being in a bad place in your life, whatever that place is, the cross of Christ addresses the deepest needs of your life. What shall we do?  Repent and be baptized.

Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Spirit are all linked together in today’s New Testament lesson. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus; it visually shows us that God washes away our guilt and shame in the name of Jesus.

Baptism is a different kind of nametag, identifying that we belong to God. One who repents and embraces new life in Jesus Christ de-thrones all other competing lords and identifies as a beloved child of God.

The result of that ancient mass repentance and baptism was that three-thousand people were added to a small church of one-hundred-twenty persons! Since repentance leads to action, the new believers went to work devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and orienting their lives completely around Jesus through their constant fellowship together.

Allow me to be a bit more specific about what repentance looks like and does not look like. The prayers of the mildly repentant sound something like this:

“Easy-going God: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”

I like eggs.  I eat them nearly every day.  Fresh eggs are the best.  Sometimes I make an omelet, with, of course, bacon, green pepper, and cheese.  When I am making my omelet, if I crack open a rotten egg, I do not go ahead and mix it in with the others in the hope that the other good eggs will overwhelm the rotten one.

Grace can only be grace when we have a true realization of our guilt and shame. Grace is radical. It throws out the rotten omelet altogether and makes a new one so incredibly delicious that we never want to go back to the old way of making them. And it is for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

Godly sorrow, like the kind in today’s story, leads to repentance. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he called them out and insisted they turn from their old way of life.  In his second letter, he followed up with this: 

I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11, MSG)

There are (many) times we need to feel awful before we feel wonderful – awful concerning how much we have hidden our shame and never let it see the purifying light of the gospel – but wonderful of how over-the-top good grace really is, once we have exposed the guilt and let Jesus replace it with God’s mercy.

O merciful God, we bring long-held grudges and recent grievances, and we chew them over, even at the foot of your cross. We tiptoe around chasms of misunderstanding, we pick our way anxiously among stumbling-blocks of language and culture, and blame each other for every misstep, even while singing of your Spirit. We tremble to name the troubles we see in the Church and the world, for fear of our own sins finding us out, for fear that we will become easy targets for everyone’s hostility. Have pity on us, for our hands are not strong enough and our hearts are not big enough to hold all together in love. We beg you to come to us, foolish as we are, downcast and despairing. We beg you to send us a breath of your Spirit with the perfume of resurrection and hope, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35 – Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting

Hello, friends! Welcome. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. Click the video below and let us consider the words and ways of the Lord Jesus.

As we consider forgiveness, let this song by Matthew West help us along:

Forgive us for our sins, just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us. And do not cause us to be tempted, but save us from the Evil One. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:12-13, NCV)

Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Nikola Saric
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Serbian German painter Nikola Saric

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, NIV)

It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will tear a hole in your heart and last a long time.

When the hurt comes, we all must decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness. Oh, it’s easy to talk about forgiveness when you are doing fine – its another thing when you are hurt. One man, during a conversation with his Pastor, had this story:

“Nineteen years ago, this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week. I have a thirty-two-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him, I will kill him. I’ve thought about it. I’m sixty-three years old. I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”

We may wonder: “Why even bother to forgive?  Why even care about that person?” Emotional pain and angry hurt can be so deep that we see no need for forgiveness. “After all,” we might reason, “look at what that person has done to me!”

Jesus does not want bitterness to be the last word; he wants it to be forgiveness. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a piece of Christ’s teaching concerning “little people,” that is, people who are, by status, lowly and unimportant to others. The heavenly Father’s heart is one that cares deeply for them. They are lost, lonely, and languishing in pain. They need help. Jesus clearly explained what to do, giving a three-step process to privately go to others who have hurt us and win them back through reconciliation (Matthew 18:15).

The disciple Peter, ever the wondering, if not wandering disciple knows that if a person hurts someone, they might do it again. So, if a lost sheep is brought back to the fold, and then is offensive again-and-again, at what point do we say enough-is-enough and stop forgiving?

We as people can often feel a keen sense of “ought to.” We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe. This works on the emotional level just as much or more than any other arena of life. If we offend someone and they become angry, we believe we ought to make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.

The late Methodist scholar and author, Dr. David Seamands, said the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) The failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) The failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Seamands.

We have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  Equally true is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

The Failure to Receive Forgiveness

In the end, was the unmerciful man in Christ’s parable forgiven?… No…. Why not?… Because he failed to understand forgiveness and receive it.  It was not the master’s fault; it was the man’s own fault. So, why did he react so mercilessly to a fellow person in debt? (The man’s debt was in the billions and could not be paid off, but the other man’s debt was just a few dollars). The unmerciful guy failed to grasp the master’s grace; he didn’t get it.  He thought he could work it off, and when the debt was canceled, he could not wrap his heart around such mercy. None of us can repay grace – it is free.

The inability to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection, achievement, and recognition from others. Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work – fueling the workaholic, motivating the addict, and animating much of the service done in the church and the world. The problem is not a lack of understanding sin or acknowledging personal sinful actions among Christians; the problem is what to do about it. Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

The Unforgiving Servant by American artist James B. Jangknegt

Here is a little test: Why do you do what you do? Why do you do good and right things?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin in our lives? Or, are we working to pay off a debt to God?  Am I striving to assuage my guilt? Are we searching to feel better through our service to others?

We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to with the absence of guilt – so we just go back to guilt as our default setting, like a dog returning to its vomit. Furthermore, the tragedy is compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.

Another little test: Are we content to simply ask people to help or to serve, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate them? Guilt and arm-twisting are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we believe we must guilt our kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, or anyone else before they will do anything, then it is us who have a spiritual problem.

Ideally, we live and work out of a sense of gratitude toward God and not by guilt. Yet, there are always folks who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt train along with them. We are unable to forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt, making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

The Failure to Give Forgiveness

The unforgiven are the unforgiving. The reason the guy in the story responded so violently to a person who only owes him a few bucks is because he never really believed he was forgiven by the master in the first place. He could not envision a world in which his debt was paid. The unmerciful man was still operating as though life were a matter of collecting debts.

At the heart of many broken relationships and emotional conflicts is an insistence on debt-collecting. We want from others something they cannot give us. God in Christ erases the great debt we have, not some other person.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God provides. People are good at being people – but they make lousy gods. It is God who meets the deepest needs of our hearts – your spouse, children, friends, church, and community cannot do it. That is a job for Jesus. The watershed issue is grace – whether we can receive it, or not.  We cannot give something we have not first received.

It would be weird if a marriage vow went something like this: “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon of insecurity and take care of me!”

Sometimes people have a nasty tendency to make idols of other people and look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness, joy, and peace. For example, the weird marriage vow, if followed through with, inevitably will result in debt-collecting. A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!” Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace. It is all about grace. Everything is about grace, not guilt and not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. (Hebrews 10:22)

Conclusion

You and I are forgiven. There is no need to collect a debt which is already paid. The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person reading this is an exception to grace. Here is a final exam, to determine if there is someone we need to forgive:

  1. The Resentment Test: Is there someone you resent? Is there someone who has wronged you?  When you see them or think about them, do you have resentment in your heart?
  2. The Responsibility Test: You say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for ________.”  This is passing the buck and believing that my happiness is dependent on another person. The truth is that no one is responsible for your emotional well-being and happiness except you.
  3. The Reminder and Reaction Test: Is there someone who “presses your buttons?” This is when we see or talk to a person who reminds us of someone else who hurt us, and we react to that person by transferring our anger and/or pain onto them.

The Pastor responded to the man mentioned earlier who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.”

The way to do deal with bitterness is through forgiveness. To forgive involves a long journey, just like every other aspect of following Jesus. Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will be soft.  We will want to begin the journey to forgive others, stumbling forward with hearts torn by hurts, yet set free by grace.

May it be so to the glory of God.