Wednesday, July 20, 2005

the rough guide to forgiveness (a sermon)

Here's the text of a message I gave last Sunday. I hope it helps you in some way.


The Rough Guide to Forgiveness
a sermon by Troy Cady

We are a diverse church. We are a people of different countries, different ages, and different church backgrounds. There is a lot that could divide us. But there is a lot more that unites us. That’s what we’re here to talk about today: what unites us. We’ve been doing that at our monthly services now for the past months. We’ve been looking at topics like God our Father, Jesus Christ the Son, the Holy Spirit and the church. This is what unites us and these are the things that really matter. This week, we’re looking at “The Rough Guide to Forgiveness.” On a practical level, this word (forgiveness) sums up what the Christian faith is all about.

This past week I’ve had the privilege of giving a series of talks at a mission’s conference in El Escorial. The talks were based on Psalm 51…

If you are not familiar with Psalm 51, let me tell you a little about it. Psalm 51 was written by King David. About 20 years into his reign, King David slept with another man’s wife, while her husband was off in battle. Then, when he discovered the woman Bathsheba became pregnant because of him, he tried to cover up what he did by murdering Uriah, her husband. About one year later, God’s prophet Nathan visited David to confront him about all this. Psalm 51 is the result. In it, David asks for God’s forgiveness.

Let’s read it together: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely, I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

As I was preparing for the series of talks I gave previously this week, it occurred to me that Psalm 51 would be a great way to address today’s topic: forgiveness. But there’s something remarkable about Psalm 51 when it comes to forgiveness: it’s what the Psalm is all about, but the word is never used once. How is that possible?

Some time ago, I heard about a novel that won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. The name of the novel is “Love.” As you might guess, the novel is all about love. But, what made this novel so remarkable is that the usage of the actual word “love” is avoided until the very end of the book.

Psalm 51 is even more remarkable than that: it’s all about forgiveness, but the actual word is never used! Instead, a load of other words are used to describe the “ins and outs” of the phenomenon we call “forgiveness.” In that sense, Psalm 51 provides us with a “thesaurus” of sorts when it comes to forgiveness. A thesaurus, as you know, has many uses. It can be used to simply look up words that can be used almost synonymously with another word. For example, I could look up the word “cold” and discover words like: frigid, frozen, chilly, crisp, nippy, and cool. These words give alternatives, but they do more than that: they, in some ways, help define what it means to be cold.

In the same way, Psalm 51 does not merely give us synonyms for forgiveness; it, in some ways, helps define forgiveness and describe the nature of forgiveness. It does this through using a vast variety of highly descriptive words (as one would expect in a poem)

For example, Psalm 51 describes the problem addressed by forgiveness with 5 different words. Each of them are similar, but each of them has their own unique connotation. Psalm 51 tells us that our problem can be described with these words: pesha, ‘avon, chatta’ah, chet’, and ra’. You may wonder why the writer uses 5 different words to describe the problem. I think he uses these different words because, though each of them deals with the same thing, they are all slightly different. In using them, no one is able to say, “I don’t have a need for forgiveness.” For example, pesha gives the idea of outright rebellion to God’s ways, while ‘avon gives the idea of perverting or twisting God’s ways. One directly opposes God, while the other takes what God has given and changes it for the worse. These are the two words translated “transgression” and “iniquity” in our English bible. But, you may have noticed another word the writer uses to describe the problem under consideration: it’s the word “sin.” The idea here is different than rebellion or twisting something good. The idea here is simply “missing the mark.” It was a term used in archery. When someone missed the bull’s-eye, it would be said “they sinned” a certain amount. So, this is to say: regardless of whether you would classify yourself as a “rebellious” person or a “perverted” person, you must agree that all of us are “sinful” people. All of us have “missed the mark of perfection.” None of us are perfect. All of us have failed at one point or another.

Well, if we did have a thesaurus in front of us right now, we might see at the bottom of the entry under sin, these words: “See also Psalm 51:14- Bloodguilt.” If we were to turn to that word, to see what that has to do with sin, we would discover this link: transgression, iniquity and sin results in bloodguilt. At this point, we would probably need to put the thesaurus down and pick up a history book of some sort to understand what this “bloodguilt” thing is all about. If we were to do so, we would discover that “bloodguilt” was a concept that was quite familiar to the Hebrew culture. It came into play whenever life was taken in various forms. The most obvious form was when someone was murdered. In that instance, the murderer would be “guilty of the victim’s blood.” Thus, the term, “bloodguilt”. But “bloodguilt” did not only apply to physical murder. Bloodguilt resulted whenever another’s livelihood was taken in other ways too. For example, theft. What is theft, but taking another person’s livelihood? Or, worshipping other gods. What is that, but attempting to kill the One, True God in our spirit? You can see that, any time we sin, bloodguilt is the natural result. It’s as if the life is being drained right out of us.

That’s the problem forgiveness deals with. That’s why forgiveness is necessary. Now: If sin is the context, then God is the subject and we are the object. Let’s look at the subject next. I find it fascinating that, in Psalm 51, David uses 5 words to describe our problem, and then he uses 6 words to describe the source of the solution: God. Now, you would think, in light of all that is wrong, that God would be described as angry, wrathful and punishing. But nothing could be further from the truth! On the contrary, God is described in verse one as loving, in verse 2 as compassionate, in verse 11 as having salvation (that is, as having the power to save or rescue us. He’s described in verse 14 as the God who saves (the God who acts on that power), and as the one who puts things right (the one who is righteous and just). Finally, he’s described in verse 18 as having nothing but good will towards us. 6 powerful nouns, all of them positive, used to describe our great God.

Fortunately, God acts in keeping with his character. There were 6 nouns used to describe who God is. There are 12 verbs used to describe what God does to save us. In looking up the entry under “forgiveness” in our biblical thesaurus, these are the things you would find there (and all of these expressions are rooted in actual Hebrew words David used): God has mercy on us (v 1), God blots out our sin (v 1), God washes away sin again and again (v 2), God cleanses us from sin (v 2), God purges sin and purifies us by taking the blame (v 7), God covers his eyes from our sin (v 9), God creates a new heart in us (v 10), God renews our spirit (v 10), God allows us to stay in his presence (v 11), God leaves his Spirit inside us (v 11), God sustains us (v 12), God delivers us (v 14).

Every one of these gives us a different perspective as to how specifically God takes care of our sin problem. You can see that there is no single way God “does it all.” Forgiveness is like a beautiful diamond, in that sense: it has many sides to it. You can look at it this way or that way. Either way, it’s still a diamond and it’s still precious and of utmost value. Forgiveness is beautiful and priceless.

For example, in verse one we are assured God blots out our sin. Literally translated, it could be written that God “wipes out” or “obliterates” our sin. This is good news to me. Have you ever thought of God as a Great, Big List-Keeper in the Sky? On one column God writes down what you do wrong, on the other, what you do right. Then, depending on how much you have in each column, he lets you into heaven or damns you to hell. But Psalm 51 assures us: God is not a List-Keeper. So, the question is: where does this list come from? Other Scriptures tell us: it comes from Satan. You know the word “Satan” means “accuser”. So, the picture is this: you do something wrong and Satan writes it down. Then Satan, the accuser, brings the list to God and God “wipes it out”. God doesn’t hold a big red pen waiting to give us a big fat “F”. No, God holds a big red eraser, waiting to rub out our errors and blow the mess away with the breath of His Spirit. That’s one way of looking at forgiveness.

Another picture Psalm 51 gives us is this: God washes away sin again and again and again. Verse 2 in Hebrew literally translated would read: “Perform multiple washings.” Now, that does sound strange, doesn’t it? Why would David request such a thing? Because the stain of sin had worked itself into the fabric of his spirit and he desperately wanted to get it out. At home, I have a pair of shorts that need this kind of treatment. At first glance, it appears that these shorts are clean, but, upon closer inspection, you can see that they are stained and in need of a wash (perhaps even, in need of multiple washings to get them clean again). Like that, many of us here give off a good first impression. At first glance, we may appear to be clean, but, rest assured, none of us are. Each of us has a stain, be it ever so faint, that needs to be washed out. This image from Psalm 51 assures us: the stain of sin has imbedded itself deep in the fabric of our spirit. We need multiple washings.

Another provocative picture of forgiveness in Psalm 51 is found in verse 7. In more modern translations of the Bible this is put down as simply “cleanse me.” But the original meaning is more like “purge sin from me by taking the guilt for me.” See, the actual word used here is quite curious. Taken one way, the word can mean “sin”, full stop. It can mean, “to go wrong” or “to miss the way.” But, it can also mean to “incur guilt.” And thus we have what is, in my opinion, the most striking picture of forgiveness recorded in Psalm 51. See, David is not just asking God to “cleanse him”. He is asking God to do that by taking sin’s punishment and stain upon himself.

In the person of Jesus Christ we see this request fulfilled. In Isaiah 53, the role Jesus would take in bringing about our forgiveness was foretold with these words: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter…for the transgression of my people he was stricken…he…was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many.”

In the New Testament, we are told that when Jesus died on the cross: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us...” With those words and the words of Isaiah and the words of David in Psalm 51, the writers are telling us that Jesus the Messiah would take care of and has taken care of the bloodguilt each of us has upon us. In the Old Testament, the only way bloodguilt could be tended to was through the sacrifice of a perfect lamb. That's because bloodguilt could only be paid with blood. So God, in his mercy, accepted the blood of an unblemished lamb in place of the blood of the guilty party. It works the same way with us: Jesus, the perfect lamb of God, dies on our behalf. We are really the guilty ones, but Jesus pretends like He is the guilty one, taking upon Him the death that should have come to us. David expresses that concept here in Psalm 51 when he asks God to purge sin from him by taking the blame. That’s how God forgives. Isn’t it wonderful? In some ways, God could have been content to forgive from a distance, but He didn’t. He got involved. He got so close that he became sin for us. What a picture!

And you know what I find even more interesting about all this? With all that God does (12 things!), there’s just one thing we’re asked to do: turn around. Turn back to God. Some time ago, I saw the movie Malcolm X. In that film, Malcolm ends up in jail. While there, a Moslem man talks to Malcolm about his faith. At one point, he describes Islam with these words: “If you take one step toward Allah, he will take two steps towards you.” If David had been there, perhaps he might have said, “Actually, forgiveness is just a pivot away. All you need to do is shuffle your feet, because God is right there behind you already, just waiting for you to turn to Him.” Jesus takes the image even a step further when he tells a parable about a flock of 100 sheep. He tells how one of the 100 goes wandering off and runs away. Then he describes how the good shepherd goes running after the lost sheep. This story says, “You run away from God and he runs after you.” Now, with a God like that pursuing you, why wouldn’t you want to turn to him?

So, we have a problem and God has a solution: forgiveness. All we need to do is respond to his solution. Turn to him, accept his forgiveness, ask for it and he’ll gladly give it to you. If you do, the result will be as David describes with these adjectives: We will become clean (v 7), we will become whiter than snow (v 7), we will have joy (v 8), we will be glad (v 8), we will rejoice (v 8), we will become established and firm, not wavering (v 10), we will become noble (v 12), we will sing (v 14).

Notice how forgiveness turns paupers into princes? Forgiveness ennobles the human spirit. That’s what David was saying in verse 12. He asks God to grant him a “willing” spirit. The word there is Nediybah. And it means “noble.” And, you know, that description is not merely a metaphor. It is actually true. In the book of John in the New Testament, we are told that when we receive God and his forgiveness, we become his children. As children, we are told in the book of Romans and in Galatians that we have all the rights of children. As such, we are heirs of our brother Christ and, as such, we are royalty.

Forgiveness does all that and much more. Forgiveness, we are told, restores to us a heart and a lifestyle of joy. In verse 8, David uses a version of the word joy that is only used 5 times in the entire book of Psalms. It’s a rare kind of joy that results when all has been made right between you and God and other people. The kind of joy that results from right relationships. The kind that results from forgiveness. It’s a deep, lasting, continuous joy, that abides in spite of external circumstances. That’s the meaning of that kind of joy.

Then, there’s the joy that “bubbles over” in exuberant expression. In our English Bible that kind of joy is expressed with words like gladness, rejoicing and singing. But rejoicing is better rendered “dancing or leaping around in circles” and the word that we translate “singing” is better translated as “giving a shout of joy or a loud ringing cry.”

All of that comes from this mysterious thing called forgiveness. And to think, God is just waiting to give it to us! And all we have to do is turn and take it! It’s enough to make you leap and sing for joy. So, what are we waiting for?

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