If you were with us last Sunday we spent our time in God’s Word talking about confession, repentance, and forgiveness. I said that although we’ve done everything in our power to alleviate the word “sin” from our vocabulary we are suffering from the effects of sin each and every day. Guilt and shame gnaw at us, haunt us, affect us spiritually, mentally, and even physically and yet the only remedy the world offers us is to not make such a big deal about what we’ve done or failed to do, to realize everyone does it, and to forgive ourselves. We can follow the world’s counsel, and yet the guilt and shame persists until we agree with God that what we’ve done is sin, that it is something much less than what God desires for us. Following our confession we are then to turn from our sin. When we follow God’s prescription for dealing with our sin then we will receive the forgiveness, the cleansing, that only God can provide.
As I was reading God’s Word Monday morning I realized that to fail to take the next step would leave us in the predicament that we are currently experiencing. The predicament is present in the lives of most of the followers of Jesus as well as people of other faiths and those who call themselves atheists or agnostics. The predicament is our inability, or unwillingness to forgive. Many of us who read God’s Word and truly desire to follow Jesus practice a modified version of forgiveness that looks something like this: When we are hurt by someone we say we forgive them, but truth be known the relationship is forever damaged in one way or another. Sometimes that means we forgive, but make an all-out attempt to avoid ever seeing the person again. Another version of modified forgiveness goes like this: We say we forgive, but we use what the other person has done against us whenever it is convenient for us. We forgive, but fail to experience reconciliation and restoration.
Let’s face the facts, forgiveness does not come naturally to any of us. Vengeance, revenge, hurting the one who hurt us, now that comes naturally. We don’t have to be taught how to strike back. Thane Rosenbaum is a Distinguished Fellow at New York University School of Law and he has written a book called, “Payback: The Case for Revenge.” In his book he writes,
Revenge is, indeed, sweet. It’s not just a metaphorical saying; it’s a scientific fact. The consumption of chocolate and the witnessing of justified payback register similar levels of neural satisfaction in the human brain…Vengeance has always been with us, a partner in our evolutionary history, a mainstay of our DNA. (Thane Rosenbaum, Payback: The Case For Revenge. pg. 32-33)
Whew! That’s a relief isn’t it? Our desire to strike back, to hurt those who hurt us, isn’t our fault. The urge, our desire to get even with those who hurt us, is written into our DNA, it’s just part of the evolutionary process that has made us who we are. I guess we can just go home and plan our next attack. Not so fast my friends. Jesus told a story that I want us to take a look at this morning. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21-35 and let’s read together. In our story Peter asked Jesus a question. I don’t think for one minute it was a philosophical question. I think Peter was exasperated with someone when he asked the Lord the question. Read along with me.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 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. 26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 NIVO)
For those who are not familiar with the story Jesus told Peter, let’s set the scene. The King is God. The man who owed the king 10,000 talents is you and me. The man who owed the man 100 denarii are those who owe you and me. “Talents” and “denarii” don’t mean anything to you and me because we are paid in dollars and cents so let me put the debts in context for us.
A denarius was what the average day laborer earned in one day. They worked six days a week, only resting on the Sabbath. If you figure in about two weeks of vacation for Jewish festival observances then we can know that in Jesus’ day the typical worker earned about 300 denarii a year. So, the one man owed the other man about four months wages.
Let’s continue with our math to figure out how much the man owed the king. If we were able to earn 300 denarii a year and it takes 6,000 denarii to equal one talent, then you would have to work for twenty years to earn 1 talent. Twenty years of work to repay one talent and you would still have 9,999 more talents to pay back. If my math is right it would take almost 200,000 years to pay back the debt.
The man begged the king, he promised the king, “I’ll pay you back everything I owe, just be patient with me.” Would he really? There’s no way! Yet, the king took pity on the man. He didn’t work out a payment plan, he didn’t tell him he would have to tack on interest…he canceled his debt. We could stop right there and spend the rest of our time just meditating on the mercy and grace the king showed the man who could have never repaid his debt. That man is you my friend. That man is me.
What did the man do? Well, of course he left the king’s presence and found someone who owed him money, a man who owed him nothing compared to the debt he had just had cancelled, and he choked him out. He demanded the man pay him back. Did you notice? The man asked for patience, just like the man had asked for patience from the king, but he refused. He had him thrown in prison until he could pay back his debt, which would be impossible since he would be in prison.
Folks, there is no one who has ever lived that has better understood the human predicament better than Jesus. Through Jesus we have been forgiven so much, forgiven of every debt we have ever owed or will owe God. We’ve not been put on a payment plan, but we’ve had our debt cancelled, our sins forgiven, and yet we are so unwilling to forgive. We want justice, we want vengeance against those who have hurt us. We want to grab them, choke them out, throw them in prison, and see them hurt even worse than they’ve hurt us. But it’s not our fault. Remember, it’s written into our DNA. We are what we are because of the evolutionary process that has hard wired us for revenge.
On July 1, 2002, Vitaly Kaloyev was finishing up a two year contract working as an architect in Spain, but his mind was elsewhere as his wife, Svetlana, and his two children, 10 year old Konstantin and 4 year old Diana were on their way from Russia for a visit. They would never arrive. The plane, loaded with other schoolchildren on their way to Spain for holiday collided with a DHL cargo jet and 71 people were killed, 52 of which were children. Vitaly, in an instant, had lost his world. A few weeks later he wrote an online eulogy and this is what he wrote about his son, Konstantin, “He would have become a good, well-educated person, useful to society, were it not for this tragedy, which I cannot get over. I have no strength.”
Vitaly suffered a nervous breakdown. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t sleep. Following the deaths of his wife and kids, Vitaly, was deep in the throes of grief, despair, and anger. His sister said, “You could find my brother, even at 2 am, at the cemetery crying on their gravestones. He suffered. He could not work. He locked himself away.”
The anger transformed into a slow burning rage that wanted revenge for the deaths of those he loved more than life. Mr. Kaloyev learned that the air traffic controller had not given adequate notice to the pilots that they were on a collision course. On the first anniversary of the crash, he went to the memorial and while he was there he was said to have threatened officials from Skyguide, the firm that managed air traffic control. He learned the name of the man who was in charge that night, Peter Nielsen. Mr. Nielsen had been so traumatized over what had happened that he never returned to his job.
Then, in November of 2003, Vitaly received a document from a law firm in Hamburg, Germany. It was an offer from Skyguide. Vitaly was offered 60,000 Swiss francs for the death of his wife, and 50,000 francs for each of his children. It infuriated Vitaly. Skyguide asked that in exchange for the money Vitaly would decline any claims on the company.
In February of 2004, Vitaly boarded a plane and flew to Switzerland. He located the home of Peter Nielsen, arrived at his house, and took a seat in the garden of his yard. When Peter came out to see what the man was doing, Vitaly stabbed him over and over again. He was arrested, sentenced to eight years in prison, but served only three years. On November 8, 2007, Vitaly was released from prison, but was he? In multiple interviews following his release he has said over and over again that he has no regrets about committing the murder. He has also said that he has gained no relief from it either.
That’s a startling realization isn’t it? Vitaly was consumed with getting vengeance for the death of his wife and two kids and yet when he killed Peter Nielsen, he got no relief. We are convinced that revenge, no, let’s not call it revenge, that’s too harsh of a word for a civilized people, what we want is justice because justice will ease our pain, bring us closure, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. There’s got to be a better way…and there is, the way of forgiveness.
Now, we need to recognize that many of those who are not followers of Jesus propose forgiveness as the better way also, but the forgiveness they speak of rings so hollow when compared with biblical forgiveness. Let me explain by telling you a true story. I’m sure most of you have heard of Dylann Roof, the guy who went to Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. After an hour Dylann pulled out a gun and shot nine people. One young man pled for his life and Dylann said, “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…I have to do what I have to do.” And then he shot him at point blank range and killed him. Before he left the room Dylann told Polly Sheppard, who was 70 at the time, that he was not going to kill her because he wanted her to tell everyone the story.
From the moment Dylann was arrested to this very day, Dylann has made it clear that he had no remorse, no regrets whatsoever. At the penalty phase of his trial an attorney read from a journal entry Dylann had written while in jail. He wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
From day one there have been family members, like Felicia Sanders, who was in the Bible study, survived the attack, and said from day one that she forgave Dylann Roof even though he killed her son. Felicia had the opportunity to address the unrepentant killer and this is what she said,
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts…and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you. (Felicia Sanders)
Nadine Collier’s mother, Ethel Lance, was gunned down that night at Mother Emanuel. Nadine was also the first to address Dylann Roof. She said,
I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you. (Nadine Collier)
Not every family member is so forgiving. Some want Dylann to rot in prison and others want him to rot in a far worse place, but that’s what we expect isn’t it? A racist, white supremacist guns down your family who is at a Bible study and then expresses no regret or remorse? There’s no one here who struggles to understand why those family members won’t forgive Dylann Roof. Who would dare tell them, “You have to forgive because it’s the right thing to do.” Dylann is unrepentant, he doesn’t regret what he’s done, and we are going to tell them forgiving him is the right thing to do? That’s an unrealistic expectation, it’s madness unless…unless you are a follower of Jesus and you know God’s forgiveness.
It’s not hard to understand the anger and unwillingness to forgive expressed by some of the family members, but what is truly mind boggling is how those who have forgiven him have done so. When she was given the chance to speak to Dylann, Sheila Capers said, “If at any point before you are sentenced and you’re in prison and you want me to come and pray with you, I will do that.” Are you kidding me? Is that for real? You better believe it is, but you need to know the forgiveness offered by the family members of those slain is not a product of the evolutionary process, it’s the product of their understanding of God’s Word. Listen to this,
13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13 NIVO)
Did you notice that last sentence? “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” That’s a game changer isn’t it? If that were not enough, turn with me to Ephesians 4:31-32 and let’s read together.
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32 NIVO)
There it is again. How are we to forgive, to what lengths are we to go in forgiving those who have hurt us? Paul says we are to forgive each other, “just as in Christ God forgave you.” It is that which moved Felicia, Nadine, and the other families to tell Dylann they forgave him and pray for him in their deep grief and sorrow.
In Galatians 6:2, right after Paul talks about how we are to help a brother or sister who have sinned, he writes, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2 NIVO) Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this verse by saying,
The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot [and circumstance], …but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which [we] now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share [in] the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 2d ed., New York: Macmillan, 1959, p. 100.)
The forgiveness that Jesus calls us to extend to one another is absolutely impossible in and of ourselves, but the more we realize the greatness of God’s forgiveness showered on us, the more we will be able to forgive others. Our willingness to forgive might be the greatest witness of the existence and reality of Jesus in our broken and vengeance filled world.
On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them. Five died and the others were injured, then Charles killed himself. When Charles’ parents heard the news they knew they would have to move, they knew how people viewed the family of mass murderers. Within hours an Amish man named Henry showed up at the Roberts’ house. He told the couple they were not their enemies. He put his hand on the shoulder of Mr. Roberts and called him his friend. The world heard the story through the media and watched in amazement.
On the day of Charles Roberts’ funeral nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of those children who had been killed, went to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out cameras and the media. Later, Charles’ mother, Terry found out she had Stage 4 breast cancer. She underwent treatment in the hospital and when she got home, one of the girls who had survived the massacre came over with her mother to help clean Terry’s house. At Christmas, a large bus of Amish kids pulled up in front of the Roberts’ house to sing them Christmas carols. And the list of what has happened during the past ten years is clear evidence that something much more powerful than evolutionary biology is at work in those Amish people’s lives. The families know the deep, deep love of Jesus that has forgiven them of their every sin. That has moved them to forgive even the man who took their children.
Did they feel forgiveness in their hearts? Did their willingness to forgive Charles Roberts cancel the pain, agonizing pain they still feel to this day? Not on your life, but they made the decision to forgive.
Steven Nolt is a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College and he says for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. He calls this “decisional forgiveness.” Decisional forgiveness is a decision, not an emotion. The decision, which is based on the decision God made to forgive us, enables us to deal with the raw emotion that presents itself and will continue to present itself. We must be rooted in God’s forgiveness or we will never find our way out of the predicament of our inability to truly forgive.
I want to encourage you to think about two things as we prepare to leave. First, if you’ve never received Jesus’ forgiveness then I want to ask you to consider that gift this morning. Secondly, I want to ask you to allow the Lord to search your heart. Is there someone who has hurt you, caused you to suffer, and you’ve never forgiven them, truly forgiven them, “just as in Christ God has forgiven you?” You may not talk about it. They may have never said they are sorry and asked for your forgiveness. For some of you that person you are thinking about who has hurt you the worst may not even be alive. Can you ask the Lord this morning to help you make the decision to forgive them? Revenge, bitterness, those things will not bring you any closure, but if you will allow the Lord to enable you this morning to decide to forgive, you will experience freedom like you’ve not known. Let Him do His work in your heart this morning.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
April 30, 2017