Just this past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Burnham-on-Sea Baptist Church, a growing vibrant church right in the heart of the seaside town. The text of my sermon is below along with links to the scripture passage and the PPT slides that I used to accompany my talk. Forgiveness is a challenging theme and modelling Jesus Christ’s example is surely only possible through the radical re-shaping of our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we continue to have a desire to seek God’s help towards making us more Christlike …

My presentation slides can be found here

Everybody's normal ...Slide 1 In an early chapter of his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them, John Ortberg talks about the difficulties inherent in being a porcupine. He tells of the fact that a porcupine has around 30,000 quills attached all around its body. Each one of these quills can be, if so desired, driven into a predatory enemy like a tiny spear, and left there. To make matters worse the quills are barbed which makes extraction very difficult for the unfortunate recipient. As a general rule, says Ortberg, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships – retreat or attack. They either head for a tree and safety, or they stick out their barbed quills and charge. Interestingly, but maybe it’s not so much of a surprise, porcupines are rarely seen in pairs, and never in a group. In fact, there is no word in any world language to describe a group of porcupines.

Yet sadly, it’s not only porcupines that have barbed quills. We have them as well, and all too often we use them to attack, sometimes with the precise intent of causing distress and hurt. Our quills, of course, aren’t physical in nature like a porcupine’s, nor are they visible, but rather they are quills of anger, resentment, arrogance, envy, selfishness, hated, and intolerance. And these quills can be so fiendishly barbed that extraction is only possible through radical surgery, and if that’s not carried out, then they will remain under the skin, of an unfortunate victim, causing a constant irritation, and a deep-felt pain that is debilitating.

Maybe, in the reading we’re about to share together, Peter had a particular porcupine in mind when he came and asked Jesus a question. But unlike Peter, who you’ll notice in a moment, didn’t think through his question very well, we need to realise that not only is it possible to identify porcupines in our lives, but we also need to realise that the problem of barbed quills is not restricted to the actions of a few individuals – because I’m somebody’s porcupine – and so are you. I wonder how many barbed quills I have driven into someone else’s life – quills that perhaps even now remain deeply embedded because of the unwillingness on the part of maybe both parties to step into the risky arena of personal forgiveness.

SLIDE 2 Let’s read a few verses together from Matthew’s gospel

Read:                     Matthew Ch.18 vs.21 to 35

If we were to turn right back to the beginning of our Bibles, to the very first book, the book of Genesis we would discover, almost from the outset that appearing amidst the perfection of God’s work, humanity chose through a conscious decision, to go it alone, to usurp God’s authority and to promote the idea of self-interest. We read at the start that God created humanity in His image with God-like values of unity, of inter-dependence, and of love – values designed not only to develop the relationship between God and humanity, but values that are necessary key building blocks for living lives together – you and I, one with another.

But as we read on in those early chapters of Genesis we discover that amidst the wonder and perfection of God’s creation, we learn that humankind’s contribution to the Eden story, was blame, hatred, jealousy, and revenge.

SLIDE 3 In Genesis Ch.4, we read about a man named Lamech. Now Lamech takes the concept of revenge and hated, the notion of you’ll pay for that to a frightening extreme. He kills a man for merely wounding him, and he says that he will seek revenge seventy seven times over, against anyone who hurts him. This is the Law of Lamech : ‘… if anyone inflicts pain on me, I will make them pay … if you hurt me, there will be no forgiveness just revenge heaped upon revenge …’. SLIDE 4 Just after this defiant statement of Lamech we read one of the most poignant verses in the whole of the Bible, ‘… the LORD regretted he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled …’

Of course, both you and I would want to distance ourselves from such a position of moral bankruptcy – yet, if I’m honest, certainly there have been times when my actions have shown clearly that my thinking is tinged by Lamech’s law. And for those times when I see myself in some measure taking that path, then I need to hold onto the truth that forgiveness is the core ingredient of God’s personal rescue plan for me, a rescue plan that is only visible in this world if you and I as Christians reveal it. SLIDE 5 God’s primary instruction for us is, as Paul states it in his letter to his friends in Ephesus, ‘… forgiving each other other, just as in Christ, God forgave you …’.

And so it is, that Peter, as our reading in Matthew Ch.18 reveals to us, wants to take on board this radical concept of forgiveness but he needs to know at what point he can give up on it. His reasoning fits in perfectly well with the prevailing thinking of his time. Peter knew the teaching of the Jewish faith, he would have heard the Rabbi in the local synagogue stating the following law, SLIDE 6 ‘… forgive a first offence, forgive a second, and a third, but punish the fourth …’.  So he expands the limit of the Rabbi’s teaching to seven times, but this is so far removed from God’s idea of forgiveness that Jesus gives Peter a figure that is clearly stating that God’s new covenant law is in place to repeal the Law of Lamech, and Jesus reveals forgiveness of a whole new order. Our new life in God is based on the forgiveness of our sins, and that radical truth has to characterise the way we live our lives as Christians.

But the concern behind Peter’s question has been felt by everyone who has ever been hurt. Why should I forgive ? What if the other person doesn’t deserve it ? I might get hurt again. Forgiveness, for Peter and for us, looks like one of those activities that Jesus is always talking about, and it is clearly both morally and spiritually the right thing to do, but how on earth are we to work it out in the real world ?

Firstly then we see that  SLIDE 7

  • Real forgiveness – is choosing not to retaliate

Surely the first stage of forgiveness is the realisation that what Jesus requires from us is that we recognise the futility of inflicting a reciprocal amount of pain on someone who has caused us hurt. Our first reaction when we are hurt is to lash out, to try to push some of our barbed quills under the skin of someone who has pushed their quills into us. But we are called to relinquish our self-perceived right to respond in retaliation.

Such a choice is clearly neither easy or without some measure of personal cost to us. But even if we see forgiveness as a costly and risky venture we need to realise that any cost to us in forgiving others is always to be contrasted and compared with the cost of Calvary. The cost for the repealing of the law of Lamech saw Jesus Christ cruelly nailed to a Roman cross. Jesus’ parable that we have read, highlights the quantum difference between the cost of forgiveness for hurts that have been inflicted on us, pictured by the small debt of the fellow-servant in vs.28, in the light of the big picture, that of the debt that we have been forgiven by God, as pictured by the huge amount in vs.24.

But we need to be clear that letting go of vengeance doesn’t mean letting go of justice. God reconciled His twin natures of justice and love, by his action at Calvary. God’s just anger against the enormity of our sin was focused upon His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And whilst justice is all about fairness, vengeance is by its nature, destructive and insatiable.

SLIDE 8 During the early part of WW2 Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom were arrested by the Nazis for seeking to conceal Jews in their home in occupied Holland. Both of them were sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where, sadly Betsie died as a result of mistreatment by the camp guards. After Corrie’s release following the liberation of the camp towards the end of the war, she toured churches in Germany speaking about forgiveness. Whilst in the basement room of a church in Munich she saw amongst the congregation one of the former guards from the camp. Whilst he didn’t, at first, appear to recognise her, she recognised him, and at the end of the talk he came over to her and held out his hand. He said, “… I am a Christian now and I know God’s forgiveness … but, can you ever forgive me …?”.

SLIDE 9 Corrie Ten Boom writes in her book :  ‘… I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart … but forgiveness is not an emotion – it is an act of will … I prayed “Jesus, help me” … woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the hand of the man in front of me, and as I did so an incredible thing took place … a healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being … I have never known God’s love so intensely as I did then …’

We need to make a careful distinction with regard to forgiveness however, because forgiveness is not being blind to the hurt that has been caused us. Forgiveness faces up to reality and does not minimise the magnitude of a wrong or the extent of its consequences. When we forgive someone we are not denying that something hurtful has taken place. Forgiveness is not a shifting of blame to ourselves where we suppress the facts of the hurt that have been caused us and try to dismiss them as just one of those things, since forgiveness is not trying to find an excuse to explain away someone’s behaviour.

When God forgives He is not looking to make excuses on our behalf, when God forgives He is not blind to what we have done or blind to the extent of the consequences of our behaviour. To do either of those things would not be real forgiveness – but real forgiveness is facing reality, it’s all about making a positive choice to suppress any responses of retaliation, and to see past the hurt and the pain and see the person. That is the amazing nature of God’s forgiveness – who through His mercy and grace is able to look beyond my sinful nature and see His image in me.

SLIDE 10 In the Tapuri language of the Cameroons and Chad, the idea behind the word translated as forgive talks about blowing our insides out. The picture is to do with clearing our hearts of anything that spoils life, in the same way that dust should be blown away as soon as it settles on something. Translating Ephesians Ch.4 vs.32, which we reminded ourselves about earlier as, ‘… forgiving each other, just as in Jesus Christ God forgave you …’, becomes, ‘… blow your insides out for one another. God blows insides out for you with Jesus …’. Jesus Christ changes us from the inside out through the power of His forgiveness and we are called to model His forgiveness one to another.

  • Real forgiveness … choosing not to keep records

SLIDE 11 But there is more that we need to realise about forgiveness. The Bible gives us some amazing pictures to remind us of how God forgives. Psalm 103 talks about God taking the wrong things in our lives and putting an immense distance between then and us. Isaiah Ch.44 has the prophet picturing God’s forgiveness as having our sins, ‘… swept away like the morning mist …’. It’s not a helpful idea though to think of God as forgetting what we have done, because forgetfulness is a human failing. I’m sure each one of us knows something about forgetfulness- I know it’s not a good sign, but I often seek out a work colleague and when I’ve found them forget what I wanted to ask them – maybe I’m in danger of even forgetting that I’m forgetful. But forgetfulness is not part of God’s character, but rather, what surely the Bible is saying to us is that when God forgives He chooses not to keep a record of our sins. The very fact that God has made that choice means that our past sins become irrelevant to the present relationship that we share with Him.

Paul writing to the church in Corinth uses the same idea when he describes love as, ‘… keeping no record of wrongs …’, and that is precisely what true forgiveness does. If we have truly forgiven someone then we can never retrieve a past hurt in order to confront that person with it again and again. I’m guessing all of our relationships would benefit from such forgiveness. How many times have we sought to take away the sting of a present hurt by referring back to something that happened in the past ? Yet, true forgiveness doesn’t allow that – but rather, to use a computing analogy, we have through an act of will, by a clear choice dragged the file marked past hurts and wrongs into the recycle bin on the desktop of our lives, and not just that, but we have selected the empty recycle bin command … and clicked !

And then lastly  SLIDE 12

  • Real forgiveness … choosing freedom not imprisonment

So where does that leave us. Well, put simply, it leaves us free. The amazing gift of forgiveness is freedom. Because, what God has done on my behalf on the cross of Calvary, through the sacrifice of His own Son, has resulted in undeserved freedom for me. When we forgive someone we are granting them freedom, but just as crucially, the one who has been wronged knows freedom too.

Yet sometimes, despite knowing that someone has forgiven us for something we have done wrong we are still unable to forgive ourselves, and we feel a sense of guilt and shame that persists despite forgiveness. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘… I know God forgives me … but I can’t forgive myself …’, maybe that’s what you’re feeling right at this moment in time. You don’t know freedom, despite knowing forgiveness.

Sometimes we can be afraid to forgive ourselves, perhaps because we feel it is not right to be allowed to walk away from a situation, and so we cling to the fear of guilt as if it were something of value. But the fact that we have been forgiven, means that we have been affirmed. There is no room for hating ourselves for something we have done when the person we have hurt has forgiven us and has re-affirmed the value of being in relationship with us. Maybe at times we all struggle with understanding the nature of grace. God’s grace tells us we have received forgiveness as a free undeserved gift. For ages I thought that the parable of the Prodigal Son was unfair. It seemed so unfair to me, that leaving the family home, and having wasted his inheritance, the son just turns up again and simply says I’m sorry, and the father is happy to forgive him. The older brother, you’ll recall, couldn’t understand it, he was bitter and angry at the extent of his father’s forgiveness. Sometimes we are tempted to say it’s not fair that we are forgiven, but the whole point of the good news of the gospel is that it is fair, because the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is enough, and God isn’t looking for anything more.

I think forgiveness is infectious, the more we forgive the more we find the freedom to forgive again. As Christians we have experienced the life giving forgiveness of a God who has taken positive steps towards restoring a broken relationship, a relationship spoilt by our wrongdoing. We too, in response to God’s forgiveness are called to make positive steps towards forgiving one another. These steps are costly, often painful, and they demand hard choices. But the results are life changing.

Being unable to forgive can result in personal imprisonment. The servant in our story discovered that fact. He was unable to transfer the reality of the forgiveness he had been granted into a practical spiritual life skill. Forgiveness brings hope, it lays the foundations of reconciliation, it values a person way in excess of his or her failings and it provides a concrete demonstration of what life is like under the new covenant of God’s forgiveness.

The difficulty inherent in being a porcupine is that a porcupine cannot change its nature. Regardless of how many barbed quills the porcupine has lost in previous battles there are always plenty more – but for us though it ought to be different.

Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives we are being changed into Christ’s likeness. Maybe the change, if you’re anything like me, is imperceptible at times, yet through that life-changing power we are being re-fashioned into the kind of people God wants us to be – people who are called to be salt and light in the world.

Through that process God seeks to replace the barbed quills we all have. Quills of anger, resentment, arrogance, envy, selfishness, hated, and intolerance, are being replaced with love, self-control, humility, contentment, tolerance, gentleness, and peace.

May we all learn to forgive, learn to value one another, and learn that growing more and more like Christ requires our willingness to be forgiving people.