36 – The Forgiveness of Sins

I Believe in the forgiveness of sins

Psalm 51:1-13, Colossians 3:12-15, John 8:2-11

It is not easy to forgive sin!  In fact it is so difficult that the Pharisees were not far wrong when they said to Jesus in a controversy “Only God can forgive sins.”  Only God is good enough and gracious enough to really forgive sin.

But, there are some who are flippant in the face of sin and say, “Its OK. He’ll forgive you!” as though forgiveness were an easy thing.  The poet Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”  But that presumes that God grants forgiveness easily.  Harry Emerson Fosdick in one of last century’s greatest sermons makes the statement, “It is hard for God to forgive sins.”  I am not sure if God finds anything “hard”, but if he does, it is my guess that the most difficult task that God undertakes is to forgive sins.  Why do I say this?

1.         It is hard for us to forgive sins

When someone sins against us in a serious matter, it is hard to forgive them.  Some of us do not have to search very far back in our past before we come to one of those places where forgiveness has been very difficult. Some of us have been hurt so severely by another, that years later the memory of it still causes pain.

Oh, we want to forgive and forget, but the damage was deep and the hurt of it remains to this day. And though the event was in the distant past, as the weeks and months and years go by, the hurt will not go away. It may even grow worse and fester. We find ourselves re-living the experience.  We invent imaginary conversations trying to explain ourselves, but without success.  We wish to forgive, we will to forgive, but each time that name or that face comes before us, our memories flood with pain and anger because of the hurt that still rises even against our own will. Forgiveness of sins is hard.

Of course, forgiveness is easy if the thing done against us doesn’t matter.  Someone steps on my toe and they say “oops, sorry!” and I respond, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” And that’s true. But when someone sins against us to our hurt, that is not easy to forgive.

But surely that’s not the way it is with God?  Well perhaps it is.  He creates out of his joy, but forgives us from out of his pain.  We have too frequently presented God’s forgiveness as an easy gospel.  We have presumed that we could, upon sinning, come tripping the light fantastic into God’s presence saying, “Well, God, I did it again!  Would you please forgive me?”  And we think we hear God saying “No problemo!” and we leave walking in sunshine.  But I suspect it is hard for God to forgive sins.

But why?  I have already suggested to us that it is hard for God to forgive sin because we find it so very hard.  But there may be a second reason.

2.         God Takes Sin seriously

God takes sin so seriously that he cannot pass over it lightly chattering to Himself, “Ah well. To sin IS human, to forgive IS divine!”

Oh no! Sin is a terrible thing.  Sometimes we get the wrong idea about sin.  We get the picture that one day God decided to create a list of do’s and don’ts. He arbitrarily chose about 50 things that he would call sins.  They were not so terrible in and of themselves.  It is simply that if you have to have a game, you have to have rules. And all these laws are simply the rules imposed upon the game by the eternal umpire.

But that is not the way God works.  He only calls a thing a sin if it is inherently hurtful.  He is not a cosmic spoilsport trying to stop us from the enjoyment of life.  He knows that there are some actions and attitudes that damage people or other parts of his creation.  In his great kindness he identified for us those things that would hurt us.  He knows that sin can damage people, destroy relationships, and cause untold suffering.  God hates nothing but sin, but that he hates with a marrow deep antipathy. So he gives us clues to help us avoid the pitfalls.

Alfred Lord Tennyson tells us the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  Arthur had a dream. A dream to bring order and godliness to barbarian England.  He created an order of knights to ride throughout the nation redressing all wrongs.  He wanted them to be fair examples to a foul world.

Arthur married the beautiful Guinevere.  He loved her deeply and together they dreamed and worked for the renewal of England.  Their marriage became an example of all that marriage was meant to be, and all the marriages at court began to be strengthened by their example. Their fair names gave fine example!

Then came Sir Lancelot. He became Arthur’s best friend. But in the course of time he also became Guinevere’s lover. And the sad story unfolds how this affair became the model for other relationships in that court. And now, fair names gave foul example.

And the dream that Arthur had cherished came crashing down.  Lancelot is banished, Guinevere goes to a convent to spend her remaining days, Arthur rides off to battle, and England begins the return to the dark ages during the following centuries. All because of sin.

But just as the story is about to end, and just before Arthur goes to his last battle, he visits Guinevere in the convent. As he enters the room she falls at his feet, overcome with shame and remorse.  These are his words to her:

“Think not that I have come to note thy crimes.
I did not come to curse thee, Guinevere,
I, whose vast pity almost makes me die,
To see thee, lying there.

            But all is past, the sin is sinned, and I,
            Lo, I forgive thee as eternal God forgives.”

            And while she groveled at his feet
            She felt the king’s breath wander o’er her neck,
            And in the darkness o‘er her fallen head
            Perceived the waving of his hands that blest.

But do not tell me for a moment that Arthur found that easy.  He knew how much damage had flowed from that one sin.  He found that deed more difficult than all his other exploits put together.

And God, knows, as only he can know, how cruel sin is, and how much damage it can do.  God knows that what we sow, our neighbour often reaps.  And it may be for that reason that God finds it hard to forgive sins.

3.         He Loves People So Much

There is a third reason why I suspect God finds it hard to forgive sins.  He loves people so very much. But, you say, if he loves people he should find it easy to forgive!  Oh no! It is precisely because he loves that makes forgiveness so difficult.

When the brothers of Joseph sold him as a slave, telling his father that he had been torn apart by wild animals, and then thirteen years later Jacob found out they had sold him into slavery, do you think for a moment it was easy for that elderly father to forgive his sons?  They had robbed him of a son for all those years.  All those years he had grieved, only to find out that they had played a cruel trick on him.  It must have been hard for him to forgive them, because he had loved Joseph so much.

God loves the poor of this world, and he sees them being exploited by the powerful.  Do you think that he finds that easy to forgive?  In Jesus’ day widows often suffered injustice.  And Jesus was angry. “Beware of scribes that devour widow’s houses and for a pretense make long prayers!”  His own mother was a widow.  He saw these helpless women being taken advantage of, and he did not find that easy to forgive.

God loves little children, but when he sees some incestuous parent abusing a child, or a bullying adult brutalizing a child with deeds or words, do you think for a moment that he finds that easy to forgive?  When he loves families, then sees the parents of those home failing in their responsibilities in raising their children, do you think for a moment that He says “It’s OK. It doesn’t really matter!”

So few of our sins are merely self-damaging.  Most of our misdeeds damage others as well as ourselves. But God loves even the sinner, and so he hates even those sins that a person commits only against themselves.

Because God loves people so deeply, he finds it hard to forgive sins against them.

4.         The High Cost of Forgiveness

There is one more reason that makes me suspect that God finds it hard to forgive sins. Have you noticed the high cost of the free gift of forgiveness throughout the Bible?

In the Old Testament the forgiveness of sins took the death of an innocent animal. Every sacrifice was a gruesome sight.  The person sinning would bring that unblemished animal to the altar. He would place his hands on the head of the innocent creature, while the priest would slit its throat.  The blood would spurt out, drenching the altar and the sand, and perhaps splattering the priest and the sinner.

Why did God ordain such a barbaric practice? Perhaps it was to tell us that sin is a killer. Perhaps to let us know that when we sin, damage is done to others who are innocent, and that the forgiveness of sin is no incidental matter.

In the New Testament that message is more vivid still. The forgiveness of sins cost the death of the Son of God Himself.  To the gracious Father-God, seeing his son made an offering for sin, was no easy thing.  It was a costly thing to both Father and Son to provide for the forgiveness of sin. Perhaps it was the hardest thing that God ever did

5.         I believe in the Forgiveness of Sins.

 But this is why the news is incredible when the message finally gets through to us.  We can be forgiven!  God forgives us our sinning!  It is for this reason when the church writes its creed it declares, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins!”

There are times when I cannot forgive myself.  I am too ashamed.  There are times when my family cannot forgive me. They are too hurt and too angry! There are times when society around us will not forgive us, for they want what they call ”justice” but which is usually revenge.

So here is the best news in the universe.  God forgives.  He forgives the worst of sins. He forgives the ones I sinned against myself, against my family, against His creation, against my neighbour & my friends. He forgives the sins I sinned against Him.

The words and thoughts and deeds I committed grieved Him and hurt Him deeply. And yet, and yet, He forgives them.

If there is a sin in our lives that we have not brought to him because we thought it too terrible to be forgiven, let me remind us of the good news, that already God has forgiven us. St Augustine has said, “You would not grieve so over that sin, if you had not already repented of it, and if you have repented of it, then God has forgiven it!”

But to forgive myself, ah there is the rub!  That is often the most difficult thing.  But perhaps we are not intended to forgive and forget our own misdeeds. Perhaps we are intended to enter a life of penitence and humility. At the same time we live in gratitude for the gift God has given us and from now on we will pay it forward to any who have hurt us.

Because God forgives sins, He is prepared to enable us to forgive others.  In our own strength it is much too difficult.  Only God can forgive sins. Only He is good enough, and kind enough, but He promised to enable us to do the impossible.  He can so fortify us that we can forgive those who have wronged us deeply.  St. Paul says. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  What you and I find too hard to do, the grace of God can help us with.

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