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Sermon: The Lord's Prayer - Series 3

Forgiveness – Matthew 6: 11

And Father forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us 

In some ways this is the most difficult clause of the Lord’s prayer. It covers two issues that are interlinked: God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of other people. You’re probably already thinking – as I was when I was preparing this – that the subject of forgiveness isn’t one that lends itself to cool, detached, theoretical discussion – just the very mention gets the adrenalin going. Almost anybody who has risked publicly about the necessity of forgiving those who might have hurt us will have had some sort of experience like someone coming up to them at the end of a meeting with a pale, angry face, blurting out “It’s all very well for you to talk about forgiveness, but let me tell you what happened to me...” Then of course they’re able to recount some appalling story of suffering, injustice and tragedy – leaving the speaker wondering whether – if it had happened to them – they could have honestly forgiven. But here are the words of Jesus – oh boy! 

So let’s acknowledge that forgiveness is a serious matter. And these two aspects can’t really be separated Far from it! – they are so strongly linked that throughout the New Testament the pattern is that it is because God has forgiven us that we are to forgive others. 

So what does it mean to be forgiven by God? 

In order to understand this – we need to understand what we are asking to be forgiven for. And it’s not exactly helped by the various versions of the Lord’s prayer. Matthew uses the word ‘debts’ – Luke uses ‘sins’. And the version we’ve been brought up with in church uses ‘trespasses’ – no wonder we tend to recite the prayer quickly and with so little thought! 

The shortest, simplest and most accurate translation is probably ‘sins’, not overdue financial loans – but we shouldn’t completely throw this idea out either. 

The main New Testament idea behind the term sin is ‘to miss the target’ or to ‘fall short’ – and the other words expand on this – so we’re also in debt because we owe something we can’t pay – we’ve transgressed – crossed a boundary we shouldn’t have – and we’ve offended – hurt others and God by what we’ve thought, said and done. All these images combine to create a fairly dark picture about human nature left to its own devices – the result is that without God’s forgiveness we really are in a pretty hopeless situation. 

This is pictured for us in the first few chapters of Genesis: how man and woman were created with open access to God in an idyllic setting where they had almost total freedom. Tempted by a mysterious creature, they chose to rebel against God and break the one restriction he’d placed on their freedom. Result: expulsion from the garden, separation from God, punishment and eventually death. We see how sin becomes part of human nature – and within a generation murder, corruption, violence and depravity – and more subtly: envy, betrayal, hypocrisy, self-interest – and the worship of people and possessions. 

The Bible’s diagnosis is not just that we’re guilty of doing bad things – but that sin is like a terrible, deep-rooted infection that has worked and wormed its way into every aspect of being human – enslaving and corrupting us; pushing our lives off course – and if left untreated destroying us. 

Thankfully – for all its highlighting of the disease, the Bible points out that the cure is God’s amazing forgiveness. 

And it’s this that breaks down the wall getting in the way of being able to related to him properly

Removing or cancelling debts we could never pay

Enabling us to return to him in a restored relationship

And changing us from enemies into friends – children of the King – how amazing indeed! 

And this is the significance of the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. This forgiveness is always something done freely – because we, unlike the L’Oreal advert, are not worth it – we don’t deserve it. This is what is behind that wonderful word ‘grace’ – God gives freely more than we dare ask for. And the price of such forgiveness was that in Jesus, God himself suffered death on the cross. Let’s make sure we get this: only God letting himself undergo the appalling agony of the crucifixion was he able to win our forgiveness. So forgive us our sins… 

As we forgive those who sin against us? What about this bit? And which comes first – our forgiveness or God’s? Well let’s be absolutely clear about this. Any idea that we can earn our own forgiveness by forgiving others is contradicted by the entire teaching of the Bible. It’s God who has taken the initiative and forgiven us first. 

But he still gives us something to do here – and I suspect Jesus knew this was the most difficult part of his model prayer, because later in Matthew’s gospel he repeats the point with renewed emphasis (just in case we miss it). “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. There’s something important going on here. “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me” asks Peter – “Seven times?” – “No” Jesus tells Peter – 70 times 7 – & by the way he doesn’t mean keeping a count up to 490 - he’s using numbers as symbols to say “indefinitely, Peter” – Whoa!! that’s harsh, as Joel (my son) would say. Is there ever a more difficult thing that Jesus has said? 

You mean me - forgive others? Are you serious? 

Handle hurts or injuries people have inflicted on me so that our relationship with them can be restored? That’s a tall order if ever I heard one. 

But it’s not about whether I feel like it. Forgiveness isn’t about my emotions – it’s a decision to seek the very best for the other person whatever it may cost. 

And hey – we can’t do this on our own – we don’t stand a chance without the Holy Spirit’s infilling power as well as a dogged determination – and it’s a process – it’s unlikely to be instantaneous. It can start with a decision to bury something and declare it dead – and avoid the temptation to go dig up the corpse again!! You don’t forget that it occurred (forgive and forget might be an old proverb – but it’s not biblical) but we can decide that something takes no further part in the proceedings – and with that decision comes a sense of being freed up. 

Why should we forgive? – why is Jesus pushing this idea home for us as his disciples? 

Well because if we don’t, we’re the ones that are going to be scarred. It’s a common sense thing really – I see it all too regularly at funerals – people can get eaten up by their failure to forgive – by holding on tenaciously to their grudges – legitimate though those feelings might have been in the past. 

But for Christians there are way more reasons for this practice of forgiveness. Here are a couple to chew on: 

Jesus commands that we do it – that’s a good start

And if we’re following his WAY we can’t get round the fact that his whole life illustrated forgiveness  - and most of all the manner of his death – and we know some of his final words – (what were they?) Father – forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing. 

Here’s the test: Can we who have been forgiven through Christ’s death not show mercy to others?

If we fail to forgive, for a church there are inevitable spiritual repercussions. Besides our own fellowship with God being hindered, our relationships with others are soured. And there’s always this two-way thing to be careful about – our relationship with God – and our relationship with others. How did Jesus sum up the law? Love the Lord your God… AND…your neighbour as yourself. 

Well that’s the case for being forgiven and forgiving others. As a scriptural argument I think we have to accept that it’s pretty watertight and irrefutable – but let’s be practical for a moment as we close. 

Let’s be honest with God. Every time we pray this bit of the Lord’s prayer – and it does figure regularly in our liturgy - we need to pause in our thinking and ask God to show us precisely where we’ve failed him so that he can deal with it. Equally we need to think about other people – whom do we need specifically to forgive. And if we’re honest, the Holy Spirit will put his finger on specific things we need to come clean about. 

Let’s keep short accounts with God – don’t let things fester – this is such a practical day-by-day prayer which treats forgiveness as a certainty and a reality – not a vague hope or an ideal. And this is one reason why it’s best to talk to God in specifics rather than generalities. Guilty feelings can come from the devil as well as the conviction the Holy Spirit brings – so how do we tell the difference? Well the evil one delights in us feeling generally guilty, worthless and complete failures – loves us to be miserable and to feel trapped and useless. In contrast, the Holy Spirit wants for us to move on to experience the wonder of God’s forgiveness that allows us to say our past is forgiven – however dark it might have been. 

It was Corrie Ten Boom that said that when she brought her sins to Jesus she knew they were cast into the deepest sea and a sign was put up that said, NO FISHING ALLOWED. 

You’ll know well the tragic story Jesus told of the man who was let off the equivalent of a national debt of money he owed the King – only to insist that someone who owed him a few thousand  pounds paid up in full. J. John says wouldn’t it be great to rewrite the ending?

But when the man left the king, he went joyfully to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand pounds. He put his arm around him, hugged him and said, ‘Remember the few thousand you owe me? His fellow servant went pale and gulped. ‘Er well…’

But the man who had been forgiven by the king said ‘Relax, my friend! I have just been forgiven millions. So I have torn up your bill. I’m forgetting all about it’

‘You’re forgetting my bill?’ gasped his fellow servant, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

‘What bill?’ said the man who had been forgiven by the king, and together they walked away as friends. (J. John ‘God’s Priorities’ 2001: 167/8) 

Let’s know that we are generously forgiven – and as a result, generously forgive.

We’re well into Lent now – and we’re going to make our confession at this point to respond to what the Holy Spirit might have been saying to us this morning.
 

       
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