A New Year is upon us and with that New Year comes the strange tradition of resolutions. We begin the New Year with an attempt to change something about ourselves, usually something that affects our physical bodies. Some will resolve to exercise; others to eat less, some will resolve to stop an addiction like smoking, drinking, gambling or pornography. Some of us will even resolve to read our bibles and pray every day. 99% of these resolutions will come face to face with reality and be shamefully not spoken about again until the next New Year. What has always struck me as funny is that no one ever told me to not speak about New Year’s Resolutions after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but somehow I knew that this was no longer a topic open for discussion. When our weaknesses are exposed, our position in life seems precarious because we think failures can be used against us. What would happen if our workplaces, schools and homes were invaded by people who refuse to use others’ weaknesses against them? I know that our culture does not place a high value on mercy. Mercy appears to work against our own self-interest, and self-interest is a lesson that comes through many sources loud and clear. When I was in grade school I tried to help other kids with their school work and had one teacher tell me “Don’t worry about them, you have to look out for number one. Do you know who number one is? That is you.” Thankfully, my church had gotten to me with a different message before this teacher was able to influence me. My Sunday School teachers had taught me about the character and conduct of God which we are called to display and follow in our lives.
Jeremiah had a tough life as God’s prophet. He was not listened to, not respected and repeatedly imprisoned with his life threatened. When it became obvious that Jerusalem was going to fall, the king had Jeremiah thrown into the cistern under the city. In this context Jeremiah writes in the book of Lamentations “21But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lam 3:21-22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and His mercies never come to an end, even at the bottom of deep, dank well where you have been left to die. Our hope is not found in our own abilities to promote our own self-interest, but in the love and mercy of God. God is faithful even, and especially, when we are not. This was what kept Jeremiah going in the darkness of the palace well. Throughout the Bible we find Love and Mercy as the most used references to the character of God. Not only are they listed as God’s characteristics, but are listed as the characteristics God would most like to see active in us. Love and Mercy are held up as two of the obvious signs (or fruits) that someone is following the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult for us to trust that love and mercy will accomplish anything, and even more difficult to swim upstream against the current of our culture’s value system to show love and mercy to those other undeserving wretches. I sometimes wonder if what we really think when we sing Amazing Grace is “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like you.” We have been showered with the mercy and love of God, through no merit of our own, and we need to start passing that love and mercy on without reference to whether or not someone “deserves” it. God chose not to “look out for number one”, but instead came to look out for those who his society had rejected as not worth the energy and investment. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t deserve God’s mercy, but He poured out his life for us anyway.
This brings us to the cross, the cross that enables us to live in right relationship with God and each other and the cross we must bear. “23Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Luke 9:23-25 Every day we have a cross to bear, the torment of giving people the opposite of what they deserve; the experience of the torture of not putting our own interests first but instead looking out for others seems to be more than we can bear. Our cross is to deny ourselves, to deny retribution and punishment, to deny what we crave and everyone around us says we deserve and instead rely on the love and mercy of God to carry us through life. Last week I spoke about how we need a savior, and Jesus is telling me here that the one I most need saving from is me, the one you most need saving from is you. Our culture is focused on production and accomplishment to the exclusion of everything else. We are measured by our incomes and production, not by the content of our character. Jesus tells us here that God’s priorities are different. Are we merciful? Do we sacrifice for the sake of others? Do we forgive rather than seek retribution or punishment?
A few weeks ago I pulled a muscle in my back, and learned exactly how many things the back supported. With my back not working correctly I could barely get out my bed without assistance. I could barely function, and lost track of a number of things because I couldn’t focus on anything other than figuring out how to move. Even now, other muscles are sore because of how much they had to compensate in order for me to stand and walk around. I had no concept of the support my back gave my entire life until it wasn’t functioning. Just as the back is the support of the body, so love and mercy displayed in forgiveness are the supports of the church. Without that support the church is barely able to survive. The church becomes focused on the bare minimum for survival and loses sight of everything but the immediate task. When we do not submit to the love and mercy of God or allow those to be lived out as forgiveness, our relationships deteriorate as well. Without forgiveness we lose sight of our own condition that needs Christ to speak into it and we start poking our noses into the condition of others. We start making demands rather than going to others in love, ultimatums fly and the voice of the Holy Spirit is drowned out by the clamor of our contention. I have been part of churches that stopped forgiving, and when they did, they began to die. When the people who could no longer forgive gained control, they wouldn’t let go of power and wouldn’t listen to any voices that disagreed with them. As soon as you said something about the situation the wagons were circled and the secret meetings started, soon followed by invitations to take your disagreement elsewhere. Lack of forgiveness caused those churches to cease functioning as embassies of God’s kingdom and they no longer were agents of healing and change to their communities.
Forgiveness gives us the space to pause, take a deep breath, and listen to something other than our own voice. We get the chance to be good ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and our light shines brightly. We become the city on the hill that cannot be missed when we practice the sacrificial love and mercy of God together. We are then blessed to hear a perspective that is different than ours, and our eyes are opened to things we couldn’t see from where we were. Sometimes opening ourselves up to that different perspective is scary, but we have a faithful God beside us to guide us into His truth. Often when we open ourselves up to those we disagree with people on both sides of an argument are able to step back from their defensive positions and find a new way forward that is much more faithful to God’s call. One of the things that I have seen over the years is that God tends to speak to me through people I don’t want to hear Him through. Self disclosure time: There are some people I can’t hear God through and that is my problem. I can make excuses about how I think their positions are extreme and that the way they talk is hurtful to me, but those are excuses that try to cover the fact that by not shutting people out I ignore the image of God they bear.
Taking that same mercy and love that God shows us and passing it along to people in our lives that we really don’t want to love, or find it very difficult to love, brings healing into our lives. Forgiveness then becomes the healthy context in which our lives as a community of faith are lived. Let me tell you about the difference it makes to the life of a church when we are ready to forgive even before the other person apologizes. Grudges are destroyed, and the power of wounds is taken away. Where forgiveness lives, the power of sin is overthrown and ceases to dominate the life and thought of a church. The church becomes able to focus on and live into the mission of spreading the good news of God’s redemption. The church becomes a safe place to confront our own brokenness because we don’t have to hide it from unforgiving eyes. When we are looking for opportunities to forgive, we become more like the God who forgave us, and picked up a cross and died so that we could be forgiven. When Jesus rose from the dead, every barrier to God that was caused by sin was destroyed and replaced with the bridges of forgiveness. Friends, let me encourage you to walk over those bridges and extend bridges of forgiveness to others. In this New Year, let us be a church that is known for its ability to forgive with the sacrificial love and mercy that God faithfully gave us through Jesus Christ.