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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Love That Forgives

(Isaiah 53:1- 6; Luke 23:26•34; Acts 7:54-60)
Jesus lived and died loving even his enemies. His instruction for us: "You have heard the law that says, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say, love your enemies" (Matthew 5:43-44) Jesus demonstrated his teaching by what he said on the cross. We might say, “I can’t be like Jesus I’m just a human being.” That’s just an excuse to keep from having to do the hard work of giving and seeking forgiveness. But freedom for our minds and hearts from the burden of guilt or hardness of the heart is offered when we humbly follow the teachings of Jesus. We might think following the Son of God’s example might be intimidating. What about Stephen, a human, just a like us? He was able to forgive those who stoned him to death. When I read his acts of grace it took away my excuses. I began to pray asking God to help me to be like him. “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices; they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Who was included in the prayer of Jesus, "Father, forgive them?” The Jewish leaders who handed him over to the Romans to crucify him; the Roman authorities and soldiers; Pilate who washed his hands of Jesus' blood, the act he assumed would make him guiltless; the bystanders, who a few days before had shouted, "Praise God for the Son of David," but now shouted, "crucify him, crucify him;" the human race as a whole, you and me.
As Isaiah said, "All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God's path to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all" (Isaiah 53:6); and, "For God made Christ, who never sinned to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Without Christ's death we would still be in our sin and would not find peace with God. Thank God, "He came to pay a debt He didn't owe because we owed a debt we couldn't pay" (Anonymous). Jesus knew He was our only way of escape from God's judgment, and He prayed for us to see His loving sacrifice and embrace His saving grace. What an amazing grace that is.
Have you ever wondered to the point of losing your sleep about the death of Jesus on the cross? Why would God put his son through such incredible suffering to save you? What was the driving force in God's mind? Two reasons—to destroy the power of sin that destroys us and to grant us God's redeeming love.
Why did Jesus say, "For they don't know what they are doing?" Who is included here? Could we say the Jews, and the Roman official Pilate? The crowd that was shouting crucify him? The roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross? What about you and me? The answer to some of the questions should be obvious—He prayed immediately after the soldiers nailed Him. The soldiers nailed Him because the Jewish authorities who judged Jesus said that He deserved to die. Since they couldn't carry out the death sentence being ruled by Rome, the Jews took Jesus to the Roman governor Pilate. As Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him this message, "Leave that innocent man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about Him last night" (Matthew 27:19). Pilate, after examining the evidence presented against Jesus said, “I have found no reason to sentence Him to death" (Luke 23:22). Then Pilate tried to release Jesus, but the Jewish leaders shouted, "If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar" (John 19: 12). Pilate wanted to please the Jewish leadership and to save his lifestyle and position, so he condemned Jesus to death and turned Jesus over to the soldiers to be crucified.
How do we understand Jesus' statement when he said "They don't know what they are doing?" Did Jesus mean one of these: They didn’t know Jesus was the son of God; they didn’t know that Jesus was God's only means of salvation for his people; they didn’t know that crucifying him on the cross was a crime against God? Perhaps all of these could be true for Pilate and the soldiers. They weren’t familiar with the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah and Jesus fulfilling all the prophecies. If that is the case, why did the Jewish leaders ignore it? Even the disciples of Jesus, being Jews themselves, were willing to give their lives even to death to follow him. We all have witnessed that knowing the truth and choosing the truth do not always go together. Sometimes we deceive ourselves. We think we are the exception to the rules and forget about the consequences of our choices. We all have sometimes ignored what we ought to do and done something else. Unfortunately some people love sin more than righteousness and they try to make their own way to God, which is impossible. For those of us who find ourselves in such a hole, Jesus' prayer applies. "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing."
Thank God—we are benefiting from Jesus' prayer. What can we learn from Jesus' self-giving and self-sacrificing love? Jesus, in death as in life, demonstrated that no matter what people did, they can be redeemed if they turn to God. Jesus teaches that the wrong we have done or the wrong we have suffered should not define us. Whatever happens in our life, that segment of our life doesn't describe our future. God gives us a new start every morning. We have to learn to untangle ourselves. We need to accept the freedom that God gives us as an act of grace. "You are forgiven" sets us free from the bondage and the guilt of the past.
When Jesus met a woman who was caught in an act of adultery, he told her, "Goand sin no more” (John 8:11). He was telling her, "go live the life of forgiveness, make a new life—you can do it. God is with you.” Jesus told people who came to him for help "your faith made you whole" (Mark 5:34). Jesus wanted them to know that despite their sickness, disabilities, and difficult situation, God is within reach to help. Jesus told people "all things are possible for those who believe." Believing is just agreeing with what God says about you—you are loved. Jesus made people feel loved and that they were important even when they did wrong things. Jesus told people I'm here to help you to make your wrong right. I'm here to demonstrate to you that God loves you. I'm here to prove it. That's why Jesus prayed, "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Jesus could love people even while He was dying on the cross. He knew He came for that reason and His death was in God's plan. Besides, Jesus knew the grave couldn’t hold Him down. Jesus by his loving act showed us that doing God's will is more powerful than death or pain! Remember, God has the last word. As Jesus forgave those who caused him pain he instructs us to do the same. "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). Remember this, if you want to pray the prayer our Lord taught us to pray. You have to forgive, and then you will be free to say, “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.” 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.”
Three tests for forgiving: If I can pray, “Forgive me, my sin, as I have forgiven others.” If I can freely forgive those who have hurt me and let it go. If I can’t forgive because the hurt is fresh, yet I’m asking God to help me forgive. “FATHER, FORGIVE THEM, FOR THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING.” Forgiveness is a life of gratitude to God—refusal to forgive is disobedience.
Pastor Shim Habte, (530-934-3190)
United Methodist Church, Willows, CA 95988
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