Faith Stories: Forgive

3/13/19

Luke 23:34a – Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’

Isaiah 64:1-9
64O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Do you really believe it when we say that God is big enough and strong enough and loves enough to forgive us for anything we could ever do? I don’t just mean are you willing to say the words or does it sound like the right set of beliefs for a Christian to have. I mean do you feel forgiveness? Do you know with all that you are that we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough no matter what we may have done or thought or said – no matter how often we fall short or turn away or fall into the same old habits that we’ve been struggling with for years. Do you really expect that God has and will forgive?

That’s a hard question to answer. On one hand I know the answer should be yes. I’ve read the stories, I’ve grown up in church, I’ve dedicated my life to leading a community called church – a community that is defined more than anything else by that very conviction. The church is the body of people that has not other reason for existing than the reality that the forgiveness of God through Christ sets all things right and makes all things new. Church is the invitation to take part in God’s mission to make it real – to spread love and forgiveness across the globe. If the church is not making the love and forgiveness of God real and present in the world, it has no reason to exist.

This is the life that I have chosen – to lead God’s people to experience that love and forgiveness that is our very reason to be here in the first place. And yet, I struggle all the time with the expectation that God really is that strong – that God’s love really goes that deep – that God really does set all things right and take every mistake I make or tragedy I face and reshape it in the palm of His hands to make something beautiful and new. I know it is true that God forgives, renews, brings healing and wholeness – but that doesn’t make it easy to feel forgiven and whole all the time. I’m just another person on the same journey together with you…

And one of the most common fears people have is the constant nagging in the back of our heads saying that we’re not enough – not smart enough, not accomplished enough, not thin enough, not nice enough, not generous enough, not musical enough, not tall enough, on and on down the list I could go. I’ll bet just about all of us could name at least one or two ways we feel like we aren’t something enough. And those stories we tell ourselves so easily take control of our expectations.

When we play the tapes over and over in our heads, I’m not enough, I’m not enough, I’m not enough, we often start to make that mantra a reality. It’s easier to fail on purpose than to risk the possibility that we might not actually succeed. It’s simpler to just make the story a part of who we are than it is to try and prove to the world that we’re more than our past mistakes. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt says I made a mistake. Shame says I am a mistake. Guilt is something that can be forgiven and that can teach us how to live better. Shame is something that colors the very way we see our self in the mirror and shame only tears us down.

As a culture, we’re so good at shame that we rarely leave open the possibility for change or forgiveness. From time to time we see terrible accusations made against beloved public figures and we have no idea what to do with those accusations most of the time. Shame plays a profound role in why those reports so often seem to come out in clusters. Some of it is internal shame for victims – I should have acted differently OR I shouldn’t have put myself in the situation OR I should be stronger than this. Then, the shame game comes from the response toward victims – You should have worn something different! You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation! You should have quit or left or run! The stigma around being victimized can feel worse than that of abuse itself.

On the flipside, you can tell quite often which of the accused feel the guilt that makes change possible and which do not. Shame may seem like the polar opposite of pride or arrogance, but it’s really more like the flip side of same coin. Shame is the internal arrogance to think you know how bad you are and arrogance is the external desire to shame everyone but yourself. And from certain of the accused, the shame and arrogance are unmistakable. Lashing out and demanding control is so, so often a symptom that there is something inside that we cannot bear to face. It’s easier to pretend that everything is OK than to face the stories our shame wants to tell.

If we are ever going to find health and healing, we have to learn to move beyond the cycle of shame – we have to learn to expect that forgiveness is not just a buzzword, but is a vital part of setting all things right and making all things new. It takes the humility of guilt to be able to admit when we make mistakes and be willing to learn from others how to move on. It takes the willingness to give up control and place our trust and future in the hands of someone else. In short, it takes the vulnerability of love to find healing and wholeness. And vulnerability is just about impossible when we don’t expect to be loved, if we are finally seen for who we are.

The stories told by shame keep us hiding our true self and longing to control every little thing – we should be better than this, we should be wealthier, we should have cleaner homes, we should never be late, we should never have to ask for financial help, we should, we should, we should…the list goes on and on. And by the time we’re done shoulding all over ourselves, we’re too tired and miserable to have anything left for anyone else. Shame tells a destructive story – but there is no shame in love – there is no should.

God’s people have always told a different kind of story – a story not based at all on shame and control, but on forgiveness and love. As we explore the bigger story into which God has invited us throughout the season of Lent, we start tonight with one small piece of that story. The prophet Isaiah lived and wrote in a time of great change and expectation. At the start of the book is a great deal more fear and sadness at the loss of God’s promise with this people. By the end of the book we start to see much more hopeful signs and reminders that God will never abandon God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the people time and time again that God will be faithful no matter how many times they fall short. Isaiah reminds them that God is big enough and strong enough and loves deep enough to overcome all our fears and failures and make us new each day. Prophecy, like the words we read from Isaiah, is often misunderstood as a simple exercise in future telling – a long time ago someone said “x” would happen and a not quite so long time ago “x” did actually happen. There can be some value to that way of thinking, but the vast majority of what makes prophecy so significant is that it teaches us how to see the bigger story that God is writing. Prophecy invites us into God’s bigger story no matter what stories we tell ourselves about the world around us.

In today’s reading, God’s people are offering hopeful words about the power of God to set things right and return to a place of power. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” The passage begins with these words of longing – desiring miraculous and incredible signs from God as a reminder that God is still in control. Just a little further on, we hear Isaiah say “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” God’s people have clearly seen what God is capable of and are longing to know the fullness of that power and presence again.

And then we come to the really remarkable part of the story. Isaiah says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” There is no pretense of righteousness or holiness here. No whitewashing of how far short God’s people have fallen from the life God desires. Isaiah goes on, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Iniquity is another word for wickedness, evil, sin. The depth of the ways they have fallen short are not hidden from God, but shown in the bright light of day.

And what does Isaiah hope for, but forgiveness – he concludes “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay. You are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” You don’t get to the point of speaking these humble words unless you expect that forgiveness is not only possible, but already a given. It is without shame or arrogance that Isaiah recalls God’s mighty works and prays that God would again forgive their sin and mold them into something beautiful.

The story we tell ourselves is far more often than not the story we will see playing out when we look at the world around. If we tell ourselves a story of shame and tell ourselves that we’re not enough, there will be little chance to find anything but reminders of how far short we fall. But if we learn to see through the eyes of Isaiah – if we learn to see the world through the story of all that God has done for us, then we may begin to find the healing and wholeness God desires for us each and every day.

We don’t have to hide all that we are from God as though we could ever be good enough to earn our way into heaven. Love is never earned. Forgiveness is never in our control. But when we learn to expect the wondrous love of God that makes even the mountains tremble, that is when we will be bold enough to let our deepest self be seen and heard and loved and forgiven.

It’s one of the hardest things in life to really and deeply trust that there is no room for shame in the love of God. I know what to expect from the deep and wide love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. But I still need to be constantly reminded that it is OK to be seen for the broken and imperfect child of God that I am. As we continue to prepare our hearts and minds throughout Lent, expect more from God by worrying less about whether or not you are enough. Through Christ, God offers healing and wholeness and forgiveness. In Christ, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Expect nothing less.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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