Finding Forgiveness in the Cross Matthew 18

This is a sermon I delivered to Niccolls Presbyterian Church, Old Forge, NY, on July 31, 2021. The church, a PCUSA church and very progressive, has since taken the video of the sermon down. Go figure.

Finding Forgiveness in the Cross

Good morning Niccolls! I am honored to be able to be speaking with you this morning. For those who do not know me, my name is Gregg Johnston, and my mother, Pat, has been a long-time member of Niccolls Church. My wife of 32 years, Karry, and I are having a good time up on Fourth Lake and are very busy doing that famous Adirondacks pastime of doing absolutely nothing and enjoying every minute of it. However, several months ago, my mom asked if I would preach while visiting. I was delighted to oblige, so here I am with you today. Thank you for your trust in me to occupy the pulpit this morning.

One of the areas I have loved to study throughout my walk with Jesus has been how other people approach God. I have always been fascinated with other religions and faith expressions. Whether Islam, the pantheistic traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism, or even sects like the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I find the different ways people approach their journey to find meaning in their lives fascinating. However, the one thing that strikes me about the Christian faith and what separates the Christian faith from all the others is the concept of forgiveness and grace. Some say that all religions are superficially different but fundamentally the same. However, the opposite is true: most religions are superficially the same but fundamentally different. That doesn’t mean that others don’t forgive or have it as one of their virtues, but it does mean that if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, a Christian, forgiveness is the center of your beliefs.

So why is forgiveness so important? To answer that question, we must dive into the areas of unforgiveness and grudges. Grudges and unforgiveness are the Satanic enemy’s greatest weapon to derail us from our Christian walk. When someone holds a grudge – withholding forgiveness and retaining bitterness in their heart – they damage their relationship with God. If unforgiveness and grudges are so bad, how come so many people hold them? There are multiple reasons, but here are three:

  1. Unforgiveness, grudges, and vengeance give us a false sense of power. When someone hurts us, we sense that we have been wronged and want to hold that person accountable. Holding on to unforgiveness gives us a sense of power. However, that power is false power. Consider the movie The Revenant. In that movie, the main character, Hugh Glass, pursues his foe, John Fitzgerald, to take vengeance for the murder of his son. Glass, consumed with rage, believes that the fulfillment of his life is to take vengeance for his son. In the movie, there is a poignant scene where Glass dreams of standing in a church. His son comes to them, and they embrace him. But then his son dissolves into a black cloud, and Glass awakens to find himself in an empty, destroyed shell of an old church. Grudges and vengeance may seem to give us power, but all that is left is emptiness.
  2. Unforgiveness helps us to make sense of horrible things that happen to us, even though we never find peace. Some people, maybe even some here today, have experienced unbelievable evil in their lives. Evil exists. The satanic enemy wreaks havoc in this world. If you don’t believe that, you haven’t turned on the news lately or been on social media. People suffer unbelievable cruelty at the hands of other humans. Making sense of this evil is complex and often a lifelong process. Consider the scene in Forest Gump where Forest is walking with Jenny, and they come upon the house where she suffered sexual abuse and rape at the hands of her father for many years. After she left home, she went on a path of self-destruction. She had many chances to leave the past behind and start a new life with Forest – a symbolic way of forgiving her father and healing. However, she chose to hold on to her bitterness and unforgiveness. Holding on to unforgiveness and anger helped Jenny make sense of the unimaginable senseless evil thrust upon her by her father. But that anger and unforgiveness led to a lifetime of self-destructive behaviors and toxic relationships. In the scene, as they come upon the old house, Jenny throws rocks at the disheveled and dilapidated house. She throws rock after rock, some hitting the house, others do not. In that scene, Forest, the story’s narrator, states that you soon learn there are not enough rocks. With unforgiveness and grudges, there are never enough rocks.
  3. Unforgiveness gives us a false sense of entitlement over others but leads to our own imprisonment. This item is something we see in today’s passage and will return to in just a moment.

So let’s look at the remedy for grudges, vengeance, and unforgiveness: forgiveness and grace. Let’s look at our text for today in Matthew 18. We start with vss. 21-22:

Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?” “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.

The number 7 in Hebrew is considered a perfect number. You see patterns of seven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. When Peter asks this question, he is not asking if one should forgive a person just seven times and then, on the 8th, not forgive. Similarly, Jesus is not stating that you are free to hold unforgiveness on the 491st time someone hurts you. No, Peter is asking Jesus if he should perfectly forgive people, and Jesus responds with hyperbole that forgiveness is never-ending for those who follow him.

Now let’s look at the vss. 23-27:

For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, one who owed ten thousand talents was brought before him. Since he did not have the money to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.

“At this, the servant fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Then the master of that servant had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.

Jesus then moves into a parable, expanding on this idea of forgiveness. He starts by describing a King who is settling accounts. This King, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, is representative of God. The King has a servant who owes him 10,000 talents. Now it is challenging to represent ancient Greco-Roaman-Isralite currency into modern currency, but what we are to take from the imagery of 10,000 talents is that it is a debt that could never possibly be paid.

This first servant is representative of the follower of Jesus. We who follow Jesus know that our sin is a debt we can never repay. No matter how hard we try or how good we think we are doing, we have a sin debt that can never be repaid. However, in the parable, the King – God – sacrifices his wealth and forgives the servant completely. This is just how Jesus would sacrifice himself as an atonement or a payment for our sins. God, like the King, completely forgives those who choose to be His servant, his follower. It is only through the King that the servant receives mercy. It is only through Jesus that we receive mercy.

Now, this would be an interesting parable if it were to end here, but Jesus takes it one step further. Vss. 28-30:

“That servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii., He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’

“At this, his fellow servant fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he wasn’t willing. Instead, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed.

So the first servant, having been forgiven an unpayable debt, has a colleague who owes him a debt far smaller than what he was forgiven. But yet, the first servant does not show the same mercy that was shown to him. He harbors unforgiveness and holds the second servant accountable for that debt. The price is prison. The point Jesus is trying to make is that one of the side effects of unforgiveness is that we hurt other people. But as we shall see, ultimately, unforgiveness hurts us. Let’s finish the passage with vss. 31-35:

When the other servants saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And because he was angry, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart.”

Let me be very blunt here: unforgiveness is intensely selfish. Forgiveness and grace reflect the heart of a faithful follower of Jesus. But as described in the parable, the first servant who was forgiven an unpayable debt but did not show his fellow servant mercy ultimately bore the punishment of his original debt. Unforgiveness, it has been said, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That happened to the first servant, which happens to us when we refuse to forgive those who have hurt us.

 There is power in the spiritual weapon of forgiveness and grace. We will want to spread forgiveness when we realize the depth to which God has forgiven us. Unlike all other world religions and philosophies, we serve a God who loved us so much that he paid a debt we could never repay by becoming a human in Jesus, suffering a terrible death on the cross, and then defeating the penalty for our sin – death – with resurrection. Because of all this, we inherit the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God. The same Spirit of God that led the nation of Israel in the wilderness, filled the temple in Jerusalem, and raised Jesus from the dead now resides in us. We have the power to forgive. For those of us that call Jesus our Lord and Savior, we have the inherited power to forgive the unforgivable! As psychiatrist Karl Menninger stated in his book Whatever Became of Sin:

In order to save us in such a way to satisfy himself, God, through Christ, substituted himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.

As we leave here today, I want to encourage you to do some self-examination. Are there people in your life that you need to forgive? If so, why are you holding on to that unforgiveness? Are you trying to dirk poison and hope it hurts the other person? Pray and ask Jesus to send you the Holy\ Spirit to help you in forgiveness. For it is with the power of the Holy Spirit that we can forgive the unforgivable. When Jesus was on the cross, he suffered the pain of our sins so that we could freely receive forgiveness for all our sins. He paid that unpayable debt. As followers of Jesus, we must also forgive those who have hurt and harmed us.

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