Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.
I type a lot. Between the writing I do for this devotional and the work Iíve been doing for my publisher, as well as emails and Facebook posts, I type thousands of words a day. I learned touch typing in High School; it was a recommended class for college prep students so that they would be able to type papers in college. I have developed my typing abilities over the years and I can type fairly fast and accurately. I prefer to write at the computer because I can type as fast as I think, so it is easier to keep up with my thoughts in type rather than in pen and ink.
I have a difficult time with typing on the phone, however. Though the keyboards are built the same, it is impossible to touch type on a phone because it is so small. I usually use my thumbs to type, and unfortunately they are so big that I often hit the wrong key. It drives me crazy to have typos or to use the typical abbreviations, and I canít type nearly as fast as I think, so texting can be quite frustrating to me.
Now, though I am fast and fairly accurate, I have to admit that there are certain words that I consistently type wrong. I often switch letters or hit the space key a letter too early. I usually find my mistakes so you donít have to see them, but Iím sure you have all noticed my typographical errors over the years. It can be so frustrating to have the same mistakes over and over again, but those mistakes seem to have become a natural part of my typing. They are learned, and Iím finding it hard to overcome them.
Typos do not cause anyone suffering, at least I hope they donít. I know that sometimes my typographical errors make the sentences more difficult to read, and sometimes they even change the meaning. I have to laugh at some of those errors and the message that they convey. But what happens when we make a consistent error that does impact those around us? What happens when we sin repeatedly in a way that hurts those we love?
I suppose one of the most blatant examples of recurring sin has to do with the language we use. Oh, I donít know if bad words are really harmful to others, but there are definitely words that are bothersome. Curse words are just words, but letís look at the reality of one of the tamer of those words. What does it say when we consistently cry ďGod damn you.Ē What does that do to the listener? Surely we know that God will not damn someone based on our out of control tongue, but does the listener know that? Does the listener brush it off as being a meaningless comment? Does our bad habit of damning everything that upsets us glorify God?
It is shocking the first time we use one of those bad words, but after we use them a couple times they become an important part of our vocabulary. Most of us have heard a comedian or two who canít tell a story without using the ďfĒ word repeatedly. It has become their shtick; it is part of their character. However, it does nothing for the stories or jokes, and it causes me to change the channel. Those who enjoy that type of humor see the word as acceptable, and even cool, and it becomes a part of their vocabulary. You can hear it spoken on street corners in conversations that make no sense because the Ďverbal pauseí of that word has no purpose. It is not edifying and it causes many who need to hear a good word to turn us off.
Of course, we all have habitual language that we use, words or sounds that automatically enter our conversation, and they arenít really harmful. The point is that it is easy for us to get into habits that are hard to break, and some of those habits are truly harmful to others. What driving habits are dangerous? What lies have become a daily part of our lives? What foods or drinks or other substances have become habitual that cause us to act in a way that affects our family and neighbors? It is easy to get caught up in habits that seem insignificant that become overwhelmingly difficult to overcome.
Thank goodness Jesus commands us to forgive repeatedly, or we would destroy every relationship with our bad habits. I cringe when I hear bad language and I leave the room. Iíd rather not be with the person who uses it. Families can fall apart due to someoneís excessiveness in work or play. Even the little white lies that become a natural part of our conversations can create distrust between people. Yet, I think in most cases it is easy to forgive one another of these little things, probably because we know we are guilty, too.
It is the bigger things that become difficult to forgive. How often can we forgive someone who hurts us? How many times can we forgive the person who leads us down a dangerous path? How often should we forgive the neighbor who takes what is not theirs or does what makes life more difficult for us? Do we really have to forgive the co-worker who has lied to get another promotion over us? Do we really have to forgive the drunk driver who killed another innocent person? Do we really have to forgive that politician who says one thing but does another?
Let us remember, though, that Jesus doesnít say that we must forgive an unrepentant person. He says, ďTake heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.Ē It is up to us to help our brothers and sisters overcome those sins that have become habitual. How will a person who curses never realize how their language is making us feel if we never say anything? How will a co-worker realize that the way to get a promotion is by hard work if we do not call them on their lies? How will the drunk driver ever stop hurting others if we do not help them to see that their addictions are dangerous?
Yes, God calls us to forgive, but it is not a blind forgiveness that ignores the reality of sin. His Word brings light to reveal our mistakes, our errors, our sins. His Law is a mirror that reflects that we are sinners in need of a Savior, we make mistakes that need to be rectified, and we have habits that need to be overcome. God calls us to help one another become the people He calls us to be, and we do so by revealing to one another our failures, calling one another to repentance and forgiving one another when we do. Remember, we are not only called to forgive our neighbors, they are called to forgive us. Together we will overcome those habits that do not glorify God.
But I donít blame the apostles for asking Jesus to help them do it. ďIncrease our faith,Ē they asked. I donít like to call out my neighbors on those things that disturb me, because so much of it seems so unimportant; it doesnít cause me any lasting physical, mental, emotional or spiritual harm, right? We just brush it off, but as the behavior continues, over and over again, we lose control of our emotions and find the little things become big. Thatís when relationships die and when we do the things that are more obviously against Godís will.
And how do you go on forgiving and forgiving the same things? How do you forgive anything seventy times seven times? Really? At what point are repentant words no longer repentance? At what point do we stop trying to help one another overcome those habits that do not glorify God? Perhaps the better question to ask, however, is how many times do we want our neighbors to forgive the habits that we are having trouble overcoming? When will you stop reading these devotions because of my poor typing and grammatical errors? Or will you continue to forgive me my mistakes, even if I continue to make them over and over again?
Jesus tells the apostles that this is not a matter of faith or a gift from God, but an expectation of those who have been forgiven. After all, God has forgiven us all our sins. Jesus died to make things right between our Father and His children. He has forgiven, and forgiven, and forgiven even though we continue to sin against Him. He forgives us our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us. This we do not do to earn our forgiveness; this we do because we are forgiven. This is our duty.
Ah, there is yet another word that bothers us: duty. We think of duty as it is defined in todayís language, ďAn act or a course of action that is required of one by position, social custom, law, or religion.Ē Those of us who understand our inability to live up to the Law cringe at the idea that God requires anything of us. But what it means in the Greek is more subtle. We are bound by Godís forgiveness to forgive. We are obliged by Godís grace to be gracious. Thatís our duty, and in the end we do not deserve a seat at the table in heaven for doing what we owe to God for His mercy.
What God knows and we often forget is that people are simply not trustworthy: we will, until the day we die, fail to live up to anyoneís expectations. We can try. We can work through our failings and overcome our habits, but we will fall again. And again. And again. That doesnít mean that we should not trust. Talk about moving mountains! What matters is that God is trustworthy, and He has forgiven us seventy times seven times and more for failing to live up to His expectations.
The problem we have with forgiving is that we connect it to trust. We want to have faith in that person, to believe that they will never do it again. This is easy the first time. The second time, well we think perhaps they might have learned their lesson. It gets a little harder after the third time, but by the fourth we know there is no way they are changing, repenting or overcoming whatever it is that they are doing wrong. We can no longer trust them. We donít have faith.
Forgiveness is not dependent on whether or not we trust that our brother will not hurt us again. Thank goodness, because how could God forgive us if it was? So, Jesus calls us to forgive despite the unworthiness of our neighbor. Jesus says, ďIf he comes to you and repents seven times, forgive him every time.Ē We canít put our faith in people, they will always fail. Only God is worthy of our faith, we can trust that He will make everything right no matter how wrong it seems.
And sometimes it seems very wrong. Take, for example, the story of Judah. They had turned away from God. Judah was filled with wickedness, strife and oppression, and Habakkuk seemed upset that God would not deal with His people. The book of Habakkuk is a conversation between the prophet and God, which is written down for the people of Israel who struggle to comprehend the ways of God. It helps to read the words and see that even the most faithful of Godís people doubt and wonder at why God does what He does. ďWhy do you tarry?Ē Habakkuk asked. So do we. We struggle to comprehend why God is not dealing with the wickedness, strife and oppression that are found among His people.
Then Habakkuk discovers that God is doing something: He is sending the Babylonians. How could this be any better? How can destruction and exile make things right? How can war bring about peace and an enemy make someone faithful? God tells Habakkuk that He is using the Babylonians to help Judah remember who they are and whose they are. The enemy will help them turn back to Him. And in the end, the Babylonians will be punished. ďHave faith in me. I know what Iím doing.Ē The book ends with Habakkukís confession of faith, trust and his joy.
When Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven times, it is because He wants us to trust in God. Our natural inclination is to seek revenge, to hate, to conquer and to reject. God wants us to work always toward reconciliation. He wants us to help each other be faithful, trusting and joyous. He wants us to help one another let go of the things that keep us from being the people He has created, redeemed and gifted us to be.
Timothy was a very young pastor; his age is a point of contention with the other leaders in the church. He was looked down upon, and because of this he lacked the confidence to carry out his ministry or to speak the Gospel boldly. Paul wrote to encourage him, to remind him that his work is not his own but comes from God. ďFor God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline.Ē
We put so much trust in ourselves, have so much faith in our own abilities, that when we fail we are afraid to go forward. What we forget is that we are not to have faith in ourselves any more than we are to have faith in our neighbors. We are to have faith in God. He calls, He gifts, He sends. The work that we do in this world, including the work of forgiveness, is not done by our own strength, but by His. We donít forgive, we share Godís forgiveness. If we think our neighbor or enemy has harmed us, imagine what heís done to God the Creator and Father.
We donít come by faith alone; it is given to us by God through the words and actions of others. Timothy was taught about faith by his mother and his grandmother. Paul taught him, too. All these people helped to mold Timothy into a minister who would teach the faith to others. They helped him work on his own bad habits. They planted the seeds that would grow into a life of servanthood. They put the spark into his heart that would grow into the gifts that God would use in his life to share the Gospel message.
We are called to holy service, sharing the love and forgiveness of Christ with the world. Most people don't want to hear that they should forgive others. They simply want to know that their enemies will suffer for their sin. They forget that they are sinners, too, in need of the love and mercy of God. But we are given Godís grace through Jesus Christ so that we will boldly proclaim that God will make everything right, even when it seems impossible.
Paul wrote to Timothy, ďÖstir up the gift of God.Ē It says in the NIV, ďÖfan into flame the gift of God.Ē Godís grace is not given to sit idle in our hearts. We are called to live in faith, trusting in Godís mercy and sharing His grace. We are called to boldly proclaim the good news of Godís forgiveness, which means also reminding one another of our sinfulness. It is up to us to forgive those who have harmed us, knowing that God has already forgiven us.
It might seem like the promise of salvation is taking forever to be fulfilled, but God is in control and He is faithful. David was faced with men who wanted to remove his crown. He knew that only Godís grace could help him keep his kingship, his trust was in the One who could save Him. We try so hard to be in control, thatís why we have such a difficult time forgiving seventy times seven times. We donít want to live in a relationship that is constantly disappointing. We want to trust our neighbors; we want them to be perfect so that they wonít hurt us. But they will. They will fail, just as we will fail. They will sin, just as we will sin. But we can help one another sin less by encouraging right behavior and godly actions.
There is hope in our crazy mixed up world. Though the headlines are filled with bad news, we have good news that will always prevail. Stir up the gift, fan the flames, and you'll do the impossible. Trust in God, and that mulberry tree will be moved.
The Psalm ends, ďSurely you will reward each person according to what he has done.Ē This sounds like great news until we begin to think about what we have done. Have we earned our place at the Masterís table? Have we done more than the work He has called us to do? Have we shared His Gospel message of forgiveness with the world? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is ďNo.Ē We donít deserve that place at the table. The Good News is this: we donít have to earn it, Jesus has. He has not only made us a guest in His house, but He has made us brothers and sisters. We are no longer strangers or foreigners, but children of God.
Is there any better reason to live a life of forgiveness? We will be like Habakkuk, wondering if God will make a difference in the lives of our neighbors. We see whatís happening all around the world, in our nation, in our cities, in our churches, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, and we are afraid. Why does God allow even His people to act this way? We can trust, however, that God is not standing idly by. We may not always like the way He makes His people turn to Him, but He is always at work. Perhaps He is working through you, calling you to be the catalyst for change in the life of a neighbor. He has given you a gift, or many gifts, to help build up your brothers and sisters in Christ. Do not be afraid. Trust that God is doing a good thing, calling His people home.
It might take awhile because old habits are hard to break. But even as we will remain imperfect in this life, and weíll need to forgive one another seventy times seven times, we can rest in the knowledge that the blood of Jesus guarantees that Godís forgiveness is ours forever. In the end we will do no more than our duty, we who are bound by Godís forgiveness to forgive will not. We who are obliged by Godís grace to be gracious will not be. And though we do not deserve a seat at the table in heaven, we will be welcome to eat with our Master someday, because He has promised and He is faithful.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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