(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 19, 2004)
A theologian and counselor once told the only slightly fictionalized tale of a married couple who we’ll call Ben and Betty. Ben was a man of moral rectitude, one of those somber Christians who was offended by any levity in church and saw it as his role in life to point out everybody else’s faults. Betty was an open, friendly woman who loved her husband as much as he would let her.
One day Ben came home to find Betty in, shall we say, a compromising position with another man. People who got wind of it were certain that Ben would send Betty packing. But out of deference to his wife’s words of repentance and the consequent obligation he felt, Ben chose to proclaim his forgiveness to her.
Though Betty was a good wife and did her best to make their reconciliation work, Ben was eaten up with feelings of resentment, anger, and suspicion. He couldn’t contain his impulse to constantly bring up his wife’s adultery to her. The loneliness and pain felt by Betty became almost unbearable. Ben suffered too. The longer he failed to truly forgive and be reconciled to his wife, the more isolated and hateful he felt.
Finally while offering up his obligatory prayers one night, Ben sensed the still, small voice of God saying, “Stop!” Ben remembered when Jesus said that if on our way to worship, we remember that we have wronged someone, we need to be reconciled to them. Otherwise, God will not accept our prayers, no matter how righteous we may seem. This is exactly why Jesus included the petition, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the Lord's Prayer.
Ben realized that he had put himself in the place of God, sanctimoniously withholding forgiveness from Betty. Tearfully, he went to his wife and asked for her forgiveness. That was when their relationship began again.
These Advent and Christmas seasons, do you know who gets little notice? The carpenter from Nazareth God selected to be Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. One Presbyterian pastor wrote a few years back that when he made an inventory of the most prominent Christmas hymns in his denomination's songbooks, he found that the ox and ass in the Bethlehem stable where Jesus was born got more mention than Joseph. (I'm sure the same thing is true of our favorite Lutheran Christmas songs.) Only two of the Gospels tell us the story of the first Christmas, Matthew and Luke. Luke tells the story from the vantage point of Mary while Matthew gets at it from the viewpoint of Joseph. But even Matthew tells us precious little about Joseph. By the time Jesus became an adult and undertook His public ministry, Mary was still on the scene, but Joseph was evidently already dead, a distant and unspoken memory.
We do know something about Joseph though. In our Bible lesson for today, for example, we learn that Joseph was “a righteous man.” But when that phrase is applied to him, it doesn’t mean that he was judgmental or unforgiving, as Ben had been. In Joseph, being righteous meant being in a relationship with God and others. Joseph was a person who sought to love God and neighbor as he knew God loved him.
Matthew tells us that when Joseph first learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he understandably disbelieved her tale of being visited by an angel and being told that that while she was still a virgin, she was pregnant, soon to give birth to the Savior of the world.
Joseph would have been within his rights, under the laws of that day, to have revealed Mary’s sin and demanded that she be executed. Instead, Joseph resolved to quietly end his engagement to Mary. He didn’t think that he could be married to her, enduring the pain of knowing that she had been unfaithful to him. But he wouldn’t cause her death over it either.
But that night, Joseph had a dream in which God told him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
I’ve always found that phrasing on God’s part to be interesting: “Don’t be afraid.”
Joseph had a lot of which he could have been afraid. For one thing, the whispers and the putdowns of a close-knit community saying that he and Mary had been guilty of sexual intimacy outside of marriage could have caused him fear.
So, too could other things he might have imagined his fellow Nazarenes saying: that he was a chump for acting as father to another man’s child.
Joseph might also have feared that, based on the evidence of her pregnancy, Mary had a penchant for catting around with other men.
But God tells Joseph, “Don’t worry about any of that. It’s just like Mary told you. She is a virgin. She will give birth to the Savior of the world. Take her as your wife.”
The word for forgive in the New Testament Greek literally means release. When we approach God in the Name of Jesus Christ, seeking forgiveness, God releases us from the debt we owe. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible says. For our sins, we deserve to pay the penalty of death. But Jesus took that penalty for us. For Jesus’ sake, God releases us from our debt.
When we forgive others, there is also a release. For one thing, we release others from the burden of shame.
Once, while serving as pastor of a church in northwestern Ohio, my family and I had returned from a long day of Confirmation and graduation parties, followed by a visit to the house of some friends. The next morning would bring our five-week long Summer School, in which we taught eighty-five students about the Bible and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I had a few last-minute things to do in preparation for that. I went to the church building and entered one room to find a young man I knew, not a member of the congregation, watching a pornographic movie on our newly purchased VCR and TV. I wanted to yell at him and condemn him. Somehow though, I sensed that wasn’t the way to handle the situation. I simply told the young man to leave the building and I promised that I would never tell a soul. Except in this version nearly twenty years later, I never have.
Not long ago, I learned that the young man is a dedicated, almost model husband and father, active in his church and in his faith. I wonder if any of these good things would have happened if I, as a pastor, a respected leader in a close-knit community, had thundered at him and exposed his mistake to the world?
A wise man once taught me that if ever our God has erred, He always has done so on the side of grace and forgiveness, maybe we should do the same. Of course, God never has made a mistake, which should tell us that forgiving others is never a mistake. When we do forgive, it’s possible that we may release the people forgiven from the burden of shame, liberating them to become the people Jesus died to help them be!
When we forgive, we also release ourselves from the wall that our unwillingness to forgive builds up between God and us. In the mythic tale of Ben and Betty, Ben finally released himself to receive the blessings of God when he forgave his wife.
There have been people in my life who have wounded me deeply, sometimes causing me to doubt my own self-worth or my ability to do anything constructive. The wounds have sometimes hurt so badly that I haven’t wanted to forgive. In times like these, I go to God and I honestly tell Him, “Lord, I don’t want to forgive. But because I know Your will, I want to want to forgive others.”
What I have learned is that honest confession has been enough for our gracious God. Somehow, he takes my weak resolve and fills the space between me and those who have hurt me with his forgiving grace for others. Soon, I really do forgive those people and God empowers me to live and love in confidence and hope.
Even before God came to him in his dream, Joseph had resolved to release Mary of her punishment when he decided to quietly end their marriage arrangement. That truly righteous decision shows that Joseph was qualified to undertake the mission God had in mind for him, to act as the earthly father of the Savior of the world.
When we forgive others, it’s like getting heart bypass surgery. The impediments that prevent the power and grace of God from flowing into our lives are removed! The ability of Satan to create static in our relationships is forcibly erased.
So much of what God intends to do in this world depends on the willingness of His followers--people like Joseph and you and me--to forgive as we have been forgiven by God.
It was just before Christmas and Kayleen Reusser was taking her six-month old baby for an immunization shot. Her head ached, leading her to think that she was coming down with the flu. She’d just learned that her husband could soon be laid off from his job. She was in a foul mood as she unbuckled the baby from her car seat.
A honk from the truck behind her expressed impatience that Kayleen was blocking traffic on the one-way street in front of her doctor’s office. When she finally had her little one cradled in her arms, she realized that she had parked in a delivery zone and that the man honking the horn was trying to deliver a package to the building where Kayleen was headed.
Upset that she hadn’t noticed where she was parking, she put her baby back in the car and drove more than a block away before she could find a spot to park. After she managed to parallel park in a tight spot, she got out of a car and found the delivery truck driver standing outside. She braced herself for a tongue-lashing.
Instead, the driver said, “Sorry about that back there.” Kayleen noted a “strong note of apology” in his voice. “I saw you had a baby,” he said, “but there wasn’t a place big enough for me to park in.” Kayleen apologized too. “I’d like to give this to you,” the man said. He held out a mug with his company’s name on the side. He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas” and “sprinted away as fast as he dared on the slick pavement.”
Kayleen writes: “...that mug now has a permanent place on my kitchen windowsill. It serves as a constant reminder to me of the way that driver showed unexpected kindness and forgiveness to me that day. It also reminds me of the way God consistently forgives each of us even when we deserve it the least.
“Seeing that mug each morning as I begin my day inspires me to work on showing that same kindness and forgiveness to everyone I encounter--clerks, cashiers, complete strangers--not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.”
Jesus has come into our lives to bring us the forgiveness of God. May we, like Joseph, live that forgiveness toward others so that we and they are released to live life with all the joy and passion and freedom from fear that God wants us to enjoy.
[I have searched through many of my books in an effort to find where I originally read of the slightly-fictionalized tale of Ben and Betty. But I couldn't find it. I apologize to its unknown author.
[Kayleen Reusser tells the true story of the forgiving parcel delivery man in the collection of Christmas stories, Christmas: Celebrating the Joy of Faith and Family God's Way.]