[This is the script for a sermon shared with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio earlier today.]
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus was asked by His disciple Peter, how often he should forgive others, “as many as seven times?” Peter thought that he was being very liberal in couching his question in this way. To forgive someone as many as seven times, Peter felt, along with the people of his day, was the height of patience and kindness.
But Jesus answers that we're to forgive others not seven times, but “Seventy-seven times.” Jesus’ answer is not a mathematical formula, but a teasing parody of the question posed by His disciple. Peter wanted to limit how forgiving followers of Christ needed to be. Jesus was telling Peter (and us), “Just as there’s no limit to how much I, God in human flesh, forgive all who repent and believe in Me, there should be no limit to your forgiveness of others.”
This teaching should come as no surprise to us. In Matthew 6:14-15, after teaching the disciples what we call The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said: “...if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Jesus says that we actually block His forgiveness and life with Him from our lives by failing to forgive. I find Jesus’ words terrifying, frankly. But we should remember them whenever we feed condemnatory feelings toward others.
Yet Jesus’ command that we forgive is more than a stern dictate. Forgiving others is also a gift from God that can set us free for living life to the full.
Our first lesson for this morning, Genesis 50:15-21, shows us how this is so. You know the story of Joseph well, part of whose life our lesson tells us about today. This Joseph, of course, isn’t the one who, nearly two-thousand years later, would be chosen by God to be the earthly father of God the Son, Jesus of Nazareth. This Joseph is the great grandson of Abraham, grandson of Isaac, son of Jacob, the patriarchs of Biblical faith.
At an early age, this Joseph angered his brothers because their father Jacob so favored Joseph and because Joseph reported dreams that God had given to him indicating that one day, his brothers would bow down to him.
The brothers’ resentments toward Joseph simmered until they reached a boiling point: They sold Joseph into slavery and when they came back home from the fields where they’d been tending the family’s sheep, without Joseph, they convinced Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
From there, Joseph’s circumstances went from bad to worse.
He became the slave and eventually, the supervisor of all the holdings of Potiphar, one of Egypt’s most powerful generals, only to be falsely accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife, who had been disappointed when Joseph refused to have an affair with her. Joseph languished in prison.
Eventually, Joseph was freed and, gifted by God with both the ability to interpret dreams and lead an organization, he undertook a massive rationing program that saved millions from death by starvation when a famine hit.
You remember how his brothers, not knowing who Joseph was, came to Egypt seeking to buy food and how eventually, Joseph was reunited with his father and how God used Jacob to save God’s people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people, from extinction.
This, of course, is important for all of us because it was through the Messiah Jesus Who was given to God’s people, that salvation would become possible for all who repent and believe in Jesus.
But our lesson takes place well after Joseph’s reunion with his father. Jacob and all of his sons and their families had lived in Egypt with Joseph for some time when Jacob died.
There are two scenes recounted in the lesson. Scene #1 comes in verse 15. Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers are in a panic. They wonder, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” Joseph’s brothers could be cynical, self-centered men and they couldn’t imagine that Joseph was any different.
They projected their own cynicism and selfishness onto Joseph. Afraid for their lives, the brothers concoct a phony story to tell Joseph.
We read about that story in Scene #2 of our lesson, verses 16 through 21. The brothers tell Joseph that, just before he died, their father Jacob had directed them to tell Joseph not to exact vengeance on them for their sins against him.
Our lesson tells us that when Joseph heard his brothers' story, he wept. Joseph's brothers found it hard to believe that a believer in God like Joseph could possibly forgive them. That's why they wept.
They clearly didn't know nor understand the relationship with God that Joseph had. And that’s what made Joseph weep, filled with sorrow for their disbelief and their fear of him.
Joseph says in verses 19 and 20 of our first lesson: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Though I’ve read them many times, I always find Joseph’s words here breathtaking! And they often choke me up.
Joseph is saying that God can make something of the most sinful actions people may perpetrate against us.
Notice several things about what Joseph says. First: Joseph sees his brothers kneeling before him and, even though this was exactly what God had revealed would happen in the dreams he’d had as a boy, he didn’t like it.
Joseph believed God’s words in Isaiah 42:8: “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” Joseph insisted that he wouldn’t take God’s place. He wouldn’t take God’s glory and he wouldn’t do God’s job.
When someone hurts us, we may be inclined to think that it’s only our due that the offending party should, in some way, come crawling to us for forgiveness. Joseph knew that no matter what sins others perpetrate against us, God is really the One most hurt and offended by human sin. When we are offended, it’s good to remember God’s words in Deuteronomy 32:35 “It is Mine to avenge; I will repay.”
Though today, Jesus entrusts the Church with the responsibility of declaring God’s forgiveness to the repentant and the opposite to the unrepentant, when others hurt us, we aren’t in the vengeance business. We must trust God to sort things out.
The second thing to notice is that Joseph could see God at work even in the midst of his pain. He saw that God had used the adversities he experienced to save whole nations, including the small band of people who would become the ancestors of Israel and through Christ, the ancestors of all who confess Christ as their God and Lord.
Joseph’s connection with God allowed him to forgive his brothers. None of us can forgive others and be free of the resentments that can destroy our happiness, without God’s help and empowerment. It’s impossible to live the Christian life without a connection to the God of the universe definitively revealed to us in Jesus Christ! We can forgive only if Jesus Christ lives within us.
As Christians, we confess that God does live and work within us. As Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” You can't forgive others their trespasses against you. But Christ in you can!
Christ lives in you when you are a baptized believer in Him. Think of what that means for your everyday life! Even on the cross, Jesus Christ was able, we see from Luke 23:34, to pray for those who were killing Him and crying for His blood, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” That Christ lives within every baptized believer in Christ!
We see how Christ lives in believers in a man named Stephen. Five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Acts 7:60 tells us that Stephen, a mere human being who, through Holy Baptism, had Christ living within him, could pray as he was being stoned to death for his faith in Christ, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
When you believe in the God revealed in Jesus—the God of the Old and New Testaments, you can forgive others because you know that in Jesus, nothing can separate you from God and His love for you. Christians know the freedom that comes to us when God empowers us to forgive others as God has forgiven us because of the cross and resurrection of Christ.
The most common New Testament Greek work for forgive, aphiemi, literally means, release. Forgiveness is releasing, letting go of all pretense of being God, letting go of having any right or responsibility for holding the sins of others ocer their heads, and instead, trusting God to deal with whatever punishments need to meted out against those who sin against us. When we forgive others, God releases us to live with Him always.
Holding a grudge is like holding your breath for an extended period of time. As long as you do it, you can’t expel the toxins of bitterness and anxiety and you can’t breathe in the fresh air of God’s Holy Spirit. If Joseph hadn’t trusted in God to release His grudges and hold onto God through bad and good times, there is no way God could have fulfilled the good purposes that God had revealed to Joseph when Joseph was just a little boy that God wanted to fulfill in Joseph’s life. When we fail to forgive, there are good things that God intends to do through us that just don’t happen. And that is a tragedy.
As Jesus showed us in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, there are times when we must lovingly confront those we feel have sinned against us. It’s right that we do so. But God can do so much in the lives of people who surrender everything, even their anger and sorrow over the hurts, insults, slights, and horrible injuries others have inflicted on them.
God will do nothing in the lives of people who block His grace by refusing to forgive others. But God releases us from our sins when we forgive others as He forgives us through Christ. If you’ve come here this morning holding a grudge against anybody, I invite you (I beg you) to attempt to work things out starting now. Release those against whom you have a grudge. Release yourself. Above all, I invite you to lay your grudge at Jesus’ cross right now and to let God set you free to live the life you were made for!