The season of Lent is the 6 week period leading up to Easter, and in the life of the church, this has been a time for followers of Jesus to focus on a more disciplined life. People often talk about giving things up, or starting new habits and practices, but this year we want to look at the discipline of forgiveness and to do this we are going to look at the forgiveness of Jesus. Much of what Jesus did during his ministry was to forgive people and to talk about the power of God’s forgiveness in our lives. So we want to take some time to reflect on this during these few weeks.
What does God’s forgiveness look like in our lives? How does God’s forgiveness impact us and what does it look like for us to forgive others? While taking time to think about all of this is always a good thing, this year it seems that this focus is more desperately needed. When our world, and church, and at times our own families are so divided in so many ways, learning what forgiveness means can bring healing. One of the foundational truths about forgiveness we will see today is that forgiveness only comes with humility and our being willing to turn to Jesus, and now more than ever, people need to come together with humility and turn to Jesus.
One of the most important things to understand about forgiveness is that it is not defined by how we treat one another, but how God has treated us. God defines forgiveness. God sets the standard and Jesus shows us what God’s forgiveness looks like by telling the story of a forgiving father, or a story we might know as the prodigal son. The story is found in Luke 15 and it begins when a son, in arrogance and pride, only thinks about what he wants, and what is good for him, and asks his father to give him his share of the family fortune. While this might not seem like a big deal, in Jesus’ day, this was a huge offense. The son might as well have said, Dad, I wish you were dead so I could have your money now.
Instead of pointing out the offense of his son, shaming him, or punishing him, it says the father divided his property between his two sons and gave the younger son his share of the money. Now here’s the thing, the only way the father could have done this would have been if he sold what he owned so he could give his younger son his share in cash. When he sold his property, the people would have started asking why, which means his son’s request would have been well known in the community. Instead of shaming his son and holding him up to public scorn, we see the father begin to take on the shame of his son. He gave his son the freedom and the money that he wanted.
The son then goes off and lived a very wild life. He squandered all he had on food, drink, and prostitutes for himself and his friends. When the money was gone, so were his friends and he had nothing. With no one to take him in, he found a job feeding pigs. For a Jewish man, this would have been as low as it gets. Pigs were unclean and to touch them or interact with them in any way would have been unheard of, but this man didn’t just feed them, he longed to eat what they were eating. It doesn’t get any worse than this, and this is where we pick up the story. Luke 15:17-20a.
So he heads home and this young man has no idea how his father might react when he gets there. While he is biologically a son, this young man has cut himself off from his father when he asked for his inheritance. He has brought shame on himself, his father, and his family, and he knows that he no longer deserves any place in his father’s house, except maybe as a slave, or servant. He also knows that the community can judge him for his behavior. Because of his actions, any man in the community could have turned him away. In fact, if someone from the community had seen him coming home, they could have run out to him and broken a clay jar in front of him, it would have meant that he was cut off from their community and could not return.
I’m not sure I have ever thought much about this young man’s journey home and what he must have been thinking, but I know what I have thought on my own journey back to God. Will God accept me? I have failed God again. I have messed up my life again. I have allowed myself to fall into bad thinking, hurtful language, and sinful behavior again. What right do I have to return to God and ask for anything? What right do I have to even turn to God? None. I have no rights at all. There is no reason why God should accept me. This had to have been some of what this young man was thinking. Will my father acknowledge me? What about the rest of my family? What about the community? Did he return wondering who the first one might be to run out and smash a pot in front of him?
But the son returns and we often think of this as the first step in forgiveness. We often think forgiveness begins when we acknowledge our sin and return home, or turn back to God. We call this act repentance, a turning away from sin and back to God, and as we can see here that it is an important step in forgiveness, in fact, the son couldn’t have been forgiven if he hadn’t returned home, but this is not the first step in forgiveness. What happened before this is that the son remembered the character and love of his father. He remembered how his father had loved him when he had offended him in asking for his inheritance. He remembered how his father was willing to be bad-mouthed and shamed when he gave him his money and his freedom. He remembered that the father loved him first and so he can make this turn home. God’s love for us, God’s grace reaching out to us, is the first step in forgiveness.
The first step in forgiveness is not our turning away from sin and back to God, but a still small voice, God’s voice, that tells us that no matter what we may think, and no matter how far we have fallen, and what doubts, and fears we may have, God loves us, and because of that love we can take the risk and turn toward home. The bible says, it’s not that we loved God but that God first loved us. The first step in forgiveness is God’s grace which reaches out to us while we are down and desperate, and it reminds us that we can get up and return home.
So he remembered the love of his father, and he headed home. Luke 15:20b-24.
And this is what forgiveness looks like. The father runs out to welcome his son home. This is a startling example of just how powerful God’s love is for us. For the father to run he would have had to lift up his robes and expose his legs, this was shameful in Jesus’ day, but the father once again takes on the shame of his son and runs out to greet him. And why does he run? I have always thought he ran out to simply embrace his son, he missed him so much and was glad to have him home, but maybe there was something more going on here. Maybe the father runs out to get to his son before anyone in the community can run out with pot and cut him off. The community could have shamed the son, and cut him off, but if the father can get there first, he can stop the condemnation and restore his son, but he has to get there first, so he runs out to greet him.
Not only does God not condemn us, but God’s forgiveness stops the condemnation of others. When a woman was caught in adultery, the people wanted to condemn her, but Jesus said, those without sin can cast the first stone. Jesus stopped the condemnation of others and offered the woman mercy. God’s forgiveness not only lifts us up, but it begins a process of reconciliation by cutting off the judgement of others. There is an important lesson for us here, if God forgives we must forgive others.
But it doesn’t stop there, the father doesn’t welcome his son home as a servant or slave, he restores him as a son. When the father asks for sandals, a ring, a robe, and fatted calf to be prepared for a meal, he is completely restoring him as a son. Sandals were reserved for family members, while servants and slaves walked around barefoot. The ring was most likely a signet ring which was reserved for sons, and was a sign of authority in the family. Robes were reserved for children, and a celebratory meal was reserved for family occasions. These were all tangible signs the father was giving his son to show him, his family and the community that his son was forgiven. Completely.
Forgiveness restores relationships completely. There are no second class citizens when we talk about forgiveness with God. God doesn’t welcome us home but then constantly remind us how we have failed, and relegate us to some inferior status, forgiveness restores us, and then it celebrates. The father celebrated with his son, and he invited the whole community to join him, because his son had returned.
In this story, Jesus gives us a picture of what the forgiveness of God looks like. God’s love reaches out to us first. Before we can even think of coming home, God’s love is speaking to us and giving us the assurance that we will be accepted and forgiven. When we turn back to God, God runs out to greet us, and God doesn’t take away our shame as much as God takes on our shame. Just as the father took on the shame of his son, so Jesus took on our shame when he died on the cross. The bible said that those who hang on a tree are cursed, so the death of Jesus was not just a physical death, but a sign of Jesus taking on our shame. And by taking on our shame, and overcoming it, we see that God forgives.
Forgiveness means that God restores relationship. The father is not content to welcome his son home as a slave, or servant, he is welcomed home as an honored son and then he invites the family and community to be restored as well. Forgiveness restores and resets relationships. And then there is a party, God celebrates.
This is what God’s forgiveness looks like and this is what is available for all of us. God’s grace is reaching out to each one of us today, calling us to return, letting us know we are loved. God is running out to each one of us, willing to take on our sin and shame so we can be set free, and God is restoring each one of us in a relationship with him, calling us honored, valuable, children of God. All of us. And God is just waiting to celebrate.
This is what God’s forgiveness looks like and this also begins to set the standard of what forgiveness needs to look like for each of us. It is an impossibly high standard, I know, but it sets for us a goal, and gives us a vision and some direction to what forgiveness needs to look like in our own lives and in our church, community, and world. We can’t just sit around and wait for people to come to us to apologize, there are those times we have to do what we can to reach out in love to offer grace, and mercy, to others. Jesus said, if you know someone who holds something against you – go and seek reconciliation. Go to them.
While repentance is part of the forgiveness story, the son did acknowledge his mistake and wanted to tell his father how sorry he was, the father doesn’t stay focused on the problems of the past but just sees the possibilities for the future. This is often the hardest part we have in forgiving others. We want to make sure people know the depth of their failure, sin, and mistakes. We want to make sure the other person really knows that what they have done is wrong, or how they have hurt us. It seems like we want to focus more on the offense and justice than on the restoration and the love. We want to stay focused on the brokenness and not the healing. We want to keep reliving the past and not write the new story of our future. Forgiveness is not pointing out the shame others should feel but finding ways we can take on that shame so that the other person is healed and restored.
With this as a standard, we have a long way to go, and the first step is to simply accept again, and anew, the forgiveness God offers to us. It is only in being forgiven by God, it is only in being clothed with the power of God, and restored into a relationship with God, that we will ever be able to forgive others the way Jesus did. So as we begin this season of Lent, let us once again humble ourselves and, remembering the amazing love of a forgiving father, let us reach out once again to accept for ourselves the forgiveness of Jesus.
The Forgiveness of Jesus – The Forgiving Father
Connect With God
• Turn to God in humility and confess your sin.
• Identify the shame you feel and allow God to take it from you.
• Read these passages that tell us we ARE forgiven
o Matthew 6:14-17
o Romans 10:9
o Ephesians 1:7, 4:32
o 1 John 1:9
o Isaiah 1:18, 55:7
• Find one way to celebrate that God forgives you.
Connect with the Church
• Commit to worship during the season of Lent to learn about and celebrate God’s forgiveness.
• Pray that those in the church can truly grasp and extend to others the forgiveness of God.
• Learn about one ministry supported by Faith Church that helps spread the love and grace of God.
• Join a class, study, or small group to explore more about what it means to be forgiven, and to forgive.
Connect with the World
• Ask God to show you the person (or persons) you need to forgive. Pray for them.
• What group of people is God asking you to reach out to, get to know, and build a stronger relationship with?
• Pray for this group and opportunities for engagement.
• Identify one way you and your family can serve the community during the next 6 weeks, then serve.