God Wants to Forgive Your Sins
(Lectionary Starters)

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
February 23, 2003
Isaiah 43:18-25; Mark 2:1-12
Jim Killen, a minister of the United Methodist Church, Beaumont, Texas

We have been talking for several weeks about the things that God wants to do for us to help us enter into that new possibility that Jesus called “The Kingdom of God”. Today, we are going to talk about the good news that God wants to forgive our sins.

At first, it may seem strange that we are talking about that now instead of at the beginning of the series. (Not that we will, by any means, ever get through discovering all of the things God wants to do for us.) We usually think of the forgiving of sins coming first. Justification, the realization that God has forgiven us and accepted us as his beloved children, usually comes before sanctification, our learning to live like children of God. Many evangelists introduce newcomers to the Christian Faith by explaining “the four spiritual laws”, which focus on God’s forgiving grace.

But on the other hand, we may need to get a little further into our relationship with God before the forgiving of our sins can mean what it should to us. Too often, we slide through the ritual for being forgiven without really taking seriously what we are being forgiven for – as if we are being forgiven for something that Adam and Eve did instead of for something we did – or as if, at worst, we are being forgiven for some naughty thoughts we had when we were adolescents. We may need to get a little further along in our relationship with God before we will be able to develop a sensitivity to the enormity and the seriousness of our sins – and an awareness that the sins are ours. In fact, we may need to develop some confidence in the willingness of God to forgive before we can muster the courage to even look honestly at our sinfulness.

Lets assume that we are “a little further along” and take another look at this matter of God forgiving our sins.

I. What is sin all about anyway?

Sin is not just breaking a rule now and then. Sin is having our lives all put together wrong. It is the opposite of living in a right relationship with God, which is a synonym for living the new life of the Kingdom of God. The first thing that is wrong with sin is that it makes us miss all of the good living that we could be enjoying if we were in a right relationship with God. But that is not the worst of it. If faith and love are not shaping and driving our lives, something else is, something like bitterness, or fear, or hate, or selfish ambition, or, maybe the worst of them all, indifference. Those are destructive forces. If they are at work in your life they will make you do bad things to yourself and to others and to the very structure of life itself. Yes, you are part of what shapes life in the world. If you don’t live it well, you can do it harm.

Does that description evoke some memories of some things of which you are not proud?

Being saved from sin has two aspects. One is being set free from the power of the sins that have been running your life. The other is being set free from the guilt that has accumulated as a result of the work of sin in your life in the past. Being forgiven is being set free from guilt.

Guilt can take lots of different forms. There is a kind of pathological feeling of guilt that really doesn’t relate to any real wrongness in your life. It is a mean tick that certain things in your past experience can play on you. But there is some guilt that is real. It does relate to wrong and hurtful things you have done because sin was at work in you. Can you remember doing something really hurtful to someone you love because of some real ugliness inside of you? Can you remember standing aside and letting some bad thing happen because you didn’t have the courage or the conviction to stand up for what was right? Most of us can remember some things like that. But an even more destructive kind of guilt is the kind that you don’t remember, the guilt that makes you so ashamed that you keep pushing it out of your mind and not dealing with it.

Guilt can become a crippling thing. It can keep us from living life fully and well. Have you experienced that? Life comes offering you real joy and happiness but you can’t let yourself enter into it because you think you don’t deserve it. Someone offers you friendship but you think, “I had better not let anyone get too close to me because they wouldn’t like me if they knew about me.” You have an opportunity to accomplish something good or to give some leadership in a good cause but you draw back saying, “I am not worthy”. Love and joy and opportunity are expressions of God’s enabling grace. If guilt keeps us from taking them in it disables us.

Now maybe we can understand what really happened in that story from Mark’s Gospel.

Some really faithful friends brought a paralyzed man to Jesus to be healed. Because the house was crowded, they made a hole in the roof and lowered the man down before Jesus. At first, it appeared that the man was suffering from a physical affliction. But Jesus evidently realized that this affliction had a spiritual cause. (Remember, not all sicknesses are caused by sin – but some are.) Jesus had compassion on the man and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Some who were there didn’t understand that Jesus was the agent and embodiment of God and so a controversy arose about whether anyone but God could forgive sins. But Jesus settled it. He said, “Stand up, take up your bed and go home.” The man did. Sin had been working in his life in a way that kept him from being able to live as a whole person. Jesus forgave his sins and made him able to live fully.

II. Can the forgiving of sins happen to us? Yes it can

The forgiving of sins has always been a part of the religion of the people of Israel. The service of atonement is about the forgiving of sins. The lesson from Isaiah tells of a time when God wanted to rescue the people of Israel from the mess they had made of their history through their sins. God wanted to give them a new future so God said, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).

But it is no little thing to forgive sins. It is not as if they were unimportant. They are destructive. They do harm. In order to forgive, someone must absorb the destructiveness of our sins, those who love us – or the whole human race – or God. One of the explanations of why Jesus died on the cross says that he paid the price for our sins. They are costly. But the cost is paid.

Still, we must take them seriously. At the end to the tragic period of apartheid in South Africa, the people knew that they had to forgive each other for the terrible atrocities that had been committed in order to move on into a new day. But they could not just forget that they happened. Each person who had participated in the atrocities had to confess before a truth commission what had happened. We will have to reckon with the hurtfulness of what we have done before forgiving love will work for us.

But ultimately, forgiveness is something that is freely given to you by God because God loves you and wants you to have a new life. Yes, there is more to be done. We still have to work with God as God works to set us free from the destructive things that have been at work in our lives and to teach us a new and better way. But forgiveness is ours as a gift. We must simply accept it gratefully.

Then we must go out to live the life that guilt would not let us live. Live like a forgiven person. Accept joy. Let yourself be happy. Let friendship happen. Venture out to live a significant and productive life. That is what it will mean for you to stand up and pick up your stretcher and go home.

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