A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga. on June 6, 2010.
A figure such as Jesus is always a mystery. That is why the Pharisee thought: “If this man were a prophet, then . . . .” For him and his kind Jesus could not possibly be a prophet because he did not hold their view of the world and God and because he did not keep his distance from moral corruption, as in the case of the poor wretch of a woman who seems to be flattering him with her attention. No, Jesus cannot be a prophet because even the idea of a prophet is determined by given values. One can be a prophet only if he confirms that which is a binding norm in me. So then it is impossible for anyone to be a prophet if he questions all my judgments. Our judgments are the most secure things—we know they are bombproof.
—Helmut Thielicke in F-A-I-T-H, The Great Adventure
O God, we confess that our hearts are not pure, yet we still wonder why we have not seen you. We confess today that we have not sought you with our whole hearts yet we marvel that we have not been able to find you. Our Father, we pray that you would, indeed, teach us to seek with the entirety of our hearts in order that our days might be filled with the joy of seeing your presence. We ask that you would convict us of our sins, that we turn and repent and be healed and that our hearts would be pure, not for the sake of praise by others but simply that we might see you clearly. We pray in our hour of need that you would remind us of your sure and certain promises. Give us the assurance of your presence and the constant nurturing of your spirit that we might overcome. We pray that we would overcome the challenges of temptation. We pray that we would overcome the weaknesses that are brought on by so many things, including our fear, including the weariness of our souls. God, you and you alone are able. You can sustain our spirits. You and you alone can lift our hearts and make us glad. By your spirit of truth, help us to see the path we should take. If there is still sin in our hearts or thoughts this day, grant us the assurance of pardon. Help us to claim the gift of grace that you offer for our own in these moments. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.
A sure fact about Jesus is that he made people mad. That is not the first thing we think of when we think about Jesus. We think about Jesus as being nice and kind, but the truth is that Jesus made a lot of people really, really angry. Why do they plot to kill Jesus almost from the onset of his ministry?
When they finally have the opportunity to kill him, it is not a knife in a dark alley. It is a public execution. Not only is it a public execution, it is an execution where they can stand in front of him as he is on the cross and gloat over his death. It is a deliciously tortuous death and they can stand in front of him. One of the Gospel writers in a great graphic image says, “They wagged their heads.” What does somebody do to make a group of people so mad that they would gloat in his face over his death?
We know that Jesus offended some religious sensibilities. If you look at the mindset of someone in the Mid-East and look at different news stories to see how they respond when something seems offensive to their faith, you have a window back 2,000 years to the general Mid-Eastern mindset and how angry people became when Jesus would do things that they considered violated the Sabbath. When Jesus did not keep ceremonial laws about what was clean and unclean, Jesus offended their practice of the faith, and that made people very, very angry.
We also know that Jesus offended people politically. I believe it was Caiphas who said in the last week of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion, “If we don’t do something about Jesus, the Romans will come and take our country from us. It is better that one person die than we lose this nation.” The religious leaders are so afraid that they are going to lose their petty little power and that the Romans will come and change the power structure and they will be thrown out. They will not have any influence any more. They are angry that Jesus has come to town and brought this revolutionary fervor. We forget sometimes that the palm branches were symbols of national independence for the Jews. On that Palm Sunday when they waved the branches, it was revolution and the Jewish leaders were mightily afraid, offended, and angry. Jesus was going to ruin everything. That was another reason why they killed him.
But a third reason is an absolute mystery to us. We can understand the first two and see why people get that mad about certain things, but the third reason they took Jesus and crucified him for who he was and what he did is really a reason that, for us, is so much a part of our faith. It is the ground out of which we believe. It is the part that we love about what it means to be a Christian. But it really made people mad when Jesus offered forgiveness. To us, that seems so foreign. How could you get mad when Jesus forgave someone?
In all four Gospels, there are times when Jesus offers forgiveness and people get angry. In Luke 7:36-50, you can see the indignation in Simon, the host, when he said, “If he were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is.” Jesus goes to the parable and comes to the place where he says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Your sins are forgiven,” the others say, “Who is this? Who does he think he is that he can go around and forgive sins? Who does he think he is that he can forgive this woman of her sins? If he were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman she is. He would know better. Who dies Jesus think he is?”
If the truth be told, forgiveness is still an issue. We like it for ourselves, but we are not really sure that everybody else deserves it. Sometimes a notorious sinner, someone who is known publicly for the misdeeds of their lives, will come to church and get saved. For many churches, that person becomes a trophy sinner. Have you heard of a trophy wife? This is a trophy sinner. This is someone we hold up and say, “You know about him. He was bad and evil but he has seen the light. He is proof of the redemptive work in our congregation. Today, he is saved.”
But more often, if someone who has a led life of notoriety comes to church and tries to change things, people will say, “Who does she think she is coming here like this? We all know who she is?”
I make up these illustrations, but suppose the minister of music says, “Mary is going to sing in the choir.” Everybody in the choir scoots away.
The pastor brings someone to a Sunday school class and says, “Jim wants to come to church. He wants to get some things right in his life.” Next week nobody comes to that class. They are thinking, “Who is this? Who does he think he is?” He gives everybody the vapors. They are just about apoplectic to believe that this person could be forgiven.
Forgiveness, as much as it was an issue in Jesus’ time and as much as it was an issue for Simon, the Pharisee, is still an issue for us. We all have our private list of sins that we think are worse than other sins. Much like the woman in the story, they are usually something of the flesh, something sexual, and we debate about who we think gets forgiveness. While Jesus is with us in spirit, he is not standing here in the flesh and we cannot really get mad at Jesus but we get mad. “What is going on here? Why is my church doing that? How can we forgive that person?”
It is very interesting what Jesus does in the story. He does two things. First, he offends the self-righteous. The real problem with self-righteousness is nobody thinks they have it. Basically, what he tells Simon is that Simon has a heart problem. Jesus is not a cardiologist and I am not talking about blockage, at least not in arteries. We are talking about blockage in terms of what a person can understand about the spirit and understand about themselves. Simon has a pride and conscious problem. He has domesticated his conscious so that he can rationalize his judgments. He is absolutely and positively confident that he does not need forgiveness.
One of the things that I have observed in my own life and also in being a pastor is when a person is most confident and they have no need of forgiveness is the time they need it the most. The more a person is absolutely sure that they do not need any forgiveness is when they need it. We justify our pride and our anger. We rationalize why we can remain bitter. We can take our lack of love and tell ourselves that it is the right thing. We totally cut ourselves off.
In the parable where Jesus is talking about the person who is forgiven the most and forgiven the least, etc. he is not saying that there are some people who don’t need much forgiveness. It is really an awareness of forgiveness. The person who has no awareness of forgiveness isn’t very thankful because they haven’t really sensed there is anything that they need to be thankful for. What is it that Jesus says, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” I think the opposite must be true. There must be more sorrow in heaven over one individual who thinks they have nothing to repent about, particularly when that repentance has to do with self-righteousness and the judgment attitude.
Jesus really isn’t done. Jesus doesn’t gloss over the woman. He doesn’t say, “Oops. No big deal. We’ve got a do-over here. Just don’t worry about anything that happened before.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the woman who is caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.” To this particular woman, he takes the heartfelt sorrow, the extravagance of her tears, the oil, and the actions of kissing his feet as a true indication that real and genuine repentance is coming. Something earthshaking has taken place within her spirit. He understands that she clearly knows what has been going on. The point is not that she is a worse sinner but that she recognizes her sin more deeply than Simon, the host.
When I was in Baptist seminary, I was a pastor of a great little church on the rural urban fringe of Louisville. We had another seminary student who was our song leader. Unfortunately, he had a problem with lying. If caught in a pinch, he would just as soon lie to you as anything else. Finally, it got to be such a problem that I decided I needed to do something about it. I was 27 or 28 and rather green around the administrative ears. I went to see one of the deans at the seminary to ask how I should handle this situation. This particular dean had a reputation for being a hard-nosed administrator and he gave me some really good advice about how to deal with the situation.
As I was getting ready to leave his office, he said, “One more thing.” This was a lesson that has been a lifetime lesson for me. He said, “Beware of the easy repentance.”
I stopped and looked at him, and he said, “When somebody gets caught, the easiest thing to do is to make an easy repentance because they are trusting on the good graces of a nice Christian to say that it doesn’t matter. Beware of the easy repentance.”
Of course, we know this from our own hearts and from our own experiences. If something happens and we get caught, “Oops, God is going to forgive me of this one. No big deal. It’s a do-over.” That is really not the way it works. It is not that our sin doesn’t matter and God pretends like something isn’t wrong. The real sense of forgiveness and grace deals with the fact that we know what we have done. We know that we have separated ourselves from God. In this tremendous anguish like the woman expresses in the story, we turn away from it. This is why Jesus can look at her and say, “Your faith has saved you. You are forgiven.”
Sin does matter. It is not a matter of glossing over it and pretending like it doesn’t matter. Forgiveness comes because this woman has clearly and earnestly repented. The extravagance of her gift is very clear to Jesus.
I don’t know if you are familiar with some of the history of American revivalism but there was a tradition on the frontier where they had what they called the mourner’s bench. That was the bench down front where nobody sat until late in the service when, convicted by sin, people would come forward, kneel, pray, and indicate their remorse for their sin. I would not be the first person to advocate bringing the mourner’s bench back, but the truth is we need that sense again. We need to truly mourn our sin, understand what it has cost God, and understand how great the price of our forgiveness was. We should not pretend that it did not happen but understand the high cost of grace. It cost God the life of his son, Jesus Christ, and by that we are forgiven.
Why did they kill Jesus? For a lot of reasons, but one reason was because he was an equal opportunity offender. Nobody really got away from Jesus’ truth and the conviction of the spirit. For the self-righteous, there was a word, not just in this story, but in many stories. The self-righteous are reminded that the sins of the heart do as much to separate us from God and to destroy our lives as the notorious sins of somebody else somewhere. If our sins are great sins of the flesh, we are reminded that God is not an indulgent parent who pretends like there are no consequences. But God, in his infinite love, in spite of what we have done, loves us anyway.
Who loved the man who forgave the debts the most? It is not just simply a matter of the man who owed the most, but it is a matter of the one who knew how great his debt was.
Today, let us understand our debt and understand the depth of what Christ has done for us in God’s love.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.