February 14, 2010

Kingdom Currency

When you travel in a foreign country, one of the things you have to be able to do in order to really enjoy your trip is to transfer your U. S. currency into whatever the local currency is. If, when traveling, we insist on keeping and trying to use the same money we have in our wallets right now, we simply won.t fit in the culture of the country to which we.ve traveled. Furthermore, if we decided to actually relocate to some foreign place, to continue to try and use the currency of our former country will result in our never actually getting connected to the new culture. We may even run into legality issues with our unacceptable currency. Well, all this month we are taking a look at what it takes live life in the kingdom of God. What I want to talk to you about this morning is the currency of the kingdom. Just like kingdoms on earth, there is a certain currency in God.s kingdom, something that allows us to carry on meaningful transactions with each other. If we refuse to use this currency we.ll never really get settled in the kingdom. And the name of the currency is not Dollars or Euros or Yen. The currency of the kingdom is called forgiveness.

Now, as Christians we all intuitively know that we are supposed to be forgiving others. It.s just one of those things that Christians are supposed to do. I mean, Jesus put it in the Lord.s Prayer. We might even give good lip service to having forgiven all the people in our lives who have wronged us over the years. But in our most honest moments, real forgiveness is one of the more difficult aspects of life in the kingdom for believers to truly grasp and practice. In fact, if we really think about, we probably have some people to whom we currently need to extend forgiveness. This is not something for which I.m trying to make us feel a great deal of shame. After all, we live in a culture with ideas about forgiveness that are simply backwards relative to the reality of the kingdom. Forgiveness is viewed in many circles simply as weakness. We shouldn.t forgive those who offend us because we have to give up power over them in order to do so. We may like to think we don.t live in the same kind of tit-for-tat society of the ancients, but at the popular level slogans like, “Don.t get mad, get even,” reveal that we haven.t actually come all that far in terms of psychological advancement. Indeed, many in our culture today live with the mindset of, “Don.t get mad, get one up.” Even though peace icons for the secular world like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi reminded us that taking an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind, we have a lot of sightless fools wandering around our culture.

It is precisely this cultural attitude towards forgiveness on the part of the world that makes the teachings of Scripture, when taken seriously, so radical. Indeed, it is passages of Scripture like Matthew 18 which reveal the great disparity between the world and the kingdom of God. The treasures of the kingdom are viewed by the world as trinkets at best. Statements like the one from Jesus that we should forgive an offending brother or sister seventy times seven times as we find in verse 21 help reinforce the idea that Christ-followers are merely pushovers ripe to be exploited and taken advantage of. Yet all of this reveals just how important it is for believers to have a solid understanding of the kingdom of God and its unique currency. And so this morning, we are going to take a look at the heart of that currency in Matthew 18. You are welcomed to turn there with me in your Bibles. Our focus this morning is going to be on the parable of the kingdom Jesus tells Peter in response to his inquiring as to the limits of forgiveness. In order to help you see that for its full worth, however, I want for us to understand why Peter asks this question in the first place. Because, when we see the full context of this interchange we will come to more fully understand the importance of the kingdom value of forgiveness. We will appreciate in a richer way the incredible passion God has for reconciliation and restoration in dealing with us. And we will see more clearly that forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom.

So how did we get to the point at which Peter asks Jesus in v. 21: “Master, how many times to I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me?” To answer that question we need to go back a few chapters in Matthew, nearly all the way back to where we were last week. You see, Jesus. plan of attack in helping us understand who He was and why He came was to reveal these things first through His deeds and only then through His words. As a result, after giving some verbal glimpses of the kingdom in chapter 13, we next see Jesus feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing multitudes, and finally feeding 4,000. After all these things, in chapter 16, He finally asks the disciples if they.ve gotten it and know His identity. Upon Peter.s positive confession of Jesus. identity He begins to teach them about His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. In the words and events that follow, Jesus unpacks some of the implications of His mission. The first part of this explanation comes in chapter 17 and focuses on personal discipleship. But we are going to pick up at the second part in Matthew 18 whose focus is on the implications of Jesus. mission for the community of faith.

Look where it begins. The fact that Jesus who is the Messiah of God, who is in fact God Himself, would sacrifice Himself on behalf of the world indicates a radical humility on God.s part. For the one who is incapable of sin to become sin so that people who are full of sin can be free from sin reveals a humility that we can.t wrap our minds around. This humility is a fundamental part of God.s character. For the people He saves (by forgiving them of their sins thereby filling our kingdom account) to demonstrate anything other than a matching degree of humility in their lives reveals a profound misunderstanding of God.s character and kingdom. In fact, it is this forgiveness which is the currency of the kingdom. At the beginning of chapter 18 the disciples clearly didn.t get it. Read with me starting in v. 1: “At about the same time, the disciples came to Jesus asking, „Who gets the highest rank in God.s kingdom?. For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, „I.m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you.re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God.s kingdom. What.s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it.s the same as receiving me..”

Now this passage (in fact most of this chapter) is often misunderstood so let.s talk a minute about what Jesus is and is not saying. He is not saying that we have to become more ignorant of the world and how things work. Nor is He saying that children are necessarily more innocent than are adults. Children are just as broken by sin and in need of grace as we are. Instead, His focus here is on the simple, humble reliance that often is characteristic of children. When Lisa and I strap Noah into the car, he doesn.t know where we.re going or how we.re going to get there, but he trusts that we will make sure we do get there. Other than wanting to eat all the time he gives no thought to where his food is coming from. He simply knows that when he asks, he receives. This is a pretty incredible level of humility and trust. It may be unconscious for a 16½-month-old, but isn.t that what God asks of us. Jesus is saying that the person who develops such humility before and simple trust of God is a powerbroker in the kingdom. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, but this humility is part of its foundation. It plays itself out first in our recognizing our own complete dependence on God. Its second face, however, is found in our willingness to accept other childlike believers regardless of who they are or where they.re from. In other words, belonging is a key piece of kingdom life.

Furthermore, if God could go to such great lengths to accept us, we must go out of our way to not only accept others, but also to avoid driving them off needlessly by causing them to sin. Jesus is very clear that to cause a “little one” to sin is a damnable offense. Using some rather disturbing images that we will look at more closely on Good Friday, Jesus makes the point that we do well to take extreme measures to avoid both causing others to sin and also sinning ourselves. Remember: getting into the kingdom is worth any sacrifice. And the reason for this is simple: God doesn.t want to lose any so neither should we. Listen to some more of what Jesus had to say here starting in v. 12: “Look at it this way. If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, doesn.t he leave the ninety-nine and go after the one? And if he finds it, doesn.t he make far more over it than over the ninety-nine who stay put?” My best friend has a collection of George Brett rookie cards. If he were flipping through his book one day and noticed one missing, he.s not going to say, “Oh well, look at all the rest I have.” He.s going to tear up his house looking for it until he finds it. And when he finds it he.s going to throw a little party for himself. Look at the text: “Your Father in heaven feels the same way. He doesn.t want to lose even one of these simple believers.” If someone is lost, we should do everything within our power to bring them within the folds of the kingdom. To do otherwise is to abandon them to the wilds of the world. Such behavior betrays an attitude of pride which announces that the kingdom is “good enough for me, by not for thee.” So the first part of the implications of Jesus. own death and resurrection for the community of faith is that it should be a community marked by radical humility. Yet this humility is but a law of the kingdom. When traveling in foreign places obeying the laws of the land is a vitally important thing to do, but if you don.t have the right currency, you still can.t get very much done. The law may be the framework within which we must operate, but the currency is the reality. And forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom.

Fortunately, the teachings of Jesus never fail to address the realities of life. In this case, the reality is that, working under the assumption that we are living lives of the childlike faith Jesus has just finished commending to us, offenses aimed at driving us from the kingdom are going to come. People are going to do things that will offend and hurt us. They will sin against us whether such action is intended or not. Again, assuming that we have ourselves right with God and are living before Him with elegant simplicity and a humble dependency that glorifies Him and meets our needs, Jesus lays out the procedure for dealing with such offenses. Keeping in mind here that the goal is forgiveness listen to Jesus in vv. 15-20. “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you.ve made a friend.” Stop there a minute. The goal here is reconciliation and restoration. In a perfect world there would be no offense in the first place. In the next-level-down world, attempts at reconciliation would never need to go beyond the first step here. Both parties would demonstrate humility and forgiveness and the relationship would be restored. Thank God that Jesus deals with the realities of the world and does not simply leave us to idyllic what-ifs and wish-it-weres. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, and when both parties are using the same currency, exchanges like this can take place simply and easily. But you know as well as I the realities of that.

Let.s continue in v. 16: “If he won.t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won.t listen, tell the church. If he won.t listen to the church, you.ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God.s forgiving love. Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I.ll be there.” Let us be honest concerning these verses. They make some believers awfully nervous. We have so taken to heart Jesus. admonition (deformed and echoed ad nauseum by the world) to not judge others that we can.t imagine facing the final step in the process Jesus lays out here. Indeed, Jesus is in fact talking about excommunication or “disfellowshiping” here. Yet these verses need not be reason for alarm. Remember the three most important rules of interpreting tough passages in the Bible: context, context, and context. The church arriving at this point of intense fellowship has dealt with its own issues before God and is clear to exercise its God-given authority. If it has not, then it indeed has no business taking this last step. But we must not let a fear of error prevent us from pushing forward following God.s lead when we need to do so. Such fear allows sin to go on unchecked and has no place in the community of faith which is the standard bearer of the kingdom of God in the world. Remember, the context of these verses is one of childlike humility and seeing believers reconciled with and restored to God and each other. The goal here is not condemnation but forgiveness. Hear that again: the goal of this entire process is restoration. I understand that most of your translations have Jesus telling the disciples to finally treat the offending brother as a tax collector or sinner which is cause for alarm by some. But think about it for a minute. How did Jesus treat such people throughout the Gospels? He demonstrated a radical humility and forgiveness towards them geared at seeing them reconciled with God. This finally impenitent person who was claiming the mantle of believer (which the context indicates) has become a lost sheep. God says about these folks: “Go get „em!” This is the church saying, “Look, you.ve left the fold of the kingdom and can.t operate here anymore. It doesn.t work like that. Please come back!” If this passage gives us much heartburn, maybe we don.t have the right attitude towards sinners. Maybe we aren.t approaching them with the same mindset of forgiveness that Jesus did. It is this forgiveness which is the currency of the kingdom.

Does Jesus give the church pretty incredible authority in these verses? Yes, He does. This can be scary thing for some. But if we are following in the ways of the kingdom that Jesus has been laying out up to this point then there is no reason for fear. The church has been given the authority by God to act as Christ.s representative on earth. Think about that for a minute. How did Christ fare when He was on earth? Yeah, before the resurrection not so well. How dare we expect better. When the church acts on its kingdom authority, the world is going to react; and it.s not going to be pretty. These words of Jesus are intended to give us confidence to move forward in our efforts to humbly see those confessing to be believers (as well as nonbelievers, though this passage is focused on those already confessing Christ) find their way back into the spacious folds of the kingdom regardless of the resistance we face. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom and when our account is full, we can afford to spend freely.

All of this leads up to Peter.s famous question. And let.s be honest: we.d have asked the same thing if given the chance. “Look, Jesus, I understand that forgiveness and humility are pretty important, but where.s the line? How far do we take this before just casting someone off into the outer darkness?” The prevailing Jewish wisdom of the day said that a person who forgave three times was really doing well. So imagine Peter thinking to himself, “I.m going to go above and beyond the standard practice to show Jesus how well I.m getting this.” Jesus deflates his balloon with a single stroke: “Jesus replied, „Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven..” Jesus shoots him down and raises the bar of forgiveness ridiculously high. Then He goes on to tell the parable you.ve all been waiting for.

Look with me starting in v. 23: “The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. [That.s a pretty conservative cultural translation. The literal amount is a thousand talents. This guy owed the king like $100,000,000,000,000. It would have taken him about 60 million working days to pay off this debt.] He couldn.t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods to be auctioned off at the slave market. The poor wretch threw himself at the king.s feet and begged, „Give me a chance and I.ll pay it all back.. Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt. The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. [Incidentally, this is the size comparison between our debt to God and anyone else.s sin-debt to us regardless of what they.ve done.] He seized him by the throat and demanded, „Pay up. Now!. The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, „Give me a chance and I.ll pay it all back.. But he wouldn.t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and bought a detailed report to the king. The king summoned the man and said, „You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn.t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?. The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt.”

Jesus doesn.t offer an explanation of this parable, but given the context it.s pretty clear. God is the king and we are the servant. The situation between the two servants is like that outlined by Jesus in vv. 15-17. The problem is that the first servant ignores the process and goes straight to judgment. Because of this attitude, Jesus ends the parable with a rather ominous sounding statement: “And that.s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn.t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.” Indeed, forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom. Yet Jesus. statement here is in context not a threat, but a gracious call to humility, forgiveness, and fellowship with God. God will treat us as graciously as we treat others. He will allow us to make the rules for our reality, but then He will hold us to them. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, and the kingdom is the most permanent reality in the world. If we insist on living by another currency, we won.t be able to carry on life in the kingdom.

“But I can.t forgive him. He hurt me too deeply,” someone might still protest. Such an attitude is an attempt to put ourselves in the place of God. Since Scripture proclaims that all sin is finally against God, to claim that we are the final arbiter of whether or not someone can be forgiven is blasphemous idolatry. Furthermore, though, such an attitude misunderstands the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t saying whatever it was didn.t happen. It did. It isn’t saying whatever it was didn.t hurt. It did. It isn’t saying that whoever did it doesn.t need to make some changes on their part so it doesn.t happen again. They do. It isn’t simply saying “forget about it,” and not really forgiving. Such an approach ignores the issue and allows it to develop over time into bitterness. Forgiveness is releasing the control we have over someone else as a result of the offense. It is acknowledging God.s much greater forgiveness of us. It is letting go of the bitterness and need to avenge whatever it was. It is even putting some relational distance between ourselves and the offending party if necessary to keep it from happening again; particularly if the other person remains unrepentant. Forgiving someone absolutely does not mean you let them continue hurting you if they refuse to acknowledge their sinfulness. Forgiveness is about humbly saying that I am not God and if He who is can forgive me and serve me then I can do the same for you. And in the kingdom of God, forgiveness is how we are able to interact with God and with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom. The attitude of unforgiveness reflects an impoverished understanding of the kingdom and in fact an impoverished understanding of God Himself. Let us be rich in the kingdom by investing heavily in kingdom currency. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom.

This morning we are going to celebrate this forgiveness in a tangible way. You see, there.s another thing about forgiveness that I didn.t mention just a second ago. Forgiveness is never free. It always comes at a cost. It always follows an offense of some kind—minus the offense there.s no need for forgiveness. It costs us some pride. It costs us some perceived power. The book of Hebrews makes clear that forgiveness always requires the shedding of blood. In ancient Israel, in order to secure God.s forgiveness they had to offer up animal sacrifices. Thank God that He put in place a permanent sacrifice. Thanks be to God that we don.t have to shed blood or have our own shed anymore because of the sacrifice of His Son. God knew that we were completely impoverished in terms of His kingdom and like the first servant in the parable were never going to be able to repay the debt on our own. So He gave His Son up as a sacrifice on our behalf, provided the means to have our debt to Him erased through forgiveness, and filled up our kingdom accounts. This we remember through the celebration of the Lord.s Supper: the event at which Jesus proclaimed the coming balance transfer to His disciples for the last time before it happened. As Paul said to the Corinthian church: “The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said, „This is my body, broken for you. Do this to remember me.. After supper, he did the same thing with the cup: „This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember me.. What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.” Furthermore, he warned us: “Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of „remembrance. you want to be a part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.” A heart harboring unforgiveness towards a fellow brother or sister in Christ is exactly the kind of irreverent participation Paul has in mind here. If your kingdom account is empty, fill it up before you take this meal and if you cannot here and now then abstain until you have filled it. Forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom. As the deacons serve you this morning, take and eat and drink when your hearts are prepared. As they come forward to serve you spend some time examining your hearts with your heavenly Father. Let Him reveal any areas of unforgiveness in it and take a minute and extend forgiveness in your heart if you can (with His help). Then, this week, even this afternoon, get with that person and with the love and humility of Christ extend that forgiveness in person. Don.t spend even a second longer in kingdom poverty than you must. Deacons come on forward to serve as I pray.