Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are times when we are proud of our children and the lessons they have learned from our example. We pride ourselves when they achieve in school, and graduate at the head of the class. We boast when their work is featured in an art show, or when they are the soloists in a music ensemble. We ourselves feel a sense of personal accomplishment. Of course, there are moments when their victories seem rather shallow. I overheard two boys get into one of those “My dad’s better than your dad” arguments. The one boy bragged, “My dad can beat up your dad.” The other kid stifled the threat, “Big deal. So can my mom!” No, it wasn’t a glimmering moment for fatherly pride. On the other hand, a little boy was traveling with his mother over the holidays. As they approached the airline ticket counter the little guy informed the agent that he was two years old. Suspiciously, the agent looked down at the boy and asked, “Do you know what happens to little boys who lie?” The young traveler smiled, “Yep, they get to fly for half price!” It wasn’t a particularly proud moment for motherhood either. In those occasions, you may wish you could start all over again, and begin the process of teaching integrity anew.
Of course, the desire to begin again is not simply limited to the imperfect art of parenting. The same is true in marriage. When women wed, they expect that their husbands will change. When men marry, they expect that their wives will never change. Both are wrong. Through the course of marriage, they become different people. Often, however, some of the least attractive patterns emerge. Words you couldn’t imagine saying to your neighbor’s dog, you suddenly say to someone you love. You wish you could start all over again in your relationship.
Or it happens at your work place, you look down on your colleagues and their work habits. You become obsessed with their life and choices. And so you begin to find ways secretly to compromise their work. You wish you could start all over again.
Now you may believe that your mistakes are those around you are unalterable. And in some respects what is done is done. Yes, some foolish acts have their consequences. As an old Turkish proverb states, “The feathers of a pillow cast into the wind cannot be reclaimed.” You believe that your second chance is forfeit. But for those who know the wonder of God’s grace and forgiveness, there is word of hope in the Lord’s Prayer.
On Ash Wednesday we began our Lenten journey reflecting on the nature of our prayer life and meditating on the treasure we have been given in the Lord’s Prayer. Over the last four weeks, we have pondered the reasons that we should pray and Jesus’ own invitation that God should be as close and as intimate as a loving Father. We have considered the occasions when we should pray and how we should seek ways to let God’s holy name in heaven be made known on earth. We have reflected on our calling as disciples to proclaim the coming kingdom in words and deeds, and the ways in which we should pray for God to empower us with peace, courage and wisdom to do his will. Last week, we meditated on the truly personal petition of receiving our daily bread with thankfulness. Today, we turn to the promise and act of forgiveness. For it is through forgiveness that those who truly wish to see Jesus can begin again a journey on a path rich in blessing.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Christian faith has inherited three different words for trespasses from the Old Testament. They are Avon, Pesha and Chattah. The three words are often translated as iniquity, transgression and sin, each carrying a helpful nuance. Let us begin with the word iniquity- avon? What is iniquity? Simply speaking it is an immoral or grossly unfair, wicked premeditated action. One of the most brazen images of iniquity in the Old Testament was King David’s desire for the Bathsheba beautiful wife of his military general Uriah. David knew that it was wrong, but his desire and obsession was so strong that he arranged for Uriah to be sent to the front lines where he knew he would be killed in battle. That is iniquity.
Then consider the second word pesha or transgression. It happens all the time with siblings riding around in their parent’s car. As a parent, you mark an invisible boundary to keep the peace, but instead, one or the other chooses intentionally to disobey; willful transgressing and trespassing against the other. When our sons were very young, perhaps 5 and 7, I told them they could bring their bow and arrow with suction cups tip into the car, but they were not to play with them. As I was driving along, I heard something whiz past my ear, and suddenly, I saw an arrow sticking to the front window. That was transgression. When we knowingly run a stop sign, tell a lie, or blatantly disregard an authority, we are transgressing.
And finally, the third word is chattah or sin. Sin means “to miss the mark.” It can refer to doing something against God or against a person. In the New Testament, the word is chattah is translated as amartia and is a term used in archery for missing the target. Sin is doing the opposite of what is right. It is doing something which will have negative results, or failing to do what you know is right. Sin is the general term for anything that “falls short of the glory of God”
Regardless of whether the trespass is iniquity, transgression or sin, scripture offers us the assurance that God forgives us when we repent- and gives us new life. That is the nature of the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Martin Luther wrote, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment.”
Yes, regardless of your sin, God forgives you when you repent. The only sin, we are warned in scripture that God cannot forgive is the final rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing us to a new life. That is why this petition is so important. Our heavenly Father understands that trespasses left unchecked lead us away to a state of willful sin where no fear of God or possibility of change can redirect us to that noble path that is rich in blessing.
Now you may be wondering: So how do I make repentance and the gift of God’s forgiveness a part of my prayer life? Simply said, you begin by telling God what is causing your sorrow and pain. You begin by stating what is heavy on your heart. It’s a favorite phrase of the actress Bette Midler. After talking about herself for several minutes, she turns to her interviewer and says, “OK. That’s enough about me. So what do you think about me?” On the road so rich in promise Jesus speaks about dying to self. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” It means dying to selfishness. It means dying to the attitude that I am going to live for me alone, and that the purpose of life is my own self-fulfillment. The choice Jesus offers is for you to deny yourself and to die to your trespasses. Of course, to deny yourself and to die to self is not an easy endeavor. Death is always painful. Sometimes we want to hold on to an idea, a place, a particular sin, or a bad relationship, simply because it ours and it’s all we know.
That is the work and purpose of prayer. For when our trespasses are left unattended they prevent us from making life giving choices. The iniquities, transgressions and sin prevent us from choosing life and sharing what is good and honorable deep within us with those we love. Each one of us struggles with our own sense of value and worth and integrity. God’s forgiveness, however, allows us to begin anew on the path rich in blessing, and when we forgive others we allow them to become our companions on that road together. As Luther writes, “We too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sinned against us.” Prayer for God’s forgiveness, you see, prepares our lives for change.
A seed, however, doesn’t instantly germinate and grow. Even the miracle within the seed takes time. But two factors can have a major effect: The soil and rain. Do you know what humus is? Some of you may have a compost pile in your backyard. Humus is the partially decayed plant or animal material which in time becomes an excellent fertilizer. It causes growth and gives robust health to plants. Interestingly, the Latin root word for “humus,” is the root for the English word “humility.” And humility is the spiritual fertilizer necessary for your faith is the Word of God is to take root and produce a harvest a hundred-fold.
For only when this humus, this humility, fertilizes your heart can you truly pray for forgiveness and for the new possibilities that God can open to you and your life. If there is no humility, and no openness to God’s forgiveness and an awareness of your failings, then there is no possibility of God producing a miracle of life. The other factor is rain.
“85 years in Death Valley, California, a miracle occurred. Death Valley as you know is the lowest and driest place in the continental United States. It is a barren desert and there is no greenery. But in May 1930 rain fell for 19 consecutive days. After the third day of continuous rain the soil began to quiver. And on the sixth day of constant rain flowers thrust their heads through the desert sand. For three weeks the barren desert became a garden of daisies and buttercups and dozens of other varieties of flowers. The seeds were always present in the parched earth, but it took the refreshing rain from heaven to make them bloom.
My friends, forgiveness is that spiritual rain which allows the fallen seed in the earth to grow. That is the assurance that Jesus offers to those who choose to see him truly, and to follow his example. In humility, you must deny yourself and die, and then open yourself to the possibilities of new life, knowing and trusting his promise that, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” In this way, you can begin life anew with renewed integrity. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.