September 7, 2014 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 18:1–18:20
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Matthew 18:1-20 (Psalm 32:1-7)
Sand, snow, paper, canvas: when they’re new, each surface stretches out smooth and clean, pure in its potential. They’re beautiful for what they are and they’re beautiful for what they could become. You could sculpt sand in an astounding act of craftsmanship, or simply stretch out a beach towel on it. Its cold cousin, snow, offers the chance to build a snowman or go sledding. Students and professions alike get work done on paper, but it’s equally useful for coloring on with crayons or folding origami. Blank canvases have been transformed into beautiful works of art. Sand, snow, paper, canvas: a blank slate for a new start. It’s a beauty that’s easily broken.
Walking along a beach as the waves roll in, you can see the sand stretch out in front of you. Unless it’s early in the morning, most of the beach probably isn’t going to be smooth. You’ll see the footprints of other people who’ve used the beach. There will be tracks from birds or crabs or vehicles that were already there. Some folks may have dug holes in the sand and left dried-out heaps sitting next to the empty space. After enough disruption, the once-pristine beach just looks like a mess. Any of those other blank canvases could easily suffer a similar fate: skied-over or dirty snow, scribbled-on paper with spelling errors, canvas that’s torn or poorly used. And for all practical purposes, even our best efforts can’t get any of them back to being the smooth, pure surfaces that they once were.
Life’s like that. Your day might start out seemingly perfect, like a beautifully clean canvas. But it doesn’t stay that way. Mistakes here and there introduce imperfections into the picture, keeping it from being as great as it might have been. You make some poor choices, leaving you with messes to clean up or smooth over before you can continue on. Jabs of frustration leave dents and even tears in the canvas. Looking back on your picture at the close of the day, you couldn’t honestly say that it’s perfect. It might even be kind of ugly. Day after day of such imperfection will leave you pretty far off from where you’d started.
I don’t mean that your life is a blank slate or a clean canvas. It never was. Even as a newborn baby, you didn’t start out pure and perfect, no matter how cute or well-behaved you might have been. When you came to be, you were already stuck in sin, an enemy of God. Far from being like a smooth stretch of sand on the beach, you came into the world imperfect and spiritually lifeless, bearing the footprints and disfiguring marks of our disrupted world.
This might sound unfair. Because of humanity’s problem of sin your “perfect” life was over before it had even begun. But what if that weren’t the case? Could you still deliver an astoundingly-crafted life that lived up to its potential before God? A life lived imperfectly isn’t a blank slate or clean canvas. Sin leaves its mark on your life. Doing nothing at all isn’t an option, either, sitting around like a new notebook full of paper on a desk, or being frozen like a snowbank on a mountainside. You’ll need to take one step after another onto the blank, smooth sand of the future, knowing that each one could mess it all up. So where does that leave you? As you trudge through life, you might feel, as King David wrote, that your “strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (Psalm 32:4 ESV)
This is why God takes the problem of sin so seriously: it’s deadly disruptive. It damages your life and the lives of the people around you. It separates you from God and keeps you from being perfect, no matter how hard you try. Have you tried? Someone who’s imperfect by nature can’t make himself perfect and pure. But someone who is perfect can.
As the waves roll in on a sandy shore, something powerful takes place. Water rushes up from the ocean, covering the beach. And when it pulls back, that sand that had been marked by footprints, holes, and whatever else is once again smooth and clean. It doesn’t look at all like what it had just been. It’s beautifully restored.
Well, you are not a beach. But even so, God has waves meant for you, waves that will give the beauty and potential that can only come from One who is perfect. The waves come from Jesus, God the Son: they are his blood, given and shed for you. They’re the waves of forgiveness that rush from his cross to cover the sin in your life. No matter how deep its marks upon you, God’s love in Christ is deeper still. The waves of Jesus’ life-giving blood wash away your sin, leaving you forgiven, leaving your life beautiful in God the Father’s eyes: beautiful for what you are in Christ.
You’re not sand. You’re not snow. You’re not paper. You’re not canvas. But you are forgiven. In Christ, you have been restored to perfection before God. The problem of sin and its disruptive effects, however, will remain for as long as you and I draw breath. Every day, we turn from God, leaving fresh marks and dents and cuts in the sand on the beach. We have to admit that we have fallen short of perfection, even when we’ve really been striving for it to the best of our ability. And when we do that, turning back to God for His forgiveness, the waves of Christ’s blood will deliver it again – they will never run dry.
In Matthew 18(:15-20), Jesus instructs his disciples on how repentance should be sought and forgiveness given within the community of the Church. If someone sins against you, Jesus says, go speak with them about it one-on-one. Don’t go gossiping about it or complaining to other people. (Our society could also understand this to mean: Don’t go blogging about it, or posting a disparaging video online!) None of us is perfect, but God calls us imperfect people together in the Church to love and care for each other. Speak the truth in love for your fellow Christian so that they don’t get caught up deeper in the disruption of this sin. Should your first appeal fail to make an impact, expand the concerned circle to the smallest level of group possible. All this effort isn’t about shaming a person; it’s about turning them around and bringing them back into a restored relationship with their family in Christ. If all that fails and this person refuses to listen to their Christian community, they have set themselves outside Christ’s Church. Continue to love and pray for them, that they might realize how deeply they need the forgiveness that Jesus would give them.
But what if someone doesn’t want forgiveness? Can you still offer it? If a friend came up to you and said, “I forgive you,” when you didn’t think you’ve committed any offense, how might you react? This kind of unsolicited forgiveness can ironically end up driving people farther apart. You have to admit that you’re in the wrong before you can actually receive the benefits of forgiveness; otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything to you.
The forgiveness that God offers the world in Jesus centers the Christian life. His Church exists to share this forgiveness with all people. It’s part of who we are in Christ. If someone asks for your forgiveness, you must give it. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses [sins] as we forgive those who trespass [sin] against us,” and those aren’t words to be taken lightly. Forgiving is not something that you can do in and of yourself; it’s what God is doing through you.
As Christians, we can and should live as people of forgiveness. Practice it in your homes and families. It can be tough to intentionally ask someone for forgiveness, because you’re putting yourself out there and admitting your failing. But receiving forgiveness is worth it. And if you don’t feel like you can forgive someone, pray first that the Holy Spirit would turn you from sin and its disruption – you need forgiveness to be able to forgive! Remember the waves of Jesus’ blood that have rushed over you again and again to make you beautiful in God’s sight. Like the ocean, His grace is more than enough to forgive you and every person who has ever done you wrong.
Being forgiven is a powerful thing. It’s a new beginning and a restored relationship. As you dive in to God’s Word as our congregation celebrates the kick-off of a new year in Christian Education with Sunday School, youth, and adult classes this weekend, may you be refreshed and renewed as Jesus’ disciples, hearing anew God’s message of grace in Christ.
You’re not sand. You’re not snow. You’re not paper. You’re not canvas. But you are forgiven. Washed by the waves of Jesus’ cleansing and purifying blood, you are beautiful in God’s sight.