Based on Ex 14:19-31, Psalm 103:1-14, Mt 18:21-35
So there I was, surrounded, no chance of escape. The deep blue sea in front of me and the very Devil behind me – I was surely caught. Anxiety, fear, resignation, depression all flooded over me in a blur. After all I had been through, this was how it was going to end, I thought. Is this really all there is to life? This is not what I thought would happen when I left my home and all that I knew. Suddenly, just when I was about to give up hope…a miracle occurs.
Who doesn’t like a good dramatic story – especially one with a “happy ending”? We love to see and hear stories with a degree of intensity and intrigue. We like not knowing how the story will end, but hoping that our main character(s) will be rescued. The greater the perceived danger, the more closely we identify with the protagonist(s), the more intense is our involvement – the more satisfied we feel with the desired outcome. We want the story to work out in the end – we want to see the plot deliver our newly discovered “friends”. That’s where I want to focus our time this morning – on our deliverance. I invite you to join me in prayer…
We have before us today two stories of deliverance and one song of thanksgiving for all that God has done and continues to do to deliver us from seemingly impossible situations. In the first story, we have the climax of the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. The mass of people (the Bible say 600,000+ and flocks) made their way towards the “reed” sea (not Red Sea). Pharaoh hardened his heart and took out after them with chariots (more than 600) and so the nascent people of God are caught and will certainly be rounded up and taken back into captivity. Now if Moses were leading this group all by himself that would have been the end of his run as deliverer. The people were fearful and said to Moses, “…Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…” (Ex 14:11) Moses knew God’s plan, and calmed them saying, “…Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians you see today you will never see again….” (Ex 14:13) Moses reminded the people (even though God was constantly visible in front of them in a pillar or cloud of fire) that God was leading this “exodus” and so God had one more miracle to perform.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, we are confronted by another way that God helps to deliver us from the mess we get ourselves into. Peter’s initial question about forgiveness for sins leads into a parable about forgiveness of an unpayable debt. At first glance, these two bits of scripture seem unrelated, but in spending some time with them this week, it is clear that Jesus is trying to bring home to the Disciples (and us) that forgiveness is a powerful form of deliverance. Let’s explore the parable a bit more to find its truth.
A slave owes a king a debt equal to 150,000 years of wages (a ridiculous sum to be sure, but don’t we all know folks who have run up huge debts?). There is no way that the slave will ever pay back his lord, and so he and his family and all they own are to be sold. The slave grovels at his master’s feet and receives forgiveness for the whole debt. Truly this is above and beyond compassion – especially since the slave was foolish enough to run up such a debt in the first place. Yet, the king took him at his word that he would work diligently to pay back what he owed – he gave the salve another chance. What did that fool do with his new lease on life? He went right out and showed no mercy to someone who owed him the equivalent of 100 DAYS of wages. Because he showed no mercy on one who owed an infinitesimal fraction of what he owed, he was thrown into the dungeon and tortured. This is how it will be for us if we do not forgive from the heart (says scripture)!
The Psalmist sings about the benefits of God (read verses 3-5, 8-10). Verse 17 says, “…But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…” Here the word “fear” is really meant as respect or awe rather than abject terror. If we were truly terrified of God we wouldn’t seek to be in relationship with God – we’d run the other way. No, God respects us and would like the same from us in return. Through God’s great love and mercy, our transgressions have been removed as far as east is from west. How do we respond to this great deliverance – do we sing “bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is in me bless his holy name(!) or does our song of praise never get raised at all? Think about all that God has delivered you from…have you ever stopped to say thank you, not to mention sing out to God?
God has forgiven our debt from our slavery to sin – a debt that is every bit as large as the sum of the slave in the parable, by the way. In the Theology of Atonement, one line of reasoning states that God became human so that God could pay our debt to God – to return us to right relationship with God. Because we are sinful humans, we are like the slave in the parable – unable to pay even a fraction of the debt that we owe to God. Because we are broken and sinful we also will go right back to sinning again, and thus build the debt right back up. So God had to send someone sinless (Jesus) to pay for our sins once and for all time. This is the crux of the “penal substitution” and “satisfaction” theories of Atonement. I struggle with these theological thought, however, because they don’t reflect the God that I find in the scriptures – the God of mercy. The atonement theories that I engage with are the “participative” and “theotic”. In these theological arguments, God came to be human so that we can learn how to grow into our likeness – our image of God; to participate in the in-breaking of the kingdom and to help to rebalance all of creation. It is in this way that I can truly join the psalmist and bless the LORD with my whole soul, and understand the enormity of what has been forgiven me through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It is easy in this life to find ourselves in a place, both as individuals and as societies, where we are between a proverbial rock and hard place. Our choices seem to be fewer and more limited, and they lead us into more and more problems. The societal norms that we live in and under dictate how it is that we are to get along in the world. The economic realities of spending more than we have, have lead us to a place where as U.S. citizens we have more debt-load than we can pay off in 150,000 life-times (doesn’t seem so crazy a figure now, does it?). We get used to living in chaos and fear and we don’t know how to change things to get back to a point where we can breathe freely. This is where our merciful God comes in.
Suddenly, there is the realization that there is a God who can deliver us from ourselves. A God who is in the business of delivering humans from the messes they make; from the sins they commit; from the servitude that we are under. A God who, “…does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities….” (Ps 103:10) (Iniquity being that sin that is pre-meditated and all-consuming until it becomes our god rather than the Creator). God remembers we are dust (which is why we remind ourselves of the same thing at the graveside) and that we have the free will to choose God or sin. Yet, God seeks after us and desires to forgive us – as many times as we need forgiveness (77 vs 70 x 7). Only God is capable of that – I soon run out of patience on repeated offenses.
The good news for all of us, however, is that God never runs out of patience. Our deliverance comes from a place of love and mercy that never ends – no matter how bad our situation appears. There is never a place where we can live or a trouble that we can get into from which God cannot or will not deliver us. Like the Hebrews who cried out to a nameless God, that same God is our deliverer when we cry out. Your deliverance, my deliverance, our deliverance, comes when we recognize our predicament, and stop trying to resolve it on our own. The good news is that God is willing and able to save us – we just need to repent and follow. In recognition of this grace, let us rise together and sing with great joy and conviction, hymn #139, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”. AMEN!