The gift of forgiveness

“Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” – Psalm 130:3,4 NLT

For me, this is one of my favorite focuses of the Lenten season. So much of the scripture that we read this time of year is about Jesus’ death and suffering, resurrection and what it means for us.

His death means forgiveness.

If there is anyone who can appreciate the value of the gift of forgiveness, I think King David fits the bill. David’s sins are recounted in Old Testament, both as an example of what not to do (murder and adultery) and what to do (repentance and humility)

When I think back on all of the sins I have committed in my life, the wrongs I’ve done against others, the pain I’ve caused with thoughtless words and actions, it’s overwhelming. I imagine myself standing on one side of a pair of scales, with my sins piled high on the other. I imagine those sins, all the way up to the ceiling and out the door, about to take me over. How could God possibly find me acceptable?

And yet, our Father does not keep account of our sins — he doesn’t hold a grudge. He sees them, every single one, and mourns for us in our pain — just as we mourn a child who has chosen to act in a way that we know will bring harm. And when we finally see the light, and repent of our sin, He is there, welcoming us back. He offers us forgiveness, by means of our repentance and acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice. He never shuts off communication with us, never builds up walls, never holds it against us.

And what is the purpose of this forgiveness? Verse four says it’s so  “that we might learn to fear you.”

Fear, not in the human sense, but in the holy sense. Fear meaning reverence and awe; the desire to obey our Father because his will is perfect for us, and when we live within his will, we are happy. No built up walls, no grudges. He is there.

“…hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is unfailing love… – Psalm 130:7, NLT

 

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“Come down off the cross.” — Luke 23:39

I recently completed a study of Luke chapters 17-24, and as powerful as Luke’s narrative is, this scripture really stood out for me.

One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself — and us, too, while you’re at it! — Luke 23:39,  NLT

When we read this passage during our family Bible study, it led to an excellent discussion about God’s will versus our will.

Imagine how terrible it was for Jesus to face crucifiction, knowing that he really could come down off the cross. Yet, He chose to die for our sins. Of the two criminals next to him, one jeered and said, “So if you’re the Messiah, save us!” He recognized Jesus — by that time, everyone in the area knew who he was — but he had no understanding of who Jesus really was; he thought he was just another evildoer, and passed him off as a crazy or an eccentric. The evildoer had no concept of what Jesus was really doing. In contrast, the criminal on his other side rebuked the first:

But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” — Luke 23:40-43, NLT

Scripture does not tell us why these men were being executed, but we see the drastic difference between the two. One scoffed until his dying breath; the other knew who Jesus was and recognized his difference. And his faith  assured that Jesus welcomed him into his kingdom. Even before a single one of Christ’s apostles set foot in heaven, this criminal was there! How heartwarming for us, the value of faith, and the knowledge that the acceptance of Christ is truly our salvation!

How often do we find ourselves questioning our faith in God’s will for us? We want Him to come down off the cross and “prove it,” rather than realizing that His purpose for us is greater, and more far-reaching than we can imagine.

The Motherhood of Mary

“Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants.'” — Luke 1:38a, NLT

As a mother, I can relate to Mary. I look back at myself during my first pregnancy, all of the uncertainty and concern that first-time mothers go through; the weighty responsibility of incubating a tiny, precious life. Magnify that by about a thousand, since Mary knew before she was even pregnant that her child would be special.

Mary, as a Jew, knew the Law. She was aware of the prophecies about the coming Messiah. Consider how much more she must have dug into the details after finding out that she was blessed to be His mother. I think back to the birth books and prenatal guides that I read while expecting our first child, and I imagine that Mary did the same with regards to those prophecies. She may not have known the specific details of what was to come, but she certainly grasped the idea that her son’s life would not be an easy one.

I think of Mary, marking Jesus’ milestones, noting the differences between him and his siblings, the emotions that any mother experiences watching her children grow. I understand her abject fear and complete exasperation at her twelve-year-old son who decided on his own to stay behind in Jerusalem without telling her or his stepfather where he was (Luke 3:41-49). I imagine her concern over her son’s future, having a only general idea of what he may be facing as he grew in understanding of himself and his purpose.

Last year, my brother-in-law committed suicide. He wasn’t your garden variety get-along-at-family-gatherings type of brother-in-law; I first met his family when we were seven or eight years old. Our parents were very close, and his older sister was my best friend. Our families attended the same congregation, played volleyball, went to picnics and and on bike rides and to theme parks together. There aren’t many memories of my childhood that don’t contain him or one of his siblings. He and my younger sister began dating in their late teens and were married for just shy of fifteen years when he took his life.

I remember that Tuesday as one of constant prayer. The call from my mother, the calls to my sisters, my calls to my husband’s sisters to request their prayers. I sat on my bed, tears streaming down my face, searching my Bible for comfort. Romans 8:35-39 was reassuring, as were the Psalms. And then I read Ephesians 5:20.

“And you will always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” — Eph 5:20, NLT

How is this even possible? What is there to be thankful for in such a time of darkness, of pain and immeasurable suffering for my sister, for my family, for her husband’s family and all who knew and loved him? This scripture and Romans 8:28 are often offered as comfort by well-meaning friends, but the pain they bring in times like these… Again I prayed, and this time my prayers were specifically focused on his mother, for her suffering at the loss of a child, her oldest son, not quite 36 years of age, gone long before his time.

Imagine if, at the time our children are born, that we could see the future. As we acquaint ourselves with the contours of the tiny face before us, we would know the joy and elation, the sorrows and suffering, the beginning and the end. It would be too much for our human hearts to bear. Yet multiply this feeling times billions, and that is the knowledge God has for each and every one of us. He knew the beginning and the end of my sweet brother-in-law’s life, knew both his joys and sorrows, knew his pain and suffering (Psalm 139:1-6).

What a blessing that his mother did not need to bear that knowledge before its time.

Mary birthed her son, saw him grow, become a man, assume the mantle of the Christ and all that it entailed. She watched his crucifixion. How she must have prayed, how she must have doubted, how she must have wavered. Yet, through it all, ultimately, she remained “the Lord’s servant.”

What comfort we can draw from the example of Mary’s faith and motherhood.

The Compassion of Joseph

“When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.” — Matthew 1:24, NLT

We’ve all read the first chapter of Matthew; the lineage of Jesus, the story of Mary’s pregnancy, her marriage to Joseph. And Mary is often the focus of discussions; her obedience as a servant of the Lord.

But what about Joseph? Imagine; the love of Joseph’s life, to whom he is betrothed, comes to him with a story. She confides to him that she is pregnant, and claims that the pregnancy is divine, as a result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 18:18). 

I put myself in Joseph’s position. How angry, hurt, and broken-hearted he must have been! To think that his fiancee could do such a thing! Of course he didn’t believe that her pregnancy was of divine origin!

He was within his right to haul her before the religious leaders, divorce her (as we know, in those days, betrothal was equivalent to marriage in all ways but carnal) and have her cast out. Her destitution would be all but guaranteed; as a woman of low means, she would not have had any way of supporting herself or her child. 

But how did Joseph respond?  

“Joseph, her fiance, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.” – Matthew 18:19, NLT

 

Joseph, in his heartbreak, chose to react with kindness. He didn’t want Mary’s reputation to be damaged, and didn’t want her disgraced. How many of us would have responded in a similar manner? 

Later, the angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream, telling Joseph that the story Mary has told him is true: 

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” — Matthew 18:20, NLT

And Joseph’s response?

“When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.” — Matthew 18:24, NLT

In addition to the kindness he extended to his fiancee, Joseph was a willing servant of the Lord. He did as he was commanded, without complaint, without question.

What a wonderful example of an earthly father Joseph must have been for Jesus, demonstrating both kindness and compassion to those around him.