“We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away.”
It’s a line from Toy Story 3. I’m sure several of you have seen the Toy Story animated films. Young Andy has a collection of toys, such as Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. But in the third and final instalment, Andy is growing up and no longer needs his old toys. They end up in day care, where a bear threatens to put them out with the rubbish, and mocks them for believing in Andy’s love. He tells them, “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away. That’s all a toy is.”
Waiting. We see it negatively today. Waiting for something is a bad thing. That’s why we invented credit cards – to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Ask a child whether she likes waiting, and you can guarantee an answer beginning with ‘no’. That maybe a sign of what an immature society we now have, when that childish attitude is reproduced so frequently among adults.
In contrast, many of you from older generations know the benefit of waiting. You saved up, you waited for marriage and you stood firm in the face of pressure. You know that waiting can be a good thing.
Today, as we begin this new sermon series on the Holy Spirit, we find the disciples of Jesus waiting. In between the Ascension and Pentecost, they are waiting for the Holy Spirit. And while there is a sense in which we do not need to wait for the Holy Spirit any more, because all followers of Christ receive the Spirit when faith comes alive, we nevertheless go through periods of waiting for the Holy Spirit to work. So this morning’s theme of ‘Waiting for the Holy Spirit’ can still be relevant to our lives of faith today.
I want to suggest that when God makes us wait for the Holy Spirit, it is to focus us on what is important. How so? I find three ways in the reading.
Firstly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on our priorities. Listen again to the opening dialogue in the story:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Verses 6-8)
The disciples still think the Messiah came to sort out the land for Israel and to repel the Roman occupying forces. Jesus tells them basically they haven’t got the right priorities. Not that he isn’t interested in politics, but if their priorities are only about what’s in it for them, something is wrong. They need to wait for God’s priority of the Holy Spirit. Because living in the power of the Spirit will do more to bring in the kingdom of God than lusting after political favour.
Jesus tests our priorities by keeping us waiting. When we have nothing, know nothing, get nowhere and don’t have the foggiest reason why, he exposes our priorities and motives. They come to the fore, and Jesus says to us, “Are you concentrating on what matters for God’s kingdom?” The longer we wait for something to happen, the more we struggle with the life of faith not being full of zest, the more we find life in the church dry and difficult, the more Jesus asks questions of us. He wants to know who or what we are trusting in.
So think of those conversations we have about the decline of the church, when we reflect on the unbalanced age profile, full of older people and shorter on younger and middle-aged people. Jesus listens to those conversations where we wonder what miracle cure we might invoke. He listens when we consider trying the latest trendy religious idea that we’ve heard about.
And what does he say in reply? I think he says, you have your priorities wrong. You are not concentrating on the right things. You should be using the spiritual silence to wait and long for the Holy Spirit. He would ask us whether our priorities are to try something humanly clever, where the glory would go to us, or whether our priority is to wait in prayer, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit. Today should be a day when we decide that, however unpromising church life may be, we reject our lust for human priorities and say that we will not rush to solutions, we will wait on God for the Holy Spirit, because nothing matters more.
Secondly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on power. Jesus tells them,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (verse 8).
Here is a reason to wait: we don’t have the power, the Holy Spirit does. It is one of those humbling lessons for human beings.
In fact, I would say it is a much harder lesson for our generation than it was for the first disciples. Belief in God and a general dependence upon God was pretty well universal in their time. We live in the light of a western culture which over the last three hundred years or so has relegated God to the private sphere even when we do still believe in him. We have made science and reason the dominant powers and qualities. Many in our societies think they can provide the answers to everything, and this belief also infects people of faith. We come up with policies, programmes, techniques and reasoned statements.
And it’s not that science and reason are bad. We owe so much to them. Advances in medical knowledge have benefitted us all. Inventions in technology and communication have improved our lives. We should be grateful for innovations like these. We would not want to turn back the clock.
But any idea that science and reason are the answers to everything in life should be tempered by other considerations. These same disciplines have also given us the horrors of nuclear weapons and the devastation of environmental destruction.
And that is to say nothing about other aspects of power. Political power has the ability to achieve much good, but we also know its tendency towards corruption. So surely when Jesus says, “You will receive power” we should see that as good news. Because the power of the Holy Spirit is the power seen in the life of Jesus himself. It is the power best demonstrated in humility and human weakness. It is the power that works to bless the poor and needy. It is the power that raises up the humble and dethrones the proud. Uneducated fishermen lead a revolution, and the wealthy and educated establishment can do nothing to prevent them.
Now if that is the case, why on earth are we satisfied with the limited promises of human power? Why do we run the church on the same values as the rest of the world? Why in our inpatient hurry do we default to the ways of the world?
Often we take heart from the ordinariness and the frailty of Jesus’ disciples when we fail. But maybe we could see something else in their story. As well as joy and relief that we are forgiven like them, could not also be encouraged and challenged by the fact that these ordinary, mundane people were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
If that is the case, then why do we keep rushing into the ways of human power? If we want to work for God’s kingdom, then we need God’s power for that. If we don’t have that power now, then we hold back. We wait. We wait on God.
Which leads me to the third theme that waiting on the Holy Spirit means: prayer. If we need to align our priorities with God’s, and if we need to seek God’s power rather than ours, then our waiting needs to be characterised by prayer. We don’t just wait: we wait on God.
That’s what we see the disciples doing:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Verses 12-14)
They ‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ Here is true waiting for the Holy Spirit. Prayer.
Now this needs careful handling. The moment a preacher starts to emphasise prayer in a sermon, all sorts of things can go wrong. It can turn into a guilt trip. How easy it is to say that we don’t pray enough. And of course that isn’t just the congregation: that’s true of the preachers as well. We can impose guilt without offering positive hope, because we are often not up to much in this area, either. Besides, some listeners will say, “Are you suggesting I don’t pray? Of course I pray!”
So let me say this. I recall the words of a favourite Local Preacher in the circuit where I grew up. He was regularly the most challenging preacher to fill a pulpit there. When he said something to stir us up in a sermon, he often added this comment: “I never challenge you without first challenging myself.” Hence, what I preach here I say as much to myself as to you.
What I’d like us to notice is not simply that ‘they prayed’, but that ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (my emphasis). We’re not talking about a few short, simple daily prayers here: those first disciples made a radical commitment to prayer.
Now that will take on different forms in our varying circumstances of life. Depending on work, family life and so on, we shall each have different ways of demonstrating our devotion to prayer. But as R T Kendall says, “If we don’t have some system, we never get around to it.”
What is certain is that our attitude to prayer cannot be perfunctory. We look down on children’s prayers that sometimes don’t get much beyond “Lord, bless me and my family,” but in truth too many of our adult prayers are no deeper. It can be very telling what requests are put in a church intercessions book – and what requests don’t make it to the book. We want prayers for ourselves and our loved ones, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it feels little different from an adult version of that child’s “Bless me, bless my family” prayer.
The challenge is to go beyond – to be ‘constantly devoting [ourselves] to prayer’ in the waiting time. Prayer for the Holy Spirit, I would suggest. Because we recognise we cannot live by our priorities, and need to align our lives with the priorities of God. Because we also recognise the bankruptcy of depending on human power, and know that the only thing which will turn around our lives and our churches is the power of God, the Holy Spirit.
So can we make a simple commitment today? A commitment to wait for God, and to wait on God in prayer. A commitment so to pray that it is less about asking God to bless us than asking God to reorder our priorities after his, and where we ask him to help us lay down our reliance on human power in favour of the Holy Spirit’s power. Can we make a commitment to wait in prayer for the power of God, the Holy Spirit?
Because nothing less than that is needed for the health of our churches and our witness to God’s saving love in Christ.
Many years ago, I heard the true story of a young Christian woman who was raped. Many who suffer rape keep their identity secret, but this woman rushed to her church for support and told the story.
The support came in this form: ‘Have you forgiven him?’
Job’s comforters, indeed.
We believe in forgiveness, and this parable makes clear that it is paramount in discipleship. But do we always handle forgiveness well? Is it really a choice between denying the opportunity to express your pain -as happened to the woman who was raped – and being bitter?
Today, rather than expound the parable of the unforgiving servant in my normal style, I’d like us to explore what forgiveness is and why we need to forgive.
What Is Forgiveness?
What do we make of Peter’s question about how often we should forgive? Seven times? Seventy times seven? (Or should that just be seventy-seven times – so much easier!)
I think we generally accept that Jesus is not putting a ceiling on forgiveness when we reach four hundred and ninety. Forgiveness is something we keep having to do – and I’ll come back to that question later.
But I think Jesus is also showing us that forgiveness is the permanent refusal to exercise vengeance. The numbers ‘seven’ and ‘seventy’ are connected with vengeance in Genesis chapter four. In that chapter, Cain kills Abel. The Lord chooses not to kill Cain, but makes him a wanderer, and threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills him. Later, one of Cain’s grandsons, Lamech, kills a man who wounded him, and says, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (Genesis 4:24).
So when Jesus says, ‘Not seven times but seventy times seven,’ he is withdrawing the vengeance option. That is what forgiveness is. True forgiveness never says, ‘I forgive you, it was nothing,’ it says, ‘Yes, you hurt me, but I choose to lay aside my desire for vengeance.’
This is probably one of the most important ways in which we can be witnesses to Christ today. Most people will not read a Bible, but they will read our lives. So when we refrain from the option to press the vengeance button, we are allowing them to read about Jesus.
Of course, there is much more to what forgiveness is. Just to examine the Greek word employed here by Matthew and other New Testament writers tells us something. The word,aphiémi, means to set free. It’s what you do when you cancel a debt: you set the debtor free from their obligation to repay you. Forgiveness is like that. You release the one who has hurt you from the obligation to pay for what they have done. You allow them to walk away. You choose not to exercise your right of punishment.
But forgiveness is much more than setting free the offender. In a wonderful way, forgiveness sets us free, too. If we harbour resentment, then we become bound up, as if ropes have been wrapped around us. When we forgive someone, then the ropes of bitterness fall away. Forgiveness sets everyone free.
Perhaps another image of forgiveness will help. The Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.’ To forgive is to remove. It is to take sin away. Think of the hurt from sin as a large object that you cannot put in the wheelie bin for your normal rubbish collection. Instead, you open up the rear doors of your car and fold down the rear seats. You open up the hatch and remove the parcel shelf. Then you put the large object in the back, take it to the council depot at Drovers Way and dispose of it. How do you feel? Considerable relief, I expect.
So it is with God’s forgiveness. Sin is landfill. That may not be a good illustration environmentally, but I’m sure you get the point. It’s buried. He doesn’t dig it up again. I think that’s why R T Kendall in his book Total Forgiveness says that if you keep talking about a wrong that has been done to you, then you probably haven’t forgiven. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him, but I take the general point. Forgiveness takes away sin. There is a sense in which it isn’t here any more.
One thing that is often said about forgiveness is that if we truly forgive, then we forget as well. ‘Forgive and forget’ are put together. Perhaps that’s a development of the idea that forgiveness is about the removal of sin. Others say, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget’, and feel condemned by those who associate forgiveness with forgetting what happened. So does forgiveness necessarily involve forgetting the offence?
I am in the middle of reading a book by an Anglican priest containing his reflections on divorce, having been through a divorce himself. Early on in the book he gives one definition of forgiveness. He doesn’t describe it as forgetting at all. He calls it ‘remembering well’. Humanly, we are unlikely to forget bad things that have been done to us. The more we try to forget, the more they are entrenched in our memory – much like the proverbial flying elephant. But we can come to a point where we hold the memory in a holy way. When the memory comes back to us, we choose not to bitter. One way of doing this is by praying that God will bless the person who hurt us.
Some years ago, I heard a tape from Spring Harvest of a sermon by Caesar Molebatsi. If you haven’t heard of him, Molebatsi is a black South African pastor much involved in justice and reconciliation issues. During the terrible years of apartheid, he was hit by a white car driver and lost a leg. Although the driver was caught, he never apologised. Molebatsi has a permanent reminder of the violence in that he has only one leg. He regularly has to choose to forgive, because it is impossible to forget when the sin done to him meant he is without one of his limbs. His only choice is ‘remembering well’.
And that links with one other observation I’d like to make about forgiveness. One of our great mistakes when it comes to forgiveness is to think that it is instant, or a one-off. The moment we have said, ‘I forgive you,’ everything is fine. It isn’t. Someone like Caesar Molebatsi knows that. Bob Mayo, the author of the book on divorce I mentioned, also knows that. Whatever happened between him and his wife, he has the permanent reminder that she is no longer there, but living somewhere else.
No: forgiveness, says Bob Mayo, is a journey. It may take time and practice. We may long for reconciliation with the one who wronged us, but often forgiveness precedes reconciliation. It may be a long time before we can face seeing someone who hurt us deeply, even though we hold no bitterness against them.
Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who has written much on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially in the light of his experiences through the wars in the Balkans after the collapse of communism. One of his books, ‘Free Of Charge‘, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book in 2006. In it, he says that forgiveness means we blame but do not punish. We do not pretend about the offence. It is real. But we choose not to punish, or press for punishment.
That is rather like God’s treatment of us with regard to our own sin. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we might repent and follow Jesus. The Spirit of God never pretends that the sin was a fiction. Otherwise, we could never repent and walk in the ways of God’s kingdom. But having convicted us, there is no sentence and we are treated as if we had never sinned, even though we have. If this is how God treats us, then it is also the goal we seek in our journey of forgiveness.
Having explored in quite a few ways what forgiveness is, I’m sure it’s already evident to a large extent why we need to forgive.
First of all, because it is consistent with the character of God. The Lord may say, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ but that is surely because God is the only one to whom vengeance may safely be trusted. In our hands, vengeance becomes revenge, not justice. But ‘the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love’, and the work of the Holy Spirit within us is to make us slower to anger and more ready to be rich in love.
It’s central to our calling to become more Christ-like. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means today, it started out as meaning ‘little Christ’. Debbie and I say that Rebekah is her mini-me and Mark is my mini-me. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘mini-me’ language comes from the Austin Powers films, where Mini-Me is the son of Doctor Evil, I nevertheless assume that Jesus is longing to see a vast crowd of his ‘mini-me’s on earth. A central way in which we can be more like him is in adopting the practice and discipline of forgiveness.
For of course Jesus often called his would-be disciples with the words, ‘Follow me’. He didn’t simply mean a geographical following of him, but following his lifestyle. It’s what Jewish rabbis did: they expected their disciples to follow them in the sense of imitating their life. So if discipleship is about following Jesus and Jesus modelled forgiveness, then it’s of the essence of Christian faith to forgive.
But this approach poses questions, and one is this: another strand of the call to faith is what Paul emphasises, namely that God saves us in Christ entirely by his own work, and not on the merits of our good deeds. How then can it be essential to forgive? Wouldn’t that be salvation by good works, rather than by faith?
I believe the answer is something along these lines. God does indeed save us entirely by his own work in Christ. We receive that by faith, and faith itself is not a good work, either: it is the holding out of empty hands in trust to receive all that God has done for us. However, the test of faith is whether we are grateful for God’s gifts – or as Paul put it to the Galatians, ‘faith working by love’. It’s therefore reasonable and logical to expect that those who by faith receive what God gives us in Christ demonstrate that by showing grateful love. And since Christ shows us the love of God supremely in forgiveness, it behoves us to show true faith by being forgiving people. That is what makes sense of the parable. That is why at the end the master is angry with the unforgiving servant. He has not demonstrated this.
One other question occurs to me, and it is the question of justice in society. If forgiveness means blaming but not punishing, how do we keep good order in society? Won’t criminals run rampant, free from concern about being imprisoned? Perhaps a story I have told before might help.
On the night of my thirtieth birthday, I was in Manchester training for the ministry and was invited to a friend’s house for a celebratory meal of – beans on toast. My friend and his wife offered to call a taxi to take me back to college, but – feeling I knew city life as a Londoner and being too stingy to pay for a ride – I declined. That was my mistake. On the way back, I was mugged by a teenager. He smashed my glasses and took cash. I had no hesitation after the attack in calling the police. As it turned out, they didn’t catch my assailant (even though he was clearly known in the area), but I resolved that if they had, I would have co-operated with a prosecution. However, I felt I could only do that as a Christian once I had committed to forgiving the thug. Society needed justice, and the criminal needed forgiveness. I felt that was a fair balance.
And that ties up some of the other reasons why we forgive, which I hinted at earlier: forgiveness is good and indeed authentic witness. If there is one thing we can do in society to show Christ, it is to forgive.
So may God who is rich in mercy fill us with the knowledge and experience of his mercy, that we too may be rich in mercy to others.