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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Christian Patience: a fruit of the Spirit

Sermon by:Robert Austell
June 24, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Variations on 'Come Thou Fount'" (Albert Travis)
Hymn of Praise: "Come Thou Fount/We'll Feast" (arr. and chorus, Austell)
Song of Praise: "From Your Throne, O Lord" (Christopher Cartwright)
 The Word in Music (Children's Ensemble): "Ready to Forgive" (Jody Lindh)
Offering of Music (Susan Slade, flute): "How Deep the Father's Love for Us" (Mark Albrecht)
Hymn of Sending: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (FAITHFULNESS)
Postlude: "O God, Our Faithful God" (Sigfrid Karg-Elert)

"Christian Patience: a fruit of the Spirit"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Luke 19:41-44; John 14:26-27; Philippians 4:6-7 

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

This is our fourth week in a summer series on the fruit of the Spirit.  That term comes from the verses you heard at the beginning of the service from Galatians 5:22-23, describing characteristics that grow and develop in people who trust in Jesus Christ and have God’s Spirit at home in their lives.  We have looked at the fruits of love, joy, and peace; today we look at the spiritual fruit of PATIENCE.

There are some other series notes to remind you of.  To explain and illustrate these spiritual qualities or characteristics, I am turning to the life and teaching of Jesus, to see how he lived out or taught about these specific terms.  And I will remind you from the first chapter of Acts that these fruits are the result of God’s Spirit living in you and are given ultimately for the purpose of bearing witness to God in the world.  So, we always want to end with “Why show Christian love? Why know Christian joy or peace?”  Our love, joy, peace, and other fruit are not first for ourselves, but for the sake of the world God loves.

How Many Times? (v. 21)

Jesus had just been teaching (Matthew 18:15-20) on confronting a fellow believer’s sin privately before doing so more publicly.  That teaching goes on for about six verses, and I can just imagine Peter’s thought process.  He must have gotten stuck on the first line in v. 15, “If your brother sins…,” because he comes to Jesus and asks this question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” 

Jesus didn’t begin with “If your brother sins against you,” but just “If your brother sins.”  But Peter wants to know about forgiving sin against him and Jesus’ teaching must have triggered the question.  Notice, too, that there was a bit more to his question.  He tacks on, “Up to seven times?”  Peter wants to know the limits of forgiveness.  How many times does he have to show forgiveness when someone sins against him. 

It’s a good question and one you’ve probably pondered.  We know that it’s nice to forgive someone who has done something wrong, especially if they say they are sorry.  And it might be expected that a Christian would have more incentive than niceness to show a little forgiveness.  But we do have limits, right? 

Those limits may involve the intentionality of the offense: I can forgive the kid who broke the garage window with an overthrown baseball but not the one who threw the rock AT the garage window.

Those limits may involve the scope of the offense: I can forgive the baseball through the window but not the BB gun.

Those limits may involve restitution: I can forgive the kid AFTER he pays for a new window.

And those limits may involve repeat offenders: I forgave the first time and warned the kids to be more careful, but now it’s broken for the 3rd time and I’m hopping mad.

There are probably other considerations; we have a whole internalized grid of what is forgivable or not.  And Peter asked a reasonable question: “How many times do I have to forgive?”

And what does this have to do with patience?  You’ll see… it comes out in the story Jesus tells.

It’s Like This… (vv. 23-35)

So Peter asked how many times, even suggesting a possible answer: “Up to seven times?”  Peter probably thought he was being generous and smart.  Seven times would be a lot and it was a holy number from the scriptures, the number of completion.  (Everyone in ancient Hebrew Sunday school knew to answer ‘7’, ‘12’ or ‘40’ whenever a number question was asked!)

This is one of Jesus’ most interesting answers to a question.  Usually, he would ask a question in return, or launch into a parable.  In this case he actually gives a numerical answer, but it’s a head-scratcher.  And then he tells a parable.  “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  Peter is probably still doing the math when Jesus starts the parable, which seems to start out on another topic altogether: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves…”

“490!” shouts Peter.

Not really, but I bet one of the disciples did the multiplication while Jesus was continuing.  For now, let me just say this about Jesus’ initial answer of seventy times seven.  I think it’s basically him answering Peter by saying, “It’s a lot more than you think.”

Let’s see what the story teaches us.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” (v. 23a)

Jesus is answering the question about how many times we should forgive an offense against us by describing the kingdom of heaven.  Interesting. 

“…compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (v. 23b)

A king has the right to settle accounts at any time, and in this story, there was someone who owed the king a great debt of 10,000 talents.  Lacking the talents, the king commanded that he and his family and all they had be sold to pay the debt.  At this point, I think about the baseball through the window and forgiving after the window is paid for.  It’s transactional, eye for an eye, or as close to it as we can get.  Once the debt is paid, the account is settled.

“…the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’” (v. 26)

Interestingly, the word translated as “prostrated” is one of the key worship words of scripture.  It includes humility, respect, and submission to another.  In that posture, the slave pleads not for forgiveness, but for patience.  And he promises to repay the debt in full.  Did you catch that?  He doesn’t plead for forgiveness, but for patience.  That is going to be the central characteristic of this story and why I chose it to illustrate the spiritual fruit of patience.  So, having heard that, listen for how patience is and is not shown, and how that connects to forgiveness.

“And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” (v. 27)

The king did not give the slave what he requested, but went beyond it.  His patience was closely related to compassion and a resulting forgiveness.  Each is a different quality, but patience was a prerequisite for compassion.  Had the king lost all patience, he would not have heard or responded to the request.  But, out of patience, the king felt compassion, which then manifested as forgiveness.

This exchange also reminds me of the story of the prodigal son.  There, too, the son who could not repay a debt returned to plead to be received as a slave.  But the patient father had compassion on his lost son and restored him fully.  Patience is related to compassion, which is the precursor to true forgiveness, all of which we might bundle up into the term grace.  Patience and compassion, resulting in forgiveness and blessing, is grace.

It’s Not Like This (vv. 28ff)

That’s not the end of the story, though.  The forgiven slave goes out to collect his own debt.  In the most generous reading, we might think he is trying to collect on debts in order to make good on his own promise to pay the king.  But, if so, he has not truly heard or received the king’s forgiveness.  Additionally, he has not learned anything from the patience, compassion, and forgiveness shown to him by the king.  And he also has no chance of paying off the debt.  He can only collect 100 when he once owed 10,000.  So any way you try to interpret his actions, he has missed the mark and not learned from his experience.

He goes to collect from another slave, who likewise pleads for patience.  But he was “unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.” (v. 30) 

Consequently, his fellow slaves were “deeply grieved” – that’s the watching world! – and the king summoned him back before him.  And the king found him wicked for his lack of patience and mercy.  And the king handed him over to the torturers (presumably in jail) until he could repay.

And Jesus ends with the ominous statement, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (v. 35)

Talk about a twist at the end!  I thought this was going to be about forgiving seventy times seven times!  And somehow we ended up with a torturer in jail!  Yikes!

If nothing else, we have a clear picture of what forgiveness is not.  It is not impatience toward others and a lack of compassion, especially when we have experienced such extravagant patience, forgiveness, and grace from our Lord and Father.  Let’s consider what forgiveness really is, then.

Forgiveness, Patience, and Compassion

Peter started all this with a question about the limits of forgiveness.  How many times before I have to stop?

Jesus responded first with a number so outlandish that it demanded a deeper look.  Do you really keep track up to 490 and then you can stop?  No, the answer must instead have to do with the nature and quality of forgiveness, rather than the limits of it.

And the story Jesus told underscored that first impression.  Indeed, the question is not even the right question.  It shouldn’t be “how many times shall I forgive my brother?” but simply “How shall I forgive?” … “In what way shall I forgive?”

And Jesus’ story-answer is that we should forgive as we’ve been forgiven, from a debt we could not pay, out of the oceanic wells of patience, compassion, and grace of a God whom we have yielded to (worshiped) in humility and love.  And from that (think Great Commandment – “love God; love others”), we learn how to forgive others: with patience, compassion, and grace.  That is our living act of worship in response to God’s love.

Does this story mean that we only get once chance to get it right with God?  No, that’s counting again, like Peter was trying to do.  In the story, the king gave the slave his entire life back out of compassion and grace.  And the slave rejected it by not receiving and extending it to others. 

In Christ, God has given you your life back, not to live for yourself, but to bear witness to God’s goodness and grace as you forgive and extend that grace to others.  Remember Acts 1?  That’s the purpose of the spiritual gifts, to bear witness to God’s goodness in the world God loves. 

Patience – it’s God’s character, known most keenly in our lives through God’s grace and forgiveness toward us.  Along with compassion – a heart stirred on behalf of others’ need – it is the stuff of which forgiveness and grace are made.  Amen!

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