Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sermon for January 30, 2011

Sorry for the hiatus -- you, my faithful reader. Here is the latest. --mbb

The Patience of a Great God

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honor and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen. Timothy, my son, here are my instructions for you, based on the prophetic words spoken about you earlier. May they help you fight well in the Lord’s battles. 1 Timothy 1:12-18

Every day brings us an array of things that try our patience. Mom’s, you know what I’m talking about. You buy something that needs to be assembled and the instructions don’t make sense. You toss 16 socks into a clothes dryer and you get only 15 back. How about all those people who annoy us? Poky drivers in front of you when you are in a hurry. People who let their dogs bark all night. Or the person ahead of us in the 15-item express line at the supermarket who puts 19 items on the belt, chats with an incredibly slow checkout clerk, fishes for a checkbook only after everything has been rung up, and then wants to review the bill. Strangers try our patience in lots of little ways, but they’re no match for members of our own family. The prime cases of annoyance are domestic. “When two humans have lived together for a while,” says C. S. Lewis, “it usually happens that each has facial expressions and tones of voice that are almost unendurable to the other.” I think we understand. It’s not that your family member does anything wrong, exactly. It’s just that once in a while she lifts her eyebrows in a certain way that drives you nuts. It’s just that he whines even when he’s not complaining.

How about those people who do the same annoying thing over and over again. They know it bothers you. They might even ask your forgiveness. But they just keep making the same mistakes.

But wait a minute. That describes all of us, doesn’t it – doing the same things over and over and over again . . . making the same mistakes all the time. Do you ever wonder if God gets tired of us–if God ever loses patience? Here is God, patiently trying to correct our behavior and help us grow up into the people we were created to be – and here we are, going our own ways, doing our own things, messing up, asking forgiveness, and then repeating the same old sins. In my own life, I rarely need to invent new sins. I just keep repeating the same old sins. At times I feel clumsy and foolish and useless. And at times I convince myself that there’s no way God could possibly forgive me again for the same things for which I’ve already asked forgiveness -- that just doesn’t make sense. I mean, eventually God has got to lose patience with me and just go ahead and give me a good whack upside the head. Right?

The Apostle Paul says no -- that’s not the case. God has unlimited patience. And no matter how many times we blow it, if we seek God’s forgiveness, God promises to forgive us again, and again, and again -- it’s unlimited.

Now let’s be clear. I’m not saying that God doesn’t take our sin seriously. Sin is deadly serious. And I am not saying that God doesn’t have standards. God clearly calls us to live lives that conform to the values of the Kingdom. There are real consequences in our lives when we disobey the standards that God has set in place. Our sin matters to God and brings pain and brokenness to our lives. But our sins, no matter how often repeated, can never come between us and the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ -- because God has unlimited patience for you and for me.

Maybe you think your sin is too great for God to forgive. Paul certainly could have thought that. Listen to how he describes himself, a blasphemer, a persecutor -- a violent man. And then, just to make sure you understand just what a really lousy person he is, he calls himself the “worst of sinners.”

I bet you could come up with a list of sins in your own mind.
• You’ve let emotions like anger or selfishness or a judgmental spirit enter into your relationships.
• Or, you’re trapped in a cycle of addiction that you can’t seem to overcome and you feel like a failure.
• Or, you’re involved in a relationship that you know is destructive to you and your family.
• Or, you’ve taken some shortcuts at work or at home that you know aren’t ethical.
• Or, you’ve drifted away from God and you really don’t have a whole lot of desire to find your way back.

You’ve got your list, I have mine. Maybe you are thinking, “Worst of sinners? -- yeah, I know something about being the worst of sinners, and there is just no way God could possibly forgive the worst of sinners. There is no way God could ever forgive me for the things I’ve done.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say I “was” the worst of sinners. He says, “I AM” the worst of sinners, -- present tense. I am the worst of sinners, but here’s the good news -- that’s why Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus Christ came to save sinners like Paul and sinners like you and sinners like me. And there is no sin that you or I could possibly commit that would be so great that it would exceed God’s unlimited patience and capacity to forgive.

There are some of us who have trouble with this idea of God’s unlimited patience because we think that God’s capacity to forgive is too small. And maybe we do that because we compare God’s capacity to offer forgiveness with our own ... and again, that’s just wrong thinking. God isn’t reluctant to forgive us -- God delights in forgiving us. God forgives all our sins, no matter how little and no matter how big.

Despite our mistakes, despite our pride and self-sufficiency, despite the times we turn away from God -- our sins aren’t too big for God to handle. God doesn’t put conditions on forgiveness. When we make the same mistakes over and over again, it doesn’t max out God’s patience.

And so Paul writes to Timothy:
I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1: 16) And here is where the story comes home to you and to me. It’s as if Paul is saying:
If you don’t believe anything else, believe this: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof -- Public Sinner Number One. I never could have made it apart from the love and grace of Jesus. And now God shows me off -- as evidence of endless patience. I am an example for those who are right on the edge of trusting God forever.
And maybe that describes some of us here today. Maybe we are right on the edge of trusting Jesus Christ forever and all we need to do is receive the grace and forgiveness that He freely offers.

Some of us are sitting here today and we know that we really are the worst of sinners ... and maybe we believe our sins to be too big or God’s forgiveness too small -- and we’ve never received the unlimited gift of love He offers. God’s gift is ours. We only need to turn to God and accept it. I don’t know what you’ve brought here with you today -- what sins are on your list or on your mind and heart. But I do know this: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And so let me invite you, as we close in prayer, to take a few moments of silence, and in those moments, I invite you to come to God -- to turn to Jesus Christ and lay all your failures and all your mistakes and all your sins before Him. God really does have unlimited patience. God delights in pouring out love and grace and forgiveness on the worst of sinners -- like you and like me.

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