Fully, Freely, and Forever: Forgiveness of Sins

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 16, 2017

Exodus 34:5-10 Fully, Freely, and Forever: The Forgiveness of Sins

Public Shaming
In 2013 Justine Sacco was a 30-year-old senior director of Corporate Communications at IAC. In other words, she was a PR person for a large internet company that runs websites like Ask.com and Urbanspoon. Over the holidays, she was flying from New York to South Africa to visit family.

Along the way, she decided to Tweet out some acerbic observations about the indignity of international travel to her 170 Twitter followers. Just before leaving JFK she tweeted about a fellow passenger:

“Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.”

Then, during her layover in England, she tweeted:

 “Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

And then, just before boarding her flight for Cape Town South Africa, she tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

It was an 11 hour flight from London to Cape Town. In that time, while Justine was probably enjoying the comforts of First Class air travel, the world as she knew it below her was unraveling.
A tech blogger retweeted her tasteless joke about AIDS and linked it to her company. From there, her Tweet went viral. By the time her plane landed, she was the number 1 trending topic on Twitter. People were sending her death threats. People were delighting in the idea of what her face would look like when her plane landed and she turned her phone back on. In fact, people staked out her arrival gate so they could take her picture—and Tweet it out—as she walked down the jet way.

Justine deleted her Twitter account immediately. She released an apology statement. But it was too late. She was fired. She had to cut short her vacation because workers were threatening to strike at the hotels she had booked if she showed up. She was told no one could guarantee her safety.

All this in spite of the fact that her extended family in South Africa were African National Congress supporters — the party of Nelson Mandela. They were longtime activists for racial equality. Justine was far from a racist. If anything, she meant the Tweet as a self-deprecating jab at the naiveté of white privilege that assumes money and status protect a person from the horrors of the world. But, never mind that, because—you know—the Internet. Suddenly thousands of people who didn’t know her, or know anything about her, were delighting in her downfall.

Now, I don’t mean to excuse Justine’s Tweet. Whatever she meant by it, it came off as racist and insensitive. It’s a good a reminder for us to use care about what we post on Social Media—because once we put something out there, it’s out there.

But Justine’s story is used by author Jon Ronson as an example of a new kind of public shaming. We don’t put people in stocks in the public square and throw rotten tomatoes anymore, but we love to take to the internet to shame and dismantle anyone who crosses a line we don’t think should be crossed. There’s something about the human heart—something about our world—that loves to see others punished. (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-... I was led to the story by a sermon by Matt Chandler http://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/sermons/the-forgiveness-of-...)

It’s ironic, really. We continue to be a society that wants to soft-pedal and eliminate the idea of sin. More and more, the mantra of our culture is to let people be whatever they want to be. Follow your own path. Live by your own rules… And yet, when someone publicly makes a mistake that we can all agree is a mistake…Well, then, we love to hide behind the anonymity of our digital devices and unleash the vitriol, the reproach, the division and the anger. Twitterstorms. Trolling. There is something satisfying to the sinful human soul about these things.
And yet, for the people of God, this should not be so.

The Most Important Line
We are continuing our study of the Apostles’ Creed and today we come to the line that says “the forgiveness of sins.” I believe…in the forgiveness of sins.

Martin Luther, who started the Reformation, began his life as a Roman Catholic priest. But for most of his early life he struggled with the idea of forgiveness. He just couldn’t believe that he had done enough to earn God’s love; that he could ever be good enough to be forgiven. And then he stumbled across Romans 1:17—“The righteous will live by faith”—and realized that forgiveness was not earned, it is given by grace. That realization sparked the Reformation.

Luther would later say that the phrase, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is the most important article in the Apostles’ Creed. He wrote, “If that is not true, what does it matter whether God is almighty or Jesus Christ was born and died and rose again? It is because these things have a bearing upon my forgiveness that they are important to me.” (quoted by Ray Pritchard, http://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/positive-power-of-forgiveness-believ...)

As Ray Pritchard says: “If your sins are forgiven, everything else is just details. And if your sins are not forgiven, nothing else really matters.” (Ibid)

It’s also no accident that “the forgiveness of sins” comes right after the line about “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” Because this line is not just about the forgiveness that Jesus brings to us, it’s also about living in a community of forgiven people. As the Bible makes clear again and again: because Jesus has forgiven us, we are in a position to forgive others (see Matthew 6:12; Matthew 18:21-35; Colossians 3:13; et al)

So, my big idea today is this: God’s forgiven people are the stage on which God’s forgiveness is made visible to the world. God forgives so that we can show His forgiveness to the world. There are two parts to the message today. We’ll talk about God’s forgiveness. Then we’ll talk about our forgiveness of others.

At Mount Sinai
And our text is going to be Exodus 34:4-10. Exodus 34:4-10. Before I read it, let me set the stage for you.

Last summer we spent quite a bit of time in Exodus. We followed Moses from the Burning Bush to the courts of Pharaoh through the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai and the 10 commandments. But we left off after the 10 Commandments. We didn’t get into the story of the golden calf. This passage is a part of that.

Many of you know the story. Moses is up on that mountain with God for so long that the people start getting antsy. They decide he isn’t coming back down. They begin to fear that God has led them out into the desert and then left them there to die.

So they approach Moses’ brother Aaron and say “We’re all alone out here. We need a god who can get us out of this mess.” And Aaron, instead of saying, “No, it’s alright. Remember what God did at the Red Sea, we’re in good hands…” Instead of saying that, Aaron says: “Give me all your gold. Give me your gold earrings” (which, by the way, were a symbol of their previous life of slavery in Egypt) “give me the gold of your wives and your daughters and your sons” and he fashions a golden calf.

And then, listen to the audacity of this, then he presents the calf before the people of God and says: “Behold, the God, who has delivered you from the Egyptians.” That’s crazy. God, the great I am, who has just flexed His muscle and supernaturally broken nearly every law of the universe in order to save and deliver His people, is now being pictured as a cow. Within mere weeks of this divine deliverance the people are questioning God’s grace, questioning his care for them, questioning whether or not He is good.

And then, to make matters worse, the Bible says that after that they began to eat and drink and “indulge in revelry.” Basically, upon the presentation of the golden calf, the people lose their minds and lose their morals and engage in all manner of sin. God says to Moses that they have “become corrupt.”

And, at this point, God says He is done with them. God tells Moses to stand back, He’s going to destroy them.

Now, what follows can be a little confusing. Moses argues with God. It looks like he is talking God out of it. He goes down the mountain and destroys the tablets and destroys the calf and punishes the ring leaders. Then he goes back up the mountain and he and God have this long talk where God says that he is going to abandon the people and Moses has to beg and plead. I don’t know exactly what that says about God’s plans and the role that our prayers can have in them, but it all appears to be leading to this point where God reveals His character to Moses. And it seems that what God most wants to emphasize is His forgiveness.

So now, let’s look at the passage. Exodus 34:4-10:

4 So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 9 “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”
10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.

The big idea, again, is that God’s forgiven people are the stage on which God’s forgiveness is made visible to the world. Two points: 1) God forgives and then 2)we extend that forgiveness to others.

Maintaining Love to Thousands
So first, God forgives. It is a part of God’s essential nature to be a forgiving God.

You see, what’s happening here is that God is proclaiming His essential nature to Moses. That’s what it says in verse 5: He “proclaimed His name, the LORD”. And then He passes in front of Moses and He gives these character traits: He is compassionate and gracious. He is slow to anger. He is abounding (that’s a lot, abounding means that the cup is full, overflowing…) abounding in love and faithfulness. Then, the beginning of verse 7:

7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.

There it is. Part of God’s essential character is that He forgives.

Now, remember the context. This is right after the Golden Calf. Outright rebellion on the part of His people. Galling disrespect. We’ll come back to that in a bit. But God is willing to forgive. He is going to maintain his love.

Let’s define forgiveness. We’re talking about the forgiveness of sins. We’re saying it is a part of God’s character. But what, exactly, is it? I like this definition from Matt Chandler: Forgiveness is releasing someone from their wrongs fully, freely, and forever. I like that definition. When God forgives us it means He releases us from our wrongs fully (He doesn’t hold on to a little piece of it for later), freely (He’s not making us pay it back somehow), and forever (He lets it go for good).

This is part of God’s nature. This is part of who He is. He desires to forgive.

But, now, keep in mind, this is not being soft on sin. This is not God saying that wrongdoing is no big deal. It isn’t as though God is saying the whole Golden Calf thing was just a simple mistake. Let’s go back to verse 7, but this time let’s read the whole verse:

7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

God hates sin. He hates it with a kind of wrath that is hard to get our heads around. “He does not leave the guilty unpunished.” God is going to judge sin. If we do not pick up the offer of forgiveness that comes in Jesus Christ, then we will pay dearly for our sin.

In fact, the way this is phrased can make us kind of uncomfortable: “He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” It sounds like if I mess up, then my kids have no chance. And if my kids are messed up, then it is all my fault.

That’s not exactly what it is saying though. The Bible has a strong sense of personal accountability. Our children are going to be accountable to God for their own choices. They are not going to be accountable for our sin. And yet, there can be no denying that the sinful choices we make today can have long-term consequences on our families. There is always collateral damage. And sometimes that damage can stretch across generations. Modern therapy is only too well aware of the ways the sins of the fathers can linger in family systems.

But my point is that God does not simply overlook sin, or downplay sin, or excuse sin. It’s not in His nature to do that. Sin is serious, and must be accounted for. It’s just that He chooses to account for it by offering forgiveness.

The mechanics of how He does that are not spelled out here in Exodus, but if you are familiar with the New Testament then you know that forgiveness is possible in Jesus Christ. It was when Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried” that an accounting for sin was being made. The punishment that was our due was laid upon His shoulders. And God can offer forgiveness to all who will believe in Jesus His Son, and still be righteous in seeing that all iniquity is punished.

Before we move on to the next point, though, I want to talk about what God forgives us of. There are three words here, in verse 7, that we need to take a look at: “wickedness, rebellion and sin.” God forgives “wickedness, rebellion, and sin.”

Another word for “wickedness” is iniquity. It’s a premeditated choice to do something evil. It comes with a plan. Planned out. Plotted. It’s not just a bit of weakness giving in to temptation on the spur of the moment, it’s a deliberate decision to do wrong.

Here’s a verse that spells this out. Micah 2:1:
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.

This is lying in bed at night hatching a plan to do something wrong. Then getting up in the morning and carrying it out.

See, nobody stumbles into robbing a bank. Maybe you’ll shoplift something on the spur of the moment. That can happen without much forethought. A crime of opportunity. Doesn’t make it right. But the decision to rob a bank, the plotting and scheming and the weapons and the getaway plans… that takes deliberate planning. And the Bible calls that wickedness.

And the deal is, some of us are involved in things like this. We have, with premeditated zeal, given ourselves into some really wicked things. Messing around, pursuing relationships with people that we should not be, deliberately planning to deceive and cover up. We know it’s wrong, but we are plotting it anyway.

But here’s the thing: God forgives this. Wickedness is one of the things He forgives. I want you to hear this, because if this is you, I want you to know: you have not gone too far.

See, one of the big lies when it comes to sin is once we realize we're waist deep in sin, we feel like we can't turn back anymore. We're already waist deep, we might as well just plunge all the way in. But that's a lie. You don’t have to just give yourself over. He forgives wickedness. The forgiveness of God on high is available to you right now.

Or, again, the next word is “rebellion.” This isn’t plotting and scheming your sin, so much as it is the arrogant attitude that God’s rules don’t apply to you. This is the attitude that says I’m going to do what I want to do.

This is giving yourself over to the hunger in your stomach, whatever it is, to be driven by your appetites. Others would say it is sinful… the Bible says it is sinful… but you don't care. You're going to do it. It's the sin of arrogance. It’s rebellion.

But again, here’s the point: God forgives this. If this is you, if you’ve been walking around with a chip on your shoulder, a rebel without a cause, untouchable and unreachable; God is willing to forgive this. This is what Jesus died for. He will forgive you if you will just pick that forgiveness up.

Or, again, the word “sin.” Verse 7 says He is a God who forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin.” “Sin” of course is the big word that all these other words fall under. But it also has the basic meaning of “missing the mark.” Sin is failing to measure up. Failing to attain to the standard we know God wants from us. All of us have a pretty good sense of our own sinfulness.
And the point here is that God forgives. There is no sin in your life, there is no wickedness in your life, there is no rebellion in your life that God does not desire to forgive.

We see here the most heinous of sins and transgressions against the name and renown of God, and his response is not to fill the valley below with blood, but instead…because he is gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love, steadfast in his love for a thousand generations… He forgives.

And the offer is on the table for all of us. This is what Jesus died for on the cross. The offer is there. We need to pick it up.

The People You Live Among
So, God forgives sin. Now, second, we can show God’s forgiveness to others. God’s forgiven people are the stage upon which God displays His forgiveness to the world. Go back to the text, here’s the end of Moses’ negotiation with God. Verse 8:

8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 9 “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”

Apparently it is still an open question. It is still possible that God will wash His hands of them. But Moses is seeking forgiveness. Verse 10:

10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.

Here it is: God will forgive, and the result will be that “the people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do.” In other words, God says He is going to put His forgiveness on display. And now it is up to the people to live that forgiveness out by forgiving one another.

You see, that’s what the church is. It’s a showcase to a watching world. We are a group of people who are on stage, as it were, where people can marvel that people like us—wicked, rebellious, sinful people—have been redeemed and forgiven by God. We are trophies of God’s grace.

There are communal ramifications for sin. We just mentioned that, from generation to generation, right? But there are also communal ramifications for forgiveness. We show what is possible when we confess our sins to one another and forgive each other and live into God’s grace together.

The real church forgives. The people of God forgive because they've been forgiven. We can live into authentic community with one another as we get real about our weaknesses and the beauty of God’s grace, and as we extend that forgiveness to those around us.

Pick it Up, Pass it On
So here are questions for us today. Two questions. First, have you received God’s forgiveness? His offer is on the table, have you picked it up? Have you accepted what Christ has done for you to make forgiveness possible? There is no wickedness or rebellion or sin that is more powerful than the forgiveness of God in Christ. There simply is not. There is nothing in your life that God can't forgive. You have not committed the unforgiveable sin. You just haven't.

He wants to forgive you: fully, freely, and forever.

And then, second, are you extending that forgiveness to others? Having been a recipient of God’s compassion and grace, are you willing to be compassionate and gracious to others? Is your life a display case of the power of forgiveness in your life?

Look, if you are aware of your own sinfulness, if you can be mindful of how much God has forgiven you, then you will be much more able to extend forgiveness to others. You’ll be able to tamp down that human instinct to delight in the punishment of others and extend grace.

Jesus tells a great story in Matthew18. All of Jesus’ stories are great, of course, but this one illustrates this so well. There’s this servant who owes the King an unbelievable amount of money. Millions of dollars. I’m not sure why he owes so much, maybe he was a land speculator who invested in swampland. We don’t know.

But the king decides to settle accounts and calls him in to pay. But, of course, the man can’t pay. Nobody wanted to buy his swampland. So now he has to beg the king for mercy. The king is going to sell his family into slavery. So he falls down on his knees and begs for more time.

The king is the compassionate sort, so he cancels the debt. Doesn’t just give the guy more time, he wipes the debt right off the books. Fully, freely, and forever. It’s an unbelievable deal.
But then, right after that, the guy heads outside and he bumps into an old friend who owes him a couple of bucks. I don’t know how much, maybe the cost of a meal at a decent restaurant. The guy says, “Have you got my money?” and his friend says: “Sorry, I don’t. I need a little more time.” And right away the guy just loses it. Takes his friend in the back alley and starts roughing him up. Hauls him off to small claims court and has him thrown in jail.

Now, obviously, that’s more than a little incongruous. How quickly he forgets what has been done for him. And, of course, when the king finds out about it, he’s not happy.

So what about you? Have you been forgiven by God? Fully, freely and forever? Are you willing to extend that forgiveness to those around you as well?

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. God forgives us of so much. Let’s put that forgiveness on display to the world.