December 8, 2019 Sermon
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 40:1-2, 9-11
1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Message – “Advent Change: Forgive”
There’s an episode of the television show “House, M.D.” that comes to my mind periodically. As I prayed about and studied our scripture reading for today, the episode came to my mind again. The episode is called “You Must Remember This” and, unsurprisingly, it’s about memory. More specifically, it’s about a woman who appears to have a condition called hyperthymesia, which is an ability to recall almost every event from your past, everything that’s ever happened to you.
As the show proceeds, the doctors who comprise the main characters try to figure out why this woman also suffers from a great many OTHER maladies:
- Her legs become paralyzed
- Various enzymes in her body get way out of balance;
- She’s constipated to the point of taking laxatives excessively;
- She has tripped and fallen quite a bit…even before her recent paralysis;
- Her heart starts racing and develops an irregular beat;
- Her kidneys appear to be failing;
- She develops severe allergies;
- She starts having seizures;
- She even develops a blood clotting disorder;
At first, some of the doctors didn’t think all these other symptoms had anything to do with her almost perfect recall of past events, but, by the end of the episode, the doctors figure out these symptoms have everything to do with the patient’s memory. The only thing is, the patient doesn’t really have hyperthymesia – doesn’t really remember everything that’s happened to her – but rather has OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and she has spent her life obsessing upon every single BAD thing that has ever happened to her, every bad thing anyone ever did to her…which means she doesn’t remember anything close to all the events of her life…rather she just remembers the BAD events, the bad stuff. She hangs onto the bad stuff so much that she forgets everything GOOD that has ever happened to her….so that all of her memories are bad ones. Wouldn’t that be a terrible way to live?
OK…what could this fascinating – to me, anyway – episode of “House, M.D.” have to do with “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God”? What could this episode of “House” have to do with a sermon series about how Advent calls us to CHANGE?
Let’s find out.
God spoke these amazing words to God’ s people at a pivotal time in Israel’s history.
For hundreds of years, God’s people had lived in the land God had promised them during their Exodus journey. Remember that God had promised to keep Israel in that land, to offer the Israelites the protection of God, and to BE Israel’s God while caring for Israel as God’s special, treasured people. But this promise was conditional. God told Israel God would provide all those things…only as long as Israel kept God’s commandments.
By the time of God’s words spoken through the prophet in Isaiah chapter 40, all those amazing things God had promised were in the past:
- Israel had been overtaken by an enemy, the Babylonians;
- Israel’s leaders and a great many of Israel’s citizens had been exiled to Babylon;
- And Israel’s people and leaders were wondering mightily whether or not they were God’s treasured people any longer. They wondered if the bond between them and God was broken forever.
For Israel, their new predicament meant one thing for certain: as a nation, as a people, they had sinned grievously. And they must have wondered if their sinfulness reached the level of what Moses had described as “abandoning God”. Indeed, on a day from long ago, when Moses gathered God’s people to renew their covenant with God before entering the Promised Land, God prophesied through Moses of a possible future time when God’s people would be exiled, and all the world would look at Israel and conclude:
“It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them; so the anger of the Lord was kindled against that land, bringing on it every curse written in this book. The Lord uprooted them from their land in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is now the case.” (Deuteronomy 29:25-28)
So, by the time of Isaiah, God’ s people suspected, likely KNEW, that their terrible predicament stemmed from their disobedience to God. And they must have wondered something like, “Will God ever allow us to return, to become the people of the covenant, God’s chosen people, again?”
The answer, which God also foretold through Moses, was given through Isaiah in our reading for today:
- Yes, God still cares for Israel as God’s treasured people;
- Yes, God forgives Israel’s transgressions;
- Yes, God will allow Israel to return to the Promised Land.
Pretty good news, right? And all of it stems from one key facet of God’s nature: God is ever-forgiving.
Fast forward more than 500 years to another time when things weren’t looking so good for God’s people. The Israelites looked back upon these words to provide hope that God would act out of forgiveness on their behalf…again, maybe even send that long-promised and long-awaited Messiah. Why – how – could they have such hope amid the grave circumstance of Roman oppression, of Gentiles ruling God’s people and oppressing God’s people IN the Promised Land? Simple: God forgives. When the One who compels us to proclaim, “Here is God among us” arrives, when “the Lord God comes with might”, when the Lord comes and “feed(s) his flock like a shepherd”, these events would be yet another sign of God’s forgiveness, another sign that God’s people had been forgiven, and all could be right between God and Israel…again.
Fast forward another couple thousand years. When we, today, look back at what God foretold through prophets like Isaiah, what God actually DID through Jesus, how God forgave ALL of God’s people throughout time through Jesus’ death on a cross, we should look forward in hope out of our remembrance of the same lesson: God forgives, again and again, even us.
Which brings us to the topic of our current sermon series: “Advent Change.” I suppose we could look back upon God’s amazing promises and acts of forgiveness and just bask in the glow of how wonderful God is, how wonderful it is to be forgiven. But, the same Jesus through whom God forgives calls us to do MORE than just sit back and appreciate what God has done. Because God didn’t JUST send Jesus to forgive us but ALSO to show us the best ways to live. And, recall Jesus’ instructions, Jesus’ command, concerning forgiveness:
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if a brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Well, if Jesus came to show us the best ways to live, and one of the ways Jesus showed us – commanded us even – is to forgive, WHY? Why does Jesus want us to imitate God in this way? Why is forgiving so important? Why is our decision to forgive so essential to being Christian?
It turns out that, like it is with so many things, God was wayyyyy ahead of humanity on this one. The fields of science and psychology are now finally starting to figure out what God, who made us, has known all along: forgiving others is an incredibly important part of a healthy and abundant life. Forgiving is part of the CHANGE required to truly enjoy the new life God offers through Christ, through Christmas.
Remember the story from the television show “House, M.D.” with which I opened this sermon? The scenario may have been a work of fiction, but the concept is based in scientific FACT. It is true that holding onto the pain of wrongs absolutely, positively, DESTROYS us.
Here are some things I learned with some limited research this week into the current scientific understanding of the pain of holding grudges and the power of forgiveness:
- Like the woman in the episode of “House”, people, even people without OCD, have a tendency to hold strongly emotional things in our memories over other things. In other words, there’s a reason we sometimes can’t remember where we put our car keys five minutes ago but can remember extremely painful things from 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We’re MADE that way. Which sounds like a downer, but, it turns out this can be very helpful for survival, which is why God made us this way. Do some research; you’ll discover how it can be helpful. But, while it can be helpful, especially to pre-industrial people, it can also be very hurtful; holding grudges, clinging to painful memories, HARMS us. It’s why the lady from the episode of “House” suffered so many severe and EVEN deadly symptoms. She was going to die if she kept holding onto those painful memories because harboring painful memories CAN kill you. For real.
- My research ALSO reveals: Fortunately, forgiveness can help. I found a scientific study (conducted by psychological scientists at the University of St. Andrew, Scotland, and reported by the Association for Psychological Science) which concluded that forgiveness HELPS people forget. (By the way, forgiving and forgetting are not the SAME thing; forgiveness is about not holding grudges, about dropping the negative feelings toward a wrongdoer and replacing those negative feelings with positive, hopeful ones. And forgiving DOES lead to forgetting.) The results of this study are so fascinating. People who forgive rather quickly start losing memories of the details of painful experiences rather quickly. If you’ve got painful memories, wouldn’t you rather FORGET them? Believe it or not, the way to do that isn’t to TRY to forget them, it’s to try to forgive the transgressor.
- Oh, and there’s one more amazing thing scientists have begun to learn about forgiveness that I discovered in my research this week; forgiveness has the power to HEAL the pain of interpersonal trauma. Psychological scientists are discovering that when we, people, experience relational pain, when we are hurt not physically but emotionally as a result of interactions with others, one of the best ways to heal from the pain is to forgive – not to condone the actions of the other but to stop holding onto the negative feelings, the anger, the hatred, the bitterness, associated with the other’s actions. Stop replaying the events over and again in your own head or by telling them to others. This helps us heal in so many ways. One I’d like to mention is that forgiveness gives us the power to stop being victims of the past and to become authors of our future – as Christians we might say co-authors with God, able to chart new courses for our lives. Y’all, this is powerful stuff. There’s a famous quote I’ve shared with you before: “Failing to forgive or holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What I haven’t said enough is how choosing to forgive is the antidote to the poison. Forgiveness is not JUST the absence of the poison but the CURE for the poison. Meaning: it’s never too late to start forgiving and start healing.
My friends, we prepare this Advent season to celebrate the birth of God’s long awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And Jesus’ birth was an AMAZING gift to us, unparalleled in history since the gift of life, itself. Jesus was, Jesus is, such a great gift precisely because Jesus ushered in CHANGE, change for people in our relationships with God, change for people in our relationships with other people, even change for people in our relationship with or understanding of life and death. And…one of the greatest changes represented in Jesus was God’s forgiveness of sins…as well as God’s revelation that the best way for us to live is to forgive the real and perceived trespasses of others…to forgive not for their sake alone but also, maybe especially, for the sake of ourselves.
Let’s follow God’s Advent example of forgiveness, let’s follow Jesus’ command to forgive, let’s CHANGE this Advent season and forever, so that we may truly live! Amen.