Luke 8. 26-39
Forgiveness, like everything else, is a gift from god.
The way it works – or rather, the way it’s supposed to work, at least according to popular opinion – is pretty straightforward and pretty simple. When you do something you shouldn’t, when you don’t do something you should, first of all, you need to feel bad, feel guilty. Second, you need to say you’re sorry and, if at all possible, make amends. And third, you need to promise to – never, ever – do it, again. And if you do those three steps right, voilà, forgiveness is yours! That’s the way it works with other people. That’s the way it works with god. And I would bet, that’s what’s going through most of our minds as we confess our sins.
We confess that we are in bondage, captive, to sin and can’t free ourselves. We’ve sinned by thought, word, and deed. By what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. We haven’t loved god with our whole heart. We haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves. Number one, we feel bad. Number two, if we can, we make amends. Plan the work; work the plan. And when we’re done, we’re forgiven. Only one thing … That’s not the way it works. It’s not up to us to determine whether or not we get forgiven. We can go down the checklist, item by item. We can complete each and every one with perfection. But if the person we offended isn’t interested, isn’t able to forgive, none of that matters. Forgiveness is a gift. It’s not a payment. It’s not a reward. Forgiveness isn’t something we earn, something we deserve. It’s something given out of the goodness and the greatness of the giver!
Like I said, that step-by-step-by-step, that one-two-three process of being forgiven is an expression of the human, that popular imagination. But god doesn’t do the human … or the popular … And neither does the church! Here, in the church, among god’s people, the responsibility lies not with the forgiven, but with the forgiving. Not with the offender, but with the offended. Last week, I said that it’s all about charity! And that’s as true of forgiveness as it is anything else. We’d like to think it’s all about us. Captains of our soul. Masters of our fate. In control of everything. Of success. Of failure. Of, even, forgiveness. But like I said, that’s not how it works. Forgiveness isn’t something we accomplish, something we achieve. Forgiveness is something trust! Forgiveness is something we believe in! Something we stake our life on!
That’s why – if you noticed – we say nothing about being sorry or feeling guilty or making amends. When we confess at the start of worship, we confess we’ve sinned. We confess we sin. And then we ask god to do the rest! Forgive us! Renew us! Lead us! Period! We’re not here to talk about what we have to do. We’re here to talk about what god did, what god’s doing. That’s the picture the acclamation paints. The one-verse hymn between the Second Reading and the Gospel that we’ve been singing for the past couple of months. “He is arisen! Glorious Word! Now is reconciled God!” Now is reconciled not us, but god! Normally, we think that’s we’re the ones who have to be made “right with god.” Somehow, we have to be reconciled, we have to be changed, to be made different, in order to live with god’s holiness, with god’s divinity. But truth is, it’s god who has to come to terms with us! With our “sin!” With our humanity! It’s not our job to work our way back into god’s good graces. It’s god’s job to put us there! Put us there and keeps us there!
That’s what this week’s gospel is about. We get so distracted by all the talk of demons. And we try to make sense of it all … in a Twenty-First Century kind of way. But the story, simply put, is about a man. Captive. Bound. Demons aside, it sounds a lot like us. And the man doesn’t ask Jesus for anything. The man doesn’t do anything. Jesus does it all! He forgives! He renews! He leads! Jesus does what the man can’t! Does what the man won’t! We’re not the ones who change the world and, then, invite god into it. God’s the one who enters in. Who comes to us. And who, then, changes the world! That’s the way it was in Bethlehem, the night Jesus was born! That’s the way it was, that Friday afternoon, when Jesus died! That’s the way it was, in the garden, that first Sunday morning! And that’s the way it is, this morning, in the land of the Geresenes, opposite Galilee!
We fall short. We miss the mark. We don’t measure up. And god loves us! God still loves us! And god is reconciled! God does anything! God does everything! That needs to be done in order to be a part of our life! Nothing! No one! Not even ourselves! Can get in the way! We don’t have to be sorry! We don’t have to feel guilty! We don’t have to make amends! We don’t, even, have to want to be forgiven! God will do what only god can do! Rescue us! Redeem us! Refurbish us! So that we can live! So that we can love! Just!. Like! Jesus!
That’s why the bible talks so much about the mighty acts of god! Why it speaks of god’s right hand and god’s holy arm. Faith isn’t about us! It’s about what god has done! It’s about what god’s still doing! We believe – by our own understanding, by our own strength – we cannot. We cannot, but god can and god will and god does! That’s why Paul tells us that if we just have to brag, brag about Jesus! Jesus’ faith and Jesus’ hope and Jesus’ love! Especially about Jesus’ love! That’s why we here in the Lutheran Evangelical Church don’t give personal testimonies. Faith’s not about us! It’s about Christ! It’s about Christ Crucified! And about him – about that – we testify week after week, Sunday after Sunday, again and again, over and over, time after time after time! You know, I think that’s why we sold the building. In order to go on telling the story!
So, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. When we sin, we’re supposed to feel bad. When we sin, we’re supposed to feel guilty. When we sin, we’re supposed to say we’re sorry, to promise we’ll never do it again. But my friends, that’s not what happens. When we sin, more often than not, we don’t realize we’re sinning. We don’t feel bad. We don’t feel guilty. If god is waiting for us to say we’re sorry, well, god’ll be waiting a long, long time.
So, god does the unthinkable. God forgives us. Forgives us out of the goodness and the greatness of god’s own heart. Forgives us without our permission. Forgives us without our help. Forgives us whether we ask or not. God forgives us because we mean more to god than anything we do, more than anything we don’t!