When I was a new believer, I hungered for a deeper relationship with God. I followed the example of a mentor in my life who had taken a focused time to work his way through past sins as a means for drawing near to God, confessing them one by one, category by category. Over the course of several days in a summer vacation, I brought my sins to the foot of the Cross in the presence of the Lord. I started this process with excitement, eager to draw near in vulnerability to God, but over time I slowly grew overwhelmed by the multitude of ways I had turned away from God in the course of my life. When I finally completed the process of confessing sin over those days, I needed to read and re-read portions of Scripture about the forgiveness assured to me by faith in Jesus Christ. Certain verses struck me as incredibly powerful: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). In his work of art, All My Sin, Ted Prescott relies heavily on process to create the final piece. In this work, Prescott first took a month to write all his sins that he could remember on paper (“a creepy and depressing list,” he writes). After shredding that paper, he inserted the bits into four open forms of glass that were heated up, sealed, and then cooled over the course of a day. The paper turned to ash and blackened the glass from the inside. The final work reflects the process of confession but also the process of Jesus’ work on the Cross. Jesus took upon Himself our sin and entered into the darkness of what sin does to us, in death and separation from the Father. Jesus did this so that we might have life to the full (John 10:10). Lent reminds us that when we bring our sins to the Cross of Christ, our creepy and depressing list of wrongs can be transformed by Christ, leading us into life, love, and forgiveness. One portion of Scripture I have never forgotten from that extended season of confession I mentioned earlier is a verse which we all might benefit from committing to memory: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
One of the strangest things about us as people is how much we want to be close to people and also how easily we run away from relationships with others. Why is it that we both want to be known but also want to be free from being known? We are relational beings made in the image of our God who is a relational God (see Genesis 1:26-27). But Scripture tells the story of how human willfulness chose against God’s guidance (sin), resulting in ruptured relationship with God and others due at least in part to the influence of shame. Shame is that little voice telling us we are not enough, a deep sense in our selves that there is something wrong with us. Shame leads us to hide from God and others. We see this in Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God: “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). Just as God called out to them to be vulnerable and reenter relationship, so God continues to call out to all of us. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about lostness and hiddenness. The third, and most detailed, of these stories is about a father with two sons, one of whom leaves home and loses his way in life (Luke 15:11-32). Squandering his money, dishonoring his family name, and leaving like a beggar, he finally decides it would be better to return home in disgrace than to live the meaningless way he now lives. When he finally gets up the gumption to return home, his father sees him in the distance and rushes to embrace him. It is a fantastic picture of the astounding grace and love of God that overcomes our shame. Rembrandt’s beloved painting based in this story depicts the lavish embrace of the father, whose hands hold the son with a quiet stillness seeming to reverberate through time. The younger son is a tired train-wreck, his tattered robe in shambles and worn out shoes crumbling off his feet. In the shadows on the right, the older son looks down on this embrace, bitterly resenting both his father and brother in this moment. He’s maintained such faithful service to his father and thinks he deserves so much more than this faithless, shameful brother. The painting and the parable leave us wondering: “Where am I in this story and how might I need to return to the Father’s embrace?”
Last week at Eastbrook’s “Journey to the Cross” service, I shared this message for Ash Wednesday rooted in Joel 2:12-17.
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before.
In the Japanese artform kintsugi broken pieces of pottery are taken by an artist and repaired by mending the imperfections with a lacquer infused with powdered gold. Instead of flaws to be hidden, the imperfections become part of the beauty and strength of the vessel worth highlighting.
Kintsugi speaks about two realities we experience in our lives and in the world all the time. One the one hand, things are not the way they should be, and on the other hand, beauty can break forth unexpectedly from brokenness.
The journey of Lent is like this. On the one hand we travel a shocking, broken road with Jesus in Jerusalem. He is hailed as King at His triumphal entry. Many people flock to hear His powerful words and teaching. They watch Him cause a scandal in the religious center. He shows the fruitlessness of dead religion and turns expectations upside down. But what started with great acclaim turns to dark destruction as Jesus eventually is crucified in Jerusalem. His body beaten. His blood poured out. His suffering for us.
“He took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:4). On the one hand, Jesus’ journey is difficult.
On the other hand, we discover that Jesus’ difficult pathway to the Cross is God’s pathway for bringing what is good. God brings life, healing, forgiveness, change, and transformation through the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross. He turns an upside-down world right-side up. It’s the sort of thing we describe with the Bible word “salvation.” The Apostle Paul describes the wonderful paradox of Lent in 1 Corinthians:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and powerful than before. We see this in the life and ministry of Jesus.
We see that with God’s work in our own lives as well. On the one hand, we all know that despite appearances we’re not all we’re cracked up to be. We have sinned and we are broken. We experience that in our relationships, in our pursuits, and inside of ourselves. Lent gives us an opportunity to pull off the mask before God and before others and just be our real selves.
To name before God and others that things are not right and we still need God’s healing, redemption, and salvation in our lives. As Paul says: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:25).
On the other hand, God can bring beautiful transformation in our lives by His grace and truth. We are never castoff by God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We are all trophies of God’s grace, prizes of Jesus’ rescue mission.
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before…and that’s even true of us.
But sometimes we can forget all this. Like someone with a case of amnesia we forget why we’re here and what we’re all about. Like someone lost in the forest, we become disoriented and forget which way we are supposed to go. And so, we move through our daily routines without thinking or feeling. Like someone who wakes up in the morning without having a jolt from their daily cup of coffee, we’re groggy in a dreamworld and lacking touch with reality. This touches our life with God as well, both individually and as a community. Amnesiac, disoriented, and groggy, when Lent arrives, we tend to just go through the motions. We give up something. We read the devotional. We participate in the Journey to the Cross service.
But the prophet Joel snaps us awake with his stark words:
“Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:13)
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before. The prophet Joel calls out to a people sinking in the waves of sin and idolatry. He calls them to turn around from their wrong ways and seek after God. Drawing on the action common with repentance, an outward tearing of garments, the prophet tells the people to tear their hearts, to break them up, before God.
Right alongside his invitation to break our heart with repentance—to turn to God—Joel reminds everyone that God is ready to meet us with His patience, forgiveness, and unyielding love. He takes the broken places of our lives and restores them, infusing these imperfections with His inestimably valuable grace, truth, holiness, and love.
Lent begins with brokenness. It begins with realizing the ways we have strayed from God. We turn back, tearing our hearts open with confession, bringing to Him the places where we are broken, and presenting to Him our lives. Twentieth-century novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Now, that may be true generally, but with Lent, we do not place ourselves at the mercy of an anonymous world, but in the hands of a loving God who graciously remakes us through Christ.
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before.
Sin and forgiveness. We deal with these things daily. Perhaps one of the most painful and difficult times is when we deal with sin and the need for forgiveness within the church. It seems that as followers of Christ we should understand these topics and live accordingly. Christianity is known as a faith marked by deep emphasis on sin and forgiveness. And yet, we seem to struggle with these realities in one another. It seems surprising.
But it isn’t surprising to Jesus. He expected that we would struggle with sin and forgiveness as His followers. He knew that working toward whole, reconciled relationships with one another would be a challenge. Because of His knowledge of these things, Jesus taught His followers about them. In Luke 17, we find powerful words about the necessity of complete forgiveness and our response when we are sinned against. It is in Matthew 18, however, that Jesus teaches on the process for dealing with sin in the church. What follows is a series of notes on the contours of Jesus’ teaching about dealing with sin.
One to One (vs 15)
It is important to note that Jesus calls us to discreetly and privately address the wrong done to us by speaking to the person one to one. Jesus says to ‘point out the fault’ which means we do not avoid talking about it nor do we rub the other’s face in it through guilt messages. We simply point it out. Also, we are not to trumpet the wrong to others or publicly humiliate another for their sin against us. Jewish teachers around Jesus’ time said that to publicly shame someone who had sinned against us would run the risk of exclusion from paradise. We must go to the person directly and neither hold it in – which gives birth to bitterness – nor talk behind that person’s back – which gives birth to division in the church. The goal, as mentioned in Luke 17, is to win the person over, or to restore relationship.
Two or Three to One (vs 16)
If the person does not respond to the individual conversation about the wrong, then we are to take one or two people with us to point it out. The intent here is not to gang up on the wrongdoer but actually to safeguard them from any false accusations. As in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, the extra witnesses come along in order to corroborate the facts; that is, to insure that a wrong actually has been committed. If you have been sinned against, you should not bring others with you in order to intimidate a wrongdoer. Bringing one or two others safeguards the conversation and helps to keep it firmly grounded in truth, without false accusations flying back and forth. The witnesses should be neutral. And in case we had forgotten, the goal is to win the person over, or to restore relationships within the people of God.
To the Church (vs 17a)
If the wrongdoer will not listen even with a couple of others in the room, then the situation has become very serious and must be addressed within the broader, local church community. Still, Jesus is clear that the utmost energy and care should be exerted to deal with this privately at first. It is only after this that Jesus says, “we should tell it to the church.” Why does He say this? Jesus is helping us to see that, if the relational tensions haven’t already become an issue that is noticeable to the whole church, this issue should come to the attention of all so that bitter divisions do not take root in the church. The focus is on pastoral concern for the entire body of Christ. The aim is still that the wrongdoer would listen, and the ultimate goal is still to win the person over, or to restore relationship between the wronged and the wrongdoer. In our day, some might wonder what the appropriate way to bring this to the church would be? Clearly not to start a rumor mill or to stand up in the services to yell out an accusation. Those two responses lack the pastoral concern that pervades Jesus’ teaching. I would propose that the appropriate route is to bring it to the pastoral staff, elders, or other church leadership for guidance and help. These leaders stand, as it were, with responsibility for the entire church and should be the easiest point of access within the church.
Treat Them Like an Outsider (v 17b)
If there is still no repentance, then we are to treat the wrongdoer like an outsider to the faith, “as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” While the goal has always been to restore and reconcile relationship, this is the end of the road. Some scholars debate whether Jesus is referring to a formal excommunication from the church resulting in spiritual death (as in 1 Corinthians 5:5 or 1 Timothy 1:20) or simply the manner in which we treat someone relationally. Regardless of which direction you take this, three things are clear: 1) the wrongdoer is apparently unwilling to listen to anything anyone has to say; 2) there is little option available other than treating them like an outsider; and 3) this is NOT the place we want to arrive at within the family of God called the church. Hope does linger in the background that, as with the Corinthian case, the cold shoulder of treating them like an outsider may help them come back around, but we never can tell. In a sense, we have come to a point where we finally admit that our best efforts to win them over and reconcile have failed, and only God can win them over and change the heart of another person.
All along, the goal has been to point out sin so that wrongs can be made right through forgiveness. The prayer of Jesus before the Cross was that the community of His followers would walk in unity so the world around us would know the love of the Father:
…that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me. (John 17:23)
May that be our aim in our relationships with other believers.
This past weekend at Eastbrook, we launched into a new preaching series entitled “Jesus Said What?!” I began the series by looking at what it means to confront sin and also share forgiveness by exploring an important text Matthew 18:15-35.
This message is from the eighth part of our longer journey through the Gospel of Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” “The Messiah’s Mission,” “Stories of the Kingdom,” “Who Do You Say I Am?“, and “‘Tis the Reason.”
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (Matthew 18:15)
Sin, Confrontation, and Community Life (Matthew 18:15-17)
Sin and pointing it out
A pathway for pointing sin out
The goal of pointing sin out
Binding, Loosing, Prayer, and the Presence (Matthew 18:18-20)
Binding and loosing
The power of prayer
The presence of Christ in our midst
Sin, Forgiveness, and Relational Life (Matthew 18:21-35)
The limitless call of forgiveness
A parable about boundless forgiveness
The connection between forgiving others and our experience of forgiveness
Walking Toward the Table
Seeing our need for forgiveness
Forgiving others who we’ve not forgiven
Experiencing the grace and forgiveness of God through Jesus
This week dig deeper in one or more of the following ways:
- Memorize Matthew 18:20 or 18:21-22
- Consider reading other passages that address topics of sin and forgiveness: Matthew 6:12-15; 7:1-5; 9:1-8; Luke 6:36; 17:3-4; Colossians 3:13; James 2:13; Psalm 103:7-12
- Take time this week in solitude to let the Lord search your heart about whether there is any sin you need to confess or any unforgiveness you need to release to Him. Respond to God by journaling or praying about that.
- Consider reading about Matthew 18:
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Lord with Two or Three”
- Dallas Willard, “From Forgiveness to Blessing”