Sunday, 20 September 2015

Mercy, forgiveness, love

The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" .  Luke 18:13

I wonder if you have anything on your conscience today? It may be something quite trivial - you snapped at someone, perhaps, or over-indulged yourself in some way last night. Or it could be something serious - a memory of something done many years ago, a dark memory that just won't go away but keeps jagging back like a nasty toothache.

Whatever, we all know that feeling of guilt and shame, that sense of having not just let ourselves down, but of hurting another person and grieving God.

The beautiful little story Jesus tells in this passage is perfect medicine for a hurting conscience. Perhaps it’s just what you need...?

The Pharisee - that is, the proud, self-righteous, religious person - prays a prayer full of himself. He informs God (who, I suspect, already knows) what a splendid person he is. He turns a condemning eye on the tax-collector standing near him in the temple, and thanks God that "I'm not like him ". If you met this man in the street you would probably be a little in awe of him; he is what we sometimes call a "pillar of society". But... he is proud, full of himself.

The tax-collector on the other hand may well have lived a pretty shady life. And he knows it. So when he comes into the temple to pray he really hasn't got any fine words to use. The best he can manage, apart from thumping his chest as a sign of remorse, is "God, have mercy on me, a sinner". End of prayer. (Note, by the way: sometimes the short prayers are the best prayers...)

And guess what happened? Well, let Jesus tell us in his own words: "...this man... went home justified before God".

To be "justified" means to be "in the right", acquitted, discharged from the court. When that man left the temple he went home with a light step, a straight back, and his head held high. This wasn't because he had done anything good. No, all he had done was admit his wretchedness and throw himself on the mercy of God. But his humble confession cut more ice with God than all the fine deeds of the Pharisee.

Now, I'm sure that in Jesus' day there were humble Pharisees and good tax-collectors - not everyone should be tarred with the same brush.

But the point is clear: there is nothing God loves more than to forgive someone who is truly sorry for what they have done and who they are. In fact, Jesus says elsewhere that "there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine good people who don't need to" (Luke 15:7).

Why does God want to forgive us in this way? Simple: because he loves us. Did you know that God loves you, even in spite of the bad things you have done?

Of course you did! If you go to church you hear it there (I hope! - if it’s a true church) pretty well every Sunday! You've may have known it since you were a child, especially if you grew up in a Christian home or went to Sunday School. And if none of those things applies to you, well, it’s my privilege to tell you for the very first time right now.

But let me ask the question another way. Assuming you do know theoretically that God loves you, have you taken this great truth to heart? Have you really "taken it on board", as they say? Have you ever sat down in a quiet, thoughtful, serious moment and said to yourself, "God loves me. God is waiting to forgive me "?

No? Well, why not today?

Lord God, when I look into my heart and soul, when I think about the past, I find many things that make me burn with shame. I find darkness. But thank you that still you love me, and that you delight to forgive. Help me to receive your forgiveness today, to rejoice in it, and to live the life of a sinner washed clean as snow. Amen.

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