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God, the God Who Forgives (Advent #3)

Advent #3 - God, the God who Forgives
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Dec 13, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor

Preamble

Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!

 

We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!

 

Introduction

This morning I’m continuing in our four-part Advent sermon series on Forgiveness.

 

Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Advent is a part of the liturgical calendar where Christians around the world set aside the four Sundays and weeks leading up to Christmas Eve to prepare themselves to receive new hope, peace, joy, and love come to us. As we journey together in Advent, we want to create space for inspection, reflection, and repentance. We want to create space for new habits and practices to help us cultivate new awareness of God’s loving, reconciling, restoring presence and actions in our lives (past, present, and future).

Last week, I talked about the peace that comes as we move towards forgiveness.  I unpacked the fourfold path to forgiveness to help us as we move towards peace and forgiveness. This path allows us to break the revenge cycle that starts when we have been harmed or wounded. Our Advent book authors, Desmond and Mpho Tutu in their “The Book of Forgiving” encourage us to take forgiveness seriously and offer the following four steps as we make our way.

  1. “Telling the Story.”
  2. “Naming the Hurt.”
  3. “Granting Forgiveness.”
  4. “Renewing or Releasing the Relationship”

From Shame to Joy

As we continue our Advent journey together, today I want to reflect on the “great joy” that was announced by the Angel of the Lord to the shepherds who were out tending to their flocks:

 

10“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10)

 

Luke’s Gospel is a carefully crafted presentation and interpretation. Luke has crafted a story that helps us understand what God is doing in sending his son in vulnerability and weakness.

 

In the birth announcement, we immediately discover something about God that can be easily overlooked, God comes to us in humility and love, what Empire would label weakness, yet it is from this lowly place or position that Jesus reveals exactly who God is and how his power works. This brings me to a story that’s captivated me, a simple story that reveals so much about Jesus. It’s a story of shame to joy. It’s a story of forgiveness.

 

36When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:36-38)

 

The culture in which we discover Jesus is steeped with tradition, custom, and expectations, so I want to take a little time to try to unpack this passage by hopefully explaining what’s going on the story, especially what’s going on behind the scenes.

 

We know very little about this woman when we encounter her in Luke’s account. She isn’t named, but she has a powerful story to tell. A story that moves from shame to forgiveness. A story that moves from “pain and suffering” to “love and joy.” A story from exclusion to one of embrace.

 

We get few clues from Luke as we enter into the story. She’s “a woman who has lived a sinful life,” Luke says. Are we being invited by Luke to read between the lines? Is this his coded way of saying, “let reader understand.” If she is unmarried, abandoned or widowed without the support structure of a family to catch her as she falls, she had only one choice to sustain herself, and her kids, if she had any. She would have to sell herself in a culture that shamed woman who did what they could to survive.

 

Given that we all are sinners, why is Luke describing her in the way he is? Only law-keepers would refer to law-breakers as” sinners”. The law-breakers had a quick retort to the so-called law-keepers, “hypocrite” that’s what they were. So, we have to assume she isn’t just some run of the mill law-breaker, someone who doesn’t wash their hands before meals. No, using our authoritative interpreters, we assume she’s a prostitute. We get this clue from Simon the Pharisee, scandalized by Jesus, offers this,

 

39When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:38-39)

 

How did this “sinful” woman even know that Jesus was in town? Luke doesn’t say. How did she know he was at the home of Simon the Pharisee? Luke doesn’t give us anything insight here, he just sets us up, so we have to ask questions of this “sinful” woman. Why are you here? What is your story? Did you hear a rumor about Jesus and came running seeking forgiveness?

 

Have the results of your sinful life finally caught up with you,  so that you now feel guilty and are here seeking absolution? Or, are you here for some other reason? As we continue to unpack this powerful story of forgiveness, it’s the actions of the“sinful” woman that speak the loudest to me.

 

37A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:37-38)

 

From Shame to Love

The real drama of the story may be missed and overlooked by us because the customs and traditions that govern the common life in the ancient world seem so foreign to us. Hair, tears, standing, and perfume, why all the intrigue?

 

Let me take a moment to unpack a few things.

 

In the Greco-Roman world in which the Jews inhabited, dinner or the Symposium had a traditional standard that everyone was expected to follow. Most of the moral teaching in the culture came through table fellowship.

 

Simon, the host had an obligation to his guests. Jesus is there at Simon’s invitation, however, Simon has insulted Jesus with his rudeness.

 

Simon didn’t offer Jesus water for his feet, no kiss of greeting, nor did he anoint Jesus with oil. This “sinful” woman witnesses all of this and responds.

 

The woman is already there when Jesus arrives, she’s standing behind after he has reclined, which is the signal that the meal had started. She had her perfume there to anoint him, an act of gratitude for her forgiveness. She had no idea that the host, Simon the Pharisee would be so rude to Jesus, so she acts. Her gratitude and love compels her to act. Her acts are not random, nor are they entirely premeditated.

 

No one offered Jesus water to clean and this trigger a response in her. She starts to weep. And give me a little latitude here, she starts to weep and continues to do so in such a way that her tears are enough water to clean Jesus’ feet. She’s moving from shame to love. Overwhelmed by the God who forgives!

 

Now that his feet are washed, she needs to dry them. She’s stuck. The host isn’t going to help. So, she has to act in a way that is costly. She could have just used her dress, instead, she uncovers her hair and "touched" Jesus! No one at that meal would have missed what this gesture meant and would have questions about Jesus and his judgement and claims to be a prophet of God. “Only a bride on her wedding night lets down her hair and allows it to be seen by her husband for the first time.” Scholars note that by letting down her hair, she was making an ultimate pledge of loyalty to Jesus, just like a marriage vow.

 

She was saying in this very intimate act, I receive your forgiveness, and I belong to you forever. The question, which until the end of the story, was whether Jesus would reject or accept her pledge of loyalty?

 

Let’s continue:

 

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)

 

For the keepers of the traditions of old, the same alarm bells go off again, “If Jesus is who claims to be, then he would know.” No way is Jesus who he claims to be, if so, he wouldn’t... If he knew what Simon knows, he wouldn’t... because a prophet would know.

 

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

 

“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

 

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:40-43)

 

Look at how Jesus responds to Simon, he tells him a story. Why? Because we inhabit stories.

 

A sinner, now forgiven

Jesus does know what she has been, a sinner, and what she is now, forgiven.

 

As he invites Simon into the story, he reveals to Simon that he too owes money, just like this unnamed woman, who pushed her way into the meal. The tables are flipped, and Simon now has a decision to make.

 

“Simon,” Jesus says, “you too are a sinner in need of space at the table, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, but do you want it? Do you falsely believe that just because you are a law-keeper, you aren’t guilty, broken, and needy? That you don’t owe money too? Don’t kid yourself! Forgiveness and grace is here at the table for you too, do you want it?”

 

Jesus doesn’t challenge Simon’s belief that the unnamed woman is a sinner. She is. She knows it. She feared that she was forever trapped by exclusion, her hopes dashed because she feared that her law-breaking forever prevented her from knowing true peace or experiencing joy again, separated from love, and ultimately separated from reconciliation. Jesus reverses this message she’s inherited. He’s telling a new story–a fuller story.  God, is the God who forgives. Jesus accepts her acts of gratitude and love.  She recognizes her need for forgiveness, she hears the message of forgiveness, and she accepts it. You can see her actions as a recognition of this fact.

 

Some scholars, theologians, seminarians, and pastors incorrectly interpret this exchange, her kissing,  crying, anointing as some kind of payment for her forgiveness. It’s not. It’s the response to forgiveness. The forgiveness comes first, and the love and joy follow.

 

And to Simon, the law-keeper, Jesus has a challenging word for him too. You think you’re okay just because you keep the law, you aren’t. Just like the “sinful” woman, Simon, you owe a debt too that you can’t repay. But Simon doesn’t believe that he is like her, maybe he believes he’s better, he’s righteous, but Jesus welcomes both of them to the table. He will demonstrate this fully on the cross. There, he reconciles us all to God again. Jesus’ death on the cross isn’t some kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God to us on the cross! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love.

 

Clearly Jesus is who he claims to be.

 

Jesus interaction with Simon is equally important, and for some of us more relevant. Simon is challenged by the same forgiving God that challenges the older son in the parable of the prodigal. Only here, Jesus turns the table on Simon even more. Jesus tells Simon that he is a sinner just like the woman. Maybe his sin is less severe, though Jesus may be simply making it a bit easier for Simon to approach the more fundamental issue. Simon needs God's forgiveness just like the woman.

 

The woman knows she needs God's forgiveness. Her love and appreciation towards Jesus shows this. Simons actions belie that be doesn't. Jesus is extending God’s forgiveness to Simon just like the woman. But Simon hasn't accepted God's forgiveness since he is still maintaining his innocence. An unaccepted forgiveness is incomplete.

 

Another challenge for Simon is whether or not he will acknowledge God's forgiveness of the woman. Will be now treat her as a member of the people or will he continue to exclude her. The ability to see ourselves as forgiven sinners is critical to to being able to accept God's forgiveness of others.

 

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

 

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:44-50)

 

Another challenge for Simon is whether or not he will acknowledge God's forgiveness of the woman.

Will be now treat her as a member of the people or will he continue to exclude her. The ability to see ourselves as forgiven sinners is critical to to being able to accept God's forgiveness of others.

 

Practical Tip

Where do you place yourself? Are you a law-breaker or a law-keeper? In the story, Jesus reveals that if there are two types of sinners, both require forgiveness. Are you willing to receive the forgiveness that is available? Are you the woman ready to accept your forgiveness or you like Simon, whose response to Jesus and his invitation is unknown? I grew up in a church that when inviting people to follow Jesus that would remark, “Today is the day of salvation.” And while I have a lot of objections to how I hear it and interpret what is meant by the phrase, it remains true. Today, really is the day you decided whether you will follow Jesus through the narrow gate into life or not. Your forgiveness is waiting.

 
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