"The Battleground of Forgiveness"#91-21
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 21, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Psalm 32:1
"Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered."
How many times had Mr. Hayes wished he could cover it up, to pretend as if it had never happened? Maybe he'd even wished that the bomb would've just hit its mark, put them all out of their misery. The bomb, however, had not hit its target. The German Luftwaffe crew had mistakenly dropped its smack in the middle of the courtyard of Westminster Cathedral where Mr. Hayes served as caretaker. When the ordnance exploded, it scattered the stones of the hardscape, helter skelter, exposing ground that hadn't seen the light in over 200 years, leaving a crater as big as your neighborhood swimming pool. The bomb fell on September 20th, 1940. It would come to be labeled as bomb number 391. It was still early in the war. The city surveyors who had assigned the serial number to this incident had no idea that thousands more would fall before it was over. They had no idea that the Nazi Air Forces would blitz London with bombs nonstop for 57 days and nights: a nightmarish ordeal remembered in London as the "Blitz."
Bomb number 391 and the 50-foot crater it left behind in the cathedral courtyard was just a brief, almost forgotten episode in that longer nightmare. But it could not be forgotten by Mr. Hayes and his household, the caretakers of the cathedral, because it brought the battleground right to their front door. And now that it was there, what could they do? It turns out they did cover it. Not by pretending it never happened though. Even if Mr. Hayes and his family could have walled themselves off in the churchyard and get along as though the war weren't happening, they could never live with themselves if they ignored the suffering of their neighbors. During the Blitz and continuing for most of World War II, Nazi Air Force's reign terror on the City of London from 1940 to 1945. Around 30,000 Londoners were killed in the air raids. Another 1.4 million were rendered homeless as a result.
As bad as that was though, what was just as likely to kill Great Britain's chances of winning the war was starvation. See, in 1939, the year before the war began, almost all of Great Britain's, that island nation's, food supplies came from overseas. About 75 percent of their food was imported across the sea. And when the Nazi Navy blockaded shipping lanes and sank transport ships, British officials rallied their citizens to grow more food at home.
At the beginning of the war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said that this war depends just as much upon what we can do to produce more food at home. The battleground was right outside their front doors. "Potatoes and beans are munitions of war, as surely as are bullets and shells," a BBC broadcaster announced. Britain must learn to dig, turn up each square foot of turf, root out bulbs and plant potatoes. Take a last look at your tennis lawn and then hand it over to the gardener. And so began Great Britain's victory garden campaign. And with all these speeches, leaflets, and broadcasts in the air, it got Mr. Hayes, the cathedral caretaker, thinking if tennis courts and golf courses could be dug up for vegetable gardens, then why not the very wounds of war? He knew just what to do with that 50-foot crater outside his front door.
How? To cover it. To cover something is to put it out of view, out of focus. Sometimes we use this word, "cover," in the sense of a physical covering like how the poets of the Bible said that God covers the sky with clouds, Psalm 147:8, or how at the beginning of creation, God covered the earth with the oceans, or how at the beginning of redemption, God covered the enslaving armies of Pharaoh with the waters of the Red Sea and buried them at the bottom. Another biblical poet, the one I quoted at the beginning famously said that this also is what God can do with our sins—cover them. "Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered."
Now, covering in this sense isn't a cover-up. A cover-up is when you don't want the truth to come to light, like when a company shreds the evidence, so reporters won't know how they've been cheating their investors, or when a man deletes his browsing history so that his wife won't know what he's been looking at, or when a family keeps its secrets because they know that exposure would ruin them.
In contrast, when God covers sins according to the Bible, He's not pretending it didn't happen. He's not letting us conceal our failure to be what He's created us to be. No, forgiveness isn't a cover-up. The entire drama of the Bible labors to show that God will not ignore human transgression because the wrongs that we do and the good works that we fail to do hurt the people around us. The incendiary words we speak, the bombs we drop, the void we leave when we have the power to help, but we look the other way. It all does damage. And the Bible warns that God will not look the other way.
Sometimes people selectively quote the Bible to try to picture God as offering a non-conditional forgiveness, that God's some sort of forgiveness machine, that that's His programmed function to forgive. That's His job like a vending machine, a forgiving machine. But the God we meet in the Bible is a God deeply concerned about the truth and not just truth for its own sake, but truth for the sake of His good creation, truth in service to the people in relationships with the neighbors and the creation around them. And this is consistent across the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It's not that we meet a stingy, unforgiving, hateful God in the Old Testament and then a gushy pushover, granddad of a God in the New Testament who wants everyone to be happy in their own self-centered way. No, the picture of God that we get in the biblical narrative is consistent throughout.
God is never indifferent to our sins. He's not minding His own business in heaven, walled up in His churchyard, indifferent to a world suffering from the terrors of a spiritual war, a spiritual war which is at the root of every sibling rivalry, at the heart of every domestic dispute, the baseline corruption behind every calculated campaign of annihilation. God sees it all and He will not let us cover up the truth. But God isn't just keeping records. During World War II, London City managers kept meticulous records of every bomb that fell. Mapping the areas that were affected, noting the extent of the damage complete with a color code. Yellow for minor blast damage, pink for repairable damage, red for doubtful if repairable, purple for damage beyond repair, and black for total destruction. It's all there in 110 detailed maps saved in the city archives, all the damage accounted for, including the crater and the cathedral courtyard left by bomb number 391.
And God's accounting for all the damage you have done and for all the good you failed to do is more exacting. But this record of your sins and my sins, it's not merely backward-looking but forward-looking, as we're London wartime maps. See, these maps were not records kept somehow to settle the score with their enemies. They served a civil purpose, a social goal. They were vital not only for rescuing survivors and formulating plans to rebuild, but also for cultivating a deeper sense of who they were and who they would become, their civic identity in light of what they'd been through. As one London archivist said, "There are just so many stories which these maps provide the starting point for."
God's accounting of your sins and mine isn't an ending point. It's not like an employer building a case to terminate the relationship. In fact, God promises never to reach a point when He decides that you aren't worth the trouble. God already decided that you are worth dying for. That's why He sent His Son Jesus. And because you're worth that to Him, God wants you to be honest with Him and with others about the damage you've done and about the good you've failed to do, every instance of cowardice and compromise and selfish indifference. Because it's a starting point or a restarting point. The beginning of a bigger story, a story of creation and redemption. If there were a color code of your life and mine, much of it would register as minor or repairable damage, wrongs that could be fixed with a heartfelt apology, missed opportunities that could be made up for next time.
But there would be much that is irreparable: things you can't fix. And what makes this complicated for human life is that these irreparable damages don't just lie there like leveled buildings. Your old sins may still be live, armed like unexploded ordnance, still dangerous, still doing damage. You're probably like me in that you can still be terrorized and accused by your past. You can still see the faces of the people you've harmed and the ones who've harmed you. You can register your indifference for people you've ignored. You can measure your resentment for those who've ignored you.
These incidents can't be erased, but they can be confessed. You can bring them to God. You can let them be exposed before God like a wound that needs to breathe to begin to heal. And then you can let it all be buried and covered with all of God's enemies at the bottom of the sea, under the darkness of the death of His Son Jesus. You can let it all be baptized as you are baptized or can be baptized. That's what the Bible says about the significance of Baptism and faith in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "We were buried therefore with Christ Jesus by Baptism into His death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in new life" (Romans 6:4).
Baptism, God's sign of forgiveness, it's not a cover-up; it's an exposure. It ruins us for life on our own. As Jesus' mortal life was ruined on the cross and the full consequence of our sin was made plain because we thought we didn't need God to cover and protect us. Baptism, God's work of forgiveness, it's not a cover-up but a covering. Because God can work over everything you've done and failed to do because this mortal life is just a brief episode in a longer story with God. Baptism, God's forgiveness, it's not a cover-up; it's a new beginning. Because we are buried in Christ and are raised with Him and have no more life apart from Him. Forgiveness isn't a cover-up, it's a victory garden in a crater. It puts the sin out of focus by growing us in the very place where our need for God is exposed.
Years ago, a Christian author named C.S. Lewis wrote a book title The Screwtape Letters. The book is a series of imagined letters, hypothetically written by a senior demon called Screwtape, mentoring a junior demon named Wormwood. Screwtape counsel's Wormwood on how to best tempt and distract his assigned human referred to as the patient. It's a fascinating exploration of how modern people might reimagine spiritual warfare and its historical setting is Great Britain in the time of the Blitz in London at the beginning of World War II. And at the end, spoiler alert, Wormwood's patient is killed by a bomb that fell in the Blitz.
In letter number 28, Screwtape scolds Wormwood for his mistaken attitude about the war. We hear that Wormwood has reported with glee that there is reason to expect heavy air raids on the town where the creature lives. But Screwtape warns his understudy not to miss the goal. The demon's primary aim isn't to inflict temporary suffering on the patient, but rather eternal suffering by turning him away from trusting God and turning him away from loving his neighbor, turning him toward unforgiveness. That's the goal. And the danger of the war from the demon's perspective is that the man's temporal hopes in this present evil age might take a backseat in his mind. That he might be forced to attend to his neighbors more than he has ever done before, and finding himself liking it more than he expected.
Worst of all, the patient may be daily increasing in conscious dependence on God, or as Screwtape calls Him, the "enemy." So Screwtape warns Wormwood, don't put too much hope in a war. Instead, he urges him to focus on a different kind of war: the war within the patient's own household, the unforgiving domestic conflict among his closest companions, the mutual annoyances, the daily pinpricks. Think of his life as a series of concentric circles, and then start on those closest relationships, the diabolical mentor advises. Corrupt his prayer life, his home life, and then work your way out from there.
The test of God's forgiveness at work in our lives is often at the extremes. How can God ever forgive me for that? Or how can I ever forgive when what they did is unforgivable? We can't test the limits of forgiveness at the extremes, puzzling over how it might be applied on a national or a political scale, how it might be practiced with those who would bomb us or terrorize us from foreign shores.
Extreme cases may be a test of forgiveness, but they aren't the battleground. The battleground isn't up at bombing altitude. It's down at the courtyard and sidewalk level. In family rooms, dorm rooms, and garden beds. Because there is no one like the people closest to us who can just drive us batty. And so the battleground is in how you and I respond to the irritations and aggravations, to the grievances and offenses of those with whom we share daily life. That's why so many of the New Testament's letters are after the same ground that Screwtape's after in his letters, for the household, for the local market, for the congregation. As Peter wrote to the house churches in his first letter, "Above all," he said, "love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins."
It was a national tragedy that left a crater in the cathedral courtyard. There was nothing good about it. Bomb number 391 brought a terrible war into a quiet neighborhood. But the attack exposed the dormant soil under the hardscaped plaza to a long-forgotten possibility: the possibility of a garden. And if you'd like to see a picture of it on the internet, search "Westminster Cathedral, victory garden, 1940." And see for yourself the Creator's capacity to partner with a local household of Christ-followers to start again and cultivate life, even from war-torn barren soil. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for January 21, 2024
Title: The Battleground of Forgiveness
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. You'll find FREE online resources, audio on demand, and more, at lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Mike Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Today I am visiting once more with Dr. Dan Paavola, a professor at Concordia University in Wisconsin, and he teaches classes about the Bible and living the Christian faith. Welcome back to the program, Dan!
Dan Paavola: I thank you for letting me come back and be with you and everyone listening.
Mike Zeigler: It's good to have you. We are continuing our discussion on the Bible's teaching about forgiveness. Your book is titled Flowing From the Cross, Six Facets of God's Forgiveness. I appreciate that how you say in the book, so many of these images are about God's assurance for us. He knows how sins continue to accuse us and haunt us, and so He gives us these many images of His forgiveness. One of the most vivid parts of the covered chapter for me was when you talk about the wheel bearing grease. So tell us a little bit about that.
Dan Paavola: Well, I couldn't resist, and I know that only you and I, Mike, can see this, but here is wheel bearing grease. I'm holding up a tube of wheel bearing grease. Wouldn't you agree, Mike? This is black stuff, I mean dark.
Mike Zeigler: It gives me the shivers just to think about getting that on my shirt.
Dan Paavola: Well, when you're repacking wheel bearings, you can wear gloves if you want, but for the real experience, you just dig right in and start moving this around, and your wife will make sure that you scrub really well when you come back in. But it's just grease that happens to be black as black as black can be. And my thought was that, again, going back to let's say you have a stain on your favorite shirt and you send it off, or you scrub it and every product known to man, you're still worried about that stain coming out. Let's go the other way. Instead of trying to get rid of that stain, let it be there. Let it come up, and then say to it, and I got your covering right here, black grease right over the top of it, that covers it.
You got a stain of ketchup, and it's trying to come up. Yeah, here again, I'm holding this up for you. Yeah, I'd like to see ketchup work its way through this stuff. It is as black ... and it's sticky, too. It's grease, it's not going anywhere. It's not going to fly away and leave you. When God covers us, He covers us with the absolute blackness of, I think, two things: Good Friday and the tomb. Where have our sins gone to be covered by an absolute blackness of His tomb? Think of that darkness. And in that darkness, our sins are covered. That's where they are at. They're not coming out. There's no way they can suddenly leap through that darkness. Our sins have been buried with Christ. Isn't that a wonderful image? Let that darkness not be frightening to us, but sort of "Ahh, I know where those sins have gone." They are covered with the blackest, darkest, most-impenetrable covering God could find, the death of His Son, and His burial.
Mike Zeigler: Another thing I appreciate about your book, Dan, is how many of your examples, pretty much all of your examples, are grounded in daily life: the household, the workshop, the neighborhood. Why do you find it so helpful to ground your talk of God's forgiveness in everyday life?
Dan Paavola: Well, I'm hoping that, in general, my experiences are ones that you've had and people have. And forgiveness is such a broad diamond that there are many, many ways in which God attaches a simple action in our whole life and says, "Doesn't that remind you of what I did with My Son when He took all of our failures onto Himself." When He was the Source of all that is good and all because why? Because we're forgiven. So I hope those things help people besides which they're kind of an enjoyment for me to write about. And so far people have seemed to resonate with those simple ideas.
Mike Zeigler: Well, if you're listening and you are resonating with anything Dan is saying, check out his book. It's called Flowing From the Cross. Thanks for being with us, Dan.
Dan Paavola: You're welcome. Thank you for letting me come.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" setting by J.S. Bach. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)
"O Christ, Our True and Only Light" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.