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"Forgiveness Is a Gift from Far Away"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 28, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Daniel Paavola, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Psalm 103:11-12

God's Word for us today is Psalm 103:11-12. "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgression from us."

How far have you traveled? What is the longest trip away from home you've taken? I'm not a world traveler, but I am sure that many of you have gone halfway around the world or more. You could tell us amazing stories of people, sights, and foods that we can barely imagine. You've gone beyond far away and so, even while you're home, you are often thinking of those experiences far away.

That's our theme for today's message. We've been speaking these last few weeks about forgiveness, seeing different facets of forgiveness. While forgiveness is a central key of our relationship with God, it has, like a diamond, several facets. The images we're discussing mirror the many ways in which forgiveness is depicted in the Bible. We are cleaned and also covered by forgiveness, for example. Today, we see that our forgiveness is a gift of God from far away.

So, let's go back to traveling. When you go on a long trip, you'll need more than that little carry-on bag you usually use. You need to check real luggage. Of course, you're hoping that it will come back with you on the same flight. Usually, yes, it does, but not always. When it goes missing, you wait for the bags to come back. They will, eventually, though you're not sure when.

Getting luggage back from far away is good news. Getting back the baggage of your past could be the worst news. Our text promises that God has taken our sins away, moving them as far as east is from the west. That's a wonderful distance, completely good news. But what if those sins don't stay there? What if they are the old baggage of our lives and they are simply waiting for the worst time to return to us? What if our sins are actually lurking just over the horizon, ready to come back to ruin us, bringing the full weight of what we've done along with all the interest piled on?

Many live under that cloud. It's the fear that our sins will find us, no matter how far we've moved. We can all recall our sins from yesterday and even decades ago. David in Psalm 51 speaks for us all when he said, "For I know my transgression and my sin is ever before me." Even the brightest day can be overshadowed by the fear that this is the day God is going to bring on me all the judgment that I deserve. Then, when trouble does come, I often conclude that it's because God has retrieved my sin from a distant past and settled it on me.

We need an answer for all those fears, and that answer is that God's forgiveness has taken our sins absolutely far, far away. Those sins have gone, as our text says, as far as east is from the west. Let that place be half the world away and let it also be fixed in time 2,000 years ago. Jesus took upon Himself all the sins of the world, concentrating them onto Himself on the cross. We did not have to make that long journey, halfway around the world to the cross. He made the journey for us. We did not have to try to compress our sins into some manageable size and weight to be carried. Jesus did that also. What a journey! What a burden he carried onto the cross! Go on a two-week trip and you'll struggle to pack enough for those days into one or two bags, knowing you're going to pay dearly for each bag. Now imagine His journey and load—all the sins of all the world, every piece of all our lives, that's what He bore upon the cross. And He paid dearly for all that, paying with His life.

The good news is that those sins cannot come back to us once He has carried them so far. The work of Jesus is like the act of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16. The people of Israel during their 40 years in the desert were instructed to take a goat, once a year, and symbolically place their sins upon this goat. The goat was then taken out into the wilderness and left. Leviticus 16:22 says, "The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area." The goat is left there, alone, outside the camp and the goat never returns.

The goat has no idea, of course, of what is happening. It knows nothing of the sins put upon it nor does it know that it will die in the wilderness alone. Not only is the goat clueless, the goat also seems so insignificant for such a huge task. We could ask, "How can the life of one goat mean anything? How can the death of a goat cover the sins of all these people?" The goat seems too little to make any difference.

Now imagine that there is One who is significant, whose life is equal to all the world to His Father. Imagine One who does know all that is coming to Him, even His own death. And, knowing all this, He accepts it as His own future. That is the wonder of Jesus bearing our sins. He who is innocent has taken the sins of the world, and He knows that when He is taken out of the city of Jerusalem, He will die on that lonely hill of Calvary. The goat has no knowledge and no choice. Jesus knows all that is happening and He chooses it for Himself. In John 10:17-18, Jesus said, "For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again" Because Jesus is the very Son of God, His death is not simply a tragedy of injustice, but to God, Jesus' life is equal to all the world. His death means the world to the Father. God placed the sins of the world onto His Son that they would be forever far gone from us. The apostle Paul writes of this exchange in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "For our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."

Carrying our sins, knowing His coming death, Jesus is more than a scapegoat driven into the wilderness. He is the Good Shepherd who faces the worst to save His flock. He chooses to take the sins of everyone, to die alone, and to rise again. This is the mark of love and care shown by a truly Good Shepherd. No wonder our Psalm 103 text combines His love and forgiveness by saying, "For as high as the heavens are above earth, so great is His steadfast love to those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us." It is this astonishing love of the Good Shepherd who takes our sins and moves far away, protecting us completely.

He takes our sins beyond our sight to the cross. Because our forgiveness is from that cross, that leaves us as people known for that strange tree of the cross. The cross, unseen and distant from our sight, is the mark and work that joins us together. Because of that distant cross, our lives are like the two towns our family has lived in over the past 39 years. For 12 years, our family lived in Butternut, Wisconsin, where I was the pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Butternut is a 400-person town deep in the far north woods of Wisconsin. It is a great place to live with truly wonderful people. You might ask how our town got the strange name Butternut. It's all about the butternut tree, a fairly unusual tree that's a cousin to the black walnut. As for our town's name, the story I heard was that Butternut was the spot that was the farthest north that the butternut tree could be found growing along the Soo railroad line that went through our town. So, the butternut tree was the wood far away, found at the very end of the line.

That's a great picture of both forgiveness and all of us forgiven by the cross! Our forgiveness came from a tree far away, at the very end of the line, where all our sins were carried and delivered. There, that dead tree of the cross, became beautiful to us. It was not carefully shaped by saw or plane, but only the hard blows of a hammer and the cutting of the nail. Yet, through that rough wood, forgiveness was shaped. We are all people of that tree, the cross, 2,000 years ago and half the world away, unseen by us, and yet the place where our sins have gone and are still there today.

Our distance from the cross changes our lives; it clears the horizon above us. It's a bit like living here on the western shore of Lake Michigan. After leaving Butternut, we moved to Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, a small town that lies a mile inland from Lake Michigan. So often, given the west winds that are common here, we see a line of clouds, bringing rain and snow over the lake, but moving east towards Michigan. The sun will be shining here; it's a different story on the other side of the lake. And, given that west wind, those clouds and snow are not coming back here.

So, we live under that clear sky of God's forgiveness. The storms caused by our sin have been moved far east of us. God has moved them way beyond the 100-mile width of Lake Michigan. And there is no chance that any wind will drive them back to us. Those sins are not only at the cross, they've been fixed onto the cross by the nails. We get to live in the sunshine of God's mercy and forgiveness, knowing the storm of our making has gone over the horizon. It will not return.

So, what can we expect to find through this forgiveness that comes from far away? Remember our fear that God was going to return our sins to us, like delayed luggage? That won't happen since God has promised in Psalm 103:10, "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor prepay us according to our iniquities." So, what does come to us from the distant cross? Not our sins nor our guilt, rather His peace.

Romans 5:1 says, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Because God has forgiven us through Jesus, our relationship with God is one of peace. This peace is not a temporary condition or a gift that might be snatched away. God's forgiveness brings us a lasting peace with God. That is the foundation needed when the next steps are taken. Listen to Romans 5:3-5, "More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."

We don't usually rejoice in trouble; we can sometimes fear that our troubles are those past sins coming back again to haunt us. But we are at peace with God; our sins are far away on the cross. So, what does come to us through the troubles that we experience?

Imagine you've traveled far and returned home, but your bags were delayed. They finally come after many days. Just as you feared, your bags are battered and scuffed from the trip with a new tear on one side and a zipper that barely moves. Given the damage, you open them with some fear, hoping everything is still inside. Take a deep breath and look. Good news, it's all there, unharmed, everything just as you packed it.

That is the picture of our lives. Our lives are a long journey, one that often faces trouble. Like the bags, we're a bit scuffed and dented from the trip. We don't look brand new anymore as the scratches all add up. But look beyond the scrapes and injuries that have come. Inside our lives, held there by the gift of faith, the other gifts of God as still with us. Being forgiven we still have the peace of God. He still gives us a hope that does not disappoint, even when so many hopes in this world are crushed. And, finally, the central hope of life is this: that we are still loved by God. Yes, still intact and living, the love of God is poured into our hearts. Let trouble come. It is not revenge from our sins since God has announced we are at peace. So, find even in challenging days that God is faithful and that coming to us from that far cross comes peace, hope, and the love of God.

That's the long journey we are on. But that journey isn't contained only here; there's one more long move to come, all because of forgiveness. In the resurrection, God takes us on the ultimate trip, moving us as far as possible from our past. In the day of resurrection, there will be no moving company packing up your past and asking where to deliver your past sins. There's no rental truck sagging from the load of all we've done, with more boxes than there's room for. No, when God takes us to heaven, He takes us alone. The past is left and even our bodies, weak and scarred as they might be, are completely renewed. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed." In the resurrection, we will make the ultimate move. Sin and death are not coming with us because we are forgiven. Our sins are left as dust beneath our feet. Since we're forgiven, God will take us far away.

As we said at first, many of you are long travelers. You have been around the world and now are safely back. All that traveling, whether we've done it ourselves or we can only imagine it, gives us a picture of forgiveness. Our sins have taken that long journey and been put onto that distant cross, 2,000 years old. From that strange tree we are all given peace. Our sins will not return to haunt and destroy us. They have been carried by the Good Shepherd to that far place of the cross. Now all we have returning from that journey is His peace, hope, and love.

Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, thank You for the gift of forgiveness, won on the far distant cross of Christ. Remind us that our sins are not towering over us, but they have been driven far away, and they remain as far away as east is from the west. On our long life journey, protect us and keep us in Your peace, hope, and love. Amen.

Reflections for January 28, 2024
Title: Forgiveness Is a Gift from Far Away

Mark Eischer: Joining us now here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Today I'm visiting again with Dr. Dan Paavola, professor at Concordia University, Wisconsin, the author of numerous books, including one on forgiveness, which we've been discussing. Welcome back, Dan.

Dan Paavola: Thanks for letting me come again. It's been a joy.

Mike Zeigler: You noted in Psalm 103 how God's love and forgiveness are necessarily connected. What do you think happens if we separate those two?

Dan Paavola: Well, it would be difficult to imagine the one with(out) the other, wouldn't it? "Oh, I love you, but I'm not going to forgive you." Oh, good heavens. What kind of love is that? I tell you, I don't think we're going to be able to sustain that. The only way that would lead to something is if God said, "I love you, but I don't forgive you." We'd be trying, trying, trying, trying, trying somehow to catch up and earn His love. What kind of love is that? That which is earned? No, no, no. God's love is a merciful love and there's no earning mercy.

If on the other hand, God says, "I forgive you, but I don't love you." Oh, well, goodness sakes. There's no forgiveness without love. He forgives us? No, not if He doesn't love us. He forgives us, that's the most, "All right, I'll give you a second chance, but don't mess it up." I don't hear a lot of love in that. There's none, and by the way, we're going to mess up that second chance anyway, so it's hopeless. The two of them have to go together.

Mike Zeigler: The other thing you hear in our culture a lot is forgiveness is more about my own personal therapy, that I have to forgive so that I can get closure, which is in some ways saying I'm going to cut off a relationship. I don't want to deal with that person anymore. I'm going to forgive them, but there's no love in that kind of forgiveness either.

Dan Paavola: And I wonder where you can generate that forgiveness, if there isn't a first flowing, that's kind of the idea of our book, Flowing From The Cross. If that forgiveness hasn't first flowed over us, it just overwhelmed us, then I can give more to someone else. And it's like if I have an abundance, just a tremendous abundance, somebody needs a little of all of this. Self-generated forgiveness has got to be a poverty in our souls that has nothing left for somebody else, but flowing from the cross, there's an abundance from God, enough to—"Yeah, fine, sure, I've got enough for you because, oh my goodness, look what He's done for me."

Mike Zeigler: Maybe we could imagine in abstraction, in abstract language, there's a vertical dimension flowing from the cross from God to us, but there's also this horizontal flowing out to others. How does forgiveness as far-away influence the way we forgive and interact with each other in that horizontal plane?

Dan Paavola: You know, we're glad to hear that our sins have been taken far away. They're carried off to the cross. That's a beautiful image. If I'm happy that my sins are far away, God has done the same with his. And I think God is waiting for us to catch up to that vision. And maybe instead of reeling his back in, let him go, just let him go. That current, that flood tide, is going far to the east to the cross. And so cut the rope or tie or whatever it is that we've been using to fish back our neighbor's wrongs, let it go. That tide is running far to the east, and it's gone. Done.

Mike Zeigler: What do you think that has to do with often we talk about forgiving and forgetting, and even the Lord Himself says, "I will remember their sins no more," in Jeremiah 31. How does that affect the way we deal with our neighbors?

Dan Paavola: Isn't that something that we would bring this back so easily to ourselves? "Remember what so-and-so did. Oh, I can recount that. I feel all those bruises and missing pieces," and yet think of that God. God can actually say, "I don't remember it." Isn't that amazing? The omniscient God who says, "Your sins, oh, and by the way, your neighbor's sins. I have covered them up. They're gone from My memory and sight." Again, I think Mike, He's inviting us to a shared relationship and experience. He's inviting us each day to think a little more as He does. And I know we're amazed at it and we maybe even say, "But it's so big. How could you forget it? And in case, God, by the way you've forgotten, I'll be happy to remind you of what happened. I'll be happy to go through the details with You." You picture God saying, "No, no, Dan, we don't need to go there. That's done. It's gone."

And then let's move on to something. Mike, if you're a parent and you say to your children, "No, don't do that. Don't." That doesn't work because you've got to give them something to do. They can't just sit there. Okay? Yeah. Perfection is not found in a vacuum. And so you have to say, "Don't, but now do this." Isn't that I think what God is saying to us? A little bit of Philippians 4:8. I won't get this perfect, but Paul says, "Finally, whatever is true, right, noble, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy, think about these things." Doesn't that fill the vacuum? If God says, "Enough with the remembering of the wrongs," what are we going to put in place. That would do pretty well.

Mike Zeigler: In your image of Jesus as that greater than scapegoat in this message, that was such a powerful thing to ponder, that He's not an insignificant animal. He's as valuable to His Father as the whole world, more so even. He knows everything that's happening. He does this willingly. So to think on those things, when I think about the little grudges that I carry against my neighbors ...

Dan Paavola: Yeah, isn't it amazing that God will put His Son into that experience of being the goat? Oh my goodness. The goat doesn't know anything. It's just sent out into the desert. It bears the sins. It knows not, and it doesn't even know that it's never going to return. But the greatest of all time does know all that, and He takes the load, and He knows He is going to die, and He does it all for us. Isn't that just astonishing? We can play with that. He is the scapegoat, but He's also the Good Shepherd who lays down His life of His own to take it up again to protect us.

So, I think that imagery is amazing when we realize that God would let that which is most important to Him, like you just said, it means the world to Him. But that's our good news. If He will die, it means as though the world has died and now come back to life.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you again for joining us, Dr. Paavola, for all these wonderful things to fill our hearts and minds, lovely and praiseworthy, and to push those thoughts of our sins and our neighbors' sins far, far away.

Dan Paavola: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure to be with you.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"My Soul, Now Praise Your Maker" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"Son of God, Eternal Savior" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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