Sermon from 21st Mar 2021 (Lent 5)

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (EHV)

31 Yes, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand and led them out of the land of Egypt.

They broke that covenant of mine, although I was a husband to them, declares the Lord.

33 But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord.

I will put my law in their minds, and I will write it on their hearts.

I will be their God, and they will be my people.

34 No longer will each one teach his neighbor, or each one teach his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord, for I will forgive their guilt, and I will remember their sins no more.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may learn how to forgive like you forgive us for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever heard or said something like this: “Oh sure, I can forgive him, but I’m not going to forget what he’s done to me!”?

Or you may have heard or said something like: “Well, if you can’t forget what he’s done, then maybe you haven’t forgiven him!”

Is this common?

While it’s true we often link forgiving and forgetting, we don’t always understand what it means to ‘forgive’, what it means to ‘not remember’, and what the relationship is between the two, at least not from a biblical perspective.

So, let’s firstly consider what it means to ‘remember’ something or someone.

In this case, ‘remembering’ isn’t normally just a mental exercise because it can also include emotional and physical reactions.

For example, you may have seen a child hurt themselves by touching something hot. The next time they reach for something hot, and they remember what happened previously, they might reach for it but then pull back their hand quickly (or even point to it) and say ‘ouch!’. Their mind, and body, remembers the important lesson learnt about not touching hot things.

Even as adults, it’s common that we might hear a song from the past, smell a certain aroma, see a photo, or are reunited with a favourite toy from our childhood, and we can begin to re-live our memories from the past which might evoke emotional, and even physical responses.

‘Remembering’ then can have the power to bring a past historic event into the present to the point you may re-live some of that older experience. This is why we find it so hard to forgive people when they hurt us, and why we find it so hard to forget. We don’t want to be hurt again, and so we use our mental, emotional and physical memories to teach us how to avoid future pain.

But, because we want to learn from that past event and keep remembering it this way, we end up re-living it over, and over again, because our ‘remembering’ causes our minds and bodies to react in such a way that historic event is still very much with us in the present tense.

This is why you still get those shivers down the spine, those sweats of fear, those nightmarish recollections, and those unexplainable reactions whenever someone, or something, reminds you of a painful memory. This is why a name, a word, a sight, a movie scene, a song, or a smell can evoke such emotional and physical reactions for you. This is why some of you are still hurting over past events. Those memories are still very real, very much present, and very powerful.

The problem is that, while your memories still cause you to respond in these ways, the past event still has power over you. Whenever you ‘remember’ in such a way that you re-live your natural responses of flight or fight, then your fears have become your controlling force which take over your mind, emotions and body. When you ‘remember’ in such a way that you despair of your current or future relationships, then your fears have taken hostage of your hope and joy and peace. Your fears will want to stop you from forgiving and reconciling with your enemies.

But you might wonder how you can possibly forget what’s happened to you. How might you truly move on from that past event so that it no longer evokes such a powerful response for you? What has to happen to your memories of the past so they don’t affect you still today without losing the important lessons you learned from them?

Well, this is where forgiveness comes in. And since the only true source of forgiveness is from God, we need to learn what forgiveness from God looks like before we can apply it to our own situations.

In God’s case, he doesn’t say he’s forgotten your sins. God doesn’t forgive and forget. He says he forgives and doesn’t remember, which is a significant difference. After all, God doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. He’s not like a forgetful person who keeps forgetting where he’s left his car keys or even where he’s recorded your sins. Instead, he says he won’t remember.

When he says he will ‘not remember’, this means he’s chosen to no longer dwell on anything you’ve done which has hurt him, he’s not going to recall how you’ve damaged your relationship with him, and he’s not going to remind himself of how you neglected or caused offence to those who are important to him. He chooses to no longer re-live or re-experience the pain or heartache of what you’ve done. He can do this because his love for you is more powerful than his anger toward you.

This means, once you’re forgiven by him, those sins will never be recalled again to bother him, trouble you, or hinder your relationship with him. He doesn’t hold a list of all your sins to flash in front of you to make you feel guilty or ashamed. They’re no longer recalled to mind, and so he won’t use them against you.

So, while you may remember what you’ve done (which may still bother your conscience), God doesn’t. He’s forgiven you and chooses to no longer remember what you’ve done or failed to do. Whatever happened between you and him has been wiped clean.

Now, as to you not remembering, well, you can’t do that, and he hasn’t commanded you to. There’s no command in the bible which says you have to forget what anyone has done to you. You don’t have to forgive and forget. But that doesn’t mean God wants your memories to have so much power over you.

The answer for your powerful memories is forgiveness, but not in the way most people understand forgiveness.

You see, when most people talk about forgiveness, they talk as if it’s up to them to forgive, as if the power and authority to forgive has to come from inside ourselves. But the simple fact is, you and I simply don’t have the power and authority to forgive, because only God has the power and authority to forgive.

I mean, if it were up to us, we don’t want to forgive because we want the ones who hurt us to suffer for what they’ve done. And so, we attempt to use our hurt and pain as a bargaining chip for them to make up for what they’ve done. This means, as long as we still consider ourselves as the victim, we can justify all sorts of cruel responses until we feel they’ve paid for their crimes against us (which may never happen).

But what’s really going on here is this: our unforgiveness is an attempt to place ourselves above God and tell him that the other person doesn’t deserve, and shouldn’t receive any forgiveness.

Even when we say we have trouble forgiving ourselves for what we’ve done, it’s because we refuse to believe God could, or would, forgive us. It’s also because we want to have the last word and the final say about who deserves or doesn’t deserve any forgiveness.

Similarly, if we can’t forgive someone else, it’s because we’ve judged them as ‘guilty’ and refuse to believe that even God could possibly forgive them, which means we reckon they deserve any punishment we might come up with and won’t let them off the hook, even if they confess their sins to us. We won’t forgive them, even if God says he forgives them, because we want to have the last word.

The problem is that, if we want to have the last word on forgiving ourselves or forgiving those around us, then we want to be the god who decides who should and shouldn’t be forgiven. This means our refusal to forgive (or be forgiven) is because we’re disobeying the first commandment on having no other gods!

But we forget that forgiveness can only truly come from God who pays the price for our forgiveness through his Son’s willing sacrifice for us. We don’t have the last word. God does!

So, where does this leave us if we don’t really have the power or authority to forgive (even though we think we do)? Where does this leave us if we’re refusing to believe God’s forgiveness of ourselves or those around us? Well, the Lord’s Prayer gives us an important hint about forgiveness.

We pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. Similarly, elsewhere in the bible we’re told to forgive as we’ve been forgiven.

This means the starting point for your forgiveness toward others is God’s forgiveness toward you. When you believe and rejoice in God’s forgiveness, which includes the fact he no longer remembers what you’ve said or done or thought (or even should have said or done or thought), then you can ask God to help you forgive those who have hurt you like he’s already forgiven you.

This is because forgiveness is a miracle of God which humans can only truly do with the help of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness is a gift of faith and a by-product of you believing you’ve been forgiven by God.

When you’re able to forgive as you’ve been forgiven, it doesn’t mean you no longer ‘remember’ what happened, but your memories no longer have such power over you. This is because, by forgiving them, you’ve let go of your need for revenge and your need to see them punished, which releases the destructive power of those memories. Jesus has paid the blood price so that you, and they, don’t have to. Your remembering of what Jesus has done for you for the forgiveness of your sins will replace your remembering of what they did to you.

This means you can forgive those who have hurt you and yet still know your forgiveness doesn’t mean it’s ok for them to hurt you again. Similarly, with dangerous, abusive, or toxic relationships, your forgiveness also doesn’t mean you have to be fully restored to that relationship.

Forgiveness means trusting God’s love and mercy and forgiveness so much that you no longer need to cling to your anger, your fears, your pain, and your heartaches. You let them go, after all, they’re hurting you more than they’re hurting the other person.

You don’t have to forgive and forget. But, with God’s help, you can forgive and ‘no longer remember’ in such a way that your memories will no longer have power to make you keep on re-living the suffering you currently experience.

When you forgive as God has forgiven you, you’ll even be able to talk about those past events as memories which have been wiped clean by God because they don’t threaten you any longer. You’ve learnt from them, but they no longer bear that sting or those shudders or those sweats.

Instead, they’re times and places and people who may have crushed or broken you in the past, only for you to be restored, renewed, and made whole again through faith in Jesus. They’re people and moments and places where the redemptive power of God came into your life to forgive you, heal you and restore your hope.

This is because God loves you so much that he sent his own Son Jesus to suffer and die in your place so that you might be forgiven. This is because he calls you to believe he chooses to no longer remember what you’ve done against him and those around you. This is because he invites you to replace your memories of past sins with new memories of what Jesus has done for you as you ‘do this in memory of me’ as that historic moment in history becomes a present action where you receive your Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins.

And by the grace of God, may he also help you to forgive as you’ve been forgiven so that…

…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in the forgiveness established by Christ Jesus. Amen.