Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Giving up Anger and Bitterness (1st in a series)

So what are you giving up for Lent this year? Chocolate? Coffee? Soda? Meat? Social media time? Screen time?

"More than Just Chocolate" was the title of a sermon series I preached a couple of years ago where we looked at the almost trivialized practice of "giving up something" for Lent. In the series, my congregation and I learned that the point of fasting is not to deny joy or pleasure. We say “no” to some things so we are free to say “yes” to others.

What if we are called to give up something more than just chocolate? In the next five weeks, I am going to explore with you aspects of our lives that God may be calling us to give up beyond the coffee and the soda.

Lent is really about giving up the things that hinder, the things that block, the things that prevent change and growth and new life. Its not just about giving things up. It's giving things up in order to grow. It's about being shaped, being pruned, so we become more and more like Christ.  
So we look to Christ to model this for us. Now, it’s been said that our words are mirrors or windows to our souls. I invite you to revisit Jesus’ last words on the cross in the hope of looking deep into Jesus’ heart and soul at some of the things he had to give up in order to take up his cross.

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34, NRSV)

They had just nailed him to the cross. This after a long, sleepless night of standing trial, being beaten and flogged, being verbally abused, walking to Calvary with a cross on his back, being mocked, struck and spat at by the crowd. And as he was hanging up there, he could still see and hear the crowds mocking him, the soldiers at his feet were gambling for his clothes, the religious leaders were taunting him to save himself.

He could have cried out to God, “Father, look at what they have done to me. Punish them! Wipe them all out and save me!" Instead amidst all that abuse, he cried, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

More than just chocolate, God is calling us to give up anger and bitterness. Anger and bitterness eat up our souls like termites on wood. The longer we go on harboring these feelings, the more we will feel hollow deep inside. And pretty soon, we will just break and collapse.

Is there anger and bitterness in your heart today? Is there somebody who has hurt you deeply in the past and you just cannot forgive them? What if forgiveness is not really about letting them off the hook but more about freeing us from the bondage of anger and bitterness? 

Is there somebody you need to forgive? Why don’t you do that this Lent and give up being angry and bitter at them? Make that phone call. Write that letter. Say, "I forgive you." Then let go of the bitterness, not only for the sake of the person but more for your sake. For all you know, that person has already moved on. Now its time for you to move on.

Now you may say, “But you don’t understand. He harmed me. She hurt me.” Believe me, I know. I understand. And I know how hard it is to forgive. But will you allow that person to hurt or harm you over and over again just because you choose to live in anger and bitterness instead of forgiveness? Sure, harm and hurt and damage has been done. And justice has to happen. Consequences need to happen if they haven’t already. But for your sake, for you to move on, perhaps Jesus’ first words on the cross call you to give up the anger and the bitterness.

“Father, forgive them.” Jesus acknowledged that giving up anger and bitterness and forgiving was humanly impossible. And so he asked God for help. He asked God to forgive them. And if God would forgive them, then maybe he, too, eventually could and would. The most powerful words of forgiveness I have ever heard said to me was, “If God could forgive you, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t try.” Perhaps one of the prayers we are called to pray is “God forgive them and as you forgive them, help me to forgive them too.” 

Friends, it's more than just chocolate that we are called to give up. Lent is not just about giving things up. It's giving things up in order to grow. This Lent, what if we give up anger and bitterness and grow in forgiveness and love.

Your fellow disciple,

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