“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” (Eph. 4:31-5:2)
David and Emily, there are really only two ways, two roads, to paths, two stories in the history of the world: the way of bitterness and the way of forgiveness, the way of wrath, anger, revenge, clamor, malice or the way of kindness, tenderness, grace.
Now stated like that, most people don’t gleefully sign up for the first list. Let me see, you mean I get to be malicious too? Wow, what a deal. Sign me up for that one. But the problem is that many people don’t really understand the second list. It’s the happy list, the gold star list, the smiley face list, with rainbows and sunsets and puppy dogs and happily ever after music playing in the background. Of course that’s what we want, we say, when we’re dressed up in fancy suits and ties and lovely dresses. Of course that’s what we want when we’re in love, when the sky is blue and there’s not a cloud in the sky.
But you can tell that people don’t really get what that means when the clouds come rolling in, when the offenses come, when sin happens, when there’s disappointment, when there’s failure, when there’s hurt. I think lots of people have somehow gotten the idea that being a Christian just means being happy. God is a big buzz word that means “sunshine and bunnies” and being a Christians means pretending the world is a Thomas Kinkade painting, complete with lamp posts on every corner and manicured lawns.
But there are at least two major problems with this conception of God and Christianity. First off, that isn’t the world God made. God made a wonderful world, a glorious world, but He also made a messy, stormy, wild world. He made a world with hurricanes. He made a world with stampedes. He made a world with avalanches and volcanoes and exploding stars. And He made a world with sex and puking babies and diaper blowouts, and those are all connected by the way. And God saw it all, and said it was very good.
Now of course we sinned, we rejected God’s very good and struck out on our own to find our own goodness, and that’s a dead end every time. And our sin adds to the messiness. Now in addition to the good wildness and messiness, there’s a whole lot of brokenness and hurt and unnecessary damage woven into the whole thing. But God is undeterred, and that leads us to the second problem with viewing God as “sunshine and bunnies” and being a Christian as just a religious way of saying happiness. And that is that Paul tells us exactly how we are to live in the way of forgiveness and kindness. He says, “forgive one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” It’s so easy to gloss over these words because we’ve heard them before, or at least we think we’ve heard them before, because they’re Bible words.
But Paul continues in the next verse because he knows we’re idiots and we’ll smile and nod and not get it at all. He says, “Therefore, be imitators of God as dear children…” and we’re still thinking about sunsets and waterfalls and little naked baby calendars and whatever else comes to mind. But Paul says, “And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling aroma.”
Now we’re modern western Christians enough removed from ancient Judaism to still miss this. Paul says that loving one another, forgiving one another is an act of sacrifice. It’s a lot like butchering an animal: hearing it scream as it’s throat is slit and the blood comes gushing out, cutting it open from top to bottom and letting the guts spill out onto the ground. It’s like sawing off the limbs and peeling back the skin and cutting off the fat, cutting off the head, getting covered in the stench and spray of animal blood and sweat and excrement. And then slowly putting pieces of the butchered animal on the altar fire to be consume in flames and smoke, sputtering and popping, and watching the smoke ascend into the sky.
Paul says that’s how God forgave you in Christ. God came down into our dirty, messy world. God came down into our pigsty of a world, into our filthy, sin infested, death possessed world and became one of us in order to give Himself for us, in our place. God is not sunshine and bunnies; God is a man who was born of a woman, who grew up in this world who lived perfectly, who condemned sin, proclaimed the forgiveness of sins, healed the sick, and was ultimately betrayed, unjustly condemned, and brutally murdered on a Roman cross for us and for our salvation. Jesus Christ is God, and in Him God went to war with all sin, all brokenness, all death, all injustice, all suffering. Jesus did not have has life taken from Him; He gladly, courageously, fearlessly laid it down of His own accord. And then because He is God and because He was innocent, after three days He rose up from the dead to give new life to all who believe in Him.
There are only two ways to live, David and Emily, the way of bitterness and the way of forgiveness. The reason many people slide into the way of bitterness is because they have never really embraced, never really understood the way of forgiveness. The way God has forgiven us is not by waving a wand and saying “let’s have a do-over.” God isn’t the cosmic grandmother in the sky, mindless handing out milk and cookies to the world. God is a fierce and loving Father who sent His beloved Son into our Hell to do battle with Sin, Satan, and death, to overthrow them in His own bloodied body on the cross, to take away our guilt, to release us from Satan’s power, and to free us from the clutches of death forever. That’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of war, suffering, love, tears, pain, for us, all undeserved.
Bitterness and anger and malice arise when we resent our crosses. When someone hurts us, when someone does wrong to us, when difficulty arises, when we fail, when we sin, when we see our own weakness, frailty, when our story isn’t going the way we had imagined, the way we had hoped, when we do not received the glory, the praise, the admiration, the respect that we think we deserve, that we think is right for us to receive, people grow bitter, angry, resentful. But this is because they are assuming a false picture of God and what it means to walk with Him and imitate Him. If a soldier gets mad because there are enemies and bad guys, don’t you think he’s got a problem? What if you sign up to take learn Spanish? Would it make any sense to get upset when you have Spanish homework? If you follow Jesus, the plan is to go to Jerusalem and die. You can’t follow Jesus and then get nervous when the soldiers show up with swords. You can’t cry foul and protest the angry mob shouting ‘crucify him!’ You can’t get angry, bitter, or resentful because that was the plan.
That is salvation, that is the way of forgiveness, that is the way of kindness and peace and grace. But Jesus also told us that if any man will follow Him, he must take up his cross. There is joy set before us. There is glory set before us. But between here and there, is a cross. And in day to day life, there are frequently thousands of mini-crosses: the cross of killing sin, the cross of holding your tongue, the cross of confronting sin, the cross of returning good for evil, the cross of bearing false accusations, the cross of being misunderstood or misjudged, the cross of making mistakes, the cross of sickness, the cross of difficult people and their sins.
And there is no place where the differences between the way of bitterness and the way of forgiveness is more obviously manifest than in marriage and in a family. Now don’t get me wrong: it’s all grace. The same grace you’re called to imitate is the grace that holds you up in order that you may imitate. The same forgiveness with which you forgive one another and others is the forgiveness that is your shield and high tower. It’s all the extravagant, militant grace of your loving Father in heaven.
David, you are called today to reaffirm before God and these witnesses and this woman, that you intend to walk in the way of forgiveness and pledge all your energy, all your strength to fighting all that remains of the old ways of bitterness, hatred, malice. You are being called today to lead Emily in this, to be her head, to be strong for her, to love her, to die for her daily.
Emily, you are called to today reaffirm before God and these witnesses and this man, that you intend to walk in the way of forgiveness and pledge all your heart and soul to putting sin to death, putting off the old ways and putting on the new ways by the grace of God. You are being called today to follow David in this, to respect him, to honor him, and to die for him daily.
As you both look to the Lord Jesus in faith for this grace, you will walk in the way of forgiveness, and the blessings of God will be upon you and your children and grandchildren to a thousand generations.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!