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Making peace with your past

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13

We’re discussing today the topic, “making peace with your past.” There’s apparently a lot of past to make peace with.

For instance, this week’s New York Times reports on the growth of the armored car industry. Car makers are producing vehicles with windows two inches thick, armor plating, gun storage, and smoke machines to obscure the car during gun battles. They are all the rage right now. One manufacturer said, “One-third of the people who buy these cars are under threat, one-third think they are under threat, and one-third want to be in the first two categories.” Armor-plating your car is one way to deal with your past.

No one is immune from the issue.

John Bolton’s nomination for ambassador to the United Nations was attacked this week by an associate who criticized Mr. Bolton’s past dealings with subordinates.

Officials at the National Health Institutes are being accused of sexual harassment spanning the last several years.

Last Sunday, two Florida families opened fire on each other, part of a long-running feud. When a girl from one family began dating a boy from the other, the battle began. Two people are hospitalized. The past can be deadly in the present.

What about your past are you most grateful we don’t know today? What about your past most bothers you this morning? There is an authentic, transforming way to make peace with your past. Let’s discover it together.

Give your guilt to God’s grace

Our text describes the call of “a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth” (v. 9). It seems appropriate for us to meet a tax-collector on the Sunday after April 15. But IRS agents and tax preparers today bear no similarity to Matthew’s profession.

In the first century, tax collecting was the most profane and immoral work a man could do, akin to prostitution for a woman. The Empire employed locals to take money from their neighbors, sending a portion on to Rome and keeping the rest for themselves. Even Roman writers considered these turncoats and traitors to be destined for hell (cf. Cicero, De Officiis 1.42; Lucian, Menippus II).

Matthew’s sins were on public display in Capernaum, the fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee which served as Jesus’ ministry headquarters. To invite such a man into his movement was unwise at best. But Jesus said to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew did. After this notorious man gathered his equally notorious friends for a party with his new Master, the self-respecting Pharisees asked why Jesus would eat with such “sinners.” His reply: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 13). That’s good news for us all.

God’s word is clear:

The Lord “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3).

Micah asks, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).

David, a man who knew something about sin and forgiveness, rejoiced in this fact: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). In fact, God promises, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25).

Now, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Confession does not earn his grace–it positions us to receive it.

Our holy God can forgive us because in his Son “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Sin separates us from our perfect God; the consequence of this separation is death. Jesus’ sinless death fulfilled this consequence, paying this debt, so that God can be holy and just in forgiving us. Such is the grace of God.

By contrast, our society is built on works. Materialism–the belief that the material is the ultimate reality–has been at the very heart of our culture from its beginning. Success is quantifiable. The more you do, the more a success you are. If you fail, you’re a failure. You are how you perform. Isn’t that true of every dimension of your life–work, academics, sports, music? Performance equals success. Past crimes cannot be forgiven, only punished.

Even if others won’t punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We inflict guilt on ourselves until we think we’ve paid enough penalty for our sins. For some of us, such self-inflicted guilt has plagued us for years. But you need to know that guilt is not of God. He forgives and forgets, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.

You may have seen this week’s news report from the World Health Organization, announcing that nearly 5,000 labs in 18 countries were mailed samples of the Asian flu virus, a strain which killed between one and four million people 50 years ago. The labs are urged to incinerate the samples immediately.

The sins of your past can be incinerated in the furnace of God’s passionate love for you, before they infect your soul and poison your life. You don’t have to pay for them–Jesus already has. You don’t have to work them off, doing time in the jailhouse of guilt. Today you can give your guilt to his grace. Name that failure or sin which most troubles your conscience. Confess it specifically to your Father. Ask his forgiveness, and trust him to keep his word. Know that the One who loved Matthew, loves you. Give your guilt to his grace, this morning.

Give your soul to his Spirit

Matthew hears Jesus’ call, and gives his life to it. He “got up” from his tax-collector’s booth and “followed him” (Matthew 9:9). He exchanged his old life for the new, his previous failures for God’s future. So can we.

The “exchanged life” is a theological term which refers to the decision by which we trade our sin nature for Jesus’ holiness. The process is sometimes called “sanctification.” The key phrase is Ephesians 5:19, “be filled with the Spirit.” The process works like this.

First, we receive Christ as Lord. Then his Spirit takes up permanent residence in our lives.

Now we ask God to forgive all that is wrong in our lives, trusting our guilt to his grace. The “Holy” Spirit can bless and control only that which is holy.

Next, we submit our lives, minds, words, attitudes, and actions to him. “Filled” means “controlled” or “under the influence of.” We place ourselves at his disposal, as the possessions of our Creator and Master. We ask the Spirit to take control of us. Unconditionally, without reservation, holding nothing back. We give him a blank check for this day.

And we believe by faith that he has. Nowhere does the Bible tell us how it feels to be filled with the Spirit, to exchange the old life for the new, to be controlled by the Spirit of Jesus. It takes as much faith to believe that you are filled with the Spirit as it did to believe that you are the child of God.

Next to your salvation, this is the most crucial decision of your life. The Good Shepherd can lead only those sheep who will follow him. The Great Physician can heal only those patients who will let him. The Holy Spirit can empower only those who are joined to him. It’s not enough to believe in electricity–you must consciously, intentionally connect to it. A battery won’t start your car if the cables are unattached or corroded. If your car is out of gas, sitting at a filling station does you no good. You have to put gas in the tank.

We live in a culture which measures churches by attendance and buildings. God measures us by disciples, by changed lives. When last did worship, Bible study, prayer, and service change you? When last did the Holy Spirit empower you, fill you with joy, and make you more like Jesus? That was the last time God’s purpose was met in your life.

It comes down to control. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, said recently that we can organize the church for control or for growth, but not for both. The same is true of our lives. We can stay in control of our lives, and seek safety, security, and predictability. Or we can turn control of our lives over to God, and experience growth, joy, peace, purpose, and power. The issue faces us in every morning, every decision, every significant event. Will you exchange your life for God’s, your control for his, your will for his purpose? Will you give your soul to his Spirit?

For every person used by God like Matthew, there is this exchange, the decision to leave your tax-collecting booth for his call, to trade the old for the new, to give your soul to his Spirit, to let him drive the car and run the business, to sell out to him and let the chips fall. Have you come to this place of surrender yet?

Conclusion

Here’s the result of such a commitment. Matthew’s friends, products of his notorious sin, came to Christ. Matthew’s stenographic skills, essential to a tax collector, recorded the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s ministry produced the first Gospel we find in the New Testament, the first section of God’s word I ever read. God used his problems for a much larger purpose. Know that the Father will do the same with you.

People who have lost a child are the best to comfort those facing such horrible grief. Those who have been through divorce are best able to walk with those experiencing that terrible pain. A person who has lost his job is the best encourager for those who lose theirs.

Give your guilt to God’s grace and your soul to his Spirit, then look for people to help. Look for people who are where you were, people whose problems you understand, whose pain you have felt. Become a wounded healer, the very best kind.

When my father died, the person who helped me most was a fellow college student named Linda Sharp. She could help me because she had lost her father that same year. She put her arm around me and said, “Time helps,” and I believed her. I still do.

If you’re hurting, look for a Linda Sharp. If you’ve been hurt, become a Linda Sharp.

The College of Cardinals will assemble in the Sistine Chapel, under the ceiling decorations of Michelangelo, to begin the process of selecting the next pope. Here’s the process: 120 electors, all 79 years of age or younger, will submit written votes. If one of their number does not receive a two-thirds majority, the ballots are mixed with a chemical which gives off black smoke, and burned. Then the world will know that no pope has been elected. If the cardinals fail to elect a pope by the two-thirds margin within three days, voting will be suspended for a maximum of one day to allow prayer, reflection, and conversation. 21 more votes can then be taken; if no pope has been selected by the two-thirds requirement, a simple majority will decide the next pontiff.

God’s process in choosing his next Matthew is much simpler. If you’re a sinner, you qualify. This is the promise, and the grace, of God.