I have lived in Michigan all of my life, and this has become one of my favorite times of the year. I love to walk or drive just to see God’s mastery and creativity on display in the color displays of the trees. I have also learned to appreciate what those leaves can remind me about forgiveness.
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15 NIV
Jesus is very clear that forgiving others is not a do-it-if-you-feel-like-it part of life. Forgiveness of others is a condition of receiving the Father’s forgiveness. If you have doubts, read the verses right before this where Jesus taught us how to pray. Then, if you still think that Jesus was having an off day, read his words found in Matthew 18:23-35. He was certain. We should probably pay attention here.
So what can we see in the leaves that can prompt us to forgive?
If you remember the lesson from science class, you will remember that the color change happens because of the reduction in sunlight, the colder temperature, and even from a lack of water at the end of summer. They begin shutting down their natural food production. They stop producing life!
When someone hurts you, you also initiate the shutting down process. Your anger, hurt and bitterness show up when there is less of the Son – Jesus – in your life. You may also feel cold, and have less of God’s life-giving Spirit flowing through you. Something that happened outside of you starts to change you on the inside, but no one notices right away.
The longest day of sunlight takes place in June. Every day after that, until the Winter Solstice, produces a shorter amount of daylight. For leaves, something that started months ago is now fully evident to anyone who looks.
The same for us. There was a change outside of us a long time ago. We started shutting down then, but no one noticed. We kept it together. And you hoped against hope that no one would ever know. Even now, just like the leaves, you look beautiful on the outside. But you’re dying on the inside.
Count the leaves that fall from any given tree. You cannot. Neither can you count how many times, or how many people, have hurt you. You lost track a long time ago.
Have you ever walked past a tree in January and wondered why it still has dead, ugly leaves? I have. It doesn’t look right. And the truth is that there cannot be new life on those branches until the old falls away. Either new life will come, or death will prevail.
Some of you are still holding on to ugliness. Maybe the only reason you have it is so that you can hold on to something. It seems better than having nothing. But I promise you, there will be no new life until you trust God enough to let go. Closed hands cannot receive.
This is why I believe Jesus and the conditions in Matthew 6:14-15. Our forgiveness is a gift. I receive gifts with open hands. I cannot give a gift with closed hands. To give and receive forgiveness, my hands must remain open.
AGAIN AND AGAIN
Some of you have already caught on – leaves fall every year. So is this where my example falls short? Not at all. Ask Peter. In an attempt to get it right, Peter suggested that he would forgive someone seven times. “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.'” Matthew 18:22, NIV
But that’s 490 times! Yes. I heard a pastor explain it this way: that means you forgive the person who hurt you once every three minutes in any given day. You see, Jesus knew it would be a process. There is no memory pill to make the hurt disappear. The pain will return, and you will need to forgive again. And again. And again.