DEBTORS TO GOD
Isaiah 6: 1-8; Romans 8: 12-17
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Debt. What a strange word. How can one explain to a child that the word has a “b” in it without the “b” sound? It is pronounced “det,” not “debit” which has a similar derivative but means something else. The word is based on the Latin “debitum,” “something owed, past participle of “debere” d-e-b-e-r-e, which means “owe.” It is sometimes a daunting concept and sometimes a humbling one. Most often we connect it with owing money, that is, you owe a person or a business a debt. If you do not pay the debt, they may send a “debt collector” to get the account squared. As you know, Presbyterians stubbornly hold to the only complete version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible. It is in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, and Jesus says “Pray like this … and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I know for many other denominations, saying “forgive us our trespasses, as forgive those who trespass against us” is how you were taught to say that prayer. In your personal life, go ahead! Here, we are using the other wording. Why? For one thing, it is the way Jesus taught it. For another thing, telling a man who is walking on your property “you are trespassing on my lawn! Get off!” simply means he needs to depart. There is no cost involved. But a debt is different. If boys are playing baseball in a vacant lot next to your house, and one hits a foul ball that breaks your window, if the young batter runs away, the window is not repaired on its own. Going up to the door and confessing to the action will not repair the window either. Being sorry about it will not repair the window. When a boy hits a baseball and breaks a man’s window, the relationship is only repaired when the cost is paid, or we might say, when the debt is paid. It costs money to replace a window. That event was not caused by the owner, but by the boy. Having the owner just let the boy go on his way teaches no good life lesson. So the boy can do chores for which the man can pay him until he has earned enough to pay for the cost of the replacement, or a parent can be informed, pay for the broken window, and the boy pays the parent back. Debt involves cost, even when it involves sin. The owner could still forgive the boy; it was an accident, but this is what Jesus teaches his followers: The account is not squared solely with an apology. It is squared by a payment, financial or relational. Debt is a powerful idea. Understanding how to handle it can make life better.
Today our lesson is bookended by a passage from Isaiah and a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Isaiah, the prophet knows how inadequate he is, standing in the presence of the Almighty. As I said last week, “I can only imagine.” But he realized how holy God was and how human he was. He amplified that idea into feeling “indebted” to God. He saw angels flying around God and they amplified the experience with their words: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Three holies; repetition is for emphasis, and the angels were certainly amplifying the power of God. The contrast between the human and the holy was striking. So Isaiah replied, “Woe is me. For I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips.” What a divide between someone who has the power to bless your life or take it away! So Isaiah felt a debt until God sent an angel touch his mouth with a burning coal. See; there was still a cost. The angel then told him: “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.” God did that then. God did that when Jesus walked the earth, and God still does that. God has the power to dissolve guilt; but a debt can be squared when it is paid, by a hot coal, by a death on a cross, or by paying for a new pane of glass. In our other lesson, Paul calls God, “Abba! Father!” as if Christians are truly children of the Father. Abba is a term of endearment between child and father. I called my father, “Dad,” and my children call me “Dad.” Abba. Paul says that teaches us that, “we are children of God.” Indeed we are! But before all of that Paul, used the key word on which we are focused today: “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh …but by the Spirit.” Last week we celebrated the Spirit; today we celebrate the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. Trinity is certainly a concept in the Bible, but not a term in the Bible. In first John 5: 7-8 for example, listen to the King James translation: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
So here again, we are debtors first to our neighbor, but ultimately to our God. God the one who in Christ paid the price for the sin of the world, squared the account, so when we repent, it shows we have learned a powerful life lesson, and when we apologize and ask for forgiveness, the relationship can be restored. That is what God has done in Christ for us; he is forgiving our debt to the same degree that we forgive our debtors. What does that mean? Jesus taught us in the Matthew 18. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle his accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him a large sum, and since he could not pay, … the servant fell on his knees imploring the king, “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him the lord released him and forgave his debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon a fellow servant who owed him money, and seizing him by the throat, he [snarled] ‘Pay what you owe!’ When the king found out, the king reversed his decision, putting the servant in jail until he himself could pay all the debt that the king had originally forgiven. And Jesus said: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your neighbor from your heart.”
And so we pray to God: “Forgive us our debts” but that’s just half of our plea. The rest qualifies it, “in the same degree as we forgive our debtors. We are always in debt to God for our salvation, offered in Jesus! And how should we react? We cannot pay for what has already been paid. So we give thanks. We do it today; we do it tomorrow; we do it in all of life’s tomorrows. And what will you do to show gratitude? Consider the ways you show God that you are grateful! Ask a parent what it is like to have a child who is always grateful! What a blessing that is! So God is glad when we show gratitude by what we give, say, and do. Today we also owe a debt to those who have served our country. As we see a veteran, or as we see a tombstone marked with an American flag, we can say sincerely, “Thank you for your service.”
The hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was written for Pentecost—that we celebrated just last week—in 1758 by a man named Robert Robinson. Carl P. Daw, in the Companion book to our hymnal, Glory to God, writes: Although this is not a very polished text, it shows considerable energy and ingenuity.” [Glory to God: A Companion, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016, p. 479.] And yet that hymn has been seared into the souls of countless people with its words mated to its melody! Today especially pay attention to these wonderful words:
Come thou Fount of every blessing; tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy; never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above;
praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s unchanging love.
Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace, now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart; O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.
That “not very polished text” is a gem! And today, and always, we are debtors to a loving God who teaches us life lessons, with a heapin’helping of amazing grace.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 30, 2021