“Forgiveness Part 1 of 2: God’s Nature”
Isaiah 43: 22-28 & Luke 23:32-43 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 15, 2023
She was a ‘good little girl’; she dreamed one day of becoming a ballerina. But through a cruel twist of fate, young Traudl Junge’s dream was not realized. When she learned about a prestigious job vacancy in the German chancellery during World War II, she entered a typing competition and to her surprise, she was chosen to be the personal secretary of a man forever remembered in history…Adolf Hitler. In her memoir “Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary”, she wrote "I was twenty-two and I didn't know anything about politics, it didn't interest me." And so, from December 1942 until April 30, 1945 when she heard the gun shots of Hitler's suicide in his Berlin bunker, Junge conversed every day with one of the worst psychopaths in human history.
In the years that would follow, Junge would be wracked by guilt for her complicity in the Nazi atrocities. She writes: “I admit, I was fascinated by Adolf Hitler. He was a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend. I deliberately ignored all the warning voices inside me and enjoyed the time by his side almost until the bitter end. It wasn't what he said, but the way he said things and how he did things." In the following decades, Junge struggled to make peace with her past. In 2002, she published her memoirs in the book: “Until the Final Hour”, and gave ten hours of interviews for the documentary film about her life called “Blind Spot” (2002). In her cameo appearance in the film “Downfall” (2004) about the final days in Hitler's Berlin bunker, she lamented, "I never thought that fate would take me somewhere I never really wanted to be." The tragedy of Traudl Junge was not only her three year association with Adolf Hitler ~ how many naive, patriotic twenty-two year old kids could have resisted that job offer? Her deep tragedy was that, after Hitler’s death, for fifty-seven years she remained trapped by her past and was unable to forgive herself and to know forgiveness from God.
Forgiveness…what is it all about? What are its origins? And what are its limits? How do we create space for forgiveness in our hearts and living? Should we be forgiving people? And, if so, how forgiving should we be? Over the period of two weeks, we will be entirely focusing on this core aspect of our faith. This challenging aspect of our faith-led living; this part of our soul that is truly a part of the ongoing work of knowing God and knowing ourself.
The timing is interesting for this exploration because we are following after the Thanksgiving celebrations that have just occurred with families and friends over last weekend. Thanksgiving provides the opportunity for families to gather; for friends to be together. And, it is a growing celebration time in the Interfaith movement when people of all different faith traditions gather around a practice which unites our wonderful diversity in the spirit of thanksgiving. Within that vein, we can count among our thanksgivings the gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a distinctive quality of God that is filled buoyed with pure grace; that has the capacity to enrich our lives with depth; that has the potential to transform both our day to day living and our world.
God’s very nature is that of forgiveness. After WWII, Traudl Junge’s life was filled with over 50 years of pain and suffering over this lack of awareness. And I wonder how many of us, myself included, need to embrace this essence of God in our lives as well? Do you know God’s forgiveness? We all do! Let’s move ahead with the two texts I selected for us to consider.
Our first text comes from the second, of the three, sections of Isaiah. God’s deepest desire is that of seeing the Israelites, then held in Babylonian captivity, to come home. God yearned for them to come home and live in the harmony that had once been enjoyed in the past. In the passage Gary read, God is offering them the purest sense of forgiveness ~ and in fact, God defines here what forgiveness means. Hear these words again “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins”. God is cleaning up the messes made in the past ~ the transgressions of the past are being “blotted out”. The past is being restored. In fact, God is going one step further. Not only are the messes of the past being cleaned up, God is erasing God’s divine memory and wiping the slate clean ~ “I will not remember your sins”. Coming before God’s forgiveness is about having the past restored, cleaned up, and ~ in fact ~ forgotten, so that we can start again. God is offering the chance for a new beginning, hope for a restored future, an opportunity for God and Israel to begin again. What would that mean for you to have a new beginning? A restored future? A clean slate? Just take in these sweet words; this possibility in your life. If you ever thought yourself to be unforgivable…that is not how God sees you! If you ever thought yourself to be beyond help from God…God hasn’t given up! If you ever thought yourself to be too far gone…there is hope, God’s way is forgiveness!
One of the most significant parts of this passage, I would suggest, is found at the beginning: “yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel!” How many of us would be guilty of not “calling upon God” and seeking forgiveness, restoration and hope in those areas where we have gone astray? It is so hard to call upon God when we are ashamed of our actions, when blood is on our hands, when we feel unforgivable. The message of good news is clear! Just call on God and know that forgiveness will be offered, know that new beginnings will be found, know that the promised land of light and hope will be in the tomorrows God offers! Christopher Seitz, professor of Old Testament at St. Mary’s College in Scotland encourages us to view God’s forgiveness as an extension of God’s creation. We remember back to the two Genesis accounts where God created life and order from chaos. Creation does not end there. He encourages us to see God’s forgiveness as part of God’s ongoing creation slowly unfolding in the world. The passage concludes by referring to Adam and Eve who sinned and those who proceeded to offer their transgressions. Yet, time and time again, God offers deliverance and restoration and is rebuilding us into a new creation. God’s ongoing action in creation are seeking to restore wholeness. And as we move ahead into the ongoing creation of Israel, God’s ways are grace, kindness and justice. As Professor Seitz puts it, “the God of Second Isaiah and the gospels of Jesus is only moved by acts of tenderness and devotion”.
And that moves us into our second text, as we examine Luke’s version of Jesus’ passion narrative. The way of God that we see revealed in Jesus is about forgiveness. Jesus words on the cross “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”. This passage reveals a God who seeks mercy, restoration, and peace even when God can see the deep darkness of our humanity. This is the depth of God’s forgiveness. Even when we are revealing the darkness of our humanity, God is offering forgiveness. God is working for restoration and wholeness in the paradise that will come.
Many of you have been in my office and know that I have a number of crosses on the wall. Some have commented that I have some that are crucifixes, commenting “but we are not catholic, why do you have a crucifix on your wall?” I have a crucifix on the wall because it reminds us of God’s forgiveness, that even after meeting the darkness of humanity, the darkness that would place God’s Son on a cross, God would still offer us forgiveness and invite us to ‘be with me in paradise’. One of the things Protestants gave up 500 years ago in the Protestant Reformation was the sacrament of confession and the pronouncement of forgiveness. While I’m not ready to shift denominations and become a catholic priest, I’m sad that we don’t hold confession and forgiveness with the same sacramental quality we do with communion and baptism. So, whenever we worship, you will notice that there is always some component of forgiveness and confession. I haven’t installed a confessional booth yet … but you never know.
I would like for you to hold whatever image of God might speak to you right now in your minds eye. Perhaps it is the face of Jesus where you see God reflected, or a wonder of creation, or some other image of God. Imagine that a core identity of God is forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”… “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” God is reaching out with forgiveness.
Now, there is a second component to forgiveness, which we will shift to next week. And that is how we respond to this nature of God. So, in case you are wondering how part two will continue, we will shift to the ongoing spiritual work of living this way of God.
I wanted to conclude with the life of Traudl Junge. In, what I think, was a poignant coincidence, Junge died of cancer the evening that the film “Blind Spot” premiered at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. She had suffered for 57 years over her past, taking early retirement due to severe depression, never forgiving herself. Yet, it seems that she made peace with her tortured past in her final days. Othmar Schmiderer, the producer of Blind Spot, was among the last people to speak to her. He quoted her as saying: "Now that I've let go of my story, I can let go of my life." So too does God invite us to "let go of our story," to embrace and then move beyond our past in confident expectation of God’s gracious future. Forgiveness is ‘for’ / ‘giving’. It is a gift ‘for’ / ‘receiving’ from God. It is a gift of pure grace; a gift of God given to each beautiful aspect of creation.