Look Back at 2023

2023 is nearly over. Before you plunge ahead into 2024 it’s a good idea to stop and reflect on the past year and the choices you made. Some were small and some were big. Join us this Sunday as we look back and consider what lessons we can learn from 2023 to carry into a new year.

I’d like begin the message today by asking you to think about key choices you made in 2023.

Some of your decisions were big. Some of them were small; or at least they looked small at the time.

As you reflect on them, I want you to consider this question. As you reflect the choices of 2023, did you make any that you wish you could have back?

Do you have any regrets at all?

You made thousands of choices in 2023, and each one of those choices shaped you, made its mark on you at least a little bit.

Today I’d like us to reflect on the choices of the last 12 months and ask if we’ve been choosing wisely, and try to discern what’s happened in this last trip around the sun that has affected the trajectory of our lives.

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I want to start with a quick regret survey as you reflect back on 2023 and consider if you made any decisions that you regret.

Maybe you moved at the wrong time.
Dated the wrong person.
Picked the wrong job.
Joined the wrong team.
Yelled at the wrong kid.
Made unwise choices about food intake, or television watching, or financial management.

Anyone here over the last year choose to talk when you should have remained silent? Or remained silent when you should have talked?

Anyone wish you had not waited so long to have kids? Or wish you had waited longer to have kids? Or wish you had someone else’s kids?

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Anyone here enabled, or dysfunctioned, or codepended?

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As you survey 2023, how many of you would be willing to raise your hand publicly and say you have at least one regret from the last 365 days? Just raise your hand real fast.

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Well I want to talk today about how it’s possible for human beings to be liberated from regret.

I want to talk about God’s plan for you to be released from the prison of regret.

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I thought about how to create a kind of a picture to talk about this, and here’s my best shot at it.

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I started golfing a couple years after we started Blue Oaks, so maybe 10 years ago now.

The reason why was I made a commitment to sharing a significant part of my life, a significant amount of time, with people outside the church — to share my life and faith with irreligious, foul-mouthed, conscience-seared, rule-bending people — and golf seemed like the kind of game that attracted them.

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When I began playing I had some deep regrets about it because it takes a lot of work to improve a very little in the game of golf.

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When I started golfing, I remember being on the very first hole, my very first shot, I lined up to hit the ball, and it looked so easy. Have you ever watched golf on television? It looks so easy, doesn’t it?

I mean, the ball isn’t even moving. It just sits there like it’s waiting to be hit.

And I hit it, and it was an unbelievable shank. I was lined up to hit it this way, and it went off at a 90 degree angle.

It was absolutely humiliating. No one in my little foursome had ever seen a golf ball go at that angle before. They weren’t sure it was possible according to the laws of physics, but it happened.

And I wished immediately, so badly, I could have had it back to do over again, because it hit the roof of a nearby house. It sounded like it may have done some damage. So I did what any reasonable pastor-type would do — I looked for a place to hide.

No, I actually went to find it so I could play it from there.

But the people I was golfing with did a very interesting thing. They said to me, “Don’t bother hitting that ball. Don’t even bother looking for it,” they said.

They told me I could take something that will be familiar to those of you who golf. They said I could take what’s called a “mulligan.”

I don’t have to play the unplayable lie. “We don’t even have to count it,” they said. “We won’t even write it down. It’ll never make it in the scorebook. It’ll be as if it never happened. It’ll be irrelevant to your ultimate score,” they told me.

I was given a clean slate. I could start all over again, as if for the very first time, as if it had never happened.

A “mulligan” is an act of grace in an otherwise unforgiving game.

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And I I’ve been thinking about this as I look back on 2023 — wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to take mulligans in other areas of life?

Like a policeman stops you for a violation and writes up a ticket. I got one not too long ago. They’re very expensive now.

Wouldn’t it be great when he hands you the ticket if you could just rip it up? “Thanks, officer, I’ll be taking my mulligan on this one.”

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You get a notification from the bank telling you your payment didn’t have quite enough oomph to make it.

And you just call the bank up: “I’ll take a mulligan on that payment.”

“Sure. No problem.”

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You buy a house, and the bottom drops out of the market. Just hand the keys over to the realtor, take a mulligan: “Give me my purchase price back.”

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Botch a test, blow a presentation at work, forget to send in your taxes – just call the IRS: “I’m taking a mulligan here.”

It would be a great thing.

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The truth about us, though, is we need mulligans all the time. It’s a constant deal.

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We were in the car recently and one of us parents lost our temper.

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by specifying who it was, doing a blaming thing. It was one of us. That’s all you need to know, okay?

It just involved an elevated level of irritability for which we needed a mulligan.

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Sometimes you need a mulligan for whole eras of your life.

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I read an article by one woman who had a very complicated and conflicted relationship with her mom.

She loved her but she was angry at her, and her response was just to withdraw.

And finally, when she was in another part of the country, her mom died alone.

And now she’s filled with such regret. She’d give anything for a mulligan.

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You take a course of action.
You make a choice that wounds someone close to you.
You hurt someone who really matters.

And now you’re eaten up by guilt and you don’t know if the trust level can ever be restored. You’d give anything for a mulligan.

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You’re involved in a dishonest financial practice, and you live in fear of being found out or disgraced.

You live in the awareness that your life has been built on deception and fraud, and maybe no one will ever know, but your own conscience and your own moral sensitivity are being eroded day after day. Your dishonesty is like a spiritual cancer that’s destroying your soul. You need a mulligan more than you know.

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Maybe you’re involved in some kind of a habitual practice that is destroying you and you wish so much you could stop it, but you don’t seem to be able to.

Or you failed at something that really matters — at your life’s work or your marriage or at parenting or your integrity, and your sense of failure won’t go away. You feel tainted by it. You feel like you will never be free from it. It clings to you like your very skin, and you despair of ever starting over.

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Sometimes, because we are fallen human beings, one mulligan by itself wouldn’t even do any good. We need multiple mulligans.

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I was on the golf course with these guys and I shanked another ball, and they said the same thing to me. They said, “Take another mulligan. Take a second mulligan.”

“Are you sure?” I asked them. “Are you sure it’s okay?”

“Of course,” they said. “Who cares? Who’s counting?”

Now at this point I got a little concerned about the integrity of the game, because if you just keep on taking mulligans, the score doesn’t really mean anything, especially if like me you hit a lot of bad shots.

I was hitting balls into the water. I hit balls out of bounds. I used up four mulligans on the first hole. It took me five shots just to get through the windmill!

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You had to think about that one for a minute, didn’t you?

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Now the reason we were so liberal with mulligans was the game didn’t count. We weren’t really taking score seriously. We just wanted to have a good score.

When it comes to truth-telling, to honesty, to integrity, golfers traditionally hold to a level of truth-telling generally shared by loan sharks and lawyers and politicians.

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The truth is, we could agree not to write the shot down, but we weren’t really fooling anyone. We hadn’t really changed anything.

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However, when the game counts, it’s a different story. When the game counts, there has got to be justice.

If you’re playing for the Master’s title and you’re tied with Scottie Scheffler on the 18th hole and you shank a drive, you can’t say, “Well Scottie, I believe I’ll take my mulligan right here.”

There are no mulligans on the PGA.

The integrity of the game counts. The rules matter. This is the real thing.

You play the ball where it lies. Hit it in the water, you take the penalty.

You reap what you sow. There must be justice. There must be fairness there. Your score will be a brutally honest reflection of what you did — nothing more, nothing less.

Someone is counting. When the game matters, someone is counting.

I’m sure you understand where this is headed.

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In life, the rules count. The important ones do. Life matters. If God is any kind of a God, if this world is going to make any sense at all, then there’s got to be justice attached to it.

God can’t just say to an Adolf Hitler, “Well, you’re responsible for the deaths of 30 million people and an entire world war, but just take a mulligan. We just won’t count the Holocaust. We won’t write it down. We’ll pretend like it never happened.”

It can’t be. You and I know better.

We know that if this world is to make any sense at all, then someone has to be keeping score of the terrorist attacks and the drive-by-shootings and the genocides and the abused children and the oppressed poor of this world.

Someone has got to be counting. Someday there must be justice for this world to make any sense at all.

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And the writers of Scripture say there will be.

The writers of Scripture say one day justice is going to roll like a river. One day human beings will give an account for the sin and wrongdoing in their lives before a holy and just and perfectly fair God.

The writers of Scripture say we will all sign the scorecard one day.

And inside we know that it must be so.

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Now this means that wise people will give serious thought to what is God’s standard of justice.

What will it take to make the cut? What does it mean to be right with God?

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Now there’s widespread confusion at this point.

Many people in our society have kind of a vague notion that in order to be right with God, in order to make the cut, what they need to do is just achieve a certain level of at least minimal goodness.

And if you push them on it, they will assent to the notion that yeah, God should be a just God, so people should be rewarded according to what they’ve done.

And they’re just kind of hoping that God will grade on the curve, and that He will set the curve a little below whatever score they happen to get on the final test.

The problem is, of course, how do you know if you’re doing enough? How do you know what it will take to make the final cut?

So people in this boat hope that on the judgment day they get a strategic place in line, that they’re standing behind people who’ll be so bad that they look good by comparison — people like Hitler or Bin Laden, those kinds of people — so then when you’re the next one, you’ll look wonderful.

But what if it doesn’t happen that way? What if on the judgment day you end up in line right behind Mother Teresa?

And what if she goes in front of you and from the judgment throne the voice comes to her, “Sorry, Mother Teresa. You almost made it. If you just could have done a little better, we’d have let you in. You didn’t quite make the cut — not quite good enough, not quite altruistic enough. Sorry.”

And then He looks at you and says, “Next.”

What then?

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The writers of Scripture are very clear:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

For the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)

The penalty of sin is death.

On our own, the writers of scripture teach, none of us can reach the perfect standard of a holy, just God. On your own, you won’t make the cut.

So God sent His Son, Jesus, to show us how to live and then to take on Himself on the cross the debt that, by all rights, should have gone to you and me. He paid our penalty.

The cross is the place where human beings can be freed from every sin, every wrong decision. The cross is the place where they all can become irrelevant to our final score, where we can be given clean slates as if starting all over again.

And anyone who wants to, the writers of scripture say, no matter what you have done, can become Jesus’ follower and learn how to live His kind of life and be utterly forgiven and liberated from the life of regret and pain that is so familiar to fallen human beings.

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Now God’s forgiveness is so radical that the writers of Scripture are constantly trying to think of ways to picture it.

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So, for instance, in the Psalms the writer says:

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

Go and look at the horizons. That’s immeasurable, incalculable distance is how far God removes our sins from us when He forgives us.

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There’s a statement about this in the Book of Jeremiah, where God talks about his longing to forgive us.

For I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

It’s like it’s gone from God’s memory. It’s like it never happened. It becomes irrelevant in your relationship with him.

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I need to say a word here about how comprehensive this forgiveness is because in our world you may have to work pretty hard to get your record clean, but it’s not very comprehensive.

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I got a ticket recently, so I had to do online traffic school.

It’s an interesting thing about why people do traffic school. People don’t do traffic school just because they want to get a better vehicular education and become better drivers.

Why do people go to traffic school? Is it to learn the rules of the road?

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The truth is hundreds of thousands of people go to traffic school every year… for one reason.

Because they have a violation on their record.

And they want it removed — because they know that the law enforcement people and the insurance people are able to get together and delete it from the record.

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Everyone who does traffic school has a blot on their driving record.

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I had to do traffic school because I had a very minor infraction. The officer didn’t even really want to write me up for it, but just as an integrity deal I kind of insisted.

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I had to go through about two hours of online traffic school to get one blot deleted from my record.

After I was finished — someone, somewhere, hits the delete button on a computer and it’s gone. It’s like it never happened.

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But here’s the deal — it’s not very comprehensive.

If at some point I get another ticket, I can’t just say to the officer: “Hey, I’ve been to traffic school. Therefore, I’m clean and innocent before the state, so you can’t give me a ticket.”

In fact, if I get another blot on my record, I’ll have to go back to traffic school again to get it erased, snd if it’s within 18 months I can’t get it erased.

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Now, it’s very important that you understand the comprehensive nature of the forgiveness that’s offered through what Jesus did on the cross.

It covers everything in your whole life from the time you were born.

Whatever sin you’ve committed in your past, no matter how big or bad it looks and feels to you.
Whatever sin happens today.
And whatever sin is going to happen in the future.

God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus’ shed blood on the cross covers it all — the whole thing, your whole life.

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Now, of course, that is not an invitation or a license to sin in the future.

When someone comes to understand what Jesus’ life is about and his offer of new life, they increasingly come to realize that sin is a bad thing that I want to be free of.

But that freedom doesn’t happen in a day or a week or a month or a year.

I’m going to have to wrestle with that sin as long as I live.

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But you need to understand this — the blood of Jesus that was shed for you and cleanses you from sin is the only price that needs to be paid for you.

There is nothing else that needs to be added to it, and it covers every sin of your past, and of this day, and of every day until the day you die.

It is the comprehensive assurance of God’s forgiveness.

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So how do we receive this forgiveness?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

If we confess our sins — He, God, will be faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, as if we were starting all over again.

All of those choices, those sins — that guilt becomes irrelevant to our final score.

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God is looking at your life saying, “I want to hit the delete button. I want to cleanse your record from now through the day you die. Will you just say ‘yes’? Will you just take from me this gift of forgiveness that I’m offering?”

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And amazingly, unbelievably, there are people who understand this but never give God the word. They never say, “God, just hit the delete button. God, I want to be forgiven based on what Jesus did for me.”

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It’s that simple. God offers you innocence — a clean record before him.

“I will remember your sin no more,” God says.

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Some of you here in this room have never received that forgiveness.

And I just want to take a moment to say that I cannot think of a better way to start 2024, if you’ve never done it before, than by saying to God:

“God, I acknowledge to you today I’ve messed up my life. I have major regrets. I know I need multiple mulligans, and I want now to receive this offer of forgiveness through what Jesus has done for me on the cross. I want to become His follower, and from now on my major goal in life will be learning to live His kind of life.”

If you’ve never done that before, and if you understand what’s involved in it, I can’t think of a better way to start a new year than by receiving from God His greatest gift.

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And I want to give a few suggestions about that word confess.. “if we confess our sins”.

I know that for many people even if they’ve already asked God for forgiveness, for many people it can be difficult to experience His forgiveness or to appropriate His forgiveness.

People still walk around with this vague sense of guilt or regret hanging over them.

So I want to say a few words about what to do when you confess that can help you to receive and experience and live in God’s forgiveness on a daily basis.

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The first one will probably be painful, and it is

Be as honest as you can.

I’m going to ask you to examine your life, your regrets with ruthless candor, and generally it hurts a bit.

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I was with a friend and we were talking about our lives and our families, and I realized something I needed to confess, that I had done something to my wife that was a mean-spirited thing, and it was deceptive, and it was very childish, embarrassingly childish.

I didn’t want to have to tell my friend about it, but I did. And I didn’t want to have to confess it to God or to go back and talk to Kathy about it, because I frankly didn’t want her to think I’m capable of doing something that childish.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m not going to tell you what it was.

So I confessed what it is that I had done. My concern was that it would create this distance between us, and what happened was she was so gracious. Her immediate response was, “That’s so great that you would tell me that. It means so much to me.”

So we had just a wonderful conversation. She called me later and said, “I just had to call you back again and tell you how much I appreciated what you did.”

And I was so surprised, because I thought that this confession would create distance between the two of us because it was a significant thing that I had done wrong.

Instead she just kept on saying how much she appreciated what I had done, and instead of being farther from me it was like we were closer.

I spent the rest of the day trying to think of other things I could confess to her. I was ready to make stuff up.

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It was possible for there to be a new kind of closeness, for me to live in the awareness of forgiveness only because I was willing, at least this time, to go through the pain of being really honest about a wrong thing that I had done.

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What I’m asking you to do is a hard thing, and that is to let go of your own tendency to evade or defend or rationalize or excuse or justify or explain away, and to really own what it is that you’ve done, to be ruthlessly honest.

I’m not talking about neurotic guilt. Some of you blame yourself for everything that has gone wrong in the whole, wide world. I’m not talking about that. Just a non-defensive, ruthlessly honest examination of what it is that you’ve done.

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Another thing that goes along with that — be as honest as you can be —

Be as concrete as you can.

Get really specific on this.

I believe one reason people often have this vague cloud of regret, people have this superficial sense of forgiveness, is that we practice a superficial kind of confession.

And as a general rule — you need to understand this about confession — generally you experience forgiveness for sins the same way you commit sins, that is one at a time.

Generally you experience forgiveness for sins the same way that you commit them — one at a time.

Wholesale forgiveness for everything you’ve ever done, without spending some time thinking through what those things are, is possible for God — but it’s probably not going to give you a deep experience of His forgiveness.

And this means you’ll probably need to take some time for confession.

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Another thing as you confess —

Consider sharing it with a friend.

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One of the most helpful things I’ve done was to begin with a friend confessing the sins that I struggle with, and then praying for each other.

And one of the things that happens then is he reminds me that I’m forgiven by God.

And there’s something about hearing another human voice say “God has forgiven you” that makes it real in a way that it’s not when I’m all by myself.

James writes:

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:16)

Be as honest as you can, as concrete as you can, consider sharing it with a friend.

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The last part of this that I want to spend the rest of our time on is —

Be ready to make amends.

To desire forgiveness is a different thing than just to want to escape the pain of the consequences of my actions.

To desire to be forgiven is different than just to want to escape pain, the consequence of my actions.

And it may be that there are some people that you need to approach and say, “I hurt you, and I want to be honest with you. I need a mulligan from you, if you’ll allow it.”

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There may be some people that you’ve been carrying a grudge against, and you need to go to them and offer to them a mulligan. It may be time to let it go. You may need to do some things to set things right.

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Peter, one of the disciples, came up to Jesus one day. Peter was hurt by someone. We don’t know how. We don’t know any of the details, but it happened several times.

This is from Matthew 18.

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

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Now, to understand the context of this encounter, we need to say a word about the probable setting for this conversation between Jesus and Peter.

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In the Jewish calendar, one of the most important times of the year was between New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, and what was called The Day of Atonement.

There was a ten-day period between the beginning of the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

People would get ready for the Day of Atonement — they’d pray, they’d fast.

But the single most important thing a person would do to get ready for the Day of Atonement was to make sure that they had reconciled or sought to reconcile with anyone they were in conflict with.

They said, “No human being should ever dare approach God with a bitter heart toward someone else.”

So the main thing people would do to get ready for the Day of Atonement was to focus on reconciling with people in their lives.

You wouldn’t see anyone living with unforgiveness in their hearts on the Day of Atonement.

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Now, there’s a real good chance that this is what Peter is doing.

In this particular passage of the New Testament, Jesus is teaching at length on reconciliation.

Scholars think there’s a real good possibility that he was doing this teaching during those ten days when this was on everyone’s mind.

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It occurs to Peter there’s someone who has hurt him a bunch of times.

“There’s a barrier between me and someone else, and it’s the other guy’s fault. I’m the innocent party, so why do I have to keep forgiving him? Why do I have to initiate reconciliation? Shouldn’t he at least have to make the first move? How many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”

Peter thinks he’s being quite generous with this. He expects Jesus to say:

“Wow, you’re willing to forgive seven times? Good move, Peter. I’m really impressed. That’s more than I do.”

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But Jesus doesn’t say that.

Look at Jesus’ response. Again, this is recorded by Matthew.

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:22)

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Where do you think Jesus got that number seventy-seven? Do you think he just pulled it out of the air?

Jesus knew the Old Testament backward and forward. He chose that number very deliberately.

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There’s a character in the Old Testament. He’s kind of an obscure character. You may have never heard of him before, but I think he might be called the patron saint of the grudge.

His name is Lamech.

Lamech is mentioned in Genesis 4, just a couple generations after Adam and Eve.

He was a descendent of Cain.

And to get his story we need to understand one aspect of Cain’s story.

Cain killed his brother Abel.

The writer of Genesis says that Cain was afraid someone would try to take revenge on him.

So God put a mark on Cain. It’s called the “mark of Cain.”

God said that mark would be a reminder that if anyone tried to take revenge on Cain, if anyone tried to kill him, that person would be avenged seven times over.

The mark of Cain is kind of a warning, because God realizes that once the human race gives in to the desire for revenge it will destroy itself.

God says human beings are not to take vengeance into their own hands.

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A couple generations later, Lamech is born as a descendent of Cain.

We’re told two things about him:

One is that he was married to two women named Adah and Zillah.

No one had ever done that before.

It had been quite clear in the first chapters of Genesis that God’s intention was that a man should cleave to his wife and the two are to become one flesh — one husband, one wife.

Lamech is the character who introduces polygamy to the human race in the Bible.

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One day someone hurt Lamech.

We don’t know any of the details. It might have been an accident, but it festered in him. The more he thought about it, the madder he got.

That’s the way bitterness works. The more you think about it, the more toxic it becomes.

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Well, he decided to get even — so he killed the person who hurt him.

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Afterwards, he bragged about it.

In Hebrew, it was kind of a poem. These are the words of Lamech:

“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Genesis 4:23-24)

He’s basically saying, “You thought it was bad to mess with Cain, that’s nothing compared to messing with me.”

You notice he expresses no sense of guilt, no remorse. In his mind, he is absolutely justified. His enemy had it coming.

That’s the way bitterness works.

You can justify anything if you get bitter enough.

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This is what might be called the “Law of Lamech.” — “You hurt me, I’ll hurt you back; I’ll hurt you worse; I’ll make you pay.”

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Notice the math in his statement: seventy-seven times over.

That’s the way bitterness works. A bitter spirit is never satisfied.

A bitter spirit never says, “Okay, I’ve inflicted enough pain on you. Now I feel content.” It’s never enough.

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So what is Jesus doing in his response to Peter?

Jesus is doing a beautiful thing when he says, “Forgive someone seventy-seven times.”

He’s reversing the Old Testament Law of Lamech.

It’s been in operation ever since the downward spiral of the human race.

He’s saying:

“Peter, if you want to, you can follow the Law of Lamech.

You can carry a grudge.
You can harbor bitterness and resentment.
You can resent that person for the rest of your life.
You can do that if you want to.

Or you can follow me.
You can show mercy.
You can forgive from your heart.
You can seek to be reconciled with another person.

If you want to follow me, Peter, you have to forgive.

You can hold onto bitterness and resentment, or you can follow me. You cannot do both.

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So now we all must decide.

You must personally choose to receive God’s gift of forgiveness. And you must personally choose to forgive.

You must personally choose to say, “The rest of my life will be focused on becoming the kind of person that Jesus was. The rest of my life, God, belongs to you.”

I can’t think of a better way to start 2024 than by saying that to God.

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If you’ve got any regrets at all as you look back on your life, it’s time to take a mulligan.

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Alright, let me pray for you.

Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA

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