If you hand a very young child a box of crayons and page from a coloring book, you can expect some interesting artwork. The child will usually choose the crayon with their favorite color and begin to scribble lines across the page, in many cases, making the outline of the original coloring book image unrecognizable. The color selected for the animals does not matter nor does it matter to the child whether they stay within the lines.
If you hand an adult a box of crayons and a page from a coloring book, you can expect some interesting artwork. The adult with usually choose the crayons that best fits the image on the page. The adult will neatly color the page. The color selected for animals will matter for adults and there will likely be very little variability from adult to adult. It matters to adults whether they stayed within the lines.
What has the difference between the way children and adults color in a book have to do with our faith journey? I would suggest the difference lays in conformity. Adults are conformists. The older and more mature we get, the greater our tendency to want our life to be carefully defined and under control. Things which are inconsistent with our worldview bother us and must be made to fit our expectations.
Children are inherently nonconformists. Children do not recognize nonconformity. They are willing to explore new relationships and are not the least bit bothered by lines on a page.
How does coloring relate to our faith journey? Jesus explained it this way. “2 He [Jesus] called a little child to him and placed the child among them. 3 And he [Jesus] said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’” (Matthew 18:2-5). Jesus said to enter the kingdom of heaven we must become like children and willing to be nonconformists to the world and to religion.
Why did Jesus say such a thing? Jesus said this because Jesus was a nonconformist. Jesus came not to color within the lines. Jesus came to color outside the lines. Jesus colored a different picture of the world than the world wanted him to color. Jesus colored a different picture of God than the religious people wanted him to color. Jesus did not color within the lines and every time he did not color inside the lines some adult objected. Over and over Jesus refused to color the picture people handed him. Instead, Jesus said, “You have heard it said…But I tell you…” Jesus was telling people the lines from their coloring book were wrong. If they stayed inside the lines they had created, they would miss the incredibly beautiful picture God intended.
For the next few weeks, I would like us to explore Jesus’ coloring outside the lines in the hopes that we too could be invigorated to be nonconformists to the world and to religious tradition. And today, I would like us to begin our journey outside the lines with Jesus by talking about the greatest nonconformity in life: sin and forgiveness.
Sin, of course, is conformity to the world. The world, our culture, gives contours and shape to our lives. The world is constantly painting pictures for us of what the perfect life is supposed to be like. We are then tempted to conform to those images. The desire to fit into the world is enormous. That pressure begins early in life and never relents. Our middle and high school children are continually exposed to peer pressure toward popularity and conformity. In fact, the pressures on our children and even adults in our society are so great that even those who have faith tend to display an inverted hypocrisy. It is an inverted hypocrisy because we try to hide our virtue and seem worse than we are. Think for a moment about simply giving thanks for our food. Many people are comfortable at the home dinner table holding the hand of the person seating next to them and offering a prayer of thanks before eating. Change the venue to a public restaurant and the number of people who hold hands and pray plummets. This is inverted hypocrisy. We feel the pressure to conform to the world so that we become popular or at the very least do not standout.
The pressure to conform to the world has always been present. But God’s way is to call people to be nonconformists to the world. Look at our Old Testament reading today from Genesis, Chapter 12. “1The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’” (Genesis 12:1-3).
God was calling on Abraham, later Abraham, to stop conforming to the world. Abram was to no longer conform to the customs of his nation. He was to no longer conform to the traditions of his tribe. He was no longer to follow the traditions of his father. All the lines in which Abram colored his life were to be wiped clean.
With a clean sheet, God would give the Abram the tools to build his life into a great nation, into a blessed people, and into a father whom people would admire because he had broken free from the world. Abram would be free to color outside the lines because God had wipe clean the lines of the world. Breaking free from the lines, the pressures of the world, was and remains God’s way to give us a life in freedom from the bonds of sin.
But we know that sin does not give up easily. So when Jesus came, his first message, his first sermon, was, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The call to repent was again a call away from sin, a call away from conformity to the world and to accept a completely new life in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. It was the same message Abram had received. Jesus’ message was that the time had come to color outside the lines of the world and religious tradition.
How do we know that Jesus’ message was about coloring outside the lines? Let’s look at a few passages from the Gospel to see. One day, Jesus, “9 saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:9-13).
Jesus came for the sinners of the world and that Jesus would come for the sinners was a behavior that upset the traditional religious. It was outrages to think God would send someone to call sinners and not to applaud the religious. But Jesus’ response to the religious people suggested they had conformed to their own view of God because they no longer understood the meaning of God’s words. In the mind of the religious people, the lines they constructed on the page and faithfully color said there was only room for sacrifice and no room for mercy.
Coloring inside the lines of the world or the lines of tradition even in religious thought creates the opportunity for sin. Jesus came to wipe the slate clean so that people could understand afresh the kingdom of God.
Understanding the kingdom of God was a central message of Jesus. Repeatedly, Jesus used parables to speak about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like:
- A man who sowed good seed in his field (Matthew 13:24)
- A mustard seed (Matthew 13:31)
- Yeast (Matthew 13:33)
- Treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44)
- A merchant looking for fine pearls (Matthew 13:45)
- A net that was let down into the lake (Matthew 13:47)
- The owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52)
- A great banquet (Luke 14:15)
Jesus used parables, a story about a common life experience knowable to his audience, to explain what kingdom of God which was unknown to his audience. Jesus told these stories to break the conformity of people’s thinking about the kingdom of God and giving them the freedom to see the kingdom as it was. Jesus was coloring outside the lines.
Jesus’ coloring outside the lines was intended to separate people from the worldly sin and wrong thinking about God. And to demonstrate the significance of his message that he came to destroy humanity’s conformity to sin, Jesus began to forgive people of their sins. Let’s take a look at what happened.
3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ 6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:3-7). Jesus was wiping the paralyzed man’s slate clean by forgiving him of his sins and giving his legs new strength. Both actions gave the man the ability to break all the patterns of his former life. The religious leaders hated the idea that Jesus was coloring outside their lines.
On another occasion, Jesus was a dinner guest of a Pharisee. At that event, a woman, a prostitute, cleaned Jesus’ feet with her tears and soothed his feet with oil while the Pharisee did nothing for Jesus. “44 Then he (Jesus) turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’ 48 Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49 The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50 Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’ (Luke 7:44-50).
Again, Jesus forgave sins so that the person could be free from their past conformity to sin and live a new life in the kingdom of God. Sadly, the religious leaders again wanted Jesus to color inside the lines and make sinners conform to the burdens of hollow religious practices.
Jesus was all about wiping the slate clean of sin and giving people the freedom to live a new life. Jesus was so dedicated to this proposition that he willingly gave his life to wipe clean all sin.
On the evening before his death, Jesus gathered with his disciples. “27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:27-28). Jesus was wiping the slate clean of all sin for all who would follow him.
Jesus broke the power of sin giving his disciples, you, and me the opportunity for a clean slate and a new life that no longer conforms to the world nor to the traditions of hollow religion. The Apostle Paul saw this scene as he described it to the church in Rome, “2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Paul’s message was simple. Accept the forgiveness that Christ offers and have the patterns of this world broken within you. Be free to live life in the kingdom of God and do that which is pleasing to God. When we are free from sin, we can color outside the lines just like Jesus.
Now with the freedom in Jesus to break from the patterns of the world comes great responsibility. That responsibility is exercised through the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an awesome and fearsome power that can be used either as an instrument of peace or a weapon of warfare. Let’s see how Jesus explained the responsibility and the use of forgiveness as an instrument of peace or warfare.
“21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ (Matthew 18:21-22). Some translations quote Jesus as say, “Seven times Seventy.” Either way, following Jesus carries with it a huge responsibility to forgive.
Jesus then explained the concept of forgiveness to Peter this way. Jesus used a parable so that he could acquaint Peter with something Peter knew to teach Peter something he did not know. Jesus said, “23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go’” (Luke 18:23-27).
Here Jesus explained that having our slate wiped clean by God is an act of great grace and mercy by God. Having our freedom restored by God gives us a new life and opportunity. Forgiveness then was used by God as an instrument of peace. The expectation and responsibility then is that we would do likewise.
Jesus continued with the story. “28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (Matthew 18:28-30).
The forgiven servant uttered those powerful words, “I will never forgive you for what you have done to me!” With that, forgiveness an instrument of peace in God’s kingdom became a weapon of warfare to imprison the offender. Forgiveness is powerful however it is wielded. We can free someone or imprison them with how we use forgiveness. The world would have us color within the lines and use all things powerful as a weapon of warfare. God would have us color outside the lines and use all things powerful as an instrument of peace. The servant withheld forgiveness as an instrument of warfare. We do the same when we are unforgiving.
Jesus then finished the story. “31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart’” (Matthew 18:28-35).
When we dishonor the awesome power God has given us in forgiveness and use it as a weapon of warfare, we not only imprison others but we ourselves are imprisoned by that same weapon. Forgiveness was central to the life and mission of Jesus. He used forgiveness always as an instrument of peace and in all ways to break people out of captivity so that they could enter the kingdom of God. This was Jesus’ ultimate act of coloring outside the lines.
We have been forgiven. We have a clean slate before God. We are free from the lines that constrain us to the world and to the traditions of hollow religion. We should not act as inverted hypocrites and hide our virtue but in humility we should live out the virtues of Christ though our lives. We have been forgiven and therefore we have been given the awesome and fearsome power of forgiveness. How shall we use that power? Shall we use it as an instrument of peace or as a weapon of warfare? I think we know the answer. It is time to be nonconformists and join Jesus in coloring outside the lines. Amen and Amen.