• Introduction
    • The FIRST STEP Act was passed and signed into law in December 2018.  This federal law:
      • …offers low- and minimum-risk federal inmates who participate in recidivism reduction programs the opportunity to earn time credits toward prerelease custody or supervised release…at the end of their sentences.
      • Recidivism reduction programs could include vocational training, educational support, substance abuse treatment, mental healthcare, anger management courses, faith-based initiatives, or other proven, productive activities[1].
    • Matthew Charles was one of the first federal prisoners released under the retroactive provisions of the FIRST STEP Act. 
      • We will explore more about Matthew Charles later in this message.  However, he once was a hardened drug dealer.  In his own words, he considered himself a “dangerous criminal” for about a decade after serving in the military[2].
    • FIRST STEP is focused on rehabilitation in order to cut down on the possibility of someone committing crimes once released from prison.  On the other hand, Baptism did for you what we read in the Epistle for today which I repeat a portion here:
      • 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
    • Not only were our sins washed away in Baptism, we were created anew! *And*, we are reconciled with God the Father who remembers our sins no more.  In today’s message, we will compare FIRST STEP with Psalm 32:1 - Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
  • Let us Pray
    • Lord God, Heavenly Father, we thank you for the opportunity to gather in Your house to worship You and gladly hear and learn Your word.  Your word is truth.  Send Your Spirit to work in our senses and our understanding, so that we grow in an understanding on just what it means to be forgiven and to have You cover our sins. We bring this petition to You Holy Father, through Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit now and forevermore. Amen.
  • With good behavior, the FIRST STEP Act can reduce the time spent paying the price to society to be released from prison. However, how does good behavior work regarding having your sins forgiven (per Psalm 32:1)?
    • King Solomon followed after King David and had asked God for wisdom to rule over God’s people.  God blessed King Solomon not only with wisdom beyond what anyone else ever posessed, but also riches beyond measure.  One would think Solomon would have been a happy person.  However, I suggest otherwise, given what Solomon wrote in Ecc 2:9-11 - So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
      • We can take what Solomon wrote in that last sentence and look at that through both secular as well as sacred lenses.  In a secular vein, we will all labor only to leave everything to someone else when we die.  Solomon went on in Ecc 2:18-20 to write - 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun…
      • We can also look at what Solomon wrote in a sacred vein with regard to what our labors bring toward being made right with God. We can be the greatest person, even following the Ten Commandments to a tee, but without faith, are labors are in vain. We read from Isa 64:6 - We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
  • Even if you somehow stopped sinning on today, what good does it do to have a reduction of sin?  When on judgement day you are found to have even teeny-weenie little sins, you will still wind up in hell despite the “reduction” in sins based upon good behavior.
    • God the Father hates sin and will not allow it into heaven.  God said in Rev 21:8 -  But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
  • Our redemption is why Jesus came. Because we continue to sin each & every day, we need to be reminded each Lenten season of the cost Jesus paid for *all* sins to be forgiven.
    • The Apostle John wrote in his first epistle (1Jn 5:6-8) - This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify:the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. 
    • Do you recall in the account of Good Friday after Jesus had died on the cross?  What did one of the Roman soldiers do to make sure Jesus was dead? (John 19:34-35) 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it (meaning the Apostle John) has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.
    • Water, blood, and Spirit, and the three testify. We see here in the piercing of Jesus, Baptism, the Lord’ Supper which we will soon celebrate, and faith deposited into us by the Holy Spirit, so that we may receive these sacraments.   To recall, sacraments are gifts of forgiveness from God where there is a physical object consecrated with words provided by God.  The holy Spirit works faith in us so that we may believe.
    • Jesus from the cross, paid the ransom that was necessary for us to be released from the eternal jail into which our sin incarcerated us!  Psalm 49:7-11 provides some insight on why Jesus had to pay the ransom - Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. 10 For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names.
      • No man can ransom another or pay to God the Father sufficiently the ransom price.  Additionally, like Solomon, the Psalmist observed wise and foolish people alike eventually wind up in the same place – the grave.
      • What is interesting about this portion of Psalm 49 is the usage of the Greek word, λύτρον, which is rendered into English as “ransom”. Interesting, because of its meaning at the time of the translation of the Septuagint from a Hebrew manuscript we no longer have access to.  Its meaning was the same in the New Testament as well.  Let me explain.
        • In ancient times a benefactor could come along and purchase a slave for the unconditional release of the slave from its owner.  That payment was known as “λύτρον” in Greek[3].  As one can imagine, there were rules limiting how much it would cost to ransom a slave, because the slave owner could demand a price where the sky is the limit.
        • I should add, the benefactor would not own for their own purposes the slave being ransomed.  There would be total freedom for the slave with the payment of λύτρον.
      • Thanks be to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who worked together to arrange, even before the foundations of earth were laid, the eventual ransom needed to redeem mankind from slavery; a slavery to sin and everything corrupt you can think of.  They agreed on a ransom price before Adam & Even did their wicked thing in the Garden of Eden, who then passed that sin down through the generations to us.
      • Unlike the FIRST STEP Act, Jesus’ work wasn’t a reduction in slavery to part-time status of slavery in some half-way house. No; the ransom amount was paid completely so that you & I can walk out of the grave scot-free!
      • There is a day in your eternal life when your imperfect body will be placed into a grave or cremated as many choose to do. However, for those in Christ, your soul will never die!  Jesus said to Martha, sister of Mary both of whom were mourning the loss of their brother Lazarus - 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?
      • Lazarus was already in heaven when Jesus called him out of that tomb in Bethany, and I can image was none too pleased to have to come back to this broken Age.  As we read in Psalm 49, Lazarus never saw the “pit” in those four days his earthly body laid in the tomb.  When he died a second time which had to eventually happen, he again continued to live on.  Psalm 49:9 easily cross-references with what Jesus said about eternal life; “though he die, yet shall he live.”  This same concept also applies to you, me, and all believers in Christ.
  • Jesus paid our ransom, the ransom of Matthew Charles, and in fact the ransom of everyone who ever lived.  And yet, there are people who wind up in hell.  How can that be?  We need to look into sins being covered, the second half of our theme for today - Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
    • Matthew Charles will have a felony record the rest of his life.
      • Because of this, he had been denied access to rent-assisted housing.  The former inmate's lease applications were denied in multiple places due to his criminal record, despite celebrity Kim Kardashian-West pledging to cover his rent for five years[4].
    • Sins in this situation is forgiven, but apparently not covered.  We have just the first half of Psalm 32:1 applying here: Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven.  However, a convicted felon will have a record the rest of their life.  A felony is a sin in a secular vein that is not covered.
      • It may be appropriate for a felony record to remain with a person their entire life.  We are not here today to debate whether this is appropriate.  However, the point is there are two aspects to our text for today: sins forgiven; sins covered.  With Jesus, we have both!
    • Former employees of mine each had trouble with the law due to drugs and alcohol, though not to the extent of Matthew Charles.
      • Both have repented.  This is key on how we deal with criminals who have submitted to authority and turned from their sinful ways.
      • Both wanted a fresh start at a career.  One by court order had his record “expunged” after five years and those five years have passed.  I guess we could say in his case his sins were forgiven and covered.
      • However, the other could not get a job.  No one would hire him until I took a chance on him. I will refer to him as “Bill” to protect his real identity.  Bill has excellent IT-support skills and a great attitude of service.  Because of past sins, Bill couldn’t have a drivers’ license until a few months into working for me.  The fact that I was even introduced to him in order to take a chance on him was purely by the grace of God.
        • I recently had the privilege of meeting a man named Carlos at the going-away party for a recruiter with TEKsystems.  TEKsystems is a technical recruitment firm that I used to find employees. When I became unemployed, I used them to find me work!  About the time the going-away party was ending, it dawned on me who this Carlos was.  He was the recruiter that brought to me the two employees I’ve referenced here!
        • Carlos proceeded to tell me how he had spent 5mo’s working on Bill who couldn’t get work; encouraging him to try despite the despair of the sins he had committed, and no one taking a chance on him.  Bill eventually completed an application and completed the screening interviews I needed in order to make an informed hiring choice.
        • Upon hire, Carlos kept up with both of these employees. I would periodically hear about one or the other going out to lunch with “Carlos”.  I had never met Carlos, and was glad TEKsystems kept up with people they placed.
        • I teared up a bit as Carlos explained the tough rut Bill had to pull out of, and how grateful Carlos was to me for giving Bill another chance at an IT career.  Carlos had worked hard for Bill and the work bore fruit.  I never realized the full effect of what I had done for Carlos, but I did share what Bill wrote in my going-away card when I was laid off from Integrilogic.  Bill wrote in essence, thank you for taking a chance on me!  As far as I was concerned Bill had been forgiven and I didn’t need to know what his past was.  All I needed to do was move forward in life.
  • The good part about what Jesus has done for you and for me is not only are our sins forgiven, they are covered – i.e. remembered no more!  Jesus paid the ransom for you, me, and all believers in Christ *AND* have the record expunged before our Father in Heaven.
    • We read in Heb 8:12 - 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
      • This is a quote by the writer to the Hebrews of Jer 31:31-34.  Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians for the third and final time, because of their stubborn resistance to the Lord’s call to repentance.  The elites of the day in Jerusalem would not turn from their sinful ways, leaving God no choice but to let them be overrun.
    • I mentioned earlier the words from John, particularly the three witnesses: water; blood; Holy Spirit.  Once again, we turn to Hebrews (Heb 10:15-18) - 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts,  and write them on their minds,” 17 then he adds,“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
  • Conclusion
    • I hope you see it is not out of context to say from both the OT and NT we find where the Triune God has worked not only on forgiving us of our sins, but also remembering our sins no more!
    • This grace shown to us by our loving God is there for you – free of charge!  They, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had already arranged for the ransom before the foundations of the earth were laid.  It is truly by God’s grace you have been saved through faith.  This is not of your own works lest anyone here should boast. That reminder about your works isn’t meant to be a slap at you.  It is a reminder that you do not, as well as could not, do anything to make your sins go away and have God forget about them.  He made sure you will one day be in the place He has prepared for you!
    • Speaking of places, Matthew Charles just got an apartment last Sunday (3/22)!  He turned from his sinful ways while in prison.  He cleaned up his conduct and started to mentor others while in prison. He is active in a church in Nashville, TN.  This proves once again even hardened sinners can receive forgiveness of sins that are remembered no more!  Amen.


 


[1] https://www.countable.us/articles/19543-prisoners-released-step-act

[2] https://famm.org/stories/matthew-charles-saved-by-the-first-step-act/

[3] Gerhard Kittel as translated by Geoffrey W Bromily, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1967, pp340-349

[4] https://newschannel9.com/news/local/former-inmate-matthew-charles-finds-a-home-in-the-heart-of-nashville