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Ash Wednesday, 03/05/2014

Sermon on Psalm 51:1-17 (trans. composite), by Richard O. Johnson


1 Have mercy upon me, O God,
according to your lovingkindness;
according to the multitude of your tender mercies,
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin,
3 for I acknowledge my transgressions,
and my sin
is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned,
and done
what is evil in your sight- 
so that you are justified when you speak,
blameless when you judge.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts,
and you will teach me wisdom in my innermost parts.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
the body you have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me
by your free Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways
and sinners shall retrun to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
the God of my salvation,
my tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall show forth your praise.
16 For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
you take no delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit,
a broken and a contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise. -Psalm 51.1-17 (trans. composite)


"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness." As we begin our Lenten journey, David's Psalm of confession is always the starting point. It is a Psalm that holds an endless attraction for us-in part, I suppose, because it is one the few Psalms for which we are given a specific and concrete situation as its context. "A Psalm of David," the heading says, "when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba." This story of David's guilt-not just of adultery but of murder-is one of the most sobering in the Bible, as it reveals the sins of even the greatest of saints. And so this prayer of confession is precious to us, and it becomes our prayer when we, like David, are brought face to face with our own sin.

But however familiar a Psalm might be, there are still things to be discovered. In St. Augustine's commentary on this Psalm, I have found an insight into a verse that has really always slid right past me. It is verse 8 of the Psalm: "Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice." It is perhaps a little strange, when you think about it, that David can speak of "joy and gladness" in the context of such a remorseful prayer of confession. So much of the Psalm is self-abasing. "I have been wicked from my birth . . . I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me." How, in the face of that awareness of his own sin, can David presume to speak of joy and gladness?

Surprised by joy

C. S. Lewis, author of the popular Chronicles of Narnia, became a Christian in adulthood. In his biography of Lewis, Alan Jacobs notes that Lewis, before his conversion was not particularly interesting and not particularly likeable. He was a rather grumpy professor with a pretty sharp tongue. When he confessed Christ, he did an honest and comprehensive review of his own life-something, of course, that faithful Christians do often. He was appalled by what he found. He described this process in his autobiography; he recognized, he wrote, that his life was "a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds." Well, sin doesn't change much over the centuries, does it? Those phrases could also describe King David, and they could describe me. I imagine they could describe you. Facing up to our sins is never a comfortable task.

The title of his autobiography is Surprised by Joy. There's that word again: joy. The Christian life is rooted in an honest acknowledgement that we have sinned, sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by things done and things left undone. But that confession does not permit us to wallow in despair; rather it is the first step to joy-a joy which, as Lewis says, comes as a wonderful surprise.

Now back to Augustine. "Make me hear of joy and gladness," David prays. Augustine suggests that our problem when we think about our sins is that we want to justify ourselves. We want to explain to God why we did what we did. We want to put ourselves in the best possible light. We want to make the case that it isn't really as bad as all that. We want to plead that plenty of other people have done as we have done, and worse. We want to defend ourselves.

Let it be

Augustine puts it this way: "You have sinned; why try to defend yourself? You want to do the talking; but let it be, listen, allow God to get a word in . . . You have committed the sin; there is no point in trying to defend it. Let it come out as confession, not self-justification. If you engage yourself as counsel for the defense you will lose your case. . . God is prepared to grant you forgiveness, but you are shutting the door in your own face; he is prepared to give, so do not put up a barrier of defense, but open your whole self by confession."

So David prays, "Make me hear of joy and gladness." We could paraphrase it something like this: "Make me stop talking, and listen. Make me stop trying to defend my sins, and listen to God's word of forgiveness."

You see, sorrow and joy are integrally connected in this Psalm; they are closely connected in any prayer of confession. Confession means embracing an honest sorrow for our sins. It means being utterly honest with God, calling our sin what it is, refusing to nurse our fears and fondle our hatreds but exposing them all-exposing our deepest failings-before God. But then it means, having done that, simply shutting up and listening to God's response, believing God's response. And God's response, of course, is to blot out our sins, and to create in us a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within us. That's the joy and the gladness for which the Psalmist prays, and for which we pray.

Hide your face from my sin

Augustine offers one other fascinating thought. David prays, "Hide your face from my sins." "If you do not turn your own face from your sin," Augustine suggests, "then you can ask God to turn his away from it. . . But if you thrust your sin behind your back, God fixes his gaze upon it. Switch your sin to a position before your face, if you want God to turn his face away from it."

That's really it, isn't it? The paradox is that when we keep our sin before us-that is, when we continue to examine our lives with honesty and humility-then God hides his face from our sins. When we try to hide them ourselves, however, we always fail-like Adam and Eve, trying to hide in the Garden, thinking that if they can just stay out of sight, then God won't know what they have done. Of course God sees them, despite their foolish and self-conscious efforts.

"If we say we have no sins, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The words are from the first letter of John, and we hear them often in our liturgy on Sunday mornings. David's Psalm teaches the same thing. And the wonderful grace and truth is that this honest confession, as difficult as it can be, is precisely the pathway to joy and gladness. It is not so unlike the journey of Lent, which begins in sorrow and confession and ends with resurrection. May God bless that journey for us.


The Rev. Richard O. Johnson
rass Valley, CA, USA
E-Mail: roj@nccn.net

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