Sunday, March 9, 2014

Honest Confession (a sermon for March 9th on Psalm 32)

I want to start this morning by reminding you of a very famous Old Testament story: the story of King David and his adultery with Bathsheba. David of course was the King Arthur of ancient Israel; a thousand years before the time of Jesus, God took him from shepherding his father’s sheep and brought him by a long and tortuous path to the place where he became king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah.

David was a faithful man, but he was far from perfect. We’re told in 2 Samuel chapter 11 that one day while David’s army was out fighting a war on his behalf, David went for a walk on the roof of his palace. The roof was high, and as he looked down over the neighbouring houses he saw a woman taking a bath in her walled garden close by. He liked what he saw, so he sent for her and slept with her. It turned out that her name was Bathsheba, and that her husband, Uriah, was away at the front fighting for David.

So far so good, from David’s point of view; it had all happened in secret. But then Bathsheba sent him a message that she was pregnant. This presented a problem. After all, what David had done was against the law of God, and he had a reputation to keep as a king who loved God. Also, Bathsheba was in danger, because on the books the penalty for adultery was death.

David’s first plan was to bring Uriah home from the war as fast as possible and get him in bed with his wife. So he sent for Uriah, asked him for a report, and then sent him home for the night. However, to his horror he discovered the next day that Uriah had not gone home; he felt guilty about enjoying the delights of home when all his buddies were still in the field of battle, so he slept on the steps of the palace! The next night David tried getting him drunk, but it still didn’t work.

So David went to plan ‘B’. He sent Uriah back to the war and also sent a message to his general, Joab, telling him to let Uriah lead a charge and then leave him to his fate. This is what happened, and Uriah was killed. After the period of mourning was over, David took Bathsheba as his wife, she bore him a son, and that was that.

Except that God had been watching. And God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. I can’t go into detail this morning about the masterful way in which Nathan did this, but eventually David was led to admit that what he had done was wrong, and he came to a true repentance for his multiple sins.

During Lent we remember that God has called us to be a holy people, consecrated to him. We’re called to live as a colony of heaven with a distinctive lifestyle, and to learn to think and live like our heavenly Father. But the unfortunate truth is that we’re going to fail regularly, because we’re ordinary human sinners.

How do we deal with this failure? That’s the theme of Psalm 32, our psalm for today, which may have been written by David. Let’s start by looking at verses 3-4:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Here we have someone who has sinned, who knows deep in their heart that what they have done is wrong, but they won’t admit it. Perhaps they even deny it to themselves – “There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” We humans have a great capacity for self-deception, don’t we?

Let’s say this person is me, and I know in my heart that what I’ve done is wrong, but I don’t dare confess it to God. After all, if I’m honest and I want an ongoing relationship with God, confessing it would have to lead to doing something about it! And so every time I go to God in prayer I avoid the subject, but I find that it still dominates my thoughts. In fact, it introduces a barrier between God and me in my times of prayer.

Or perhaps I’ve confessed my sin to God, but I also know that God wants me to put something right with someone else who’s involved. I resist doing that, for obvious reasons. It’s a blow to my pride! We can cheerfully proclaim in theory “We’re all sinners!” but it’s another thing entirely to go up to someone who we’ve sinned against and say, “I’m the sinner who has hurt you, and I’m sorry”. Or perhaps I’m also afraid of the consequences. Maybe there’s a possibility of legal action against me because of what I’m admitting to. Almost always, there’s the possibility that the person I’m speaking to will be angry and will reject me.

Many years ago I was preparing a sermon on this psalm when God brought to mind a situation in my own life. There was a letter I had to write to someone against whom I had sinned without his knowing it. I really resisted that notion and found all kinds of good excuses for not doing what I was told! And while I was making these excuses, I had the same experience the psalmist describes here: ‘For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer’. Finally I knew that if I was going to continue to enjoy a living relationship with God, and not an imaginary one, I had to swallow my pride, quit pretending that I was a good guy, and admit to what I had done in the sight of someone whose good opinion I valued. It was very difficult, but it was the right thing to do.

And that leads us to verse 5: ‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ And in verses 1-2 he commentsHappy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit’. Obviously we’re being encouraged to come clean, to confess our sins to God and to enjoy the benefit of forgiveness and peace which will follow our confession.

In the gospels there’s a story of how Jesus was eating one day at the home of a Pharisee when ‘a woman who had led a sinful life’ came in, threw herself at his feet, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The Pharisees grumbled and implied that if Jesus was really a prophet he’d know what kind of scum she was and wouldn’t let her carry on like that. But Jesus took a different view. He rebuked those who were self-righteous, but he commended the woman for her honesty, and he forgave her sins.

Some of you may be familiar with the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In step four, the alcoholic takes what’s called ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory’ – in other words, looks at their life and is honest about where they’ve gone wrong. Then in step five they ‘admit to God, to ourselves, and to one other human being the exact nature of our wrongs’. In steps six and seven they ask God to remove those defects, and in steps eight and nine they make a list of people they have harmed, and they try make amends to those people.

This is pretty thorough stuff! We could really sum up most of Psalm 32 in the words of Step Five: ‘We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs’. Let’s unpack this step for a minute.

Admitting the nature of our wrongs ‘to ourselves’ is often the toughest part. The human capacity for self-deceit is very strong! Changing it means looking at myself, not as I wish I was, but as I really am, and accepting that this is a true picture of me. This is not some other sinner I’m looking at here – this is me!

And then comes admitting the nature of our wrongs ‘to God’. With many sins, this is the only confession that’s necessary. We admit what we’ve done, repent and ask for forgiveness, and we receive it. We’re pardoned, we’re free, we experience the joy the psalmist is talking about at the beginning of this psalm: ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (v.1).

But this confession to God is not always enough to bring us the peace we’re looking for. There are two exceptions which spring to my mind immediately. The first is sins in which others have been hurt. When our actions have hurt others, we also need to go to them, ask for forgiveness, and make amends or restitution if necessary. This was where I was falling down in the experience I mentioned earlier. I had confessed the sin to God, but God kept reminding me that someone else was involved too; I needed to ask his forgiveness as well, and I could get no peace until I did, no matter how many times I asked for it.

The other exception is sins from which we can get no sense of freedom. We’ve confessed, we’ve asked for forgiveness, we’ve tried to believe the promises of scripture, but we still can’t seem to find the peace we’re looking for. In that case we need to go on to the next part of Step Five – admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another human being. In the Christian tradition this is done by confessing our sins to God in the presence of another person, usually a pastor or priest, and then hearing that person declare God’s forgiveness to us. For many people this is a powerful experience of grace.

Understandably, there is considerable resistance to this idea! Some people will say “I can confess my sins to God alone – I don’t need a priest interfering!” My response is “Fine – you obviously don’t need the confessional”. But I would also invite you to ask yourself if you’re being entirely honest before you dismiss it. And I’m sure, from my experience over the years, that there are some people who definitely need this further step; they are consumed by a sense of guilt that no amount of confession to God seems to be able to get rid of.

So in this psalm the writer is encouraging us to take the risk of being honest – with ourselves, with other people, and with God. In verses 8-9 he says
‘I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding,
 whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle’.

When I think back to the time when I was desperately trying not to hear God’s voice telling me to write to the person I had sinned against, I realise that this verse described me perfectly: a stubborn, stupid mule! I knew what God wanted me to do, but I didn’t trust him! All I could see ahead if I followed his direction was pain and humiliation; I couldn’t see beyond that to the joy of forgiveness and peace. My stubbornness had opened up a gap between God and me, and I was the one who suffered from that gap. But when I repented and obeyed – what a difference!

So let me conclude this morning by asking you three questions.

Firstly, are you being honest with yourself? Is there something you need to admit to yourself? Is it time to stop running from the voice of God and to say to yourself, “I have sinned, and I need to repent and turn back to God’s way”?

Secondly, are you being honest with God? Or is there a growing distance because of that sin that you know God wants you to do something about? Don’t put it off; the longer you leave it, the worse it will be! One of the most telling features of the story of David and Bathsheba is that every time David tried another way of running away from God he only dug himself in deeper and made things worse! Let’s not be like him! Let’s turn back to God, admit what we’ve done, and ask for forgiveness and the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can become the people God wants us to be. When we do that, we can be assured of God’s forgiveness.

Thirdly, are you being honest with others? Is there someone you need to apologize and make amends to? Believe me when I say – I know what it’s like to struggle against this. But the problem is that God really does hold all the cards; if this is what he is asking us to do, I’m afraid that we won’t get any peace until we do it. But when we finally give in, stop resisting God, and take that step of talking to the other person – then we will be at peace. It will be hard, but in the end we’ll be glad we did it.

Let me conclude by reading verses 1-2 again, this time from the New Living Translation:
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty.

May God give us grace to put these things into practice, so that we may experience this joy for ourselves. Amen.

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