Old Testament prophets have miserable, unenviable jobs. God taps these individuals – mostly men but also a few women – to proclaim bracing messages of doom and gloom to wayward souls who’ve strayed far from the fold of God.
Over the past few Sundays, in our exploration of the story of God with us, we’ve heard from a couple prophets – Amos and Jeremiah – whose bone-chilling indictments cut straight to the quick: God’s faithless, disobedient people have crossed so far over the line of acceptable behavior and right living that they’ve broken the covenant God establishes between heaven and earth. Harsh punishment awaits, and God’s people only have themselves to blame for bringing such dire trouble upon themselves.
But then, as we heard last Sunday, God changes the divine mind. Heaven’s anger gives way to heaven’s mercy. The prophet Jeremiah declares that the Lord will one day write his hopes, dreams and desires upon his people’s hearts, forgiving us of our debts and trespasses and remembering our sin no more. God will continue to be our God, and by grace, the Lord still will consider us his people.
God, in effect, gives us a heart transplant that changes our entire understanding of how earthly life is to be lived. The Lord created you and me to be human reflections of his divine image, and now that the Lord has written himself upon our hearts, people ought to be able to look at you and me and see something of God in the words we speak, the decisions we make, and the actions we take.
Heart health all of a sudden takes on importance far beyond simply eating right and exercising regularly. Having a healthy heart is now among heaven’s concerns for you and me, and that means heart health must be on our list of prayer concerns that we lift up to the Lord.
Which brings us to this morning’s Scripture lesson, Psalm 51, a prayer for a strong heart and a right spirit. As we prepare to listen for the Word of the Lord, please join me in a place of prayer:
Holy God, sometimes my waking is a prayer. Sometimes the song I have stuck in my head, rumbling around on repeat, is a prayer. Sometimes the way I talk to the children or hug the dog is a prayer. Sometimes the way I take out my phone to get a picture of the sunset or of the people I love – that is a prayer. Other times, prayer is moments like this – heads bowed, eyes closed, hearts quiet for just a moment. And in all of it, I trust you to hear me. Help me to hear you in return. Amen.
These are the first 17 verses of Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:1-17)
Some years ago, a psychologist working in the prison system wrote about the incredibly hare-brained ways in which criminals try to slither away from responsibility for their crimes.
The psychologist recounts a time when a man who had just been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison emerged from the courtroom red-faced with rage. “That wasn’t justice. It was a kangaroo court,” the convicted man fumed. “They didn’t even call no medical evidence!”
“Oh,” the psychologist replied, “what kind of evidence should they have mentioned?”
“What she died of,” the man snapped.
“And what did she die of?”
“How did she get the hemorrhage?” the psychologist asked.
“They pulled out the knife,” the murderer replied.
Denial apparently becomes amnesia, and amnesia seemingly morphs into innocence.
Yet another man, convicted of raping a woman, complained that a combination of whiskey and marijuana had reduced the night in question to a fog in his mind. “How can I defend myself when I can’t remember nothing?” he complained.
“But if you cannot remember anything, you can’t deny the charges either, can you?” the doctor shot back.
The rapist was wholly unmoved by that line of logic, which led the psychologist to reach this spot-on diagnosis of human nature: “In amnesia’s house, there are many mansions – one of which is distortion of memory in the service of self-esteem.”
The fine art of self-deception is one that each of us knows well, even though few of us like to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First, we deceive ourselves, and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory play such fanciful tricks, resulting in consequences sometimes silly and other times shocking.
On the silly side is something that happened to Ronald Reagan. During a 1980 campaign stop, Mr. Reagan, with trembling lips and obvious conviction, told a World War II story about a pilot and his bombardier. Their plane had been hit, but while the pilot could have ejected, the bombardier was too wounded, and his ejection seat too damaged, to get out of the plane as it spiraled toward earth. So, the pilot reached over, took the man’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.”
It was a very moving story, until one reporter realized that if both men died in the crash, who was left to report those final words? Turns out, Mr. Reagan was just remembering a scene from a movie.
On the more shocking side of the ledger is the defense the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, offered during his war crimes trial at Nuremberg. Eichmann commanded and oversaw the massive transportation system that efficiently moved Europe’s Jews from one place to another, ultimately winding up most of them at one of the Third Reich’s death camps.
But Eichmann claimed his innocence in it all, saying that he only was in charge of transport and had no knowledge of where the Jews were going or what might happen to them once they got there.
These examples speak to forgetfulness about specific incidents. But the larger self-deception in which humans are involved has to do with issues of who we are.
Most people are loathe to admit that they just generally are bent toward the bad and inclined to do wrong. So, when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, “You are a sinner,” most people these days shrug their shoulders and reply, “What did I do?” If sin exists at all, it is merely sporadic, an occasional, likely inexplicable “lapse” from our better nature, which at its core is “pretty darn good.”
We can, in theory, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any of us give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he or she is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his or her way on the average day.
You don’t slip that Milky War candy bar into your pocket instead of paying for it.
You don’t exceed the speed limit – at least not by much, anyway.
You don’t shove aside the person ahead of you in the check-out line at the grocery store.
You don’t grab and grope the handsome or fetching co-worker whose flattering outfits tend to trip your trigger.
In principle the sinner can – and often does – avoid any particular sin. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we never-ever have done anything or anyone wrong. And we cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future.
Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink, or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed – and even if they keep those promises, what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they also will remain overall sinless and blameless.
That makes Psalm 51 a healthy tonic for that which ails us.
The psalmist showcases the two elements that define the word “sin”: First, the psalmist himself to be the problem, and second, the notion that not only is God our judge but also that God is right in rendering a harsh verdict. We properly stand before God, and God properly stands against the sinful shape of our lives and the arrhythmias of our hearts.
The psalmist is effusive in declaring, “I am the one in need of repair! It’s my heart that needs fixing. No, wait, it needs replacing.” So, the psalmist begs for new creation, for radical re-wiring on the inside. Psalm 51 offers no hint of outward circumstances that contribute to the writer’s sin. The writer claims sinfulness since conception but doesn’t blame his mother or father for that. It’s just the way things are. Nor does he claim, since he came into the world already broken, that he’s just a victim of nature.
No, instead he says, because he came into the world already corrupt, that he has all the more reason to beg for new creation. Because he is willing to fess up, the psalmist feels the weight of God’s judgment crushing his bones. He really feels bad – downright miserable, very much down on himself, and his miserable guilt is unrelenting.
But as it turns out, the psalmist experiences more than just the bleakness of doom and gloom.
In one of the great mysteries of faith, in one of the realities that makes grace so amazing, words of honest confession that are darker than dark lead to a brightness that cannot be quelled. The psalm begins drenched with grace. The first verse could be translated literally as, “Grace me in your grace, O God!” In the original Hebrew, the first line is just three words, two of which drip with divine mercy: “Grace, God! Grace!”
Grace is one of the Old Testament’s favorite ways of characterizing God – a God so evocative of good stuff, so fragrant of fresh starts, so overflowing with joy. God is a God brimming with unfailing love, steadfast kindness, and boundless mercy.
But what grace is finally all about is God’s overwhelming desire to forgive. Grace is the oxygen of heaven, the lifeblood of salvation, and there’s always more of grace than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace, but not cheaply. Sometimes a person’s easy forgiveness becomes something others bank on in self-serving ways. But not here. The fierce rightness of God’s judgment, the utter dread with which the psalmist faces the possibility of being cast out of the light, make it clear that God’s penchant for grace is not being invoked in a manipulative way.
That’s because a genuine awareness of God’s grace emerges only from an honest knowledge of sin’s seriousness.
The more soberly serious we are about sin and the reality of God’s judgment, the more joyfully exuberant we are about the shining splendor of grace and the way it drenches our lives with monsoons of forgiveness. Standing beneath the Good Friday Cross of Jesus offers the most stunning reminder of just how fierce God’s distaste of and judgment on sin really are. And yet we find joy emerging from the darkness, even because of the darkness!
We’re born broken, and we’ve got problems that go well beyond this or that isolated instance of sinful behavior. We must face these dark facts. We need to tremble at the prospect of being cast out of God’s holy light.
And if all that sounds like a bummer-downer of a buzzkill, that’s because you are forgetting the magic, the wonder, the amazement of God’s grace that creates clean hearts, implants new and right spirits, and restores the joy of salvation. A broken and repentant heart God will never turn away, which is incredibly comforting and most definitely assuring for sinners like you and me living in such a broken and fearful world.
The grace we receive in baptism is sufficient for whatever it is that God calls us to do – up to and including admitting our mistakes and trusting in God’s mercy to remember our sin no more.
Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, April, 2022, the fifth Sunday of Lent. It is the 13th sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Emil Brunner, Scott Hoezee, and J. Clinton McCann Jr. inform the message.