Sunday, March 16, 2014

The joy of confession...

2nd Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 51    1 Thessalonians 4:1-8    Matthew 15:21-28
The Failure of the King
I recently received a letter in the mail from a well-known publisher, wanting me to buy more books, of course. But the opening line of their letter made me stop and think. They wrote: “Which book would you choose as your sole companion on a desert island?” Although the letter was generic, my first reaction was to ponder on what a strange question it was to ask a clergyman…but then, on later reflection and given the manner in which the Bible has been largely cast aside by many of our modern day clergy, it may not be that odd a question after all.

But is this really such a ‘modern’ problem? Reading the words of Paul to the church in Thessalonica seems to indicate that the all too human tendency to ‘do it my way’ (to quote Sinatra) without reference to God’s Word was a very real problem that faced this young 1st century community of faith. The Apostle had taught them the basic guidelines for life in the kingdom – indeed, his trademark was to teach all the churches the whole counsel of God, which is probably why some complained that his teaching was so hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16) – and he wanted to encourage them to continue to walk in an appropriate and godly manner. But he was not naïve as to the nature of man and so he reminded them that they were not called to uncleanness, but to holiness – in other words, to a life characterized by keeping what God had commanded in His Word.

But going even further back than Paul, we find that David, a godly king, considered to be a man after God’s own heart, struggled with the very same problem when the sight of a lovely woman bathing on her rooftop in the cool of the evening drove God’s Word far from his mind. You no doubt know the story well…the author of 2nd Samuel tells us that “in the spring of the year, at the time when kings go out to battle (a statement that causes the reader to wonder why David did not go out with his forces), that David sent Joab (his general) and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the people of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.” So it seems like a perfect set-up for clandestine activities. The king was alone and was bored, no doubt, and, as the old English saying goes, satan finds evil work for idle hands to do. Perhaps the king thought his rest was well earned…he had, after all, been fighting for his kingdom all his life and a little retirement from the fray wouldn’t do anyone any harm. And so, strolling along his palatial porch one evening, watching his pot plants grow, his eye caught sight of something he would not have seen had he been out with the rest of the Lord’s army doing what he ought to have been doing. Why Bathsheba chose to perform her bathing ritual in full sight of the palace, and why there is no mention of her resisting the advances of the king, or protesting, or crying out, or quoting the Law of God to a man who ought to have known better, we will never know. All we are told is that the lust of the eyes turned into the lust of the flesh and that conception was the result.

Perhaps we need to pause at this point to think on how this sort of thing is all too common. It happens every day. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy…young, old, single, married, divorced…he likes what he sees and she likes what she sees…one thing leads to another and bingo a tiny human being begins to make his or her presence known. The sense of panic of being found out and the wrong choices resulting from this sense of panic is another common feature. David tried to cover his tracks – he got Uriah her husband back from the front in an attempt to get him to foot the bill, so to speak, but Uriah refused to enjoy the legitimate pleasures of married life while his fellow soldiers were giving their lives for the sake of king and country. So David was left with only two other alternatives – public repentance or murder – and, unfortunately, rather than loose face (or perhaps loose his life – Proverbs tells us that the wrath of a jealous husband is a terrible thing), David chose the latter – he chose the easy way out – he chose murder – in his case, the murder of Uriah, but today, it is all too often the murder of the unprotected, unheard, and unseen pre-born child.

But murder is murder (whether in or out of the womb), adultery is adultery, and sin will always be sin…and sin has a way of destroying the lives of all involved.

Perhaps the most troubling part of this whole tragedy is the fact that King David knew the Word of God as the kings of Israel were required to make their own copy of the Law to read throughout their life so that he might learn to fear God and obey his statutes (Deuteronomy 17). He also knew first hand what had happened to a king when he chose to turn his back on the Word of the Lord…David’s knowledge that God had forsaken his predecessor, King Saul, may very well be behind the cry in Psalm 51:11 “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.” And yet he still did what he did – seemingly blind to the obvious iniquity of it all, adding wrong upon wrong.

Worst of all, is that when Nathan the prophet confronted him with a prophetic parable in which he told the king of a rich man who had refused to take a lamb from his own flock, but rather took the only lamb of his poor neighbor and slaughtered it to feed his guest, David responded with wrathful indignation. “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die (a little over the top as the Law did not require the death penalty for theft nor for oppression of the poor)! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity (which is the penalty for theft required by the Law)!” But think on this. David…knowing in his heart that he was guilty of a far greater crime…knowing that he himself had sinned…David had no qualms in casting the first stone. But the stone struck home as Nathan whirled around and declared, “You are the man!”

To David’s credit he did not attempt to justify himself, nor did he try to further cover up his sins by blaming others (as did his predecessor, King Saul when confronted by Samuel!), nor did he attempt to silence the messenger. He could easily have had Nathan killed as well…in this day and age, of course, no one literally kills those who point out sin(at least not in the West), but they are slaughtered verbally before all too sympathetic audiences in the next church down the road. But David did not choose any of these options. Rather, his immediate response was confession…and Psalm 51 is the result.

As with David, all too often we only truly appreciate our need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness once we have been confronted with the awful gravity of our own sin. Thus the confession of the fallen king begins, not with explanations (I couldn't help myself – I had a troubled childhood), or accusations (Lord, that woman you gave me!), or justifications (well, I’m only human, you know) – no, David begins with an acknowledgement of his own guilt and with an appeal to the character of God. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.”

The words “blot out” indicate a removal of handwriting from a book, in this case the wiping away of the penalty for his sin. This image was later used by Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians in reference to what actually happened at the cross: Jesus, he said, “having wiped out (or blotted out) the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us…has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Paul also borrowed from David’s next statement in which the king asked to be washed thoroughly and cleansed, both terms usually used for the laundering of clothes. Addressing those who once were fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortionists, Paul said, “and such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God.” Isn't it sad that this understanding of being cleansed from something one once was is so different to the modern acceptance of categories of people the Word clearly states will not inherit the kingdom of God? This is just one more indication that the Word of God is no longer the foundation of the modern Western Church – people simply do what is right in their own eyes – indeed, their Christianity is self-manufactured.

As most of us know, sin has a way of sticking around, even when it is accepted and excused. It looms up before us like a demonic phantom, accusing us and exposing us for what we know we are inside. And so it should come as no surprise to hear that people who live in various states of sinfulness turn to drugs and alcohol to soothe their pricking consciences…they may blame society or science or biology, but the bottom line is that they know that what they are doing is wrong. Sadly, they try to shoo the phantom away with everything but confession.

But there is a more serious problem that David brings to the fore in this Psalm, namely that sin is something committed against the highest authority of all – God himself. Of course, sin can be committed against ourselves or against others, but ultimately sin is against God because he is the Creator and Lord of all. We are not our own – we have been bought with a price – and we all are created in the image of God. So sin can never be a private matter and it is therefore always an affront to God who owns all because he created all and sees all. It is in this light that Psalm 51 reveals the main dilemma of humanity – a nature so corrupted by the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, that sin is inescapable in that it is part and parcel of who we are as human beings living in a broken world. We are all warped creatures as we all come from faulty stock.

But if the essence of humanity is corrupt and wicked (as the prophet Jeremiah tells us), then the only possible solution to this dilemma is surely an entirely new creation…and it is to this hope that David turned. “Purge me,” he prayed, but that was not enough. “Wash me,” he cried, but even the purest driven snow will eventually become tainted with dirt. “Create…” Ah, yes. “Create in me a clean heart.” Only the creation of a clean heart (as opposed to the deceitful heart of stone) would suffice. Surely at this point we must hear an echo of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ (the one who blotted out the handwriting of requirements that was against us by offering up his sinless self on the cross in our stead), he is a new creation; old things have past away; behold all things have become new.” The cry of Psalm 51 was heard and answered at the cross of Christ – it was heard and answered in the plea of the Syro-Phoenecian woman – and it is still heard and answered today wherever and whenever a sinner confesses his or her sins before God’s throne of mercy and grace.

Once confession is heard and absolution is received, only then can joy return…no drug, no alcohol, no therapy can ever do what confession does for the troubled soul. And so the forgiven transgressor becomes the teacher of fellow transgressors. Not a judge, but a teacher. I am a sinner, but I found grace…I am a sinner, but I found mercy…I am a sinner, but I found peace…I am a sinner, but I found cleansing…I am a sinner, but I found true joy in Jesus, because his broken body blotted out my transgressions and his shed blood washed me thoroughly from my iniquity.

The failure of King David thus becomes a paradigm for fallen, sinful Israel…for the fallen, sinful Church. His physical adultery speaks to our spiritual adultery; his realization of the inadequacy of any kind of earthly offering speaks to the inadequacy of the various forms of ritual we turn to, religious or otherwise; his confession calls to us across the expanse of time and teaches us that what leads to freedom from the phantom of our sins and what leads to true joy is a broken heart, not a proud, hard heart…a contrite spirit, not a self-defensive, self-justifying spirit…that is what is acceptable to God.

David’s story and the story of his descendants served as an example for Israel in exile. Having been chastened for their sin, the words of the Psalmist convicted, challenged, and yet also provided hope. They had done wickedly and their sins had found them out…just like the great king David. They were facing the consequences of their sin…just like the great king David. But would they now confess their sin and receive absolution…just like the great king David? That was the question they faced…and that is the question we still face today when we read the words of Psalm 51.

Before we come to the Lord’s Table of mercy and grace, we like the great king David, must be confronted with the awful gravity of our own sinfulness. Therefore, ask the Holy Spirit, who alone can reveal to us the deep hidden recesses of our heart, to show us our sins as He sees them…and as we cringe in the dirt of our own unworthiness, let us lift up our hearts to embrace the most gracious gift of a new creation…and having received the symbols of this gift, let us leave cleansed, washed and recreated so that we might go our into the darkness of this world to teach fellow sinners of his merciful ways.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III Lent 2014

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