Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Text: Psalm 51:1-4, 9--12
"Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love. Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!" (verse 1)

Be merciful to me, O God

Think of the worst thing that you have ever done. Maybe itís something you have never told anyone else because if it ever came out in the open you know that it would be so embarrassing. It could affect your standing in the community or the church. Your greatest fear would be realised that what had been so shameful in the past would now be known by one and all. I would suppose that every person here this morning has something that they prefer to keep to themselves.

Psalm 51 is the psalm set down for today. It starts like this, "Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love. Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!" As this first verse suggests this is a penitential psalm. The writer is praying that God would forgive all his sin. He is conscious of the fact that so often he does what is evil and that God has every right to condemn him. This isnít the confession of a new believer who has a sudden realisation of his sinfulness, but someone who is one of God's people. The writer realises that his behaviour was not in keeping with that of a child of God. How do we know this?

We go to the heading at the top of this psalm and there we find an explanation about the background of this song. It reads: A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Ouch. I donít know if David wrote the heading to this psalm or the compiler of the Old Testament hymnbook but every time this psalm was used in worship, Davidís sinfulness was paraded before everyone.

Can you imagine having that kind of heading on one of our hymns or to have something like that displayed on the screen every time we sing a particular song or hymn? Maybe it could go something like this:
"This hymn was written when the chairman of the congregation had a steamy affair with the wife of the treasurer".
I know this isnít true but if it were Iím sure we would prefer to put it behind us and not have this constant reminder every time this hymn came up on the screen.

But there you have it - in the worship section of the Hebrew Bible for everyone to read for centuries to come.
The heading to this psalm reminds worshippers of the shameful actions of their most favourite king. If you read 2 Samuel 11 there you will find all the details how David coveted his neighbourís wife, had her husband killed, and then took her to be his own wife. How many of the Ten Commandments did David break in this whole incident? This wasnít only a sin against another man and his wife but also against God.

It took a bit of time for his plan to unfold. No one thought too much about it and he thought he had gotten away with it. His actions were planned. He acted on his plans and he thought everything was okay.

It wouldnít surprise me if he went to church on the Sabbath with his new wife on his arm, nodding a greeting to fellow worshippers, smiling and shaking hands. People got used to seeing David and his new wife. No one condemned. I donít think he believed that he had done anything wrong.

We might be tempted to pray, "Oh God, I thank you that I am not in any way like David. I have never done anything as bad as that."

We live in a culture where the word Ďsiní is almost a dirty word. Itís a church word that people in the community donít use very often. And of course, what is defined as sin can be so different from one person to the next.

Some people straight out deny that they sin Ė thatís only what criminals and people do who cause extreme harm to people and property. "Little things" like shoplifting, or lying, or abusive language, or gossiping are just that "only little things", "you canít call that sin".

Many believe these actions are part of our freedom we have as individuals to express ourselves in the way we want. There are those who justify their sexual sins, substance abuse, or violent behaviour as their right to express their feelings regardless of how these might impact on others.

God's definition of sin is quite different to the idea held by many in our community. The Bible makes it absolutely clear that every single person on this earth has to deal with sin every day. Every action, thought and word are smudged with sin. We are born sinners. We inherit sin from our parents who in turn can trace the origin of sinfulness back to the first parents in the Garden of Eden. Paul wrote this to the Romans, "Sin came into the world through one man, and his sin brought death with it. As a result, death has spread to the whole human race because everyone has sinned" (Romans 5:12).

This inbuilt desire to sin becomes clear when we say and do things that are so wrong, so far away from the way God wants us to speak and act.

The apostle Paul often describes to his readers how human desires lead to sin. In Galatians (5:19-21 CEV) he writes, "People's desires make them give in to immoral ways, filthy thoughts, and shameful deeds.  They worship idols, practice witchcraft, hate others, and are hard to get along with.
People become jealous, angry, and selfish. They not only argue and cause trouble, but they are envious. They get drunk, carry on at wild parties, and do other evil things as well.
I told you before, and I am telling you again: No one who does these things will share in the blessings of God's Kingdom".
Paul makes it quite clear that a sinner cannot stand in the presence of God and cannot expect to inherit eternal life.

In Psalm 51 David poured out his heart to God in prayer. He knew that sin had taken control of his life. In this prayer he admits that his sins are always there and that he canít fix them. He canít hide them. He thought he could because no one noticed what he had done. But even though no one else knew what had happened, God knew. God could see into his heart and knew that David, the one who was supposed to be a model to the whole nation of what it means to be one of God's people, had committed some terrible things.

So God sent Nathan, the prophet, to make David reflect on the fact that just because no one noticed or said anything about his sin that didnít mean that what he had done didnít matter. The Bible makes it absolutely clear that sin, no matter what kind it is or how big it is, is a serious offence against God. The Bible makes it clear that even if no one else recognises a certain attitude or action to be sin, and is completely acceptable in our society that doesnít change the fact that from God's point of view sin is sin. Even if the government passed laws that made wrong to be right Ė it is still sin.

Psalm 51 is Davidís public confession of his sin and pleads with God to make him right again, to wipe away his sin and to once again be reconciled to his God. Let me read Davidís prayer for forgiveness and as I do so I invite you to join with me and make Davidís prayer your prayer admitting your sin to God and asking him to remove your guilt and fill you with the joy of knowing that you are at peace with God again. (On screen)

1 Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!
2 Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin!
3 I recognize my faults; I am always conscious of my sins.
4 I have sinned against youóonly against youó and done what you consider evil. So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me.
Close your eyes to my sins and wipe out all my evil.
10 Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me.
11 Do not banish me from your presence;
do not take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

Davidís prayer expresses very well our need to be made clean, to be washed and be made whiter than snow. David knew that even though God is a holy and righteous God and is opposed to sin of every kind, he also knew that God is merciful and his constant love for even the worse sinner never flickers, dims or is extinguished.

We have an advantage over David because God has revealed himself to us through his Son, Jesus. In Jesus we see the love of God so clearly. He came from heaven to earth, born in a smelly stable as Mary his mother cried in pain as he came into the world. He subjected himself to the rules and ways of humanity because of his extreme love for us. And then we look at the figure on the cross, mocked, bleeding, dying Ė why Ė because of his love for us. He did all this because it was God's plan that people, like you and me, be reconciled to God by having the guilt of our sin removed through his dying in our place, be made new and clean and fresh again Ė holy and spotless in the eyes of God.

David was right when he said that God has every right to be angry and to judge and condemn us for our sin. And without Jesus thatís just what would happen Ė we would have to face the anger of God and his condemnation for our disobedience. But Jesus has changed all that. Paul says in Romans, "God set you free when he sent his own Son to be like us sinners and to be a sacrifice for our sin" (Romans 8:3 CEV).
Or in chapter 5 he says,
"When we were God's enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us" (v 8).

This is God's abundant grace at work.
We donít stay tied to our guilt.
We donít need to keep on justifying ourselves.
We donít need to fear a God whose anger terrifies us.
Open up to the God of abundant mercy, foreshadowed in the Old Testament Psalms, but revealed in the saving grace of Christ Jesus. Because of Jesus we are already forgiven. We are already surrounded by Godís immense mercy and grace. Believe it, receive it and trust it.

As we move toward Good Friday once again, let the wonderful news ring in our ears,
"The Son of Man has come to save the lost".
"Our sins are forgiven".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
29th March 2009

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