Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Text: Psalm 51:1-2
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.  Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.


Like a pig in mud

It’s interesting to note the people who were attracted to Jesus – the kind of people who readily accepted Jesus, called out to him for help, listened intently to what he had to say, gave up everything and followed him.

We know very well it wasn’t the spiritual leaders, the teachers of religion, the people whom you would have expected to be tuned in to things about God. You would have thought that the priests and religious leaders would have been enthusiastic about a person who was able to do miraculous things that no human could do and speak about things that were far beyond mere human knowledge. 

No, those who welcomed the Messiah sent by the heavenly Father to save all humanity from judgement and destruction came from a completely unexpected section of Jewish society. What a different story it might have been if the High Priest and Jewish Council issued a decree and called all the people, Pharisees included, to listen to Jesus and welcome him as God’s promised Saviour.  But that didn’t happen.

We know it was people like the crook Zaccheus who was amazed when Jesus asked if he could have dinner at his place.

There was the leper begging on the side of the road.  To his surprise he felt something he hadn’t felt in years – the gentle touch on his skin of another person’s hand.

There was the prostitute who gate-crashed a dinner party and threw herself at Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears. Only Jesus would allow such a person to touch him.

What about the woman who was continually bleeding.  In Jewish society this made her an outcast, unclean – no one would have anything to do with her.  All she wanted to do was touch the hem of Jesus’ robe.  To the surprise of this social outcast Jesus calls her, “My daughter” and gives her life a whole new meaning.

These people and a whole lot more know where they stand spiritually, morally and even socially.  In the eyes of the people amongst whom they live, they don’t count, they don’t fit in, and even in their own eyes they know that all is not well with how life has turned out.  However, in Jesus they find something they couldn’t find anywhere else – the unconditional mercy of God; the love of God that doesn’t care about where they stand in society or what they had done or what they look like or how poor they are.  Jesus looks at them as his dear children who need to be saved.

These people who met the generous mercy of Jesus came with completely empty hands.  Truly they were beggars, even though a person like Zaccheus had loads of money.  They recognised their helplessness and encountered the total acceptance of Jesus.

I wonder to what degree we experience Jesus in the same way – his grace, his complete acceptance, his far-reaching and embracing love.

I assume all of us here in this congregation today are sinners. We repeatedly cross the boundaries of what God expects of us as his newly created people in Christ, and we know why we fail so often – by sheer will power we can’t stop being sinners because sin is so much a part of our human nature. 

Self-interest is at the heart of most of what goes wrong in our lives.  We put ourselves first above everyone and everything else and we make ourselves the centre of the universe and when we do that, the wheels fall off our relationship with God and the people in our lives.  Even pious people like us use religion for our own self-interest and it amazes us how often “I” become the most important person in my religion and even in how I connect with God.  We are sinners.

There are moments when we get a real good shakeup.  Like the disciple Peter.  At the Last Supper Jesus predicts that one of his disciples will betray him.  And Peter’s response, “I will never let you down.  I don’t care what the others do. You can count on me.  Even if I have to die, I will never betray you”.  There are a lot of confident “I”s in that statement and we know what happened just a short time after.  After he heard the rooster crow, he realised that he had done exactly what he had vowed not to do.  He was empty of any goodness; remorseful; he had no illusions about his worthiness to be a disciple; no excuses because he had been warned.  He didn’t deserve Jesus’ love.  He felt so unworthy, so empty.

There are moments when we come empty handed to God. It may be because of a particular sin; because sickness, a bad relationship, death or loneliness has brought us to God empty-handed.  We, like the leper or the prostitute, call out to Jesus.  We feel so helpless.  We fall on our knees.  Our hands are empty.  There is nothing else we can do but say words similar to that of the psalmist from long ago.
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.  Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.  Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. (Psalm 51:1,2,12).

I know that modern liturgy creators would rather focus on praise and sing songs glorifying God than emptiness before God but call me old fashioned but I believe that something vital is missing in worship if that’s all we do.  If all we do is praise the reason for praising becomes overwhelmed and hidden in the volume and emotion of praise.

When we come here to worship we acknowledge that we are chronically flawed creatures, self-interested sinners even though we have been brought into the family of God through the blood of Jesus.  We might like to get on our high horse and say that sin no longer bothers us because Christ rules our lives, but who are we kidding.  In those moments when we are completely honest, we admit that sin has firm grip around our heart and minds every day.  We say prayers asking for forgiveness.  We sing in the liturgy, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy of us”.

Even when we say these words, we come with less than empty hands to our Creator.  We barely even think about what we are saying.  We come believing that we can make things right.  It’s part of the ritual and our chronically flawed nature even infects the authenticity of what we are saying.

So why do we say these words? 
Are we trying to plead with an angry God to soften his heart to be kind to us? 
Are we trying to convince God that we are truly sorry?
Are we wanting to impress God with our piety and genuine sorrow and so should forgive us.

If we are trying to do any of these things then we have certainly lost the plot.  Our prayers for forgiveness are not in any way an attempt to butter up God nor do they have any effect on wiping away our guilt.

So why do we persist in using language that seeks mercy and recalls our sinful nature when we would much rather focus on happier things?  By the way, for some people attending Good Friday services is not the in-thing at the moment because it isn’t a “happy” service. 

Truly, at the cross we have been forgiven.  We don’t have to please God to receive mercy, make offerings to obtain forgiveness or say the right words or prayers to appease the heavenly Judge. It’s there.  Available to us – because of the cross. 

But when we say “Have mercy on me, God” we are admitting that sin still plays a powerful role in our lives and gets us into trouble, even though we are children of God. Acknowledging our sin helps us realise the depth of our sin and how deep rooted it is in our lives.  It gives us the opportunity to repent, with the help of the Holy Spirit to turn away from anything that is leading us astray.

At the same time the incredible price Jesus paid to free us from sin’s power comes into full focus. We recite the words and express our yearning and hope that in Jesus, all is wiped away.  We are not begging for forgiveness.  It’s a gift that once again we are appreciating in all its richness.

Prayers like King David’s Psalm 51 and “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us” have been sung and said down through ages and every time we use these words, they give us another opportunity to bathe in the grace of God.  “Bathe” is a bit weak.  Maybe “wallow” might be better.  Like a pig wallows in mud and is covered from snout to the tip of his curly tail in mud with not one pink bit uncovered, and he is so happy to be covered in this way. 

So the grace of God covers us completely.  As we acknowledge our sin, the opportunity arises again to realise just how marvellous God’s grace is as it covers every part of our lives.  When a pig rolls in mud he can’t help but be happy.  He delights in the cooling freshness that the mud gives.  So we wallow in the grace of God and the freshness it gives as we sing and say, “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love”. Like a pig in mud, the grace of God covers us completely and is God’s answer to our prayer, “Have mercy on me, O God”

Having come with empty hands, wallowed in the grace of God and been refreshed in the knowledge that the mercy of God embraces us and heals us, then it’s time to praise and glorify God’s name and celebrate how great is his love. 


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
22nd March 2015

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