On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re a little past mid-point on our journey to the cross, and Psalm 32 gives us an opportunity for a mid-course correction. It is very easy to make light of Lent by giving up something that doesn’t really matter or by playing at spiritual disciplines. Psalm 32 reminds us that the penitence at the heart of Lent is not merely a rote recitation of sin in a confessional booth or a carefully constructed part of the Sunday morning liturgy, but a deep, honest, open, intensely personal confession of sin to God. For a world that has forgotten what such confession looks like and what it can do for us, Psalm 32 is a perfect mid-course correction.
As I reflected on this Psalm, I thought about three “kings:” David, the king from ancient history whose experience led him to write this Psalm; Donald Trump, the man who would be king, the Republican presidential candidate who professes to have no experience with this Psalm; and Richard Nixon, the disgraced king, the President who was brought down by his cover-up in the Watergate scandal.
Until recently, most scholars thought that Psalm 32 was born out of the post-adulterous guilt of David in those days when he tried to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, before his crime was exposed by the bony finger of Nathan. “You are the man!” I see no reason to abandon that traditional understanding of this Psalm; it fits David’s experience perfectly. And it fleshes out David’s words in Psalm 32 with a real story.
I thought of Donald Trump when I began to reflect on this Psalm. Early in his campaign for President, he boldly proclaimed that while he is a Christian, he has little experience with the kind of confession described in Psalm 32. After he said, “I am a Protestant, a Presbyterian, and I go to church and I love God and I love my church,” a reporter asked him if he has ever asked God for forgiveness. He answered, “I am not sure that I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. If I think I do something wrong…, I just try to make it right. I don’t bring God into the picture.”
Some younger readers will not have my vivid memories of President Nixon and the Watergate scandal, but his name is synonymous with the word “cover up.” He was driven from office not so much by the fact that a group of lower level Republican operatives broke into the Watergate Hotel, but by the fact that he attempted to cover up his own involvement in that fiasco. It was not the original crime as much as his subsequent efforts to cover his guilt that brought him down. That’s what Psalm 32 talks about—the cover up.
Indeed, if I were to preach on this text, my sermon would be entitled “The Cover Up,” not only because David uses that word as part of his confession (verse 5), but also because that’s the word he uses to describe God’s forgiveness of his sin. “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” Further, the idea of being covered is suggested by David’s description of his post-forgiveness faith experience. “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble….” (verse 7) That reminded me of Moses hiding in the cleft of the Rock in Exodus 33, where God covered him with his hand as God passed by in all his glory. That, in turn, made me think of how Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after they fell into sin, and how God replaced their hastily devised cover up with skins from slain animals. That intimation of blood being shed reminded me of that famous text in Heb. 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” All of that brought to mind a central Old Testament conception of salvation that is currently out of favor with many preachers, the idea of expiation, which has to do with covering over sin with blood.
But I digress into my own thought processes. Let’s follow David’s train of thought. While the whole subject of the confession of sin sounds like a real downer, David clearly did not experience or explain it that way. His first word is a twice repeated “blessed,” and his last words are a call to sing and rejoice. In a world that follows a million different paths to happiness, David had discovered that there is no happiness in the deepest sense of being “blessed” without an open and honest confession of sin. Indeed, the Bible is filled with these Beatitudes, but Psalm 32 suggests that forgiveness by God is the first and principal basis for a truly happy life. That will come as news to a world wearing fig leaves and hiding from God. David’s words about confession and forgiveness are not an invitation to writhe in moral misery or to wallow in guilt or to blush with shame, but to sing for joy over the blessing of forgiveness.
David ends his opening riff on the blessedness of being forgiveness with a word that is crucial to forgiveness. Blessed is the person “in whose spirit there is no deceit.” That is the human secret of forgiveness; that is what God requires of us in the mysterious transaction of forgiveness. We must come to God with no deceit—not with no sin (that, after all, is why we must confess), but with no deceit. In what follows we discover that deceit can take two forms.
First, and most obviously, deceit can take the form of covering up our sin with a code of silence. “When I kept silent” out of fear (as Adam did) or out of stubborn pride (as Nixon did) or even out of ignorance (as do many today who do not know the Scripture at all), I suffered terribly. In words that anticipate modern psychology, David describes the physical, emotional and spiritual effects of covering up sins with silence. Through his suffering David experienced the hand of God upon him, not in grace, but in judgment. Does that mean that every episode of suffering is a judgment of God upon our sin? Of course not! Job and Jesus teach us not to think that way. But when we keep guilty silence, we do experience the heavy hand of God, even if we don’t know what we’re feeling.
The way to the blessedness of forgiveness, says David, is to stop being deceitful, and that means breaking the silence. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord….’” This breaking of silence is so important. It is not enough to feel remorse secretly, to counsel with oneself, to simply turn around and try to do better. Something has happened, something terrible, something that broke relationship, something that became part of the history between you and the Other, something that affected you deeply. For things to be restored, the silence must be broken. Only then can we experience full and free forgiveness. “I said, ‘I will confess… to the Lord’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
But there’s a second way we can be deceitful with regard to our confession of sin. We can be deceitful in the very act of confession– if it is a routine shallow mouthing of words, or if it is a thoughtless easy presumption on God’s forgiveness, or, more subtly, if we see our confession as an act of righteousness that earns God’s forgiveness. The honest truth is that God forgives us not because we confess our sins, but because Jesus’ blood and righteousness covers that sin. Today’s lectionary lesson from the Epistles puts it in this stunning way: “God made him who had no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (II Corinthians 5:21)” The confession of sins, then, is nothing more than a humble act of faith in God’s grace in Christ. Note how David emphasizes faith in verse 10; “but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the person who trusts in him.” As the hoary old hymn, Rock of Ages, put it, “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
David wanted to be sure that his awful/wonderful experience wouldn’t get lost in the mist of history, so he wrote this Psalm to instruct all Israel. In his speech to God, David is also addressing us. “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you (in this fashion) while you may be found.” Do those last words suggest that there may be a time when God can’t be found, when it is too late to confess our sins, when forgiveness is out of the question? We have a suggestion of an answer to that dreadful question in Isaiah 55:6. There we hear those same words about “seeking the Lord while he may be found,” but they are part of a passionate plea to return to the Lord and they are attended by a profound promise that he will always pardon those who do return. That seems to indicate that the only people who can’t find God and his grace are those who deceive themselves to the end, who never return, who keep silent about their sins and the Savior forever.
David didn’t want that to happen to anyone, so he writes this Psalm about confession and forgiveness to “instruct, teach, and counsel” his people. He begs them to learn from his example, rather than being like horses and mules that don’t have understanding. I wonder if his reference to using bit and bridle to lead those brute beasts is a metaphorical way of talking about God’s forceful ways of breaking our guilty silence. Is David saying something like this? Uncover your sins willingly so that God doesn’t have to lay his heavy hand on you. I know, we need to be very careful with such heavy handed warnings, but there is such a thing as severe mercy.
If you do take that tack in your sermon, be sure you don’t end there. Even as he began with the buoyant proclamation of blessedness, David ends with the blessed assurance that “the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him.” No wonder he calls on “the righteous” to “rejoice in the Lord.” Those who are upright in heart (because they have stopped being deceitful in spirit) can sing with joy to the Lord. That’s how a sermon on this penitential Psalm should be framed and preached—as a call to the joy of forgiveness, which comes only to those who walk the Via Dolorosa of deep, honest, open, intensely personal confession of sins. That’s the paradoxical Good News of Psalm 32. Those who uncover their sins before God will experience the joy of having their sins covered by God’s grace in Christ.
Every married couple has experienced the kind of guilty silence David talks about. In the depths of a marital dispute, it can be very hard to come clean and say that you were wrong and ask forgiveness. So we don’t always do it. But that un-confessed sin becomes part of the relationship, laying a brick of hurt and sorrow and anger between the two of you. If that happens often enough, a brick wall of offense given and taken can separate you. Finally the love is blocked and you are wondering about the future of the marriage. Simply feeling bad about it, wishing it were different, thinking about how to make it better, trying to act like everything is fine—none of that will fix a marriage broken by sin and the ensuring guilty silence. Only the hard work of confession and forgiveness can restore the joy of “unfailing love.”
David’s description of the suffering produced by his sin and guilt reminded me of the fevered thoughts and deeds of the murderer Raskalnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I just read an updated version of such suffering in the murder mystery, The Executor, by Jesse Kellerman. Joseph Geist is a hapless philosophy student; he is broke and homeless, recently estranged from his long time girlfriend, unable to finish his PhD dissertation after 8 years, and thus dismissed from the program. He finds a lovely home and a delightful companion with an aged woman who was herself a philosopher. Joseph is so happy with her that he will do anything to keep things as they are, including murdering her ne’er do well nephew and her meddling maid. So begins his suffering, which includes physical misery and eventual madness. And so it goes.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 6, 2016
Psalm 32 Commentary