Psalm 51 will probably provoke very different reactions in most congregations. Some will be bored and skeptical because it is so familiar, and “familiarity breeds contempt.” Been there, done that, doesn’t work. Some will be scornful and dismissive because it is so out of fashion. Nobody thinks like this about sin and guilt anymore; it’s so yesterday.
To capture the imagination and interest of those two diverse groups, I suggest using a vivid image and a couple of true stories. The image that I’d suggest comes from verse 7; “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Even though it is still early fall, the image of snow and winter will give you some imaginative purchase on your listeners. Here are the two stories, one from my personal experience and one from today’s political headlines.
The young woman was distraught. She sobbed, “I’ll never be able to forgive myself and get back to where I was before I did all this.” She was a fine young Christian woman, raised in a devout Christian home. She had gone to church, Catechism, Christian school, and a Christian College. She was a faithful member at church, she and her husband. They had been married several years when things began to go bad for them. Gradually they grew apart, until there was very little left in the marriage for her. That’s why, when a man at work began to get friendly, she was vulnerable to the affair she was now confessing to me.
She felt trapped. She couldn’t imagine going back to her husband because in her eyes the marriage had been such a disaster. But she knew that what she was doing was absolutely wrong, contrary not only to the way she was raised, but also to everything she believed with all her heart. She felt as though she had ruined her life, but she didn’t know what to do next. That’s when she said, “I’ll never be able to forgive myself and get back to where I was before I did all this.” She was frozen in “the winter of her sin,” as the old Easter hymn put it, completely stuck in great gritty drifts of guilt. It was the bleak mid-winter of her young life.
The other story comes from the Presidential campaign of 2016. At a campaign event in Iowa, Donald Trump raised many eyebrows by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness, even though he claims to be a Christian. (Don’t worry. This is not going to an anti-Trump screed. I’m merely using his words as an example of a widespread attitude to sin and guilt, and thus to Psalm 51.)
In an issue of First Things, Matthew Schmitz traced the roots of Trump’s comments back to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, whose church Trump often attended. With his philosophy of Positive Thinking, Peale promised his readers “constant energy.” Schmitz writes of Peale: “Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that ‘the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear’ was so great that it left ‘only a fraction of energy’ for going about one’s tasks. Where the Bible urges us to search our hearts and know our faults, Peale encourages us to ‘make a true estimate of your own ability and raise it ten percent.’ Thus the necessity of repentance recedes. It is important to think positively, and a negative thought, such as Domine, non sum dignus, can be injurious to spiritual health.” The person who thinks that positively will never feel the chill of a mid-winter guilt in the soul; “for Peale [the heart’s] dark recesses are bathed in California sunshine.” Such a person feels no need to be washed whiter than snow.
Both Mary and Donald need to hear the careful confession of Psalm 51, so that they can discover (again) the “joy of salvation.” (verse 12) It was written by a man who knew both the despair of Mary and the pride of Donald, a king with absolute power whose heart was as black with guilt as his hands were red with blood. But King David had discovered that it is possible to get your life back, to once again enjoy the springtime of your soul.
In the rest of Psalm 51 David piles up phrases to describe how fresh and clean life can be when you are washed whiter than snow. Your ears are filled with joy and your broken bones rejoice, your heart is pure and your spirit steadfast, your sense of God’s presence is vivid and you know the Holy Spirit is within. In a word, you are filled with the joy of salvation. If God washes you, you can be whiter than snow, and start life over again.
We all know that promise. But to many of us, it doesn’t seem to work that way. I mean that we have confessed our sins until we are blue in the face. We have heard God’s assurance of pardon proclaimed in church and in the depths of our own souls. In that moment perhaps we felt clean and pure, washed whiter than snow.
But we have found that the spotless white snow of God’s grace all too soon gets mixed with the grit and grime of sin. Sometimes in spite of our attempts at confessing our sin and in spite of hearing God’s repeated assurance of pardon, unresolved guilt lies frozen in the depths of our soul like old snow on the side of the road. Other times, we remain stuck in sin because we travel roads rutted with the ice of old sins. And still other times, we slide off the road into new sins because we have this slippery habit of justifying whatever we want to do. Our lives are so habit bound, so frozen and so deep, that we can’t really forgive ourselves and begin life anew and remain white as snow.
If you’ve ever felt that way, let me tell you about an ‘Aha moment’ I had a number of years ago that helped me understand what it takes to experience the warm joy of this snowy promise. The computer lovers in the church office were talking about the new scanner we had just purchased for their computers. Like all scanners, it could copy a printed page right into your computer. You run the scanner over the page and, voila, there is that page in the computer. Up until that time, however, you couldn’t work with the scanned-in page. Our executive assistants were celebrating the fact that they now could do that. They had just received a new software program enabled them to revise the scanned page any way they wanted. For example, on the day were talking about all this, a church member came in to have a mission letter scanned, but as he gave it to the secretary, he noticed a typo. “Oh no,” he moaned. “Now I have to re-type the whole letter.” “No problem,” replied the secretary, “We have this new software.” She scanned in the letter, revised it, and the letter was totally perfect.
I’m always intimidated by whiz bang technology, but I cover it with sarcasm. So I said, “How long will it be until they are able to scan in our lives, use some unimaginable new software, and correct all the mistakes, so that the edited life is totally perfect. Think of it. No typos, no errors, no little sins, no big sins, no old habits, no flawed character, no inherited depravity. Totally perfect.” To which someone said, “It’s already been done.” And I said, “Aha. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”
That helped me understand why some of us are stuck in the bleak mid-winter of our sin. To be washed whiter than snow, you have to scan your sin and you have to use the new software. Here are two contemporary images to add to the image of winter’s snow. We need both scanner and software. Let’s use those images to parse Psalm 51.
A scanner reads every single mark on the page; it doesn’t miss a thing. Often our scanning, our confession and repentance, isn’t as thorough. Listen to the way David scans his sin in Psalm 51. He begins with a plea for mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion.” He did not say, “Have mercy on me according to my good intentions, or according to my relative innocence, or even according to my faith, but simply according to God’s love and compassion.” To be washed whiter than snow, you have to get rid of any notions that you deserve to be washed.
In fact, in vs. 3 David says that becoming whiter than snow depends on knowing exactly the opposite. Notice how vs. 3 puts it, “For I know my transgressions.” Wash me, because I know how sinful I am. He knows because, he says, “My sin is always before me.” Denial is such a powerful psychological barrier to scanning sin. We want to turn away from it, just forget about it. But before you can safely put your sin behind you, you have to face it squarely in all its ugliness. You can’t move on to new life, until you keep sin before you long enough to see its full sinfulness.
David did, and that’s why he says, “Against you and you only have I sinned….” That sounds as though David is brushing aside his terrible sins against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. But that’s not what he is doing. Rather, he is naming the heart of his sin. It’s not just that I did this to other people. Often that’s a way of downplaying sin. Well, after all, she was taking a bath on her roof. And he did act foolishly in battle. There’s always something someone else did that excuses our sin. But David wants nothing to do with such justification. He faces the fact that he has rebelled against God in what he did.
That’s why he calls it evil in vs. 4. It was not just a moral failure, not just a slip of decent behavior, not just a spiritual faux pas. It was, simply, Evil. To be washed whiter than snow, you have to confess the evil of your sin. Then you can say to God, “You are absolutely right, O God, in judging me for what I did, because what I did was evil.”
Furthermore, says David in vs. 5, it’s not just what I did. It’s who I am. My sin was not some rare aberration in an otherwise flawless life. No, this sin sprang from what I have been since my earliest days. I’m not a good person who slips occasionally. I’m a born sinner, inherently, genetically disposed to sin.
And it’s not that I didn’t know any better, because I did. Vs. 6, “You desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” I know exactly what you desire, O God. You have taught me your way, and I understand it deep within. But I have chosen to believe a lie and play the fool. I have baldly and boldly gone against what I know is your will for my life.
That’s what it takes to be washed whiter than snow. You have to scan every detail of your sin. But even that won’t do it. You also have to use the new software. The world is full of people who agonize over their sin the way David did, but they cannot find relief from the stain of sin and experience the joy of being washed whiter than snow.
I think of the great Reformer Martin Luther. He tried absolutely everything to get rid of his unresolved guilt, continued sin, old habits, self-justifying attitude. But no matter what spiritual exercises or moral acts Luther performed, he could never feel clean. He was stuck in the bleak mid-winter of his guilt and shame, until he rediscovered the good news about what God has done to wash us whiter than snow.
God invented this new software, God in human flesh. The eternal Son of God was born as a soft and cuddly baby. He grew into a flesh and blood man who bore our sin and shame, so that by his suffering and death on the cross, we might become totally perfect in God’s sight. An old song now out of favor captures the Gospel in memorable lines. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Oh precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know. Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”
But God also wants to install new software in forgiven sinners—a heart of flesh where there was a heart of stone. That’s what David prays for in verse 10. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” No amount of confession, on the one hand, and no amount of positive thinking, on the other, can change who we are inside. Only the grace of God can do that. And the grace of God comes to those who are honest enough with themselves and God to really scan their sin. Then the grace of God can supply the software necessary to experience “the spring of your soul today.”
In her book Glittering Images, Susan Howatch tells the story of an Anglican priest who has such a complete moral and emotional breakdown that he has to seek counseling. Early in his recovery he wants to confess his sins, so he can partake of Holy Communion. But his counselor won’t let him make confession. “You can’t really confess your sins,” says his counselor, “until you know them, and you really don’t know yours at this stage in your recovery.” In Psalm 51, David says, “I know my sins….” In what follows, he shows us that he really does.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2016
Psalm 51:1-10 Commentary