Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 30, 2016

Psalm 32:1-7 Commentary

Psalm 32 is one of the seven penitential Psalms in the Psalter.  Not surprisingly, the Revised Common Lectionary sees it as a perfect fit for the season of Lent.  Indeed, I wrote on Psalm 32 just a few months ago for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (cf. the entry for Feb. 29 in the Sermon Commentary Archive on this same website).  The fact that it comes up again so soon may be a bit disconcerting to the preacher, but it is also helpful.  This rapid return to Psalm 32 on this 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time is a good reminder that penitence is not just a Lenten thing; it should be a part of ordinary Christian living and worship.

I have some anecdotal evidence that it’s not.  A colleague of mine reported on his experience in a church he had never visited before.  He was alarmed that there was no confession of sin or assurance of pardon in the liturgy for the service.  That “service of reconciliation” has been a standard feature of historical Reformed worship for centuries, so he was dismayed that it was missing.

I wasn’t surprised.  As I preach in various churches around West Michigan, I hear a fair amount of discontent with any theology that emphasizes sin.  “It’s such a downer, and we want to be lifted up.”  The last time I preached on another of the penitential Psalms (51), I saw many downcast eyes and unhappy faces in the congregation.  It was very clear that they didn’t appreciate a careful examination of sin and guilt and confession.  “We’ve had enough of that; let’s move on.”

Plus, such an emphasis on confession of sin may be a big turn off to seekers who are unfamiliar with all things Christian.  Those who have drunk deeply at the wells of postmodern relativism probably won’t have a strong sense of sin or any understanding of objective guilt (as opposed to guilty feelings).  So a Psalm that focuses on confession will be like a message from another planet or at least from another time, a relic from the bad old days.

A pastorally sensitive and evangelistically motivated preacher will have to take account of these negative reactions to Psalm 32.  But we shouldn’t skip around this profound Psalm because it is really about joy.  How can we help folks find the joy of forgiveness?  That’s the essential message and central purpose of Psalm 32.  It begins with its conclusion.  “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven….”

Here is a message that should appeal to both turned off church members and uninformed seekers.  Contrary to Psalm 1, which says that it is those who walk in God’s ways who are happy, Psalm 32 says it is those who have strayed but have been forgiven who are happy.  That is not an invitation to stray.  It is an assurance to the straying, to the Prodigal living in the pig pen, that there is a way home again, a way to be happy again.

I want to suggest four things that will help you preach Psalm 32 in a way that will make Prodigal children sing and dance with their Father.  First, stress the idea of blessedness, particularly the blessedness that comes with being forgiven.  As I said above, many people will have negative associations with this whole business of confessing sin, so we must emphasize that the Psalm begins and ends with great joy.  While the Psalms are filled with beatitudes, the double beatitude here, along with the triple description of forgiveness, suggests that the highest blessedness, the blessedness from which all other blessings flow, is forgiveness.

To help people experience the joy of being forgiven by God, focus on the three words Psalm 32 uses to describe forgiveness.  The Hebrew word translated “forgiveness” in verse 1 has to do with the lifting of a burden.  Work with the idea of struggling through life under the heavy load of sin and guilt.  The next word is “covered,” which suggests that God can’t even see the ugly blemish of our sin anymore.  The end result, says verse 2, is that the Lord “does not count our sin against us.”  That’s an accounting term; think of God cancelling debt or, as Romans 4 puts it more positively, giving us the credit of Christ’s righteousness.  The lifting of a burden, the covering of an ugly stain, and the cancelling of a debt are all images that will resonate with even the most biblically illiterate seeker. No wonder God’s forgiveness brings happiness unmatched in human experience.

However, some listeners might still be put off by the whole idea of confession.  Granted that forgiveness is a blessing, what we have to do in order to experience that blessing is so difficult that many won’t want to go there.  It’s too degrading, too embarrassing, too painful, too demanding.  So, in the second place, we need to help people realize that it is even more difficult to live with un-confessed sin.  David expresses that is verses 3 and 4.  “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long…. my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”

Modern psychology has taught us a great deal about the physical symptoms of emotional stress.  Psalm 32 teaches us about the physical symptoms of un-confessed sin.  These few words of Psalm 32 are expanded by Psalm 38, which goes on at great length to describe the day to day reality of sin-caused suffering.  That is not to say that all suffering is directly caused by some specific sin we have committed.  It is to say that keeping silent about our sin will make us suffer physically. Not confessing sin doesn’t just keep us separated from God (spiritual death), but it also takes a deathly toll on our bodies.

David adds a disturbing spiritual note to the negative physical consequences of keeping silent about our sin.  He says that “day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.”  Most scholars I’ve consulted ignore this part of Psalm 32, because it raises all kinds of hard questions about the relationship between our sin and our suffering and God’s anger (cf. Psalm 38:1-3).   This will be a real turn-off to many of your listeners, but they will notice it.  So what do we say?

Well, we can’t say that God sends this suffering upon us to punish us for our sins.  Job’s friends and Jesus’ disciples (John 9:1ff) voiced that common Jewish wisdom, but God in Christ said they were wrong about that.  What we can say is that God uses our suffering to bring us to repentance.  Not punishment, but chastening is the right idea.  Like a loving parent, God chastens us through our suffering, so that we come back to God in repentance and faith.  This will not be a popular idea, but it does assure us that God never leaves us alone, even in our suffering.  In his stern love, he uses even the pain of life to do us good.

To further avoid the idea that God is hard-nosed, and even heartless, we must show how swiftly and powerfully God forgives those who confess their sin.  In verses 5 and 6, David describes how he came out of his suffering silence.  It was not easy; it took effort; it may have taken him some time to do it.  After all, he suffered “day and night” under the weight and heat of his sins. But as soon as he confessed, God forgave.  It is instructive that it took David three lines to express his penitence and one line to describe God’s response.  God is slow to anger, but swift to forgive.

David helps us a great deal with his three line description of confession.  In the first line, he teaches us that confession is an acknowledgment of sin, admitting that what we did was wrong and what God says is right.  It is not enough to talk about errors, or mistakes, or misjudgments, or faux pas, or slip ups, or mis-speaking.  We must acknowledge sin to God—to God, for it is ultimately God against whom we have sinned.  Only this will lift the burden, cancel the debt and cover the blemish.

It is significant that David talks about not “covering up my iniquity.”  God wants our sins covered as much as we do, but only God can do that.  If we try to cover our sins, sin will only go underground and rot and cause an infection that will be deadly.  Only if we uncover our sin, only if we stop lying about it, only if, as verse 2 puts it, there is no deceit in our spirit—only then can we truly confess our sin.

And finally, in verse 5 David reports that he said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”  I will speak to God out loud about my sin.  This is crucial.  It is not enough to think about my sin, to feel badly about it, to plan to stop, to strive to be better.  David says that there is no remedy for sin until we confess it out loud to God.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever benefited from psychotherapy.  Brueggemann put it this way.  “Long before Freud, this Psalmist understood the power of speech, the need for spoken release and admission, the liberation that comes with actual articulation to the one who listens and can respond.”

That brings me to the fourth thing you should emphasize in order to help people experience joy when they hear this Psalm and, consequently, confess their sin and receive forgiveness.  It’s that word in what Brueggemann just said—“liberation.”  In another place Brueggemann puts it this way.  “Forgiveness permits the freedom to get on with living.”  In verse 6 and 7, the Psalmist describes the new life that comes to those who have been forgiven.  When they know that they are once again right with God, they experience the security our world so desperately seeks.

“Therefore, let everyone who is godly [not because they are perfect, but because they have been perfectly forgiven], pray to you…, surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.  You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble.”   Those words about mighty waters are probably a reference to ancient ideas about the waters of chaos and evil, but they will evoke more recent memories of flooded Southern States and a hurricane soaked East Coast.  In a world filled with trouble, what a comfort it is to know that we have a place to hide.  That place is a person, the person who has seen us at our worst, heard our humble confession, and accepted us into his everlasting arms.  Confession of sins results not only in peace with God (though that is central), but also in a more peaceful existence amid the troubled waters of this world.

When preached positively as suggested above, Psalm 32 is anything but a downer.  It is the ultimate upper.  No wonder our reading ends with the Psalmist surrounded “with songs of deliverance.”  When we have been so blessed, “how can we keep from singing?”

Oh, one more word.  Don’t forget Jesus when you preach on Psalm 32.  David doesn’t mention him, of course, but the fact is that the kind of forgiveness described and experienced and promised in Psalm 32 would not be possible without the sacrifice of Christ.  How could a holy God simply lift our burden, cover our ugliness, and cancel our debt?

In Romans 4:6-8 Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 as part of his teaching on justification and forgiveness.  But Romans 4 depends on Romans 3, where Paul says that we are justified and forgiven only because Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins (verse 25).  His sacrifice satisfied God’s justice, which had, hitherto, only passed over sins (verses 25, 26).  That is a difficult and currently unpopular thought, to be sure, but it is necessary if we are to assure people that God really does, in good conscience and with full knowledge and complete righteousness, forgive all our sins.  On that sacrifice all of our happiness depends.

Illustration Idea

Regarding my last point about the role of Jesus’ sacrifice in securing our forgiveness, an article in the Washington Post might be helpful.  Sgt. Joseph Serna had been through a lot.  The former Special Forces soldier did four combat tours in Afghanistan over a nearly two-decades-long career in the Army.  Through those years, he was almost killed three times: once by a suicide bomber and then again by a roadside IED.  During a tour in 2008, Serna and three other soldiers were driving down a narrow dirt road in Kandahar when their armored truck toppled into a canal.  As water filled the vehicle, Serna struggled to escape.  It was a fellow soldier, Sgt. James Treber, who saved him.  He pulled Serna from the vehicle, but then died himself.

While Serna’s years in combat earned him many military accolades, including three Purple Hearts, he was unable to leave the battlefield behind him.  He suffers from PTSD and has been charged with driving under the influence.  He entered a veterans’ treatment program over which District Court Judge Lou Olivera presides.  Serna has fought to stay sober, but he recently confessed to Olivera that he lied about a urine test.

Olivera sentenced him to one day in jail, and drove Serna to his cell himself.  Then the judge did a compassionate thing.  “When Joe came to turn himself in, he was trembling.  So I decided that I’d spend the night serving with him.”  Afraid that a night in jail would trigger Serna’s PTSD, this compassionate judge spent the whole 24 hour sentence in the cell with the hurting soldier.

We are moved by such unexpected compassion.  How much more should we be moved to sing songs of deliverance by what God has done for us in Christ!  Serna was a warrior wounded in brave service to our country.  We were enemies of God (Romans 5:10) and Christ not only came into our cell for a night, but gave his life in the darkness of Calvary. “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8)  No wonder Psalm 32 opens with the double “blessed are….”


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