Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 5, 2018
Psalm 51:1-12 Commentary
Years ago a British psychologist who worked inside Britain’s penal system described the startlingly loopy ways by which criminals attempt to sneak out from under their own crimes. He opened his article by reminding readers that in his pseudo-suicide note years ago, O.J. Simpson had the audacity to write, “Sometimes I feel like a battered husband.” Whether or not O.J. killed his former wife, one fact that is nowhere in dispute is that while they were married, he beat the living daylights out of her on more than one occasion.
But, according to this British doctor, O.J.’s reversal of who was the battered one is typical. He recounts a time when a man who had just been sentenced to life in prison for murder emerged from the courtroom red-faced with rage. “That wasn’t justice, it was a kangaroo court,” he fumed. “They didn’t even call no medical evidence!” “Oh,” the psychologist replied, “what kind of evidence should they have mentioned?” “What she died of,” the man snapped. “And what did she die of?” “Hemorrhage.” “How did she get the hemorrhage?” the doctor asked. “They pulled the knife out,” was the murderer’s reply.
Denial becomes amnesia, amnesia transmutes into innocence. The art of self-deception is one we each know well, though few would care to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First we deceive ourselves and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory can play such fanciful tricks on us, resulting in sometimes silly consequences and sometimes dire ones.
Of course, sometimes self-deception involves only this or that specific incident from our past. However, the larger self-deception in which we are involved has to do with issues of who we are. Most people are loathe to admit that they are just generally bent toward the bad, inclined to do it wrong. So when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, “You are a sinner,” most people these days reply, “What did I do?” If sin exists at all, it is merely episodic, an occasional (and inexplicable) “lapse” from our better nature, which is at bottom “pretty good.”
How foreign is the notion articulated by theologian Emil Brunner. Brunner once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his way on the average day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his coat instead of paying for it, does not exceed the speed limit, does not shove the person ahead of him in line for the subway, does not grab and grope at the co-worker whose sexy dress just flat out is turning him on that day.
In principle the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done it wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future. Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed–and even if they keep those promises–what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they will also remain just overall sinless.
Christians are often accused of being rather neurotic when it comes to sin. We leap from one wrong deed to the catastrophic conclusion that we are just generally depraved. Like the poet of Psalm 51 we claim that we’ve been sinful from the moment sperm met egg in our conception. And much of our world sees that and cries out, “Good grief! Aren’t you taking this guilt trip just a little bit far!?” We prefer to trace the reason for any given sin not clear back to some defect with which we were born but to more immediate surroundings.
One of the world’s first autobiographies was Saint Augustine’s Confessions. A hallmark of that work is Augustine’s willingness to confess his own sins and the perversity of heart which inclined him to commit them in the first place. Today the genre of spiritual autobiography is once again very popular, but with a difference: today people are more interested in confessing the sins of others. The way a certain author turned out was Mom and Dad’s fault, or because of a non-affectionate spouse, or because the company never really gave him his due and so squashed his sense of self-worth. But if your problems can get traced back to someone else, then not only have you rather nicely shifted the blame but you have also suggested a solution: you simply have to get some therapy to make peace with father, to re-build the self-esteem a careless lover stole from you, to feel better about yourself by garnering the goodies which you never got from your boss.
It is in this sense that Psalm 51 can serve as a bracing tonic. Here is a showcase display window of the elements that go into a well-rounded doctrine of sin. Two elements take center stage: one is the fact that it is the psalmist himself who is the problem, and the other is the notion that not only is God our judge, he’s right when he renders a harsh verdict. We properly stand before God, and God properly stands over against the shape of our lives.
The psalmist is unstinting in saying, “I am the one in need of repair! It’s my heart that needs fixing. No, it needs replacing.” So the psalmist begs for a new creation, for a radical re-wiring on the inside. There is in Psalm 51 virtually no hint of outward circumstances that contributed to this sin. The psalmist claims that he has been sinful since conception but he does not blame his mother or father for that, it’s just the way things are. Nor does he say that since he came into the world already bent, he’s just a victim of nature.
Instead he says that because he came into the world already corrupt, that is all the more reason to beg for new creation. Because he is willing to fess up in this psalm he feels the sting of God’s judgment, the crushing of his bones. He really feels bad. In fact, he’s downright miserable. He is very much, to borrow a contemporary phrase, “down on himself.” It is unrelenting.
Nevertheless, Psalm 51 is not finally bleak. Therein lies the mystery of faith. In the alchemy of grace words that are darker than dark lead to a brightness that cannot be quelled. The psalm begins drenched with grace. The first verse could be translated literally as, “Grace me in your grace, O God!” In the original Hebrew the first line is just three words, two of which drip with divine mercy. (A really literal rendering would be something like, “Grace, God, Grace!”) The last of those three words is a term I can never get enough of: the Hebrew word chesed. It’s the Old Testament’s favorite way of characterizing God. It is a word so redolent of good stuff, so fragrant of fresh starts, so freighted with joy, that no one has ever come up with an adequate translation. “Unfailing love,” “lovingkindness,” “abiding mercy” are a few of the attempts.
But what chesed is finally all about is the ineffable desire God has to forgive. Grace is the oxygen of heaven–there’s always more of it than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace, but not cheaply. God is not some ineffectual figure who is too much of a wimp to generate any anger. The fierce rightness of God’s judgment, the utter dread with which the psalmist faces the possibility of being cast out of the light, make it clear that God’s penchant for grace is not being invoked in a manipulative way.
But that is because a genuine awareness of God’s grace emerges only from a knowledge of sin’s seriousness. Here is a central wonder of the faith: the more soberly serious we are about sin and the reality of God’s judgment, the more joyfully exuberant we are about the shining splendor of grace and the way it drenches our lives with monsoons of forgiveness. We stand constantly under Jesus’ cross as the most stunning reminder of just how fierce God’s judgment on sin is. And yet we find joy emerging from the darkness, even because of the darkness!
We forget this at times, however. Those around us in society who dislike morose talk of sin and who think that being called a sinner is merely a neurotic affront are not the only ones who would just as soon skip topics related to sin and death and judgment. When it comes right down to it, we Christians are not wild about this, either.
In her book Traveling Mercies author Anne Lamott is unstinting in detailing her sins past and present, and they are the very sins that often make us the most uncomfortable: drugs, booze, bad language, and sex. She blames no one other than herself but gives unabashed thanks to Jesus for accepting and forgiving her the way she was and is, which, as she says, is mostly a mess. And there is little sense in making excuses about it or shifting blame.
We’re born bent, Psalm 51 tells us. We’ve got a problem that goes well beyond this or that isolated instance of sinful behavior. We need to face these dark facts. We need to tremble at the prospect of being cast out of God’s holy light. And if you think that sounds like a dark, morose way to live, if that all sounds like a “bummer” and a “downer” and just flat out no fun at all, that’s because you are forgetting the alchemy, the magic of grace.
You’re forgetting that this kind of honesty, this kind of straightforward acknowledgment of the way things are, leads to nothing short of a new creation through Jesus–the same Jesus who brought resurrection by facing death and hell for us. The rhythm of confession and forgiveness is the heartbeat of our lives. But so is an ever-deepening joy in grace–one which will put us on track to fullness of life with God in the New Creation.
Such a vision, such a hope for the world remade by God’s grace, is possible because that grace of God abides forever. It’s what allows us to take the risk of honesty and confession. It is what lets a few shafts of light from the New Creation pierce the darkness of our hearts already now. Attempting to skirt our own sin, ducking this way and that to avoid the truth about ourselves is a never-ending process that brings no peace.
“Let me hear joy” the psalmist cries out in verse 8. In the end he does hear this joy. Through the mystery and riddle of grace, that joy somehow emerges out of a reflection on death and sin and judgment. From that joy comes something else: the peace of God that surpasses all understanding; the peace of God that leads the way home.
Theologian Miroslav Volf once pondered the shape and nature of life with God in what we often call “heaven.” Volf speculated that even in our renewed state, the memory of what was bad in this world may still be there. Perhaps our conscious awareness of the good will require our being able to contrast good with evil. In other words, we will know what evil is, but we will never choose to do it because, as Volf writes, the love of God will so continually flood into our hearts that we will never have time or desire for anything else.
Our explorations of God’s New Creation, our sheer, unalloyed delight in one another, will provide a rich kaleidoscope of multi-layered and ever-changing patterns of joy. This will be a life so interesting, so filled with abiding curiosity to see what is around the next corner of God’s universe, that the thought of spoiling this will not occur to us.
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