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Monday, March 6, 2017

First Sunday of Lent - Forgiveness (Psalm 32)

            This Psalm begins, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.”  Doesn’t that assume that the transgressor feels guilt and shame because of his misdeeds?  If he didn’t, he would not need the forgiveness to feel happy.  Maybe the sin itself gives him a thrill, a guilty pleasure, if you will. 
            Have you had that experience with sin?  You know a particular word is offensive, an abhorrent word, but you giggle when you hear it or say it.  Gossip; does it really even count sin?  And systemic sins – sinful systems; who ever heard of such a thing?  Am guilty for benefitting in a sinful system?  Seriously, who feels guilt over sin whether it’s individual or systemic?  You know the phrase.  I’m only human.  Why even make a big deal about disobeying God? 
            But this singer, in Psalm 32:3, says, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.”  Kept silence; he, or she, the singer, kept it inside.  Whatever the sin was, he buried it deep in his heart.   This Psalm is attributed to David and his most public of sins was to have an adulterous affair, try to cover it up, and then have the wronged husband, Uriah, murdered in a way that would protect him from guilt.  David committed both individual and systemic-power related sins in the Bathsheba episode.  You can read about it in 2 Samuel 11-12.  Psalm 32 is one of David’s confession songs. 
            However, the Psalms are portable.  What David sang, you or me or anyone could sing in reference to our own sins.  We could sing, if we feel guilty.   David had help feeling guilty.  He says in Psalm 32:4, “Day and night your hand, [O Lord], was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”  The way God’s hand fell on heavy David was through the confrontation provoked by the prophet Nathan. 
            God’s heavy hand sets upon us until we have to face our sin, the damage it does, and the guilt it throws on us.  Two of history’s most acclaimed authors have captured this guilt sin has wrought.
            We’ve already mentioned that a parable from the prophet Nathan provoked King David’s guilt.  In 1843 Edgar Allen Poe published “the Tell Tale Heart.” In the poem, the narrator is driven by his own madness to the kill the old man.  He thinks the murder and brilliant cover-up has relieved his gnawing insanity, but it only drives it all the more. 
            A couple of police officers come to the door because a neighbor heard a midnight cry.  The narrator has successfully hidden the body and the police officers are about to leave the house when his screaming madness awakens with a vengeance. 
Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men --but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed --I raved --I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

            Day and Night, God’s hand is heavy upon us in our sin.
            Twenty years or so Poe published his account of agonizing guilt in ‘The Telltale Heart,’ Fyodor Dostoevsky’s presents a similar theme in his novel Crime and Punishment where the gifted but starving writer and student Raskolnikov bludgeons the old woman Alena Ivanova.  She is stingy with her money and has no pity on this able, but poor young man.  The police suspect someone else in the crime, and that man commits suicide.  Raskolnikov is in the clear.  But, we are never in the clear. 
            Leaving Lieutenant Elia Petrovitch, Raskolnikov knows he is free, but when he steps from the police station, there she is waiting, his beloved Sonia.  She knows what he has done.
Her countenance expressed the utmost despair.  At the sight, Raskolnikov smiled, but such a smile!  A moment afterwards he had gone back to the police-office.  Elia Petrovitch was in the act of ransacking some papers.  “Ah!  There you are again!  Have you forgotten something?  But what is the matter with you?”  With pale lips and fixed gaze, Raskolnikov slowly advanced toward Elia Petrovitch.  [He] allowed himself to sink into a chair that was offered, but could not take his eyes off of Elia Petrovitch.  For a moment, both men looked at one another in silence.  “It was I – “said Raskolnikov.  “It was I who killed, with a hatchet, the old moneylender and her sister, Elizabeth, and robbery was my motive.”  Elia Petrovitch called for assistance.  People rushed in from various directions (p.421).

In the Psalm, David sings, day and Night, God’s hand is heavy upon us in our sin.  We are not murders like Raskolnikov or Poe’s narrator, or David for that matter, but sin rests just as heavy on us.  Our sense of guilt is enough to crush us and when it does not, God’s Holy Spirit convicts our soul.  When our conscience is dull and we seem content in spite of our words and deeds that hurt others, not bothered that we are agents of pain and deception, then God steps in and pricks the conscience and convicts the soul.  As long as we deny our need for forgiveness, we waste away, groaning all day.
However, there is hope – the best of hopes.  That’s the point of Psalm 32 and the simple message of this day.  There is a way out of this fog of sin, a fog so thick it is only cleared after God the son is murdered by us all when he’s nailed to the cross.  There’s a light that shows the path from crippling guilt and shame to unfettered freedom, a freedom that enables us to soar to the heavens. 
Again, the Psalm: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Happy are those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, in whose spirit there is no deceit” (32:1-2).  David knew that happiness because he confessed, received forgiveness, and rose to stand as a new man.  He says as much in the Psalm.  “I acknowledged my sin to you … and you forgave” (32:5).  It is a basic, central Christian belief.  When we confess our sins by name, repent of those sins by turning away from them, and turn to Jesus, we are forgiven and we are made new.
In this Psalm, God is not an angry judge waiting to crush us in our guilt.  It is our guilt itself that crushes us.  In the Psalm, God’s heavy hand is meant to lead us to confession that we might be forgiven and rescued from the weight of our sins.  Verse 6 says, “Let all who are faithful offer prayer to you.”  And in the next verse, the singer sings to God, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance” (32:7).
Confession is freeing.  We fear it because walking through our guilt is painful, but God walks with us.  And the church must walk with people so they don’t have to face their own shame alone.  We cannot be a judging community that compounds the pain and shame of the guilty by rejecting them.  We have to imitate our Lord by forgiving as God forgives. We have to be a community of grace, a community in which grace is extended to all.
In this way, and only in this way, does confession bring freedom.  And, O, what freedom it is!  Dostoevsky captures it well at the end of Crime and Punishment.  Sonia goes with Raskolnikov to Siberia.  She will wait for him to serve out his 7-year prison sentence.  She has been his conscience, by her purity forcing him to confess, and staying with him when he did.  She did not preach at him, but she lived her faith.  She gave him a New Testament, but never forced him to read it.
On the last page, he sits in his sell, holding the closed Bible, contemplating all that has happened: his crime, his confession, Sonia’s love for him.  He notes that as hard as things have been for her, “nothing could take her joy!”  And thinks to himself, “Her faith, her feelings, may not mine become like them” (p.434).  The books ends, “Now a new history begins: a story of the gradual renewing of a man, of his slow, progressive regeneration, and change from one world to another – an introduction to the previously unknown realities of life.”  Those are the realities of the happiness and freedom we have when we turn to God in Christ and receive forgiveness. 
A final note from the Psalm reiterates the necessity of grace from God to us and from us to one another.  Verse 10 says, “Many are the torments of the wicked.”  And we might expect the next stanza to say, “But great are the delights of the righteous.”  However, it does not say that.  It says, “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” 
The contrast is not between the wicked and the obedient, the sinful and the righteous.  David, the singer of this Psalm, knows we all sin.  The contrast is between those who are miserable because they are stuck in sin and don’t see the way and just suffer the pain of it all, and those who, in the midst of the messes of their own making, turn to God and trusted God.  God can be trusted with our junk, with our messes.  “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.”
Enter that freedom today.  Fully confess your sin today and look to the cross and know that you are forgiven.  One of the ways God makes things right in the world is the gift of freedom.  God frees us from our own sins by forgiving and making us clean and new.  Confess today, and receive the new life God offers.
When we do that, then the final verse, Psalm 32:11 is ours.
“Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (32:11). 


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