Be Cared For

Scripture: Psalm 23

Saying the Wrong Things

It happens in an instant.

The phone rings. Death. Tragedy. Loss.
In a moment, the world turns upside down. Disorientation. Anger. Fear.
Your plans are meaningless. A funeral. An unexpected trip. An unforeseen expense.

It happens to all of us at some point in time or another.
And it certainly happens to our friends and family members, too.

 

What do we do when tragedy befalls a loved one? What do we say?

As a minster, I’ve heard it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as well-intentioned people attempt to fill the void in their friend, mother, son, brother, or other relative.

I stress “well-intentioned” because I believe that is true, regardless of how insensitive or presumptious our comments may be. We genuinely want to ease our loved one’s suffering.

We want to try to lift their spirits, so we say things like “Hey, it’s not so bad! Think of all those worse off than you!” or “Think of how much worse it could have been!”

The unintended result is that we invalidate their feelings and suggest they are overreacting to their circumstances. At a time when people are seeking comfort and peace, we infuse their troubled minds with guilt. Not helpful, to say the least.

Maybe other times we want to try to abolish their darkness—to affirm the light that is still there. Sometimes this means here as well we tell people to look on the bright side, but more often we speak insensitive slogans that do not stand up to any theological rigor. You know, things like: “I guess it was God’s plan.” Or, “God wanted your young daughter in heaven.” Or, “It’s hard to see from our perspective, but from God’s perspective it’s better this way.”

Woah. Let me say quite directly that there is nothing more insensitive and nothing more false that you can say to a person grieving death than to suggest that God has selfishly taken away their loved one without consideration for any other factor. Death is always tragic, often sudden, and quite frequently the product of the decisions human beings make in free will. When we say that “God made that drunk driver take out Aunt Susie because God needed her voice in the heavenly choir,” then what we speak is unkind, uncompassionate, unthoughtful, unChristian, and flat-out untrue.

We often say the wrong things, and when we do, we give power to the darkness that we are trying to abolish.

So what do we do? And how do we care for one another as our friends and family traverse their valleys of the shadow of death?

Psalm 23 (I believe) gives us an answer.

Psalm 23 Overview

We know this psalm. We use it in funerals. We read it in weddings. We recite it in worship. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 is the longest scripture passage most Christians ever bother to memorize.

And it is a prayer. It is a song. It is a testimony of life, of provision, of protection, and of presence. It bears witness of God’s faithfulness and presence in times of blessing and plenty, and in times of starkness and danger, both when cups overflow and when enemies surround.

Where is God in Psalm 23?

God is “with me.” That is where God is in each and every moment of the Psalmist’s testimony.

  • God is the shepherd, who is with the Psalmist in ensuring needs are met.
  • God is the one present in leading to places of provision and protection.
  • God is the one who dispels fear—why?—because of God’s presence, both literally and through the symbols of God’s power and strength.
  • God is the one preparing celebration, even in the midst of threat.
  • God is the one anointing and equipping for the challenges and mission of life with God.
  • God is the one responsible for the goodness and mercy that the psalmist experiences.

Where is God? God is present.

And it is God’s presence that dispels the darkness the psalmist experiences, that allows him to depart that dark valley and return to the fertile plain, that makes him able to survive the threats and attacks of his enemies and come to a place of feasting and celebration again. It is God’s presence that does those things, for the psalmist and for us.

“Christian”

Now we call ourselves Christians, and what does that mean? It means we are “little Christs.” It means that we embody Christ’s presence and love in this world by shaping our walk and way of life to conform with that of our Savior. That’s what it means. And if you’re not willing to “walk as Jesus walked,” as the author of 1John puts it, you shouldn’t be calling yourself a Christian, no matter how many times you go to church.

So now if we are “little Christs,” and if Jesus is in fact the incarnation of God in the world (in other words, Jesus most fully shows us who God is and what God is like), then it follows that in seeking to be Christian, we are seeking to be God-like.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. As we read in Psalm 23, we see God ministering to the psalmist in a time of tragedy and great need. But God doesn’t say: “Look on the bright side; it could be worse!” Nor does God suggest that the psalmist’s perspective is too small or his faith is too weak by claiming that “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

What does God do? God walks with the psalmist. God is presence—beside the still waters and in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of enemies and in the house of God. God is present—always, completely, fully present.

Now I can’t tell you how or why presence works so effectively for us (I have some theories, but they are all incomplete pictures at best), but I can certainly state with confidence that there is nothing so powerful as the presence of a friend. There is nothing so caring that we can do for each other than to be present with them and for them, in times of joy and in times of sorrow.

The truth is, we have nothing that we can say. No words will take away the pain. No explanation will somehow remove the sting of suffering. And we should exercise far more caution before presuming to speak for God.

But there is something we each have to offer, regardless of our circumstance. And that is our presence. And offering our presence is a very godly thing to do.

Two Sides

Now there are two sides to this.

There’s the caregiver side. You are the one who wants to care for your friend that has experienced tragedy. Your mere presence—even a silent presence—dispels more darkness than all the words you could say and all the casseroles you can bake.

But there’s also the care-receiver side. You are the one who is experiencing tragedy and loss. And more and more, I see people who insist on going through these things alone. That breaks my heart. So-and-so has cancer, but doesn’t tell anyone until it’s in remission. Him-or-her lost her job, but won’t tell anyone because she feels shame. This person’s son is being bullied. That person’s sister is being abused.

And they do it alone. I don’t know, maybe your’re just stronger than I am—I just know that my instinct is to close out the world as well.

What I am learning is that we are preventing our own healing by shutting out each other. We are prolonging our suffering by isolating ourselves. We are blocking the light from dispelling the darkness that we are in.

As Christians—the presence of Christ—the presence of God in the world—we have the ability to be a healing presence in the lives of those we know. But it cannot happen if we are not willing to be cared for.

Being Cared For

Let me tell you a story. I’d been a minister for about three years. I’d been in-and-out of hospitals more times than I could count. I’d sat with families in surgical waiting rooms. I’d held hands with people while they breathed their last breath in earthly life. Weddings. Funerals. Baby dedications.

Though it had only been three years, I had really walked with a lot of people through a lot of dark valleys and even along some fertile plains beside still waters.

But then I had my own surgery—a hernia repair. And six weeks later, my appendix burst.

My instinct—despite what I knew, preached, and attempted to live out in that community of faith—was to close myself off. Show no weakness. Get better before revealing how bad I was.

But you know what? No one listened.

I was inundated by friends and members of that congreagation who insisted on visiting and being with me. With many of them, it was a complete role reversal, as I had been visiting them in the hospital just weeks or months prior.

No one offered empty platitudes, trying to make sense of my suffering for me. No one suggested God caused my appendix to burst (though many of us recognized God’s provision in getting me safely and quickly to where I could receive treatment).

These people came to sit with me. They came to be a healing presence when I was broken.

And I have never forgotten that. Because it worked. Being cared for by the ministry of presence healed and strengthened me in ways that I cannot explain. The Lord, it was clear, was with me through them, shepherding me, leading me to green pastures, walking with me through the darkest valleys, standing with me in the presence of my enemies. Ever present, overflowing the cup of my life.

Ministry of Presence

Many churches say that “every member is a minister.” I used to be a member of a congregation that printed that above the pastor’s name on the bulletin each Sunday.

And I believe it. Every member is a minister, and each of us has the responsibility of caring for one another. We probably don’t do a good enough job equipping our members for their ministry of being caregivers. But please remember that the best, most powerful, and often only thing we have to offer is the same presence that God graces to us—in the good and the bad, when things are easy and when things are uncomfortable, in times of plenty and in times of desperation.

It is in God’s image that we are made, and it is our gift of presence—when everyone else runs away—that makes us more fully like God.

 

Be willing to be cared for—it truly will change your life.
And care for each other, just as God cares for you.

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Be Patient

Psalm 95

Exodus Background

First, some background from Exodus 17:

Many moons ago, in the land beside the Great Sea, the once-great people of God continued their quest. This journey began countless generations ago with their ancestor Abraham. It is said that God himself initiated this quest by promising Abraham an expansive land in which to live. But more than just land—God promised a place in the world——Oh! Is there anything we long for more—then or now?—A place to fit. A place to be.

Like all quests, this quest has not entirely gone as planned. God is unwilling to force out the people who already live in this land—not without due cause—and this delays the quest. All is further delayed when Abraham and others make decisions that are not consistent with God’s intentions. And then there are the extenuating circumstances—famine, illness, human nature……

Many generations later, the quest almost died out. Abraham’s descendants were slaves in Egypt. They were oppressed. They had no hope. The quest might very well have died out then and there.

But God proved to be committed to this quest. Taking that one, tiny, faltering coal, God breathed on it, blowing it to white again, catching its heat on others, and building it back to a roaring bonfire once more.

That fire was an event we call the Exodus, an event where God spactacularly, miraculously, and dramatically freed Abraham’s descendants from slavery. They leave Egypt wealthy, protected, and provided for. There is now no doubt—the quest continues. And the people of God journey on this quest with God.

But the people of God are human beings. And we human beings are a strange lot. We are insanely resistent to direct, frontal attacks, weathering some of the most inhumane treatment history has imagined. But yet we prove to be infinitey vulnerable to subtle, small inconveniences. Like soft drops of water on a stone, we do not believe them a threat. And yet, like soft drops of water on a stone, they bore holes through our souls.

The once-great people of God have witnessed the Egyptian plagues, the have crossed the Red Sea, they are being fed daily by manna from heaven—literally. But they’re thirsty. And so that distraction and inconvenience of cottony mouth threatens to end the quest once and for all.

Needing water—espeically in the desert—is not a minor inconvenience at all. But as the quest bears witness—and as our human nature testifies—our minds break well before our bodies.

The once-great people of God forget their quest, forget their history of questing with God, forget the protection and provision that God provided even that very morning. As their minds are bored through by the steady drip-drip of thirst, they lose all ability to be rational. Turning to hysteria, the once-great people of God fantisize about returning to Egypt instead of achieving their quest for a place, and they consider murdering their leader Moses.

The once-great people of God have become weak. They have lost their faith. They have chosen not to believe, despite all the recent miraculous evidence to the contrary. They choose to end the quest.

But God will not allow it.

In the early days of the quest (Gen 15), God vowed a vow to Abraham. In making this covenant, God invokes a curse on his own head if he fails to bring this quest to its end. God will not give up, even when the people of God do. God will not relinquish the quest, even when all hope is lost.

So God relents. God gives them what they want, even though they don’t need it as badly as they think, even though this doesn’t fit within God’s primary purposes, even though they don’t deserve it.

A rock is struck by a staff. Water—miraculously, once again—flows out. The quest continues.

There are consequences—there are always consequences—but in God’s great mercy, the once-great people of God continue on their quest with God. Always being pushed towards the same goal, but ever fluid on the path they take. Always weak, but never given up on. Because the quest—the quest must continue. It must—for God’s sake and for our own.

 

“Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1).

This is the song and prayer of a people “who have had every reason to follow God’s voice yet for some inexplicable reason have failed to do so” (Fisher, Feasting, 80). That makes it pretty familiar to me and my own story of questing with God in discipleship.

 

It also makes me think of the miracle we witness each week when we come into this place. I mean, we should be genuinely astonished that “Sunday after Sunday, folks leave the New York Times, the Internet, cups of coffee, and cozy beds, to gather to worship God” (Burns, Feasting, 81).

And more than just the distractions—there is our own uncomfortable history with God. Our own once-greatness, and our too-often-pettiness. There is our history of failing almost immediately after soaring.

We cannot go to God without being reminded of the times we have failed God and ourselves, and of the deep canyons of consequences that cut across the spiritual landscape of our lives.

If we look at things honestly and with humility, we really should be astounded that there is anyone here at all.

But then again—whether we think so or not—we are not here because of our own intentions. We are here because we are called to worship—by God and by one another.

Some of us come because when we remember our failures, we are also fortunate enough to remember the rescue of our Great God. So we gather, and we praise the one who is the Rock of our salvation, our deliverance.

Others among us come because we realize that God made us: “We are alive because God allowed that it was a good thing to be” (Burns, Feasting, 81). So we gather, and we praise the One who makes all things possible.

Still others are drawn toward the contemplation of God, believing that God still has something powerful to do with the world and with those who live in it: What does it mean when we say these things? How is God at work in the world? So we gather, and we praise the God who continues the work of creation and re-creation around us and through us.

For others, God is beyond knowing—beyond contemplation. These somehow know deeply the distinction between human beings and God, between creature and creator—a distinction that is essential for the life of faith. So we gather, and we are driven to our knees and we lift up “holy hands” in praise of the One God, now and forevermore, Amen.

We are here today because we are called (by God and by one another) to worship and to continue the quest of extending the light of God’s love to the world.

 

Like our ancient Israelite cousins, our lives of faith can be a bit circular. We try, we fail; God reigns us in, adapting and tweaking God’s desires and intentions to adjust for our new reality. And then it starts over and over again.

It is as the Preacher proclaims in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

This Psalm is a bit like that. I don’t know how it was actually sung or otherwise used in worship all those years ago, but I look at it a bit like a round.

You know what a round is, right? Like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” [SING WITH CONGREGATION]

Psalm 95 starts off with worship: “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” All is good. God is close. We are safe. The quest is strong.

But then life gets hard. We get distracted. Our hearts lose their ability to recognize God’s love, and we mistakenly think we are in the power position to test God. Perhaps we too want to give up the quest altogether.

And then God adapts—God has to adapt if we have the free will to act outside God’s desires and if God wants to keep working with us. Maybe the situation is now less than ideal, but God is working as best God can with the limitations our decisions place on God.

Somehow thereafter, we recognize God’s grace, and we are swept back into that place of wonder and adoration, of gratitude and praise. Back to the top: “Let us sing for joy to the LORD.” The quest continues.

Praise. Failing. Loving.
Praise. Failing. Loving.
Praise. Failing. Loving.

Locked in this eternal fugue with God, living the circle of life that is encapsulated in the canon of Psalm 95. Round and round and round we go.

 

In both form and content, I believe this psalm teaches us to be patient.

We are to be patient perhaps first and foremost because God is patient with us.

The story behind this psalm also reminds us to be patient in that it illustrates how the inconveniences that lead to our impatience are usually less severe than they appear to us, on account of our defenses being weathered down.

But perhaps most importantly, we are to be patient because the cycle comes around again. The sun sets and it rises. When we maintain the quest with God, those places of failing will be redeemed and we will again praise God. The darkness cannot continue forever. It will not overcome the light, as John promises in the first chapter of his gospel.

So wherever you are, however you are: Be patient.

 

As the old hymn proclaims: God will take care of you.

Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you;
beneath his wings of love abide,
God will take care of you.

Refrain:
God will take care of you,
through every day, o’er all the way;
he will take care of you,
God will take care of you.

Through days of toil when heart doth fail,
when dangers fierce your path assail,
God will take care of you.

All you may need he will provide, nothing you ask will be denied,
God will take care of you.

No matter what may be the test, lean, weary one, upon his breast,

Refrain:
God will take care of you,
through every day, o’er all the way;
he will take care of you,
God will take care of you.

As the great and once-great people of God, I encourage you to be patient: God will take care of you.

Amen.

Be Willing to Trust

Scripture: Psalm 121 

I Had the Flu…

This past week I had the flu. My daughter got sick a full two days before any of the rest of us showed symptoms, so we’re quite sure she brought it home from school. But just about the time she was starting to feel better, all three of the rest of us succumbed to the plagues waiting for us in the ninth circle of stomach flu hell.

Believe it or not, this is appropriate for our text today. Because even when I started feeling better, I was very uneasy eating—I still am. My stomach and I don’t trust each other anymore. My stomach thinks I am going to put things in it that will send it heaving again; and I think if I put anything in my stomach, it will reject it. We have a trust problem, my stomach and I. And the consequence of this is that neither of us is getting much of what we want.

 Talk through Psalm 

The Psalm we’re looking at and learning from today is one that addresses the question of trust. It begins with a question—perhaps the question—that defines so much of our turning to God:

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?”

This is the age-old question that is asked in times of hardship: Am I going to be helped? Is God going to come through for me? “Where does my help come from?”

The rest of the Psalm answers that question—answering both the “who” and “why” of trusting God to be our help.

“My help,” the psalmist begins, “comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (v.2). This is the “who” that the rest of the psalm will be speaking of. It is not just anyone who comes to help us: it is the very same Creator of heaven and earth.

If our help comes through the Creator God, is there any danger or peril in this world that this Creator God could not get us through?

Verses 3-4 then show us God’s constancy and faithfulness. “He will not let your foot be moved; he…will not slumber. He…will neither slumber nor sleep.”

You ever feel like maybe God forgot about you? Like God got busy trying to sort things out in the Middle East or something and you just sort of……fell through the cracks? I think somewhere inside, every person who has ever yelled “Where are you?” at the sky has felt something akin to what the psalmist is describing here.

He describes the sensation as being like God is asleep, an idea also taken up in Psalms 44, 78, and 132. But however you describe it, the confident assurance presented here is unequivocal: God doesn’t do that. God will never do that to you. Why? Because God is the keeper. And that brings us to the next part.

God is the keeper, but God is also your keeper, as we see in the next two verses (vv. 5-6). Six times in this psalm does this Hebrew root get used of God: keeping. In these verses, the psalmist speaks to ways that God keeps us through the literal and figurative dangers that parch us, burn us, dry us up, drive us crazy, and otherwise threaten our strength. As one commentator wrote: It matters not “whether one confronts the demons of the day or the nemesis of the night, God’s presence is affirmed” (Evans, Feasting, 58).

In the final pair of verses, God is still described as our keeper, but this time “keeping” means something a little more like “preserving“: from evil, from death, from harm—forever. Whatever dangers or temptations we face, wherever we “go out” to or “come in” from, God is working to “keep” us.

Therein lies the assurance. And therein lies the promise.

Throwaway culture

Now maybe all that’s fine and dandy, but what does it really mean to be “kept” by God? I mean, is this just more religious mumbo-jumbo that we say over and over and no one knows what it means?

Maybe. But let me try to help to build some understanding by making a couple brief comparisons for you.

My dad called me the other day. He had a decision to make—a decision that many of us have ourselves had to make. His car hadn’t been working right, so he took it to a shop. He found out it needed a new transmission. Because of my background in the automotive world, he wanted to know my thoughts: Was it worth it? Should he replace the transmission and keep the car, or should he junk it and buy another? Keep it, or throw it away?

My grandfather is a TV repairman. I remember (on our vacations) sitting in his shop, watching him work —a man surrounded by capacitors and resistors, tubes and transistors, all sorts of metering equipment (half of which I think he built himself), and the faint scent of silver solder in the air.

When I was young, I remember him turning away work because it interfered with his fishing. He had enough work to get by on, and he was never interested in being rich. That’s something I always admired about him.

Over the last thirty years or so though, I have watched his workload decline more and more and more. The newer sets were harder to work on, so the labor ended up being more expensive. Gradually, people started deciding it was more cost-effective to buy a new set than to repair the old one, or at least that was often the excuse.

He rarely gets any work these days. Why? Because when something breaks, we throw it away and buy a new one. It often doesn’t even cross our minds to try to fix it.

I knew a woman named Helen McCabe. Helen was 99 years old when I met her. She’d been alive through two World Wars and all of them since. She had seen the world from the Radio Age through to the Information Age. And perhaps most importantly for her own personal development, she had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Helen cut the fronts off all the cards she received. They would serve as postcards to other people. Ham and spam cans were transformed into Christmas dioramas and decorations. Worn out clothing was cut up to make quilts or more clothing. Everything she owned had been cared for, maintained, and repaired over and over for decades.

 Throwaway People

I’m not trying to gild a generation or polish up a difficult time in history. But I do notice a striking difference between Helen’s generation and that of my peers. The difference is that decision to keep versus throw away an item.

Though I resist it with ever fiber of my being (just ask April), I am of a throwaway generation. Something breaks, you replace it. That’s just what you do.

I can blame manufacturers for not making things repairable—and I often do. I’ve changed the oil in cars where you had to remove a tire to get the filter off, or you have drop out a frame crossmember in order to change the transmission fluid. I’ve owned bookshelves made of fiberboard. One of them was dropped when we moved, and it just shattered—I mean shattered. Manufactures don’t want to build things that last; they want you to buy more, so they build things with limited lifespans, so to speak—things that can’t be readily repaired.

But I do recognize that we are likely as much to blame. We started buying new things before our old things wore out because we needed to own the newest, best, trendiest sofa in the neighborhood. Since we only used things for so many years, manufacturers discovered they could cut costs by only making things that lasted that long. Then we got greedy, and decided that cheaper is better as long as it looks good. And everything went downhill from there.

Here’s where I’m going: We are all like my generation when it comes to relationships. Things get messy and we just want to cut ties. It’s easier and emotionally cheaper to just throw that one away and find a new one. I truly believe that this principle is what is at work below the surface of our nation’s divorce rate, the divide in our government, the polarization of our churches, and the reality that we have just flat ceased trying to engage in any civil discourse whatsoever.

That’s us. We are throwaway people. So when we get in trouble (like the Psalmist) and our eyes look towards the horizon for reasons we don’t fully understand, we expect that God has thrown us away. Just like we are so ready to do to each other, and to God.

But here’s the thing. God isn’t like us. God is a “keeper,” not a “thrower-away.” When we break, we are repaired or re-appropriated. But always kept. Always used. Always maintained. Because we are what God has, and (lucky for us) God doesn’t feel the need for new or sparkly or fashionable. God is content to have us, even as God works to shape us and use us more efficiently.

Assurance of Trust

Herein lies the promise and hope of Psalm 121: God is going to keep you. To use the language of the Psalm itself, the God who laid the foundations of the heavens and the earth will not let your foot be moved. The God who hung the sun in the sky will not allow you to burn up. The God who set the moon in place will not let darkness overcome you. The God who breathed spirit into you and made you a living thing will keep your life.

This is the promise and hope of this psalm, and it is here that we fully see the psalmist’s instruction to us this Lenten season:

Be willing to trust. God is not like us.
Be willing to trust. God will not throw you away.
Be willing to trust. “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
Be willing to trust.

Trust comes hard for throwaway people like us. But God is a keeper. And God thinks you are too.

Benediction: St Patrick’s Breastplate, adapted.

May Christ be with you,
Christ before you,
Christ behind you,
Christ in you,

Christ beneath you,
Christ above you,
Christ on your right,
Christ on your left,

Christ when you lie down,
Christ when you sit down,
Christ when you arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of you,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of you,
Christ in every eye that sees you,
Christ in every ear that hears you.

Go now today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.            Amen and Amen.

Be Honest

Scripture: Psalm 32

Sinners’ Anonymous

“Hi. My name is Michael. And I’m a sinner.”

That is an important confession to me. It may be the most important confession I make, because without first saying “I am a sinner,” I cannot also confess that “Jesus is Lord.”

Being a minister (as I am) means that I spend more time pondering and living in the midst of death than does the average person. At least that’s what I imagine. I’ve never really been average, so I suppose I don’t actually know.

But living in the midst of death (as I often do) means I eventually work my way around to thinking about the eventuality of my own passing into the next life. I think about what music I would like to be at the memorial service, the kind of message I hope gets delivered—that kind of thing.

I’ve wondered what people will say about me when I’m gone—and what they understood about my life and convictions and the way I chose to live in this world. I hope that all of that leads them to realize what matters to most me. I hope I have so lived consistently with what I have come to understand to be my personal statement of identity and purpose.

If someone asks you on that day: “How would Michael have described himself and his life?”; it is my prayer that my life has been so lived that you will answer: “He would say he was a sinner, who hoped for resurrection.”

Introduction to Series

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. And confession is one of those disciplines that demands practice during this season, as we examine ourselves, “practice” Christian love and life, and prepare ourselves for the darkness of the Cross that we know is coming.

We are going to spend Lent in the Psalms this year, gleaning wisdom and instruction from this ancient prayerbook that was so vital to Jesus’ own life and identity.

I love the Psalms, but I realize that I rarely preach from them. I’m still figuring out why that is, though part of it may be that I find their truths to be so clear and obvious that elaborating on them seems distracting. Regardless the reason, I expect to be stretched a bit as a preacher this year, and I hope that you are willing to be stretched a bit as “hearers of the word” and “disciples of Christ.”

Psalm 32

Lent is a season that conjures in our imagination visions of darkness and candles, of wood-paneled confessional booths, and of an absence of meat. It is a time that we spend looking inward: fasting, praying, purging.

But because of that focus, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that these things bring us to a place of celebration and joy, and that is the message of the Psalmist in Psalm 32.

In this song, the Psalmist tells us a story—a story that begins in the third verse of our reading.

The Psalmist knows his guilt—as we would recognize does God—but like for many of us, he has trouble coming to terms with the ways that he has not loved God with his whole heart; and the ways that he has not loved his neighbors as himself.

Without confession to God, his guilt eats away at his very body. The Hebrew literally says “my bones were worn out” (v.3). The Psalmist speaks of a heaviness upon him, of a weakness of both body and spirit.

The apostle Paul tells us in Rom 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death,” and I really believe that he is speaking both of the spiritual death of separation from God, and of a physical death that begins in this life, as our sins infect our bodies and live as a cancer that will only keep spreading. There are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions and consequences to our sin.

To remedy these ailments, there is but one prescription—one thing for us to practice: confession. Verse 5: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Amazing Free Will

Do you realize that in all God’s power, in all God’s might, in all God’s knowing and being, God cannot force anything on you? Not even forgiveness.

That’s amazing to me. It’s amazing that God won’t force on us even something so good for us as forgiveness. We have to open ourselves to it through confession. And confession is really nothing more than being honest with God about who we are: how we’ve failed and where we need healing.

It’s also amazing to me how hard God has to work to get us to accept forgiveness. Any half-wit can look around and see that none of us are perfect, that often Christians are the biggest sinners of them all, and that when we pretend otherwise all that comes of our efforts is death. But pretend we do, and insist we do, as though God can’t see through our ridiculous attempts to whitewash the tombs of our souls.

I mean, look at the Psalmist! He resists confessing his sin until his body is physically about to give out. Only then does he give in. Only then will he admit: he has not loved as he ought to love, he has not valued his neighbor as himself, he has not really reflected much of the light of God’s love at all.

I would contend that the Psalmist’s experience here is the normative one for we human beings. If you are the exception (who readily acknowledges and confesses the sin in your life), good on you; but I bet most of us do not acknowledge our brokenness any more readily that does the Psalmist here.

……To Joy!

And that really is tragic. Because confession opens the door to forgiveness, and in forgiveness is found great joy.

“After seemingly coming to the end of his strength and resources, the psalmist finally confesses his sin to God; he bares his scarred soul, and God forgives him” (Rohrs, Feasting, 37). What we see in Psalm 32 is the process and results of experiencing God’s forgivness.

(1) First, we are called to acknowledge our sins. Even before confessing, we have to come to a place where we inwardly recognize that truth of our brokenness. This doesn’t mean we have to make lists of every time we failed to love as God loves us. It means we come to realize the deep fundamental reality that we are not as we ought to be; we are not as God created us to be.

(2) Second, we are called to confess our sins. As Baptists, we tend to recognize that this means we confess them to God. But I do believe we have some responsibility to confess to each other as well. I believe Jesus teaches us that we have the power to forgive in Matthew 18, and therefore we have a sacred responsibility to speak forgiveness into the world. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues in his short book Life Together that no community of faith can exist without mutual confession.

What they are speaking about is a simple sort of honesty that must undergird any community of faith. If we cannot be honest about ourselves in community, we will not trust one another and we will not be a community. If any of us thinks we are better than someone else, it is because we acknowledge their sin but not our own.

(3) After acknowledging our sins and confessing our sins, we open the pathway to receive God’s forgiveness. As C.S. Lewis noted, “A man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness” (The Problem of Pain, 122). “The Psalmist experiences God’s forgiveness only after he has acknowledged his sins” (Wigodsky, Feasting, 34).

I realize this will seem off topic at first, but I am convinced there is nothing so pure and beautiful than a newborn baby. Within that tiny package lie all the hopes and dreams and possibilities that can exist in space and time. It is a new life. A blank slate. A baby can be anything.

In experiencing God’s forgivness, we are born again into new life, over and over again. The slate is wiped clean, we are given a fresh start. It is one of the most miraculous and beautiful things this side of glory. But it is one we do not experience as often as we could because we so resist the acknowledgement and confession of our sins.

(4) Fourth and finally, knowing God’s forgiveness brings us joy. This is the part we somehow often miss. Compare the Psalmist’s descriptions of his experience of not confessing sin against his experience of joy on account of God’s forgiveness. Which sounds better to you? Bones wore out, groaning, heaviness, and lack of strength? Or happy, protected, preserved, glad, steadfast love, and joy?

The joy of forgiveness far outweighs the darkness of wrestling with the reality of sin in our lives.

And why does forgiveness bring joy? Because in forgiveness, we experience the resurrection. Death becomes life. Guilt is washed away, and we stand before God without an indictment against us. Brokenness becomes wholeness. We are truly changed.

You see, so often when we encounter Lent, we only focus on the difficult parts. What are you giving up? Which extra services will you attend? How much are you sacrificing?

We forget that the end of all of this is joy.

There’s a bit of an unstated rule in the ebb and flow of the Christian calendar: You don’t get to celebrate unless you’ve prepared. You can’t properly celebrate the birth of Jesus unless you’ve prepared through Advent. You can’t properly appreciate the resurrection unless you’ve traveled the paths of Lenten preparation.

There’s some truth to all this, as we can see in the simple example of confession and forgiveness. Without confession, there can be no forgiveness, and forgiveness is a deep wellspring of joy.

As American Baptists, we don’t often sing the somber Lenten hymns that are prevalent in other Christian traditions. But this week, I encountered a new-to-me hymn that I think really gets to the heart of Lent. One verse goes like this:

To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come near.
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.
(Quoted in Wigodsky, Feasting, 36)

Listen to the wisdom of Psalm 32 today: be honest. Be honest about who you are and where you fail. For without that honesty, you will never know the forgiveness and joy that God is waiting to pour into your life.

A commitment to honesty before God and before one another is perhaps the best way to begin this Lenten journey as well. Because, as the Psalmist reveals to us, without that initial turning, we cannot experience the fullness of the life that God desires for us.

“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them, and in whose spirit is no deceit.”

On account of this assurance, I know there is no confession that can bring me joy like the simple confession that I am a sinner.

Hi. I’m Michael. And I’m a sinner.