Scripture: Psalm 32
“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.”
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.
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.