Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Psalm 51 -- Evaluating Our Walk with God

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
            We usually come in contact with Psalm 51 on Ash Wednesday, but the people who put our lectionary together must have seen that it ties in with the other readings for this day, so we’ll examine it for the next few minutes and think about where we stand in our journeys with God. 
            Every journey has an outcome and we are looking ahead to Jesus’ return and everlasting blessedness with God in heaven, but each day along the way is important.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians:  “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  Some of the benefits of salvation come to us right now – friendship with God, the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of a better life, fellowship with other believers.  Paul meant that now is the time to take hold of God’s gifts with our minds and hearts and wills.  We don’t wait for big day on the church calendar or the hour of death to take hold of God in faith.  We do it now, since today is the day of salvation.  Each moment has its special value, each hour belongs to God, so we take a look at where we are right now.
            We’ll begin with what may look like a digression.  We look at an episode in the life of another traveler on a journey.  King David, who was very different from us in many ways, wrote Psalm 51 at a time of personal crisis.  He was a young man, strong, vigorous, and powerful.  But he lacked wisdom and let his position as king of Israel go to his head.  He thought he could do anything he wanted and have whatever pleased him.  He committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, but he didn’t get away with his misdeeds.  The prophet Nathan came to him and reproached him sternly. As a result, David recognized his sinfulness in the depths of his heart.  He turned to God in sorrow and pleaded for forgiveness.  He spoke the words of Psalm 51.  He asked God to cleanse him from sin and to restore his joy and gladness.
            God knows that King David isn’t worshipping with us this morning.  We are better behaved than he was.  Our thoughts don’t linger on adultery and murder.  Still, God and his church have appointed psalm 51 for our use and we carry on our evaluation with a reminder of what it says about penitence.
            We’ll make several points.  The first concerns the teachings of the church.  David says in verse 5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  That’s an important insight for Christians.  It teaches us that people are by nature sinful and unclean.   We inherit not just a capacity for sin but an actual state of sin from Adam and Eve.  When David sinned with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, he was acting according to human nature.  Contrary to what some folks will tell us, Scripture and the church do not teach us that people are basically good.  The church doesn’t say that people are good 98% of the time and it’s only by accident that in the other 2% we are dreadful sinners.  I once heard someone say on the radio that the “basically good man defense” doesn’t hold up in a court of law.  Much less does it stand up before God, for whom all people are sinners.
            The church teaches us to avoid shallow optimism.  We don’t make heroes out of people who do a lot of good works.  We don’t pattern our lives after outstandingly worthy men and women.  We look to Jesus alone, who is our Saviour and the source of forgiveness and our salvation and our example of goodness. 
            We begin our evaluation, then, recalling what the Bible says about human nature.  All sinners need Christ.
            Psalm 51 reminds us, too, that God is always available to us, even when our sinfulness is most apparent to us.  Jesus did not turn away from Peter, who betrayed him.  He taught his disciples to forgive 70 times 7 times.  John wrote in his first letter:  “If anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the righteous one.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.”  David rediscovered the mercy of God in his time of need.
He spoke to God in confession, which is an important part of every Christian’s life.  When we confess our sins to God, we humble ourselves and accept his judgment on us.  In confession, we place ourselves so that God can lift us up and redirect us.  We ask him to spare us from the temptation to find excuses for sin.  I once saw a list of 87 reasons for not reporting to work.  There are even more excuses for sin.  The problem with trying to justify ourselves is that we cut off our communication with God.  David understood this. He wrote in another Psalm:  “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
          As we evaluate our standing with God, then, we ask ourselves – do we remember to confess our sins?  Our confession glorifies God and shows that we agree that he is truthful.  We admit that his judgments are just.  We are ready to receive his forgiveness.
           Accepting forgiveness is important.  David tells God that he is aware of his transgressions and his sin is always before him.  Later, he asks God to restore to him the joy of salvation.  David here admits that he experiences the continuing curse of sin in his own life because even though he knows that God has forgiven him and forgotten his misdeeds long ago, he himself cannot forget.  His transgressions rise up before him like ghosts that won’t go away.  This is probably a common phenomenon.  Many people suffer from overactive consciences.  Dwelling on the sins of the past, can lead to the despair of unbelief.  The cure is to do what David did – cling to the Lord day in and day out and ask him for healing.           
The question is – do we occupy our minds with thoughts of Jesus so as to silence the taunts of the devil?  I am the worst offender, but I do know that a mind that rests on Jesus is a quiet mind.
So far, we’ve talked about the Christian understanding of human nature, the benefits of confession to God, and the need to accept forgiveness.  Now supposing we already live by these basics, that we know in our hearts that we are redeemed and saved children of God, what role can sin possibly play in our lives now?  To answer this question, I looked into some writings of Martin Luther.  He said that remnants of sin dwell even in the redeemed; he mentions an impulse toward wrath, pride, gluttony, and sloth.  He said they must be rooted out of us through confession of sin and humility before God.  He cites a verse from Jeremiah, where God says, “I will correct you in judgment lest you seem innocent to yourself.”  In other words, sin remains in us and we shouldn’t slide over it lightly but bring it to God in confession.
Now, I’d like to share with you another comment by Martin Luther on verse 10 of Psalm 51:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”  Luther sometimes had a humorous way of writing.  He says many people do not commit sins.  They commit only good deeds.  “And yet the most subtle kind of pride alone, born of their own virtues, has soiled them.  Therefore, David does not say cleanse the hand, eyes, feet, tongue, ears, flesh, because with regard to these someone is perhaps not yet sinning but only his heart is puffed up and soiled…Some live in the spirit and mortify the flesh, but their spirit is bent and curved in on themselves for empty glory and pride…and this is the devil’s choice food, for though he is the devil himself, completely unclean, he chooses to dwell in a clean place.”
           In other words, we need to watch out for the influence of the devil.  He loves to torment Christians and bring us down.  He turns good works into occasions for pride.  We should evaluate our walk with the Lord in this respect, too, and to bring any concerns we might have to our Savior, who is the well-spring of forgiveness and renewal.
Paul wrote that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come…God reconciles us to himself through Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”  Paul continues:  “As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive his grace in vain.  For he says, ‘In the time of my favor, I heard you, and in the day of salvation, I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  To put it another way, the Lord’s evaluation of our walk with him is likely to be more generous than our own.  And that’s a good place to stop, except to say that self-examination is good for us, for it keeps us close to God which is where we want to be, since today and tomorrow and the next are days of salvation. 
In Jesus’ Name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.  

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