Psalm 51:1-12 & Luke 18:9-14

Free Indeed

“It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.–This is not pleasant to you, Emma–and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,–I will tell you truths while I can.”

I wonder how you react when it is pointed out to you that you have not behaved very well, that the way you’ve spoken to somebody has hurt them, or that you should think again about your attitude. I wonder how you feel when you have to have that conversation with someone else, when you know that they’ve done wrong and that they need to be made aware of it. Perhaps you have the words of Jesus ringing in your ears about trying to take the dust out of someone else’s eye with a plank in your own. Perhaps you don’t really like conflict. But we also know that destructive and sinful words and actions need to be challenged. In those situations I hope that I would have the courage and grace of Mr Knightley when he challenges Emma about her shabby treatment of their friend Miss Bates. His intervention is successful because it holds a mirror up to Emma so that she can see herself and it does, in the end, lead to repentance and reformation.

The prophet Nathan faced a similar, but far graver problem. He had to go and tell the King that he had sinned, and that God was angry. This wasn’t just any ordinary King either, this was King David, beloved of God, the one who had slain Goliath, the one who had been raised up from being a shepherd boy by his anointing by God. This was the most powerful man in the land, and his throne had been given to him directly by God. If any body in the whole of history had the divine right of Kings, it was David. And it wasn’t any ordinary sin either, this was adultery and murder. David had seen the beautiful Bathsheba, ordered her to his bed, impregnated her, and then ordered her husband killed. How do you challenge him with that?

As it turns out, by telling him a story about a rich man who had a flock of sheep of his own, but took the lamb belonging to his poor neighbour in order to feed a guest. David demanded to know who it was so that David could punish him, and Nathan told David it was him. Nathan held up a mirror and David’s words of judgement came back onto his own head and he is convicted and remorseful. In the midst of this remorse he wrote the Psalm that we’ve read this evening.

The first step in the prayer of confession is to look in the mirror and realise that we need to be forgiven. It is to receive the gift of conviction from the Holy Spirit. It is to be contrite, to own that we have sinned and that it is our responsibility. Until we are in that place, the place of the tax collector, the place of David then we cannot receive the forgiveness that is offered to us. If we stay in the place of David before Nathan came to see him, or in the place of the Pharisee, confident in our own righteousness, then we cannot even begin the prayer of confession, because we do not see the need for it.

This is why, when we share in prayers of confession in church, we often have a period of silence before we confess when we reflect on the recent time, when we ask the Holy Spirit to come and convict us of our sin. It is a good practice to exercise in our private prayers as well, daily to reflect back on the day or the previous day, and ask the Holy Spirit to bring to mind the times we have not loved God or loved our neighbours as ourselves. Sometimes God might ask someone else to show us something about ourselves that we weren’t aware of. Once we are aware of our sins, then we are in a position to confess them.

Let’s look together at David’s psalm of confession and explore how it might help us to shape our own prayers of confession.

Where does David start? He starts by affirming his trust and belief in what God is like, God’s nature. God’s love is unfailing and God’s compassion is great. That is the basis on which David comes to God for forgiveness. David knows that he cannot earn forgiveness, and does not plead mitigating circumstances, he knows that he does not deserve mercy. His only basis to request forgiveness is his understanding of what God is like. God is unfailingly loving and greatly compassionate.

We, of course, have a great advantage over David. We have seen the unfailing love and great compassion of God expressed in Jesus’ life and death among us. We know that it is because of the cross, and Jesus’ victory there over all sin that our sins can be forgiven. We can have even greater confidence in God, because of the cross. To David’s litany of God’s love and compassion we can add, according to the blood of Jesus.

Having begun with who God is, David goes on to acknowledge what he has done. He talks about his iniquity, his sin, and his transgression. These concepts cover a range of meanings. There is a sense in which David’s heart is wrong before God, his actions were selfish and lustful. There is a sense in which his actions were immoral. There is a sense in which he has broken God’s laws and commandments.

In the midst of that there is that odd sentence, “against you only have I sinned.” Hold on a minute, surely he’d sinned against Bathsheba, against her husband, Uriah. What does this mean? Well, it seems from elsewhere in the Old Testament that this kind of phrasing isn’t about diminishing the fact that when we sin we sin against people but about the importance of acknowledging that when we sin we always sin against God as well. So for instance, if I lose my temper unreasonably and shout at the kids, I have sinned against them. After I’ve calmed down, and Liz has had a quiet word with me, I might go and say sorry to them and be reconciled to them. But I have not finished. I have also sinned against God, and I need to confess that to God and be forgiven by God as well. Reconciliation with the people we have sinned against is important, but we also need to be reconciled with God specifically.

Having based his plea for mercy in God’s loving nature, and acknowledged his own failing, David goes on to God’s justice. David knows that the case against him is watertight. He knows that God is the judge of all, and rightfully so. God sees the heart, and knows all things, God’s wisdom is boundless and God’s justice is perfect. God is entirely justified in judging us. We are all judged by God, we will all face God’s judgement, and what God says in judgement over us is right. There is no court of appeal in the heavenly justice system, it’s straight to the supreme court, and it’s final. It is only when we come to the realisation that the verdict is right, that we are able to receive the mercy that forgives us and releases us from the condemnation and sentence of death that we deserve.

It is then that we can receive God’s cleansing ministrations, it is then that we can be washed by God and know ourselves to be clean, whiter than the snow. It is then that we can experience joy and gladness. Again we have an advantage over David. He was relying on his knowledge of God’s faithfulness and mercy over the generations to the people of God, and to him in his own life. We have that plus we have the knowledge of Jesus and of his teaching and cross. We know that the debt has been paid for all sin for all time. We may not know exactly how the cross works, but we do know that is is because of the cross that we can be declared guiltless, that our shame can be dealt with, that we can be clean.

Oh the joy of being clean. Whether you’re a bath person or a shower person, that joy of getting in from work, or back from the gym, or in from the garage or garden and sluicing away the strain and dust and muck of the day. The simple, human joy of being clean. How much more that we can go to God daily and sluice away the gritty lies, the oily lusts, the dusty selfishness, and be clean. What a joy.

So, David has focussed on God, owned up to what he’s done, seen the justice of God, been washed off, and now wants to live differently, and he knows that the only way he can do that is if God changes his heart. Make me holy he says. Don’t just wash off the sin but give me a pure heart. A heart that can look at a beautiful women and not lust after her. A heart that can rejoice over another’s prospering and not be jealous. A heart that can live in the shadow of the cross and trust in the light of Christ. A heart that worships the Creator, and not created things. And how do we get this pure heart? By the work of the Holy Spirit refining us, purifying us, sanctifying us, making us holy. So we need the Holy Spirit, that Holy Spirit that Jesus promised would abide in us. Isn’t it great to be able to pray a prayer that we know God will answer, because the promise is already made.

We don’t just want to be cleansed from the muck that we’ve got on ourselves already, we want to be able to avoid getting dirty again. We don’t just want a wash, we want the protective polish and wax. Cleanse me, and take not the Holy Spirit from me.

And then we will know again the joy of our salvation, we move on from the place of confession to the place of living a redeemed life.

When Nathan had finished with David the child that had been born to David and Bathsheba fell ill, as Nathan had prophesied. David mourned with sackcloth and fasting. For seven days he prayed and repented and did not eat. After those seven days the child died. Sometimes the consequences of our sins are devastating. Then David broke his fast, washed off the ashes, put on his royal robes and went to the house of the Lord to worship. He moved on. In the Psalm he moves on from confession to witness and praise of God. He is free to tell others about his past, he is no longer ashamed or bound by it because he has been forgiven. This is the final phase of the prayer of confession, receiving forgiveness and living in it.

We are a forgiven people. When those memories and recollections of things that we have done in the past return to us and condemn us, we do not have to listen to them, or dwell on them. They have been dealt with, we can move on from them. We began by listening to God showing us what we needed to confess. We end by listening to God forgive us, and moving on to live in the reality of that forgiveness. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.


  • Peter Buckley wrote:

    This sermon is eloquent. The following speaks to me. How do we challenge behaviour in the church which is totally at odds with the gospel ? Are we meant to feel the hurt, turn the other cheek and ignore it ?

    “I wonder how you feel when you have to have that conversation with someone else, when you know that they’ve done wrong and that they need to be made aware of it. Perhaps you have the words of Jesus ringing in your ears about trying to take the dust out of someone else’s eye with a plank in your own. Perhaps you don’t really like conflict. But we also know that destructive and sinful words and actions need to be challenged”

  • Hi Peter,

    This is always difficult. For me one of the keys is to challenge the behaviour, not to condemn the person. It can be helpful to do this by describing the effect it has had. So for instance, rather than saying, “You are an inconsiderate bully”, it can be more productive to say, “When you spoke to me in that way I felt belittled and hurt.”

    As for the “other cheek” teaching, it seems to me that Jesus is teaching specifically against the practice of taking revenge, but also that we absorb the hurt (with the help of God, who absorbs all our hurts) so that we are free to stand against injustice and wrong doing, not because we are seeking justice for ourselves but because we truly desire those who hurt us to be forgiven, and know that can only happen if they become aware of their wrongdoing.

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