Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sermon: A Psalm of Repentance and Wisdom

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2016, Lent 4C
Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

A Psalm of Repentance and Wisdom

For a biblical collection so often associated with comfort and peace and all manner of other feel-good words, the Psalms can certainly throw down some difficult and challenging ideas at us sometimes.
You may recall from last week’s sermon the word “dependence.” Not a word we like very much, living in a place and time where we are raised on being independent and self-reliant and all that. But if dependence is an idea we don’t like very much, then repentance is one we don’t like at all.
Oh, we talk about it regularly enough. We do include a Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon – maybe the most important thing that ever happens in a worship service – in our service each week, like most Presbyterian churches. And confession is important. It’s needful. It’s a first and absolutely necessary step to take when confronted with the goodness of God and our sinfulness.
Notice how the psalmist describes the lack of confession in verse three of today’s psalm. “While I kept silence” – that is to say, while I did not confess my sin, while I continued to think my sin was something I could hide and keep to myself – “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Now that’s a striking enough image, but the psalmist is not through. “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Now in this part of the country we know what it is to be “dried up as by the heat of the summer.” Energy is gone; strength is gone; it seems there’s nothing left but to wilt and wither away. And that’s how the psalmist remembers living in un-confessed sin.
So, the psalmist makes a choice: to confess to God, to acknowledge the sinfulness, to no longer try to hide what was consuming and destroying all the life within. The psalmist confesses to the Lord, and God forgives. Almost three verses to acknowledge the sinfulness and articulate confession, and forgiveness in eight words. It’s almost as if God is just itching to forgive us if we would just get out of the way.
Now as noted above, confession is good and needful, and – as verse 5 makes clear – brings forgiveness. All good. In the very familiar gospel reading for the day the runaway brother has the “confession” thing down pat. He’s got it rehearsed and prepared and ready to break out the moment he sees his father in the distance. Again, it’s all good.
But the word in the title of this sermon, the really unpleasant word of the day, isn’t “confession.” It’s “repentance,” and that’s a word that goes well beyond straightforward confession.
Repentance begins with confession – the acknowledgment of our sin and our sinfulness. Later in the New Testament the Apostle Paul will call himself the “chief of sinners.” The prophet Isaiah called himself a “man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Confession is necessary, but there is another step waiting to be taken.
Repentance goes beyond confession, in that acknowledging a sin or acknowledging one’s sinfulness is good, but there’s nothing about confessing sin that even indicates you won’t continue in that sin. It’s one thing to confess “I stole that”; it’s another thing even to utter the words “I stole that, and I won’t do that again.”
Repentance goes one more step; beyond merely saying “I stole that, and I won’t do it again,” repentance is about life being amended, course reversed, so that you don’t do it again.
Notice I didn’t say “changing your life,” because any one of us knows darn well that sinful people don’t have what it takes to do that changing all by ourselves. Repentance requires being submitted and broken and remade, being instructed as the psalmist describes in verse 8 and forward, where the perspective of the psalm shifts.
It’s not necessarily clear if the psalm from verse 8 to the end is now being spoken directly by the Lord, or by one who has undergone what the psalm describes earlier and is now instructing the confessing one. I’d say the paraphraser of the psalm we just sang went with option one, but it works reasonably well either way. Repentance requires submitting to instruction and guidance and receiving and accepting counsel; it means putting our stubbornness aside; it requires trusting in the Lord. Ah, there’s that word again, from a couple of weeks ago – being able to lean upon God even though we aren’t in that position of confidence in doing so. Sometimes trusting in the Lord happens simply because you have no options left.
And wisdom? Well, this is wisdom: to receive instruction and guidance and counsel and put away the stubbornness and selfishness, and to trust in the Lord. To listen so devoutly and devotedly for the Lord’s instruction, to be helped by others who been there and been through it; this is wisdom.
You know this puts a burden on all of us, right? Not just to repent ourselves, but to be there for the one who repents, laying aside the chance to gloat or rub it in and instead submitting ourselves to be the ones through whom the Lord leads and guides and instructs and counsels the repentant one. Really, that’s how this works. We care for one another; we are there to lift up when one of us falls, rather than piling on the guilt and shame. And if we can’t do that, well, that’s something else to repent. If we can’t do that perhaps our repentance is not quite complete.
Coming before the table, receiving the unwarranted and undeserved providence of God, is and should be a time in which we are called to confession and repentance. The gift of the table is free; nonetheless, to be before the utter goodness and grace of God needs to be a time of repentance – not because we’re going to be struck dead if we don’t, but because if we can’t see our need for repentance in the presence of the Lord who breaks the bread and pours the cup and shares his very life with us, it might just mean we’re already dead inside.
So as the old preachers used to say, examine yourselves. Don’t flinch. Look deep. Look hard. Find the un-repented places. In repentance there is pain, yes. But also in repentance is wisdom and joy.
And for the painful joy of repentance, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind” (244); “How Blest Are Those” (184); “I Come With Joy” (507); “What Wondrous Love Is This” (85)

Credit: Repentance isn't quite like this...

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