The Honesty of Psalm 51
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Sermon #224 St. James the Less #131 3/21/21
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; * in your great compassion blot out my offenses. 2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness * and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, * and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you only have I sinned * and done what is evil in your sight. 5 And so you are justified when you speak * and upright in your judgment. 6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, * a sinner from my mother's womb. 7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, * and will make me understand wisdom secretly. 8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; * wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. 9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, * that the body you have broken may rejoice. 10 Hide your face from my sins * and blot out all my iniquities. 11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, * and renew a right spirit within me. 12 Cast me not away from your presence * and take not your holy Spirit from me. 13 Give me the joy of your saving help again * and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
Over the past year, The New York Times has been running a photo series entitled “The World Through a Lens.” As the world began to shut down a year ago, the Times asked their photojournalists to capture the grandeur of life and nature while the rest of us were stuck indoors. These articles have been an escape for me, and a new way to learn about far-flung places around the world.
One of my favorite pieces is entitled, “On Horseback Among the Eagle Hunters and Herders of the Mongolian Altai.” It showed extraordinary landscapes that take your breath away. Beautiful, rugged mountains with the sunlight hitting the jagged edges of the cliffs just right. It also featured local goat herders looking off towards the canyons in the distance, and eagle hunters on horseback in the snow.
Another article I read last week showed pictures of what they call Europe’s Yellowstone, and of all places, it’s in Romania. Again, you see vast fields as far as the eye can see and mountains that majestically rise up from the plains.
Many times when I look at those kinds of pictures, or better yet, when I’m actually beholding a beautiful scene with my own eyes I feel small in comparison. Cathedrals were built in such a large way to create the same effect. Like standing at the foot of a mountain, we feel small, but somehow, it’s not a negative emotion. It actually feels good, even right, to be put in our place—to see how we compare to something bigger than ourselves.
Feeling “less-than” in such situations is actually humbling rather than degrading. The power of the ocean’s waves or the height of a mountain doesn’t make us feel bad about ourselves, but rather, we stand in awe at what’s before us—the power and force that is on display—we feel small and it’s actually a good thing.
David was having the same experience when he compared himself to God. Psalm 51 was written after the Prophet Nathan pointed out David’s great sin—his adultery with Bathsheba and then sending her husband to his death in battle.
You may remember in the story that the Prophet Nathan went to King David and told him a parable that showed that he was in wrong. David had been trying to hide this secret and deceive others and even himself, but Nathan reminded him that nothing is hidden from God. And to David’s credit, he owned up to the great offense he committed.
In light of this encounter, David was humbled—he was made to feel small compared to the Almighty God—and David saw it as a good thing—he learned that he couldn’t run from God or trick him. Honesty, brutal honesty, with oneself and God that leads to repentance is what is needed to mend the broken relationship.
As a response, David composed the psalm we just recited together, and in it, he said, “Against you [God] have I sinned…wash me through and through.”
But coming to this point where we are willing to be humbled and see ourselves for the pretenders we often are, takes time and we may have to experience some setbacks or failures first.
David learned firsthand that he committed a great offense, but in the act of repentance, he learned that God was not about to cast him into the outer darkness.
We, like David, are broken in need of mending, but we are not worthless. God doesn’t just throw us away or cast us out. Though he is “justified when he speaks and upright in his judgments,” as David said, God is ruled by his loving-kindness, which in Hebrew is the word “hesed.”
Some of you were in our 5 Hebrew Words class a year and a half ago may remember we spent a whole hour talking about hesed. It not only means loving-kindness but also loyal-love. God’s love for us is not fickle or transitory—it is abiding and loyal—even when we are not loyal.
And so, honesty towards ourselves and God is not only the best policy during Lent, which is a season dedicated to taking stock of ourselves and our actions, but honesty is the best step forward in the life of faith.
As the psalm says, “Cleanse me and purge me from my sin…wash me and I shall be clean indeed.” We are all in need of a good, spiritual scrub.
In the great movie O Brother Where Art Thou there is a scene where the three protagonists, who are escaped convicts, are in the woods talking, and then, quite suddenly, all around them are people robed in white, singing, and making their way to the river at the end of the forest.
The three men follow this large group to the bank of the river, and they see each person going into the water to be baptized. Though one of the men is a skeptic, the other two rush into the river to be baptized by the pastor.
The first man exclaims as he emerges from the water that the preacher had told him that all his sins have been “warshed away.” Even, he says, when he stole that pig for which he'd been convicted. The skeptical friend then exclaimed, "But you said you were innocent of that." "I lied,” the man said, “and that's been warshed away too!"
I don’t know about you but honesty with oneself is sometimes quite difficult. We create a façade, at times, hiding our true desires or intentions. If we lie long enough to others, we can even fool ourselves into believing the lie.
But the point of all of this repentance and washing is to mend the relationship and draw closer to God. As Christians, we believe there will come a day when you and I will dwell with God—when our relationship with our Heavenly Father will be in its purest form—unobstructed by our sin.
And the great hope on the Last Day is that God will not only hide his face from our sins, but he will ultimately blot it out. Our permanent record will be wiped clean.
One of my favorite writers Miroslav Volf says this about the extent of God’s forgiveness even in our present situation: “To be truly forgiven, offenses cannot be just covered, not reckoned to the offenders. They must also be removed from the sinners, blotted out, dispersed (146)…Scripture explicitly states that God doesn’t even remember our sins. They don’t come to God’s mind. So it’s not just that we’re innocent at the moment we are forgiven” (173-74).
But Volf claims, “In God’s memory, we’ve been made innocent across the entire span of our lives. God looks at us and doesn’t superimpose on us our former transgressions. Our transgressions don’t exist anymore. They don’t stick to us as guilt, and they don’t stick to God’s memory of us. We were sinners, but we are no longer sinners—in a sense, not even sinners past” (173-74)!
Somehow, in the great mystery of God, he is omniscience (all-knowing), and yet he does not remember our sin.
David prays in his psalm, “in your great compassion blot out my offenses.” And that’s exactly what God intends to do. He will wash away our sin as if it never existed.
If that isn’t good news, then I really don’t know what is.
What makes this psalm so important and one of the most memorable in the entire psalter is that this is not only a Psalm that David can pray, or adulterers and murderers, but it is one we can pray daily. Each and every one of us has fallen short of the glory of God.
This is a model prayer for everyone who has compared themselves to the holy God and recognized that they are not only less-than, not only small in comparison to the Almighty but that they have offended God through their sin.
But thankfully for us, God is not driven by vengeance or some wicked form of retribution, but by his hesed, his loyal-love for us. And in return for the gracious generosity of God, we are called to drop that act, to let down our masks, to stop relying on ourselves, and to turn towards the One who loves us like no other.
Just because he loves us doesn’t mean we get a free pass to do what we want. His love has standards and expectations, like in any relationship. But we know with this relationship that his standards for us are just and good.
When we can accept this then we, like David, will be in an honest place to say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.”
This is what Lent is all about—the call to repent and return to our Beloved Creator, who knows us and loves us, and will one day, by his grace, blot out our sins FOREVER.
Thanks be to God.
5th Sunday of Lent. Year B. Psalm 51:1-13. Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf. Picture: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/travel/mongolia-eagle-hunters.html.