Sermon: Truth in the Most Hidden Places

Sunday 18 March 2018
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Psalm 51:1-12

edca16bd804bc50fc04002fde96c88fe-bible-art-bible-scripturesI’m doing something this morning that I don’t usually do; I’m preaching from the Psalm. Generally speaking, all things being equal, my favorite kind of text to preach is the gospel. It is the stories of Jesus, for me, the very heart of our faith. Plus, there are four of them, so it’s always interesting to explore the differences in how the four evangelists tell the story of the same person, how they craft their narratives to say something distinctive about who Jesus is. My next favorite, after the gospels, are the stories of the Hebrew Bible. It always seems easier to preach on a narrative, a story. And the Hebrew Bible has lots of interesting stories with lots of strange details to sift through. The next best thing to preach on is one of Paul’s letters. I find them harder because they aren’t usually a story. They tend to be more philosophical.

But the type of literature I have the hardest time preaching is poetry. Narrative is nice because you can always build on the story by filling the holes in the narrative. But preaching on poetry always means converting it into prose, losing some of its power in the effort to figure out what it means. But on this day, this particular piece of poetry, Psalm 51, is calling to me. So let us find what we can in it.

Hebrew poetry doesn’t rhyme. Instead, it get’s its structure through repetition, or parallelism. The Psalmist says one line, and then says something very like it. We can see from the very first verse of this passage.

“Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!” That is the first line. “Have mercy on me God, according to your faithful love!” And then it is followed by a line that is very much like it: “Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!” In the first line “Have mercy on me” and in the second “Wipe away my wrongdoings.” Two ways of saying the same thing. Then “according to your faithful love,” in the first line, and “according to your great compassion,” in the second line. Again, it’s two ways of saying the same thing. That’s the basic principle by which Hebrew poetry works. First one line, and then another that mirrors it in some way. It emphasizes it, or builds upon it, or sometimes even contrasts it. It’s not the sort of thing we think to look for, because that’s not how English poetry works. But once you know that Hebrew poetry works through parallelism, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.

Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!

The first couplet lays down the theme for whole Psalm. First, I am asking for mercy. Second, God can be counted upon to grant mercy because God is, by nature, loving and compassionate. What do we need from God? Mercy, the wiping out of our wrongdoings. Why does God do that? Because of God’s faithful love and great compassion. That is who God is.

Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!

Our wrongdoing is like a stain. We need God to wash it out, to make us clean, to purify us.  Without that, we feel the weight of our sin; we are overcome with guilt.

Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me,

It’s no secret that we are sinners. Certainly, it’s no secret to ourselves. The Psalmist is admitting her own faults. I see the things I do wrong. I’m not trying to brush them away. I know that I do things I ought not do and that I leave undone things that I should do. I see my failings before me all the time.

Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me,
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.

That first line sounds strange at first. I’ve sinned against you—you alone. Are we really supposed to believe that the Psalmist hasn’t sinned against anyone except God? I don’t think so. I think what is meant here is that any sin is a sin against God. Any time I hurt my neighbor, any time my compassion is lacking, it’s not just a sin against that person, it is a sin against God, because all people are God’s children. And it is also an admission that no sin goes unseen. Even if no other person around me knows that I am guilty of something, God still knows. God sees even what goes unseen by human eyes, even what happens in the heart, where there are no witnesses.

I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.

The Psalmist is not trying to use any legal technicalities to get out of being found guilty by God. I admit my guilt. You are right, God, when you say I’m guilty. There is no use in denying it.

That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.

This line becomes part of the basis for St. Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. Humans are by nature sinful. Sin is passed on to the next generation through sexual intercourse, and sex is therefore inherently sinful. That is a far too legalistic reading of a passage that is meant more metaphorically, more hyperbolically. The real point is, no human being is free from sin. And sometimes when we find ourselves captive to sin, it seems utterly inescapable. It seems to be a part of our very nature, our very being.

Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.

I think this is one of the most powerful lines in the entire psalm. You want truth in the most hidden places. That is, honesty is the foundation of a relationship with God, and it is the foundation of the integrity of the self. If I am not honest with God, if I am not honest with myself, then what is there for me to do? If I do not know and admit where I am, how can move forward?

And yet honesty with God and with self is one of the hardest things there is. Denying my faults is the most natural thing in the world. Denying the dark feelings inside that I don’t want to admit are any part of me. Denying the greed, and the envy, the impulses to violence, the illicit desires, the self-hatred, the despair, the addiction, the anger, the prejudice. I don’t want to admit them. I want to keep them tightly bottled up inside. Hidden. Away from view.

But they don’t want to stay there, do they? They eat away at us from the inside. They churn and burn. And when we cannot hold them in check any longer, they burst forth, unbidden, out of control.

“You want truth in the most hidden places,” the Psalmist says. We cannot ignore our failings into nonexistence. But, as the Psalmist continues, “you teach me wisdom in the most secret place.” Out of the most shadowed parts of us also comes wisdom. It is when we are honest with ourselves, when we are stripped of any dissembling, of any posturing of any play-acting, that we gain wisdom, insight into who we are, whose we are, how we are being called forth.

And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.
Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.

God has the power to cleanse us from sin. God has the power to heal us, to take our broken pieces and make us whole.

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.

Do not let me stay forever in this depression. Do not let me wallow here forever in the knowledge of my failings. Heal my brokenness. Make me whole. Let me celebrate again the wonders of life lived in you. Let me rejoice in the new life you have made.

Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!

Give me a new start, God. Let me begin again. Let me live in the light of your grace and forgiveness.

Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!

I don’t want to fall here again. Transform me. Make me your faithful servant. Breathe your breath into me. Make me rejoice in doing what is right, in striving for justice, in sharing your love and joy with a desperate world.

Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.

Let me live in relationship to you, O God. Let me spend every moment with you, share every thought with you. Stay with me, as close as my own breath, O God. Stay with me. Let me stay with you.

Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.

Don’t just let me rest content in your grace, O God. Make me rejoice in it. Make me share the good news of your love with others. Make me celebrate the world you have made, make me dance in the light of your salvation, make me sing a song of joy at your gift of life, your gift of sustenance, your gift of family, your gift of wonder, your gift of being.

Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.

The Psalms are the prayerbook of the bible. They express the full spectrum of human emotion. They are often shockingly honest. They address God with a familiarity and frankness that we might find difficult on our own.

This Psalm today expresses those deep feelings of guilt. It explores those deep recess of remorse, even depression. It is honest about that sense of unworthiness.

But it does not stay there. It invites God to meet us in our guilt. Even more, it expects God to meet us in our guilt. Here is a faith that relies on God’s goodness, that relies on God’s mercy, that relies on God’s compassion, and uses human brokenness as a starting place for relationship with God.

Because God does not want us to remain ground down into dust. During Lent, we take time to focus on our faults, to take stock of our lives. But we don’t do that for the purpose of beating ourselves down. We do it as an invitation to God’s grace. We admit our faults in complete assurance of God’s forgiveness. We point out our shortcomings in with the expectation of God’s transformation. We uncover our hidden wounds, the deepest recesses of our souls, knowing that our God is not a God of punishment. Our God is a God of healing.

And so let us give thanks for new life in Christ. Let us give thanks for the healer of our souls. Let us give thanks for the one who sees us at our worst and loves us.

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