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Sermon for 5 March 2017

 



Psalm 32

For the last few weeks, and now on through Lent, we are spending some time with the psalms. We’re preaching on them each Sunday and we’re sending out a ‘Psalm Summary’ on Social media each weekday throughout Lent. They’re being written by different members of the congregation, and you can see them each day on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or they’re added to the website.

I’m going to do a sermon in two parts today. 

First I’m going to talk a bit about the psalms in general and think about how we might use the psalms ourselves. Then we’ll pause and hear the reading for today, which is Psalm 32, and then I’ll share a few thoughts on what we find in it.


We don’t pay much attention to Psalms in church these days, and in that we are, in the great sweep of Christian history, unusual. For most of the last 2,000 years the Psalms were a crucial part of the life, prayer and worship of the church. In our own church - the Church of England - until the 1970’s or 80’s most services would have involved reading or singing at least one, and often two or three psalms. 

Martin Luther - who changed the history of the church at the time of the Reformation - said ’The Psalms might be called a ‘little bible’. In it is seen most beautifully and briefly, everything that is in the entire bible’. So it’s probably worth us spending these few weeks looking at some of the psalms, and, hopefully, encouraging each other to go deeper into the wonderful, challenging, prayer-filled words that we find in them.

So let’s think about the psalms. You might like to find yourself a bible so you can flick through the psalms as I talk. And if you’ve got a bible on your phone, I will not think you rude if you use it.

There are 150 Psalms. Some of them are very short; psalm 117 is just 5 lines, while some of them are very long; Psalm 119, has 176 verses and, in my bible, takes up 5 pages. 

Some of them have a happy and uplifting feel, some of them are full of sadness and others are spoken by people in terrible, desperate situations. 

There are three things though that they share in common.

First, they consistently tell us that God is the creator, the King who rules over everything, and the only one who can save us from the troubles of life. They describe God - not in dry, dusty detail - but in glorious technicolour poetry; flick through the psalms (and you might want to do that now) and those three characteristics of God are there throughout. God is the one who made everything, God is the King who rules over his world with love and justice, and God is the one who can and will step in to save us.

Secondly, they are very, very realistic about just how far from God’s ideal the world has fallen. They list, in sometimes painful detail, human failings and sin and the consequences. Often it is the person writing the psalm who is feeling the full effects of the brokenness of the world - and when that’s going on, the psalms are full of sadness and suffering, and more of that in a minute.

One thing that people struggle with when reading the psalms, is the way that the writer sometimes seem happier to point the finger of blame and judgement at other people for the problems of the world, rather than looking to themselves. The psalmist can sound just a bit like he is saying - ‘thank goodness you’re on my side Lord, because everyone else is so awful (unlike me).’

A thought on that. We have to remember that the psalms were not written by people living in warm homes, with a good NHS, under a free and fair democratic system and the rule of law. They were written at a time of great poverty and injustice, in a nation that was under constant threat of invasion. Try reading the psalms as if you’re a Syrian Christian whose neighbour was burnt out of their house yesterday, knowing that ISiS are coming for you tomorrow. Or as a Jew living in Berlin in 1939, whose family have disappeared and who cannot turn to the police or the law for help. Seen from that perspective, what might seem smug to us, suddenly seems true, honest and desperate.

A third thing about the psalms. They are consistently filled with the promise that God is faithful. Throughout the poetry and the struggles, the glories and the pain that the psalms proclaim, they say over and over again - it is God that we can rely on. It is God who is trustworthy. It is God who does not change. 

Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save’ (ps 17:7) The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer (Ps 18:1), I waited patiently for the Lord, he turned and heard my cry’ (Ps 40:1)

I could carry on like this for ages. Over and over again the Psalms say - trust in God. Don’t cling on to things that change and fail and crumble and let you down - trust in God. 


A quick summary of what I’ve said so far: the psalms say three things; God is creator, King and Saviour. 

The world is constantly fighting against this truth, and the consequences are the violence and suffering that we see around us; 

The solution to this disaster of sin is to return to God - who despite everything we throw at him - remains faithful. 


So what do we do with the Psalms? How can we use them ourselves? 

They contain two gifts for us.

Gift number one, is that they give us a language of praise and they show us how to worship God. It’s one of the first calls laid upon us as Christians - to worship God. Because we all worship something, whatever we believe. Christians, agnostics and atheists - we all look to something to give us ultimate meaning in our lives. It might be God or economic success or a philosophical perspective or rational scientific theory - but we all give ultimate authority to something. And the bible says - loudly, clearly and consistently - make very sure that you get it right, because putting your faith in the wrong god, in the little lords that would have us trust them, but who were never designed to carry that weight, is a sure route to disaster. 

But praising God can feel a bit strange. Why would God want us to say nice things about Him? He’s God isn’t he? Surely he’s big enough not to need compliments from us. Well, think of your response to a good film, or a great book, or that song you heard on the radio that just blew you away. Of course, you praise it - you say how good it is; you might say something like, ‘that’s the best song I ever heard, I love it’, or ‘that book changed my life’ or ‘everyone must see that film, it’s so good.’ 

Well, if God is the most loving, most perfect, most forgiving, most just; if that’s who God is (and it is), then it’s totally appropriate that we say things like ‘I love the Lord, because he heard my voice’ or ‘Praise the Lord, Great are the things He does’ or ‘I will praise you Lord among the nations’ 

And the psalms help us to do that. Open them up and use their words to praise God. Try any one of psalms 95 to 115, which are all great songs of praise. This is from Psalm 108, for instance:

I will praise you Lord, I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, higher than the heavens.

We praise God, not because he needs our compliments, but because He is God. He is the most perfect, the most loving, the most holy. That’s how to praise God. That’s the first gift the psalms give us.

Gift number two is that they give us permission to be honest with God - really honest. How many of us say very careful things to God when we pray; 

‘Please God, I know you’re really busy with Syria and all sorts of problems, and I know that there are so many people who are more deserving than me - but I am finding life just a little difficult at the moment, and my depression isn’t getting better, and the money troubles are a problem (not as much of a problem as others I know, and I am grateful for what I’ve got), and you know I’m struggling with that guy at work who’s not very nice. Would you, please, if you can, help me Lord.’

Here’s the psalmist;

    Why did you dump me

    miles from nowhere?

Doubled up with pain, I call to God

    all the day long. No answer. Nothing.

I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.

And you! Are you indifferent, above it all,

    leaning back on the cushions of Israel’s praise?

We know you were there for our parents:

    they cried for your help and you gave it;

    they trusted and lived a good life.

And here I am, a nothing—an earthworm,

    something to step on, to squash.

Be honest with God when you pray. Really honest - let God know what’s really going on in your heart. You do not need to tone it down for Him. He can deal with it, I promise.

And that’s a second way to make sense of the judgementalism of some of the psalms. Sometimes, that’s how we feel; we feel angry, judgemental and harsh, and the psalms encourage us to be honest. Here’s what a Benedictine nun has said about the nasty bits of the psalms. She writes ‘these psalms are an acknowledgement that, left to ourselves, we would lash out against those who hurt us. Therefore we bring our anger and our frustration to God. We trust God to restore our goodness to our lives because we know that we cannot.’

The psalms are there to help us to be honest with God - and that means sharing it all with him, even the stuff that’s not very nice. Especially the stuff that’s not very nice.


So, we’ve looked at the psalms in general, which tell us that God is Creator, King, Saviour; which are very honest about the mess of the world; and which remind us that God is faithful.

We’ve seen that there are two great gifts that the Psalms offer - words of praise, and words to use when life is difficult.

Now, we’re going to hear one of the psalms, the one set for this Sunday, Psalm 32.



Part 2

Now part two; some thoughts about Psalm 32, which we’ve just heard. You might like to have it open in a bible or in the pew sheet.

This is a psalm all about forgiveness, and it’s therefore a psalm of hope - because we all need to be forgiven, whether we acknowledge it or not. And we all fear that, really, we’re not worthy of forgiveness, or that we can’t be forgiven, because what we did, or who we are is just too bad. And this psalm tells us that’s simply not true. The promise of forgiveness is truly, deeply, good news.

Psalm 32 has, broadly, 4 sections.

  • Verses 1 and 2 open with the conclusion - they are like a summary of where we’re heading with the psalm. Happy are those who are forgiven (with the hint…keep reading and you might find out why…)
  • Verses 3 and 4 lay out the problem - I had messed up but kept it to myself, and everything went wrong
  • Verses 5, 6 and 7 provide the solution - I came clean, ‘fessed up and was forgiven, and boy did life get better
  • And the rest of the psalm, verses 8 to 11 encourage everyone to do the same, and provide the promise of support in doing so.

And the first thing that strikes me about the psalm is just how accurate it is. We’ve all had that experience of messing up, and keeping it hidden, or pretending it never happened, or trying desperately to keep it secret. And sleep gets difficult, and it’s on our mind even when we’re trying to think about something else and our stress levels rise. ‘Your hand is heavy upon me’, says the psalmist, and we all know what that feels like. Whoever wrote this psalm knew what it was like to carry a ton of guilt around with them.

Then secondly, what, specifically, does it say about sin and forgiveness?

Well, in amidst all the poetry is something hidden and very helpful.

In the first two verses notice that sin is referred to in three different ways. First there is the word transgression - the literal translation means ‘to rebel’. To reject the authority of someone in leadership over you. To transgress is to rebel against those who make and uphold the rules. In relation to God, that means to go our own way, to make up our own rules and to reject his authority over the world. It’s not too hard to think of examples of that sort in our lives.

The second word is the one we all recognise; sin. Literally, it means to ‘miss the mark’ - as in an archer aiming for a target, who sends her arrow wide of the bullseye. So to sin is to miss aim. To point ourselves in the wrong direction. So sin is more than just eating that cream cake, when you promised you wouldn’t - it is to have lined up our lives in the wrong direction; to be following the wrong path in life; to allow our lives to be set up in such a way that we can be pretty sure that we’re going to mess up again tomorrow in the way that we did today. 

And the third word is a less well used one - it’s iniquity. Literally that means a crooked act. A specific thing that we get wrong. The mean word, the deceptive story, the dishonest trade. 

We often think of sin simply as the third of those - the things we actually do wrong; but the Psalm says it’s deeper than that. It starts off with an attempt to set ourselves up as being in charge of what counts as wrong and right, in rebellion against God. Then it continues as we consistently line ourselves up in the wrong direction and put ourselves in situations which are likely to cause us trouble, and only then do we get to the individual acts, the things we think of as being sinful.

But this is a psalm about forgiveness, so it moves on quickly to the good news. Verse 5 gives the solution for each of these. And it’s all about being honest with God. 

Transgressions,we’re told, are to be confessed. When we seek forgiveness, we admit to God that we have set ourselves up as being in charge of our lives. We are honest about the fact that we don’t trust him, and that we think our way is better than his way.

And then sin is to be acknowledged. We stop hiding away and pretending that all is well. The first of the 12 steps taken by someone joining Alcoholics Anonymous is ‘to admit that I am powerless over alcohol’. To acknowledge our sin is to stop pretending, and to admit that there are things that have power over us.

And then, having done that, we stop hiding the actual thing we did - the iniquity that we committed. We allow ourselves to be honest and to say - this is what I did, and I am sorry.

3 levels of sin, and the response to each of them is to be honest with God. It is the key message of the psalms in general, and it’s the key message of this psalm specifically - be honest and open, let God see and know what’s going on in your life and in your heart. Hiding stuff away will get you nowhere.

And of course he judges what we bring before him - those things that we are ashamed of and feel guilty about don’t get a nice pat on the shoulder from God. The bible is very clear that God has very high standards! But he judges with love and because of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, we are forgiven - really forgiven.

But we can’t, this psalm suggests, be forgiven for things we are not honest about. If you haven’t said it, God can’t set you free from it. But when we do, when we are brave enough to tell God what’s really going on - then he can do wonderful, amazing things - and we can receive his forgiveness. 

And actually, that’s at the very heart of our faith - being honest with God. Because we can only be honest with God if we trust Him, and faith is all about trust - trusting that God is good, that he is kind, that he is forgiving, that he is who he says he is.

CS Lewis once said ‘The prayer preceding all prayer is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’ The one who is faithful, forgiving trustworthy.

This Lent, as we dive deeply into these great songs of praise, prayer and lament, let the Psalms help you grow in honesty before God. Let him in; let him in deeply; even to those parts that you keep hidden away, let him in and let him do his work.

Amen

Posted: 05-03-2017 at 17:13
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