16th Sunday after Sunday
St Barbara’s 06.10.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we are looking at psalms of confession, psalms written and used in worship thousands of years ago to help people express their sorrow and repentance for wrongful acts and to seek God’s forgiveness. For just as psalms of praise, of thanksgiving and trust point us to important elements of worship, so do psalms of confession
I may have told the story a few years ago of a time twenty odd years ago when I was living in South Africa and I did something that still makes me queasy to think about today. One of my older colleagues was panicking because her car had broken down and she needed someone to help her get to the pre-school where her child needed picking up. She asked me for help. It wasn’t a big request but I had other plans, none very important, but enough to make me dig my heels in and initially refuse to help. Even if I had had no plans I would probably have said no anyway. To make matters worse I was rude into the bargain. And furthermore, this was me, a young white man telling an older black woman what to do, which given that South Africa was still in apartheid, was loaded with so many negative connotations.
I later realised I had overstepped the mark, but it wasn’t until the following morning that I realised by just how far, when I was called in to my boss’ office and given a stern dressing down. I thought I would be on the next plane back home to England. My selfishness and rudeness, minor though it may have first appeared to me, had caused untold hurt and upset to the lady and her family. It took many months to repair the damage to our relationship. I also suffered, wrestling with a mixture of guilt and resentment, sadness and embarrassment. And I have no doubt too, that my actions pained God as well. A minor act maybe, but one that caused hurt to others, myself and God.
That is the nature of what the Bible calls “sin” – those selfish words, thoughts and acts that fail to put love first. Sin impacts relationships – it causes hurt at all levels – with others, within ourselves, with God.
You may be able to think of times when your selfish actions have caused hurt. And you may be able to identify with the psalmist in our Psalm this morning who, on becoming aware of the consequences of his actions fell into feelings of deep regret, of feeling drained and listless, possibly even depression: “groaning all day long… my strength sapped as in the heat of summer”.
The consequences of sin can have grave impact but our Psalm this morning begins to show us ways that God works with us in forgiving us. The Psalmist begins by stating three things that God does: he forgives our sin; he covers over our sin; and he wipes out our sin.
Sin often leads to a break down in trust. We can often feel about someone who has wronged us: “If you can say that about me or do that to me how can I trust you, how can I know you won’t do that again?” Sin can cause a major block in our relationships. And the same is true in our relationship with God. When we sin, when we live with bitterness or anger towards others, when we live giving priority to our selfish desires, we put a barrier in the way of our relationship with God. Prayer and worship become harder. We may go through the motions, we may say the words, but the sense of intimacy with God, the experience of his love, becomes harder. But when we confess to God, He forgives us. He doesn’t allow that barrier to stay up. He enables us to come back into a loving and fully trusting relationship.
God forgives us; he also covers up our sins. When we are wronged it is tempting to keep waving the wrong-doing in front of the person who has wronged us, to keep reminding them of how much they have hurt us and to get some kind of revenge by inducing guilt. When I was a teenager I remember telling a friend that I quite liked a particular girl in our class. Within a few days my friend had nipped in ahead of me and had asked her out on a date. It wasn’t a kind thing to have done. To my regret I didn’t let it go. Instead I pointedly sent everyone else in the class a Christmas card except him, and I continually reminded him of what he had done. But God “covers over” our sins. It is not that he brushes them under the carpet, choosing to turn a blind eye to them. No – it is that once dealt with, he removes them from his sight. He does not keep dredging them up and holding them against us. They are gone, forgotten.
Which leads us on to the third thing that God does: he forgives, he covers over, and he does not keep a record of past wrongs. Imagine if God did keep a record. “Tulo, this is the fifth time you have thought unkindly about that person, or this is the ninth time I have prompted you to ring that person and you have ignored it or this is the umpteenth occasion when you could have taken action to care for the environment and you haven’t. Because of all these past misdemeanours how can I forgive you this time?” But God does not keep a record. He wipes the slate clean when he forgives us. We are free to start again. To use another biblical metaphor, he cancels our debt.
But the key to knowing this incredible forgiveness of God is confession. Its when we acknowledge our failings before God that we open up the pathway to receiving his forgiveness.
One of the most remarkable transformative acts of recent political history was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. During the apartheid years, horrific crimes were committed and untold suffering caused. White police and soldiers had been given free rein, indeed actively encouraged at times, to carry out massacres and acts of random brutality on the black population. I attended funeral after funeral in my three years in South Africa of people who “had slipped” in police showers or been randomly shot. When apartheid ended, a key question was how was justice to be meted out. The commission adopted a very simple rule: if a perpetrator of violence was willing to admit what they had done and ask forgiveness of their victims or their victims’ families, then they were let free. If they refused to admit guilt or seek forgiveness, and then were found guilty at trial, then they faced the full penalty of the law. The impact was extraordinary. Hardened murderers, brought face to face with their victim’s families, broke down in tears as they confessed what they had done. Families found forgiveness where previously there had only been anger and bitterness. There was healing and a true sense of liberation for all involved.
This is the power of confession. The psalmist writes of how when he was silent, refusing to acknowledge and confess his sins, it was as though his bones were wasting away, the weight of his sins was weighing down on him, preventing him from living. But then when he confessed his sins to God, he was able to know the liberation of God’s forgiveness – to know his sins forgiven, to be able to sing and rejoice once more, to know God as his refuge, his source of protection and life once more.
No wonder that those who compiled the book of Psalms included at least ten psalms that could be used for confession, psalms that helped people individually and corporately to express their sins and failings and receive God’s forgiveness. Its why every Sunday we have a time of confession as part of our services. We do it not to make us feel bad or inadequate. We do it because in acknowledging our failings we receive one of the greatest of all gifts, the forgiveness of God, a gift so precious that Jesus died for us to make it possible.
As the apostle John put it in one of his letters, written several hundred years after our Psalm, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.” (1 John1:9).
So let us learn to make the confessing of our sins to God and the receiving of his forgiveness a regular part of our Christian lives. Amen.