I’m preaching tomorrow. Here’s the text of the sermon, should you care to read it…
THE JOY OF FORGIVENESS
There is a story of two sisters, who had fallen out sometime in their past, probably over something not very serious, but in such a way that neither would climb down and apologise. So over the years, their disagreement grew and grew until they both refused to speak to the other, to have anything to do with the other, to even acknowledge the existence of each other. Their separation was complete. And as they grew older, each became more bitter about the whole affair. Then one of the sisters became friendly with a woman from the local church, she started going along to services, she heard the Good News of forgiveness and reconciliation, and she started to remember that on top of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom there was a portable typewriter. And her thoughts of this typewriter became more and more frequent; it seemed that every time she went into the room she thought about the typewriter, she couldn’t get it out of her mind. Then she had the strange urge to get it down and to write a letter to her sister whom she had not contacted, about whom she had not spoken for years, and to ask her forgiveness for the rift that had developed between them. And so, eventually, that is what she did. And even before she posted the letter, as she was folding it up to put it in the envelope, she said her whole body felt as if it was being washed all over and she had a sense of being forgiven. The burden had been lifted and she felt free of the bitterness and hurt and rejection that had been a part of her life for so long.
And this really is the theme of Psalm 32 – it is about the joy of forgiveness, and how it feels to know that sins truly are cleared away and gone. The first verses speak of this fact. “Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is put away. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit is no guile”. In some versions the Psalm reads “Blessed are those…” but I like the more exuberant translation to “happy” reminding us that we should be joyful in being forgiven. Sometimes Christians are accused of being too “po-faced,” of not enjoying life; but we have New Life through the wonderful forgiveness of Christ and we should in fact be the happiest people on earth – and show this in our actions, in our demeanour, in our whole living. Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.
In the New International translation, the first two verses of this Psalm read: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. The expression “whose sins are covered” can be a little confusing; it sounds as though we are talking about “covering up” a sin, hiding it away so that it isn’t known about. But in this case, it means forgiven, as it does in 1 Peter when Peter says, “love covers a multitude of sins”. It forgives a multitude of sins, not hides them. As the Psalmist continues, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against him” we are reminded that we have been forgiven, we are blessed because, in the slightly old fashioned phrase we have been covered in the blood of the Lamb” – it is the sacrifice of Christ that brings us forgiveness, it is through his blood that we are cleansed. Our sins no longer count for God. It is through him, through his love, that we are brought true happiness by forgiveness of our sins.
The next verses read: “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.”. This reminds us of the belief of the ancient world that unforgiven sin caused physical illness. You may remember the story of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof by his friends. Jesus did not heal the man by saying, “Get up and walk”. No, he was more perceptive than that; he knew that the man believed it was his sin that held him there on his bed, and so Jesus’ words were “Your sins are forgiven”. It was that forgiveness that released the man from his sickbed so that he was able to face the world – and his creator – again.
In these verses the Psalmist speaks of the physical distress he felt when he did not confess his sins, when he knew he was hiding what he had done from his Lord. Like the old woman in the story, he was growing bitter, and ashamed of his rift from God, and it hurt. But, as he affirms in verse 5, in acknowledging his sin and confessing to God, he is brought release from his guilt and his pain. Just as when the old woman climbed down from her position of pride and wanting someone else to make the first move she discovered a sense of freedom and forgiveness, so it is with us.
In Scotland there is the island of Iona, where the Celtic saint Columba lived having brought Christianity from Ireland to Britain. There is the Abbey, which he founded, and a guesthouse, where pilgrims can stay and rest, learning more about their faith. I remember when I was staying with a group on the island; we followed the pilgrimage around the island, to places of significance in the life of Columba. We arrived at the beach where the saint landed his tiny coracle-boat hundreds of years before, and there the leader told us to find a pebble from the many thousands that were lying there. We all picked one up, and standing, looking across the sea, and feeling the weight of the stones in our hands, we remembered the secret sins that were on our hearts; then we asked God’s forgiveness and flung those stones as far into the sea as we possibly could. Our hands were weightless – our sins were forgiven.
Now think of the woman in the Gospel reading. We do not know who she was, we do not know what she had done, but what we do know is that she was truly sorry. She knew that her sin was weighing her down, that she would have done anything to rid herself of the dis-ease, the shame, the pain of the knowledge of what she had done. And she was offered the opportunity to throw all of her burden at the feet of Jesus – and she did. Finally, for her, there was no hiding, no deceit, no pretending: she came, broken and hurting before her Lord and gave it all to Him. And he took it, and he forgave it all. It no longer counted against her. Like the stone thrown into the sea on Iona, it was gone.
The Psalmist’s first impulse on recognising the joy that comes from sins forgiven is to tell others. “Therefore, let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me, you preserve me in times of trouble, you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” I wonder if that is the case with us. When we know the joy of God’s forgiveness are we so filled with the joy of it that we share it with others? When we have been to church, when we have been at our devotions do people recognise that we have been with Jesus? I wonder…
When Moses had been on Mount Sinai, speaking with his God, on his return his face was shining, so that all could see that he had been with God. When we return to our homes after Church are our faces shining with the wonder of having been with our God? I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure the answer is No more often than it is Yes. Perhaps today, bearing in mind what we can learn about the true joy of God’s wonderful forgiveness, we can return home and shine, just a little bit for God!
Then, when people we know ask us questions, we can share more convincingly the Good News of how Christ is our refuge in times of trouble. How, when the mighty floods of calamity hit us, we know that we can trust God to be there for us. I thank God that so far in my life, I have not been sorely tested; I have not suffered the difficulties in my life that others have. But every now and then, I look ahead, and pray sincerely that, whatever life may bring, I will be able to trust God to be my refuge.
We have already sung a hymn today, called Rock of Ages, which was written in the 1700s, by Augustus Toplady. I must confess that it is nowhere near number one on my list of favourite hymns, but it fits so well with the theme that I wanted us to sing it today. You see, Toplady wrote this hymn – or at least had the idea for it – when he was riding to a preaching engagement, and was caught in a horrendous storm. There was thunder and lightening, a complete downpour of rain, and the only place he could find to shelter from the storm was a small cave, hardly more than a crack in a rock. And as he cowered there, safe from the storm raging around him, he realised how Christ was the only refuge he had from the storms of his life and the guilt of his sin. “Rock of Ages,” we sang, “ cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.
May God give us all the strength that we need to face the storms that are in our lives now, or those that are to come. He may not necessarily take those storms away, but he will always preserve us and be with us. We only need to take his hand and cry out in our fear, and he will be there.
The next verses remind us of this loving care. One translation reads: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with a bit or bridle”. “I will counsel you with my eye upon you” I must admit that I can’t help thinking this sounds a little threatening. When I was teaching it was a phrase I used a lot, “Just remember,” I would say to the unruly brats, “I’ve got my eye on you.” Basically, I was saying, “I know what you’re like, I know that you’re likely to get into trouble, so I’m just waiting for it. I’m watching…”
I suppose, sadly, that is the case with God. He DOES know what we’re like; he DOES know that we’re likely to get into trouble. But all the same I prefer the translation that says, “I will counsel you and watch over you” – it sounds more loving and less threatening. Whichever translation we prefer the meaning is there: God watches over us, God cares for us. Sometimes I know it doesn’t feel like it, but we must learn to trust him and follow his ways for us.
And in the last verses we are reminded again of the rewards of trusting in God “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord”. The Hebrew word that is translated here as “steadfast love” is a word that is used when talking about the covenant made between God and Abraham, but it has a more emotional content as well, taking it far beyond a sense of legal obligation. God has made the covenant with those who put their trust in him, but it is not simply a legal covenant. It is a covenant full of love, and compassion and life. The rewards of taking this covenant out with God are so great, how can we refuse? Those of us who have made a covenant with God, those of us who have opened our lives to him, know this steadfast love. We know that we can trust God to be always there, to take our hand and to lead us in the paths of justice and of truth. And those of us who haven’t? Who still hold back from making the step that will bring us freedom, and reconciliation and forgiveness… Well, God is waiting. I was going to say, he is waiting for you to take the first step, but he isn’t, because he has already taken the first step by coming to earth as a man, by showing us the way, by dying a terrible death on a cross and by rising again. He has taken every step necessary except one. And God is there, waiting for you to take that last step, the one that takes you into his loving arms and opens the way to full and free forgiveness for all the sins that are holding you in your life of paralysis, the step that leads you to new life.
And then we can all follow the exhortation in the final verse: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” What else can we do? When we look at the wonderful gift that God has given us through his death and resurrection, when we realise that the guilt of unforgiven sins is taken from us, we are shaken from our paralysis and brought to life. We can but sing for joy, we can but rejoice and thank him, so that all who we meet do indeed know that we have been with Jesus.
As you may have noticed, I have played around with the order of service today – usually with morning prayer we have our confession at the beginning of the service, but today I wanted to put it after this sermon. I want us to really think about the joy that real remorse and forgiveness can bring. Remember the woman who came before Jesus, weeping and full of sorrow for her sin, and her joy when she received Christ’s forgiveness, confirming her, re-affirming God’s love for her, even after all she had done.
And today, in place of the words of confession from the service book, we are going to listen to a beautiful song from one of my favourite worship bands:
I am broken at Your feet
Like an alabaster jar
Every piece of who I am
Laid before Your majesty
I will bow my life
At Your feet, at Your feet
My lips, so lost for words
Will kiss Your feet, kiss Your feet
Oh, the gravity of You
Draws my soul unto its knees
I will never be the same
I am lost and found in You
As you listen, consider your sins, confess them to our God, and ask his forgiveness, and his help to walk once more in the ways he has planned for you. Bow your life to him, give him all that you are, that being lost you may be found in Him.