Sermon: Epiphany 5, 4 February 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 4th February 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

A HEALTHY ATTITUDE TO SIN AND GUILT

 (2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 51; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39)

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and his children; it used to eat from his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”

You might recognize that story. It’s a story of the abuse of power, and of selfishness and even robbery. It comes from the 12th Chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, just after the story we heard this morning, and the words are spoken by Nathan the prophet. He tells the story to King David, and David is rightly disgusted. “The man who did this deserves to die!” he exclaims. “At the very least, he ought to pay back the poor man four times over.”

And then come those powerful words of Nathan to David. “You are the man!” Nathan spells out what David has done. David has abused his power. The Lord has given him so much. He has power and prestige and comfort. He has wealth and wives aplenty. And yet he has committed adultery with the wife of one of his faithful officers, and then to prevent his immoral behaviour causing him too much embarrassment, he has had Uriah, that faithful and principled officer, killed. Then he has married Uriah’s widow. If David is shocked by the actions of the rich man in Nathan’s story, how much more disgusting is his own behaviour!

David, like so many people in positions of power, has convinced himself that the normal rules don’t apply to him. We know it only too well today. “I’m the boss! I’m the star! I’m the priest! I’m the teacher, the coach, the doctor! Of course people should normally be given respect and courtesy. Vulnerable people should normally not be taken advantage of. But I’m different. It’s OK for me to do it!”

Now for Nathan to come and accuse David so powerfully was a very risky thing to do. It was the sort of thing that might find him facing execution.

How dare Nathan speak to the king like that? But prophets in the Old Testament often found themselves challenging kings and rulers about the sins they had committed.

And how does David respond to Nathan’s accusation? With anger? Denial? Excuses? With explanations or self-justification? These are the ways we humans so often respond when people call on us to face our sins and failures. Just as we also try to cover our tracks when we have done the wrong thing, and so often that only makes things worse or leads us into an even bigger mess. This is what David had done: so human!

But David’s words in response to Nathan are very different from all these ways of responding to the truth about our shortcomings. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he humbly says. There are no excuses or denials, no pretending. David knows that his behaviour has been sinful and evil, totally unacceptable for anyone, let alone the king of Israel.

David really deserves to die for the murder he has committed, but Nathan assures him that the Lord has put away his sin. He will not die, and he will continue as king.

But there will be consequences. The baby born to Bathsheba will die. And David’s example, as well as his failure as a father, will open up a Pandora’s box of family fighting and violence and immorality, which will have all sorts of terrible consequences for him, for his family and for the nation.

We need to remember that forgiveness is about relationships, about personally letting go of anger and hurts. Forgiveness does not always shield us from the consequences of our actions, particularly our most serious sins. I might personally forgive the thief who breaks into my house and steals my possessions. But he will still have to face the just consequences of his crime. A husband who has an affair may be forgiven by his wife, but he may well have lost the trust she once had in him.

David had terrible failings, and yet God still loved him and enabled him to do some great things. Even sins as terrible as this are not beyond God’s forgiveness. And David knew that he needed God’s forgiveness. This story of adultery, scheming and murder lies behind our Psalm this morning. But it is also a story of confession, repentance and forgiveness.

The first word of the traditional Latin version of this 51st Psalm is miserere, and there is a famous choral setting of the Psalm by the Italian composer Allegri. Miserere simply means “have mercy” or “have pity”, and it is interesting how it relates to our English words misery or miserable

Those opening words get straight to the point.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love:

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

And cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions

And my sin is ever before me.”

There is no beating about the bush. David acknowledges his guilt. He is absolutely aware of his terrible sins. He needs God’s forgiveness; he needs God’s cleansing.

But in the next couple of verses he says some things which surprise some people.   “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,

and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you are justified in your sentence

and blameless when you pass judgement.”

David knows that he deserves God’s condemnation. But surely he has not only sinned against God. Has he not also sinned against Uriah the innocent husband of Bathsheba? Has he not sinned against Bathsheba herself? We don’t know how willing a participant she was, but she should never have been placed in this position. Has he not also sinned against the other soldiers who were killed when Uriah was set up in battle? Has he not sinned against Joab the army commander by using him for his own murderous purposes?

Of course he has sinned against all these people, and really against the whole people of Israel. Nathan made that clear, and David knows it. But at its heart, sin is an offence against God. If we obey God’s will, we will act in the right way towards other people. As Paul and Jesus made clear, to love our neighbour is to keep God’s law. The wrong we do to others is always sin against God.

But in the next verse is another strange statement:

“Indeed, I was born guilty,

a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

Don’t we think of babies and young children as innocent ones? Very commonly people do, but David sees a deeper truth.

Of course very young children are not guilty of terrible sins. They know nothing about sin. But like every human, they have that propensity which will reveal itself in due course. When I baptize a young child, I don’t wonder whether this child will ever commit a sin, whether this child will need God’s forgiveness. Of course they will! They’re human! And as people so often say, nobody’s perfect! We are all sinners, and the little child won’t take all that long to prove it in their case! So David’s words are simply describing what it is to be human.

If we went through the Psalm verse by verse, we would see David asking God to teach him wisdom, so that he would make wise and godly decisions. He prays for a new heart, a new and right spirit. He wants to live differently. So often we want to hang on to those sins which we think are fairly minor or excusable: those practices which we really know are not what God wants for us. Repentance involves that desire to be different, to live and to act differently, and we need God’s help to actually do that.

David also has a desire not only to live a new life, but to have a new message: a message about God’s call, God’s love, God’s blessing.

“Deliver me from bloodshed O God, O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance…

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.”

Real heartfelt confession and repentance are the key to it all: what is in our hearts really matters. In the closing verses David refers to sacrifices and rituals: these have their place, but they mean nothing unless the heart is really in it.

Well, the sins we commit seem very minor compared with what David was guilty of: well, I hope they are minor in comparison! They are more likely to be the unkind words, the unhealthy attitude, the little lies, the selfish action or failure to act. But they too are real. Confession calls us to be honest, and not to deny or pretend or excuse or minimize. Confessions also gives us perspective. Turning to God in confession reminds us that we are not worthless or hopeless: we all matter to God.

Sin is part of our lives – whether dramatic or not. The healthy way is to acknowledge our sins, seeking God’s forgiveness and help. God can deal with all our sins as we open up honestly to him. Then we will be set free to get on with living the lives that God calls us to live, as forgiven followers of Christ, who is the bringer of all forgiveness. Amen.        Paul Weaver