Scripture - Psalm 51
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, November 2, 2014

David was a gifted wide receiver on our high school football team and one of my best friends. After a Friday night game our senior year, he and Tommy went out to celebrate. Tommy had a new Chevy Super Sport with a high horsepower engine and all of us were hoping for our chance to get behind the wheel. That night, David had his chance.

The next morning the news of the wreck spread rapidly. David had totaled Tommy's car; David was hospitalized and Tommy was dead.

When I went to the hospital to see David, a nurse stopped me before entering his room. I was told, "David doesn't know about Tommy, so don't saying anything." In less than two minutes, David asked how Tommy was doing. I muttered a vague response.

Then, a couple of nurses came in and said they were wheeling David down to a private room. Later, I found out that his parents and their pastor were waiting for him so they could deliver the sickening news about Tommy.

How would you deal with the knowledge that you had been directly responsible for the death of someone? How could you face people who know what you did? How would you handle the feelings of guilt you cannot escape?

The psalm we read today comes from the lips of a man who has done a terrible deed and is desperate for God to forgive him. He cries out, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions."

A few weeks ago, Randy preached a wonderful sermon on forgiveness. He looked at a parable Jesus told of how a man was forgiven a huge debt, but then within an hour would not forgive someone who owed him a fraction of the amount. Randy talked about how difficult it can be to forgive someone who has wronged us, but that Jesus calls on us to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven. Randy mentioned that forgiving others does not mean that what the other person did was acceptable. In order to forgive, we must relinquish the hope that the past can be different. You can find his sermon on the rack in the pavilion or pull it up online. Look for his sermon on October 12.

Today our text again focuses on forgiveness, but from a different angle. It is not directed at our forgiveness of others, but rather God's forgiveness of us; which includes the difficult task of forgiving ourselves.

Most psalms of lament blame someone else for the tragedy that has struck. There are only a handful in which the speaker confesses guilt by putting the blame directly on himself. In Psalm 51, the psalmist pleads for mercy because he is tormented by guilt. He says, "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me." He anguishes over what he has done. He cannot erase it from his mind, he cannot forgive himself, so he begs God to release him from his affliction.

Few of us have been directly responsible for another's death. But who has not done something awful - or neglected to do something crucial - that we wish we could change? We might have treated an employee with disdain, we might have withheld from someone in need. Parents carry guilt over not better handling a situation with a child. I remember exploding with angry words that I wish I could take back. Some regret having been too strict with their children, others regret not enforcing more discipline. Still others failed to show up at games and recitals and want a second chance to get it right. But it's too late. The pain has been inflicted. The child is grown.

If any of you have been a perfect parent, please drop me an email, I'd like to hear about it. Just include the email address of your children so I can verify it.

What do we do when we are in a position like the speaker in this morning's psalm? We have made a horrible mistake and there is no way to change it; no possibility of fixing what we bungled so badly.

First, we must make an honest confession. Like the psalmist, we do not hold onto our sin in private and we do not avoid stating the awful truth. Some imagine that if they do not face their sin squarely and do not name it for what it is, it will minimize the internal damage and lessen the guilty feelings. The opposite is more likely to be true. Do you really think God does not already know? We need to come clean with God. The psalmist says, "God, you desire truth in the inward being."

After you talk to God, it could help to share your confession with a confidant - your mate, a sympathetic friend, a pastor or counselor - someone who will not try to make light of your agony or attempt to construct rationales intended to excuse your behavior. When you know in your heart you have done wrong, you will not buy anyone's excuses. You need someone who will patiently listen to the agony in your soul.

Then, we need to believe that God truly does forgive us and will not seek to even the score by punishing us. Some feel that they do not deserve to be forgiven. They acted selfishly or took too great a risk or failed to control their emotions. They know they are guilty and do not feel worthy of forgiveness. But, if we hold such feelings, are we putting ourselves in the role of God? Are we taking it upon ourselves to draw the boundaries of what God should and should not forgive? Perhaps we cannot see a way to forgive ourselves, but God does not withhold forgiveness.

In fact, the psalmist calls on God to do for him what he cannot do for himself. He says, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Then, in an expression that reveals the depth of his guilt and despair, he says, "Let me hear joy and gladness."

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by guilt that sounds of joy sound profane? The psalmist pleads further, "Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice." This poetic expression attempts to explain how the psalmist physically feels the weight of his sin. He knows that God can heal his soul, but the weight of his offense feels as if it is crushing him. The psalmist is desperate. He knows he cannot change what has happened, but he also cannot continue as he is, so he begs God: "Create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me." He knows he is incapable of wiping away the guilt and refreshing his soul on his own, so he pleads with God to breathe a new spirit into him. He knows he cannot bear to continue in his torment, so he seeks to be transformed.

When we cannot go back and repair our damage, we must let it go. The past is past. The hands of the clock move forward. We make amends by living in new ways. "An inward transformation is not sufficient."1 As painful as it may be, we glean whatever wisdom we can and then commit ourselves to a different future.

Jesus made it abundantly clear that God does not forgive us only if we deserve it. He says that God forgives us like a father who runs down the road to welcome home the son who wished him dead and blew the family inheritance. God forgives like an innocent man dying on a cross who still utters, "Father, forgive those who are killing me. They do not know what they are doing." And God forgives like a risen Christ who forgave those very ones who, at the critical hour, denied even knowing him.

God longs to forgive us when we have made a terrible mistake because without forgiveness, there is no hope for the future. God is a God of resurrection who longs to bring life out of us when we think we are dead. God breathes new life into us so that we can become God's partners in healing our world.

If you constantly criticized a member of your family, can you now focus your energy on praising her and other people? If you broke someone's trust in you, can you go to extra lengths to be transparent? If you were too tight-fisted, can you become known for a generous spirit?

Physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen shares the story that her grandfather told her when she was a child. "In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the source of life. Then, at a moment in time, this world of a thousand thousand things emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. Then there was an accident, and the vessel containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden to this very day."

"The whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light. We have the capacity to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the wholeness of the world. This task is a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, and all people yet to be born. We are all intended to be healers of the world. It's not about healing the world by making an enormous difference. It is about healing the world that touches you, that's around you..."

Most of us feel that "we are not enough to make a difference; that we need to be more somehow, either wealthier or more educated or somehow different that the people we are. [Not people who have made significant mistakes]. But according to this story, we are exactly what is needed.2

How would you change the way you live if you believed you were exactly what's needed to heal the world?


  1. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., "Psalms," The New Interpreter's Bible: Volume IV, p.887.
  2. Rachel Naomi Remen interviewed on "On Being," July 29, 2010.