Scripture: Psalm 32:1-5
Date: June 15, 2014
In 1929 the Golden Bears of California played the Ramblin Wreck of Georgia Tech in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. It was in the days before there were almost as many bowl games as there are college football teams. So only the very best teams made it to the Rose Bowl. It was THE game of the year. Near the end of the first half, Georgia Tech fumbled the football. And the ball was scooped up by one of California’s star players, a defensive back by the name of Roy Riegels, and with the ball securely in his hands, and with the crowd roaring, he started to run towards the goal line. Sixty five yards later he was tackled – by one of his own team mates. You see, in the excitement of the moment, Riegels had made the ultimate mistake. He had run the wrong way. He nearly scored a touch down for the other team. Well as it turned out, California did give up a safety. And at half time they went into the locker room trailing. Roy Riegels was distraught and embarrassed and crushed at his mistake. He felt like a total failure. He wrapped himself in a blanket and sat by himself in the corner of the locker room as the coach gave his half time speech, trying to lift the spirits of his stunned team. And he concluded his speech by saying, “Okay, same starters in the second half.” But Roy Riegels spoke up and said, “Oh no coach, you don’t want to start me. I let everyone down. I’m a failure. I’m sorry.” And the coach said to him, “Son, this game is only half over. Get out there. You’ve got work to do.” And Riegels made the most of his chance at redemption and played a great second half, including blocking a Georgia Tech punt which led to California’s only touchdown. It was said that no one played any harder on either team than Roy Riegels.
One preacher compared Riegel’s blunder to Peter’s denial and said this:
What a mistake? Yeah. But what a coach! What a blunder, Peter? Yeah. But what a God! A God who, no matter what your sin or failure, will forgive, wash, make you new and restore you to the team. That is what Jesus came for. Maybe you feel like a failure today? The coach is calling. Get up. Lace up your shoes. We need you on the team. The game isn’t over yet!
All of us make mistakes. From time to time we commit terrible transgressions in this life. We go in the wrong direction. By our behavior we let others down and we deny God, but the testimony of scripture is that the game doesn’t end there. Life is not done in by our sin. Because our God is a God of grace. Our sins are not greater than His desire and capacity to forgive. And so for the next four weeks, as we work to makeover our souls, we are going to talk about the impact of forgiveness on our relationship with God, our relationships with those closest to us in this life, our relationships with those in the world around us and finally our relationships in the family. I will warn you however – start with a disclaimer – these will not always be easy messages to receive. Because forgiveness often lays bare the deepest wounds of our lives. Before we can experience the joy of being forgiven, we must recognize and acknowledge our deepest needs. But for those who are willing, out of the pain and despair of today, there is grace and joy tomorrow. I had a basketball coach when I was in middle school who liked to put us through a lot of conditioning exercises. And we would get to the point where we would beg him to let up on us. And he would say to us: “Boys – in this life if there is no pain – there is no gain.” That’s the way it is with forgiveness.
I believe that forgiveness is an essential component of every significant relationship in our lives. And so this morning we begin by thinking about the place of forgiveness in our relationship with God. Because it is from that relationship that forgiveness and grace flows and covers all the other relationships of our lives. The forgiveness of God rocks our lives and our souls. And draws us ever closer to Him.
In a sermon entitled “To Whom Much Is Forgiven”, the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich said this: “Forgiveness is the divine answer to the question implied in our existence.” And as I thought about that, it seemed to me that forgiveness was really the answer to three questions that we all wrestle with in one form or another. The first might be the question we ask when we are on the receiving end of the hurt inflicted by another. It is: “Given the pain inflicted on me by another, how do I keep hatred and bitterness from consuming me?” God’s answer is: “Forgiveness”. The second might be: “When my actions have caused a break in my relationship with God or another, how can I be reconciled with them?” And the answer: forgiveness. And then the third question might be: “How can the burden of my own guilt be removed?” Forgiveness. Now, if forgiveness is a key in all of our relationships, whether with God or one another, then it seems to me that these are the questions that we’ll need to be wrestling with. In fact, I would assert that no relationship will stand for very long if we are unable to offer or receive forgiveness.
Now, of course, in our relationship with God, forgiveness is most directly related to sin. Which makes it particularly hard to deal with because most of us don’t like to talk about sin. If you ask a person who is not connected to a church, what keeps them from making that connection – one of the most frequent responses will be that they find the church to be too judgmental. Too focused on sin. And part of that stems from the fact that, to some degree, sin has gotten a bad rap. Adam Hamilton in his book called “Forgiveness” writes that: Making sense of forgiveness means talking about sin, a word certain to make some people cringe. It brings to mind preachers who use the word to beat people down, or to frighten and intimidate children, applying it to all sorts of acts that aren’t really sin, from going to the movies to learning to dance.We have, in essence, trivialized sin in the interest of behavior modification. If people are engaging in behavior that makes us uncomfortable, then if we can label that behavior sin then we can get God on our side in trying to make persons to conform to our standards. But in Hebrew, the most common word used for sin literally means “to stray from the path” and in Greek it is translated “missing the mark.” The concept is living a life that is completely off target or lost. It refers more to a way of living than it does individual actions. Sin is that which takes us away from the way that God intends for us. And scripture is the map that God lays out before us which defines that path. It tells us that there is a way that all of us are meant to follow. Hamilton goes on to define that path in this way. He writes that according to scripture: We are meant to love. We are meant to do justice. We are meant to care for people and put their needs before our own. We are meant to tell the truth, to be faithful, to do the kind and loving thing. If we did these things all the time, there would be no need for forgiveness.
But it is when we stray from the path that sin enters into our relationship with God and one another. In essence, it is sin that fills the gap between the path that God has laid out for us, and the path that we choose for ourselves. And it is forgiveness that bridges that gap.
Now I’m going to say something now that you might find to be surprising but here it is: I believe that God does not mean for our path in this life to be a hard one. Certainly not nearly as hard as we often make it. Now you might find that hard to believe when you consider how hard your life is sometimes. In the 32nd Psalm David describes the path he is on in these terms: my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. That hardly sounds like a smooth and easy path. But David’s words stand in such contrast to Jesus words as recorded in the 11th chapter of Matthew’s gospel when He said: Come to me (some translations say “Come back to me”) all you who are wearied and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (now watch this). For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. I really love the way that Eugene Peterson interprets those words. In The Message he writes: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with Me and you’ll recover your life. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. What a promise that is, butquite a contrast to the path that David describes in the Psalm. So how do we reconcile David’s experience with Jesus’ words. Or perhaps more importantly, how do we reconcile our own experiences with Jesus words, because all of us have times when the burdens are heavy and the path is rough? Here’s the answer – in forgiveness we find reconciliation. Here’s what we need to see. It’s not the way of God that’s hard – it is staying on God’s path in this world that’s hard. When we choose to go a different way, that’s when the burden’s get heavy and the path becomes difficult. And the farther we wander down paths of our own choosing, the greater the gulf between God’s way and our way, and we find ourselves more and more weighted down by the sins of our lives until the burden becomes overwhelming, almost too much to bear. In the 38th Psalm the writer describes the weight of our sin when he or she says: My guilt has overwhelmed me. It is a burden too heavy to bear. Now here’s where the rocks come in. Thanks to those who helped me to collect them. We are going to use these rocks as a metaphor for the sins that become our burden to bear. And this back pack is our soul. Now some of our sins are smaller sins. These are the smaller rocks. The burden by themselves are rather light. These are the sins that we commit when we don’t treat one another nicely. We are unpleasant to those trying to wait on us in the restaurant. Or we unduly criticize others. Or we snap at our spouse and/ or loved ones. These are the words that we speak in the heat of the moment that we would like to take back. Harsh words and hurtful glances. These are what we call the little white lies. Often times these are unintentional sins – committed almost by accident – most certainly in a moment of weakness. Now using our path definition- these do not lead us completely away from the path but rather they cause us to stumble and move to the loose gravel on the side where the walking is not easy. By themselves, if not dealt with, they don’t weigh us down. But as they fill up our back pack they become more and more of a burden.
And then there are some larger sins that weigh us down as we wander on our own path. These are the medium sized rocks. These are the intentional hurts that we inflict on others. The hurtful things we do and say on a regular basis. These are the things that cause serious pain to others and once we learn that we can do that, cause that hurt, we choose to do it again and again. These are intentional even premeditated sins. And as these accumulate they begin to really weigh us down.
And then there are the bigger rocks. All of us struggle with the bigger rocks. These are the sins that if found out can end relationships, or get us fired at work, or even worse. These are sins like cheating on our spouses, or theft or abusing others. They can cause us to lose our families, and isolate us from God and others. Sometimes even place us in jail. They are heavy burdens to bear. And when added to our load, they really weigh us down. The burdens almost become too great to bear. David writes in the 32nd Psalm of the utter despair caused by such an unbearable burden. “My strength was sapped.” Now what I want us to see is that too many of us strap our sins to our back and try to move forward in life, but soon the burden becomes too much for us to bear and we are utterly lost and powerless.
What David is describing in this 32nd Psalm is the human condition. We become burdened by the bad choices, the sins of our lives, and we convince ourselves that we can keep them to ourselves. That we can deal with them. David says “I kept silent.” But eventually we reach the point where our sins are found out and the burden becomes unbearable and we feel as though, unless something changes, we can’t go on. We have missed the mark. We have lost the path. And we acknowledge what we have done. Forgiveness came to David when he stopped trying to hide what he had done, stopped trying to hide his guilt and he cried out to God. How can I find relief? How do I keep from being consumed by the darkness? How can my burden be removed? How can I be reconciled, be restored to the path that God has for me? And the answer: forgiveness. Karl Menninger, a renowned psychiatrist once said that “if he could convince the patients in his psychiatric hospitals that their sins had been forgiven, 75% of them could walk out the next day.” Our guilt is such a terrible burden to bear. Paul Tillich is right that forgiveness is the divine answer, but so many don’t think it is their answer. So many don’t recognize the questions. Or they don’t believe that they deserve to be forgiven. And that may be true when viewed with human eyes, but it is far from the truth when viewed through the eyes of God. Because it is God’s nature to forgive us. No matter what we’ve done. The ultimate sin: humanity tortured and killed God’s Son. I still forgive you. Psalm 103 says: For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
It is God’s nature and desire to forgive. Forgiveness is born out of the love and grace of God which God offers to everyone of us. To say that after what we have done, we don’t deserve to be forgiven is like saying that we don’t deserve to be loved by God. The point is that none of us are truly deserving of God’s grace. It is His gift offered to each one of us because He loves us. Scripture tells us that God is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love. And because of that He offers the gift of grace and forgiveness.But it does not become my gift until I accept it for myself. Until I’m willing to receive. Forgiveness comes to all who are willing to acknowledge our need and receive.
And then we need to understand that no matter what we have done or will do, God has already decided to forgive us. As I read David’s words in this 32nd Psalm it seemed odd to me that David begins by affirming that he has been forgiven and then He acknowledges his need to be forgiven. Look again at David’s words. He begins: Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. And then he begins to talk about the burden of sin he was under. It seems like his words are out of order. Shouldn’t confession and repentance come before forgiveness. But instead David is telling us that before David was even willing to essentially forgive himself, God had already decided to forgive him. God’s plan, God’s path, is for each one of us to live in the world as repentant and redeemed persons. Remember when the Angel came to Joseph to tell him that Mary was going to give birth to God’s son, remember what the Angel said: She will give birth to a Son and you will give Him the name Jesus (which in Greek means “the Lord saves”) because He will save His people from their sins. God had already decided to forgive us and so He sent Jesus to bear the burden of our sins. To offer forgiveness for all that we have done and all that we will do that draws us away from God’s path and places burdens upon us that are nearly too much to bear. In Hebrew the word forgiveness literally means “to lift a burden off and carry it away.” And so when Christ spoke words of forgiveness from the Cross, He was in essence inviting you and I to take the burdens off of our backs and place them on Him. (place the back pack on the cross)
And then finally we need to understand that when God forgives, He wipes the ledger clean. David, in this Psalm, uses an image that comes from accounting. He says: Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him. Sometimes we say that God forgives and forgets. But it’s more than that. It’s not that God forgets our sin. It is more that He chooses not to remember that we have sinned at all. In the 31st chapter of Jeremiah, God speaks to Jeremiah of the New Covenant that he is offering to humanity. They are words that are repeated at the last supper and every time we celebrate Holy Communion. And to Jeremiah he says that the New Covenant comes when I will forgive their iniquity. And I will remember their sin no more. He chooses to not remember our sin. He wipes the slate clean.
Ron Lee Davis in his book, A Forgiving God In An Unforgiving World, tells the story of a much loved priest who carried the burden of a secret sin that he had committed many years earlier. He had led many to experience God’s grace but he couldn’t accept that God had forgiven him for the terrible thing he had done. Even though he had repented, he didn’t believe that God would forgive him. For many years he had carried the burden of that sin.
Well there was a woman in his parish who loved God deeply and who claimed to have regular dreams and visions in which she spoke to Jesus and Jesus spoke to her. People from all over came to speak with her and communicate with God through her. Now the priest was skeptical about all of this, but he also had some hope that what she said was true, so he decided to put her to the test. One day he went to her and said: Many years ago, I did something so very wrong that I have never been able to feel as though God has forgiven me. I have never told anyone else what I did. I have borne this burden all these years. The next time you talk to Jesus, I would like you to ask Him to reveal what that sin was. If he shares that with you, then I’ll know that what you say is true.
Well it was nearly two weeks before he saw her again. The wait had been nearly too much to bear. But when she finally came to him again, he said to her: Well have you had any visions since the last time we talked? Have you talked with Jesus? And she replied, Yes I did.” “And did you ask about my sin,” the priest asked anxiously. “Yes I did.” the woman said. “And did he answer you? What did He tell you?” And the woman said: I told Him that my priest committed a sin many years ago and he is still weighed down by the guilt of it. He wants to know if you still know what that sin was. And Jesus looked at me and he said, “Ah yes. Your priest’s sin. I just don’t remember it anymore.” And immediately the burden that he had carried all of those years was lifted from him. The Psalmist says: as far as the east is from the west, so far He has removed our sins from us.