From crying to comfort - Psalm 32
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
What's most important in life? That was a survey question (Website of CTPA) recently put to several school students in Year 11 (15 & 16 year olds).
The results were not totally surprising relationships (with family, boyfriend/girlfriend & others from their peer group) were considered most important for these teenagers.
Many concerns & worries about life came over strongly as well. Again, not surprisingly, exams & coursework (sorry to mention those!) came very high, along with pressure about drugs & drinking & issues about image, appearance & reputation.
When asked what made the students feel good about themselves, what gave them a sense of well-being, the most popular answer was"having a laugh
Now that response is almost universally recognisable laughter can loosen up the tensions we feel & relax us when under pressure & all of appreciate that, as someone has put, it "laughter is the best medicine!" And yet as we are going to see as we continue our sermon series considering Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel, laughter is not always what is most important or indeed what we most need.
This evening we've reached the 2nd of the so-called "beatitudes" in Matt 5. These 8 statements, which begin "Blessed are", have become very well known but sadly they are not equally well understood.
We've seen that the beatitudes can be understood in general as "beautiful attitudes" that describe the character of Christians. These phrases are what have been called the "Norms of the Kingdom" (Carson), what are or should be typical of the citizen of the Kingdom of God, his loving, saving rule centered on Jesus.
Each quality brings a blessing & often people have translated "blessed areby "happy areBut this can be quite unhelpful. To be blessed in the Bible is to be one who has received God's undeserved grace & has, as a result, God's approval & acceptance. To be blessed is about having God's good hand upon you. Such people will generally have a sense of well-being & happiness but not a happiness that is superficial & cheesy. This is particularly important to grasp as we consider the 2nd beatitude. This 2nd one flows on from the 1st that we considered last week - "Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." Recognizing our poverty of spirit acknowledging before God that we are spiritually helpless & in total need of His help is the 1st characteristic of the belonging to God's kingdom. Then Jesus says Matt 5:v 4 "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted."
In the newer church service books this verse is used to introduce a funeral service it is seen as being about mourning in the sense of the grief of bereavement. Whilst God's grace is offered to those who are mourning the dead when they cry out to Him, the proximity of the second beatitude to the first ("blessed are the poor in spirit") shows that this is not about mourning over the loss of a loved one, but rather mourning over the loss of righteousness, the loss of purity, the loss of goodness. "Blessed," (those with a sense of well-being because God approves of them) says Jesus, "are those who mourn" over their sin. Such, we are told, "will be comforted."
In our 2nd reading this evening (Ps 32) we find what is an autobiographical illustration of the truth of this 2nd beatitude "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted." Do turn to p560.
This Psalm (or poem or hymn) was written by great King David 1000 years before Jesus. He writes not only as one of God's people but the key leader, God's representative on earth, who was to lead & rescue his people from danger. David was a man who had received many gifts & good things from God but he was also a man who made many mistakes. It is quite possible that these words in Ps 32 are written in the aftermath of David's clear disobedience to God's ways that he knew well.
We know from 2 Sam 11-12 that King David committed adultery & even initiated a conspiracy to murder the husband of the women he had slept with & then cover it up for a year. This Psalm show us David was a man who became convinced he had sinned, confessed & mourned over his sin & wonderfully found comfort in God's generous unfailing love. (See outline on sermon notes)
1) The anguish of Conviction v 1-4
I remember some years ago going on a conference for Church of England ministers in the diocese of York. The conference leader had a brief to teach us about prayer & spirituality. The lack of clearly Christian content began to worry me after a while & I went to ask the speaker about his input. I wondered why we were not being encouraged to dwell more on Jesus, the seriousness of sin & the benefits of his death on the cross as our Bible based Church of England heritage & prayer book helps us to see so clearly. He replied, "You know, we are more concerned with our sins than God is!"
It strikes me this completely turns upside down the teaching of the whole Bible! Right from the start human beings are those who want to hide from the reality of sin, even deny it, certainly down play it & then hide from God in his brilliant purity & perfection (Gen 3). God on the other hand cannot live in the presence of rebellion against him, yet in his love he has provided at huge cost to himself a way by which he can deal with sin & restore friendship with those who otherwise would be cut off from him.
King David certainly knew sin mattered to God. In Psalm 32 he uses several words to describe it; v1Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered." v5 "Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity."
Many are getting very excited about the promotion of Hull City to the Championship at the moment 1st time City have won back to back promotions in their 100 year history. Now if I may be allowed to use to a light hearted illustration to make a serious point these 3 words for sin can be related to Football;
Transgression v1,5: Rebelliously Breaking a
law; What happens when a footballer breaks one of the rules of the game? There's a free kick, a penalty or a yellow card or even red card. It's often said he's been "Penalised" or punished.
Now when we think of God's laws it's far more serious. If a footballer breaks a law of the game he deserves to get a punishment, how much more if we transgress one of God's rules do we deserve punishment? David knew he was guilty of "transgression". In his desperate failure with Bathsheba & her husband Uriah he had transgressed the 6th & 7th of the 10 commandments not to murder & not to commit adultery (Ex20:13,14).
When we break God's laws we are offending God himself, rebelling against the pure, true, maker of everything.
Sin v1,2,5; Missing the target. If a footballer
fails to direct the ball towards the goal we say "He failed to get the shot on target" - he missed the mark, he failed to reach the goal he was aiming it. That's disappointing it's a failure.
Well how much more with God? He sets a goal for people to recognise & respect Him the true & living God. Yet we all fail to do that because we set ourselves up as the one to live for we miss the target because we try & live life without God. "Sin" in this sense is wrong actions that result in failing to hit the mark of God & his ways.
Also there is here also sin as;
Iniquity; going astray v5. Last week the
headlines in the Hull Daily Mail were one day about Hull City's promotion & another about a former Hull City Star of the 80s who has been convicted of defrauding the benefits system of 1000s of pounds. The magistrate said to him "It's always sad when somebody who has been respected & admired by lots of people goes off the rails." This man, before the law, has gone astray, he had behaved in a way that is crooked, twisted from what is right. He had been involved in deliberate wrongdoing.
That is God's verdict on us so often. We are guilty of "iniquity" in so many ways.
All these aspects of sin overlap, so you see we are all in a very serious position before God. We all transgress & break his laws, we all sin & miss the target, we all are guilty of iniquity going astray from his path & coming off the rails of his ways. We are guilty rebels, we all "sin" against God. We all deserve punishment. (p)
In & of ourselves we are dulled to this reality. The Bible's analysis is that we are spiritually blind (2Cor4:4). God (who is far more concerned with our sins than we are because of His purity & the consequence that they break the friendship with him we were created for) works in people to enable us to recognize the reality of our sin. This process the Bible calls "conviction." And it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince people of their sin & their need for forgiveness (John16; 8-11).
This conviction of sin seems to be what David describes in v3,4; "3When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer."
Before David was prepared to admit his sin & need for forgiveness from God, God was at work in him to discipline him so that he did recognize his failure & need. So v4 "For day and night your hand was heavy upon me.." The conviction of the seriousness of his sins for David produced a sense of anguish like the degeneration of his bones & the sapping of his strength. This could have been some sort of disciplinary physical suffering God brought to him but quite probably this is David's graphic description of how it felt to be under the conviction of sin.
Conviction of sin may be unpleasant but it is a sign of genuine work of God in a persons' life. Conviction may be painful but it is the necessary work of God before any blessing of forgiveness can be known.
We need the Holy Spirit to impress on us that not only is sin a reality, but that sin matters to God. We need the Holy Spirit to convince us that our sin is a reality, that our sin matters to God.
2) The need for Confession v 5
What we also see in Psalm 32 is that conviction of our sins by God needs to be met by our preparedness to confess them.
v5Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
As with sin, there are 3 different words used to describe this process of admitting the reality of sin before GOD. Positively David says v5Then I acknowledged my sin to you." There is a recognition of the sin, literally he "makes it known" to God, agreeing with God about it & turning from it back to God. And says David "I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.'" He is prepared to admit & own up that he has done wrong.
Expressing it negatively this means "[I] did not cover up my iniquity." At one time he told us in v3 "I kept silentnow David doesn't want to hide or conceal his sin any longer.
When put together what David does is express the Kingdom norms of the 1st 2 beatitudes not only does he acknowledge he is "poor in spirit," he "mourns" over his sin.
It is at this point that we have to say those Year 11 students mentioned at the start don't have the whole picture of what brings a sense of well being. "Having a laughis fine much of the time, but not all of the time. There are occasions when it is appropriate & good to "mourn" to use Jesus' word.
Have our past actions & failures ever caused us grief? Have we not sometimes in the light of God's purity & glory been moved to tears by the recognition of our rebellion against God; our sins, transgressions & iniquities? Are there times when the words used in the old Church of England Book Of Common Prayer ring true for us "We acknowledge & bewail our manifold sins & wickedness"?
"Blessed are those who mourn," said Jesus, those who mourn for their own sins but surely there is an application to mourn for the sins of others.
Jesus after all wept over Jerusalem in it's rebellious rejection of God's purposes (egLk19:41), the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians about his concern about false teaching in the church "I have told you before & now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ." (Phil 3:18) Perhaps we should be moved more often to mourn before God for the sins we see around us?
Some say sin & the recognition of it is just a Christian neurosis that makes for a morbid, morose outlook & a low self-esteem that is destructive. But what we see here is that recognizing reality about yourself, admitting the truth & coming clean with God realizing the seriousness of our offence to God is actually not only right but beneficial. In the words of one Psychologist [Ernest Ligon] "If someone reacts to his environment in the spirit of the beatitudes his life will be a happy one," for he will have discovered the basic "formula for mental health" (The Psychology of Christian Personality p27,91 in Stott BST p33) No one knows better than God who has made us, what is good for human living.]
This brings us to our 3rd point tonight.
King David is a lived example of the 2nd beatitude both in the quality it describes, "Blessed are those who mourn" & in the positive consequence that is promised; "for they shall be comforted."
[3) The blessings of Comfort (v1-2, 6-11)]
Having grappled with the seriousness of sin experiencing conviction & confessing its reality David comes to what is the wonder of comfort from God.
What is the nature of this comfort? Look at v1,2; "1Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. And v5 "I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
The sin that required conviction from God & which has to be confessed & mourned is forgiven.
There is a pleasing symmetry in this Psalm. There are 3 words used for sin, 3 words for confession & here 3 words to describe the comfort of forgiveness that God brings.
Each of these words point to what we can see much clearer than David could this side of the death & resurrection of Jesus:
v1 "Blessed is he whose transgressions are
forgiven" literally "approved is the one whose rebellion is taken away." God removes sin & guilt from the humble sinner who confesses their transgression.
v1 "Blessed is hesins are covered."
God deals with sin & restores the sinner back to being at one with himself. This is the language of "sacrifice" & "atonement" the OT describes & which Jesus fulfils in his death as the perfect sacrifice who stands in the place of sinners, turning aside God's right anger against sin so that Sin is "covered" not to be brought up by God again. (eg Hebs 2:17,9;26)
v2 "Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD
does not count against him"; Approved by God is the one to whom God does not "impute the guilt
of iniquity." These opening words of Ps 32 are quoted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (4:5f) where he explains the wonderful truth usually called "justification" by grace through faith. That truth that through Jesus' death on the cross God not only forgives & forgets but positively treats us as those who have not sinned in the 1st place being clothed in the purity & goodness of Jesus.
We've just seen the closure of the last volume production car maker in the UK in MG Rover but on a smaller scale the UK still produces perhaps the best known quality cars in the world. There was once a man who owned a Rolls Royce & took in on a ferry to the continent for a holiday. While he was driving around Europe, his front axle broke. He contacted the Rolls Royce people back in England and asked, "I'm having trouble with my car; what do you suggest I do?" Well, the Rolls Royce people flew a mechanic over! The mechanic repaired the car and flew back to England and left the man to continue his holiday.
As you can imagine, the bloke was wondering, "How much is this going to cost me?" So when he got back home, he wrote a letter and asked how much he owed them. He received a letter from the office that read: "Dear Sir: There is no record anywhere in our files of a Rolls Royce axle breaking!"
They had deleted the record of breakdowns, wiped the slate clean they acted & worked as if the fault had not happened, as if the failure had not taken place, as if the car were in perfect working order.
That's a small picture of what God's forgiveness of our sins, God covering over our sins of him justifying us through Christ. God deletes our record of failures, he wipes our slate clean. He declares us "Not guilty" & treats us as if we had not rebelled against Him "not counting our sins against us" v2.
Who needs to be reassured of this kind of forgiveness this evening? Who needs to hear again God's verdict of pardon & acquittal in the face of the devil's condemnation or our own upside desire to dwell on our sin rather than receive God's forgiveness?
God has done all that is necessary through his son to provide this kind of comfort to those who have sinned.
This extraordinary blessing of forgiveness opens up the comfort of a deepening secure relationship with God through Jesus as we see in the rest of Ps 32; The comfort of access to God in prayer (v6), the comfort of protection & deliverance in trouble (v6,7) the comfort of
the promise of God's guidance where he treats his people like intelligent partners who have "understanding" rather than mindless resistant animals who don't (v8,9).
"Having a laugh" then, is not always the best way towards a sense of well being (as those school students at the start seemed to think.) "Blessed" says Jesus (those God approves with a true sense of well being) "are those who mourn." And such is an appropriate response when we grasp the seriousness of our sin as David found.
Transgression, sin & iniquity that need God's conviction to be recognized, they need to be confessed to God; acknowledged & not covered up.
Yet "Blessed are those who mourn" for "they will be comforted." Coming clean to God about our sin & trusting in God's remedy brings the most important thing anyone can know God's forgiveness through Jesus that takes away our rebellion, that deals with our sin & that brings not condemnation but rather justification.
As with most of the blessings of these beatitudes there is present & future dimension. Yes there is forgiveness & freedom now in this life but it will one day be complete when the Kingdom of heaven is fully consummated, when the King, Jesus returns & all of sin's effects will be removed in the new heaven & earth. That will be a time when God Himself will wipe away all the tears from those who have mourned (Rev 21:4).
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