The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 8, 2018
How God aches to have conversation with us! He addresses us all the time and attempts to get through to us by all sorts of means. But we often don’t notice; or, when we notice, we often don’t pay attention.
With this sermon we will come to the half-way point in a ten-part series on prayer. We spent the first third considering how to listen to God; and this sermon carries on that concern.
In a developing life of prayer, we do well to regularly make confession and repent of our sin when convicted. For doing so attunes the spiritual radios of our souls to the frequencies over which God broadcasts messages. Many scriptures mention how having our heart right gives us the capacity to take in what God wants to tell us. For example, Jesus said in John 7:17 that it is those resolved to do the will of God who discern who He is and what He is about; and, in Matthew 5:8, that it is the pure in heart who would see God. In another instance among many, 1 Peter 3:7 says that it is husbands devoted to the welfare and honor of their wives who have unhindered dialogue with God and perceive God’s answers to their requests.
The fact is that the more we open our ears to all the truth – particularly the unpleasant, humbling truth about ourselves – the more we open our whole selves to the God of all truth.
Consider the psalm before us today, the fourth of the seven penitential psalms found among the 150 psalms in this, the prayer book of the Bible. King David had closed his ears to God and done some terrible things. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and set up her husband Uriah to be killed. After committing such evil, however, David slept untroubled like a baby – until a prophet named Nathan snuck the reality of his depravity into his awareness, ambushing him with a clever parable.
All of us at times need help to become aware of our moral and spiritual messes. We are like homeowners who, while they may be cognizant of the resultant bad odors, require proof that the cause is the uncontrolled bladders of their own pets. To show them the truth of their situation, cleaning service people darken a room and then scan it with a black light that causes urine crystals to glow brightly. People then cannot deny the drops and drizzles of their pets.
To us God reveals the truth about ourselves, not to make us feel bad, but to make us become better through making us aware of our need to change. That awareness gives us reason to let God cleanse and improve us.
When God through Nathan confronted David with his sin and David finally faced the awful truth about what he had done, the awareness broke David’s heart. But his broken heart led to the breaking up of the spiritual wax clogging his ears and deafening him to the voice of God. Confession and repentance renewed David’s relationship and conversation with God.
We listen in on David’s prayer of confession and repentance by reading Psalm 51. Appealing to God’s steadfast love, David pleads for mercy. He acknowledges that his sin is real and that he needs to be cleansed of the filth of it. He asks God to purge him with “hyssop”, the plant whose branches were dipped into blood to be sprinkled upon a person in affirmation of their having their physical or spiritual defilement washed away.
David acknowledges that God is “justified” in being appalled at his behavior. He himself is appalled at himself. In fact, his sin is, David says, ever before him – reminding him of his failure and mocking him for it.
It grieves and galls David because it is a sin against God “alone”, not in the sense of not wronging anyone else (just ask Bathsheba and Uriah), but in the sense of ultimately wronging the Creator in whose image they were made. It also grieves and galls David because it represents, not a freak misstep that is not like him, but a character defect in David that is deep in him. It shows, not just what he is capable of, but who he is: a sinner from start to finish, from the moment his mother conceived him to his present stage of maturity. It shows David that he himself is his own worst problem.
Once David sees that he himself is the problem, he knows that he himself cannot be the solution. Thus, David here abandons his hope in self-reformation, but hangs a still bigger hope on divine transformation. David prays, not just to know the joy of forgiveness, but to know the joyous miracle of being done over, with God making happen what only God can make happen. David prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” In other words, David pleads for God to bring from outside of him what he needs inside of him, and to remake him from the inside out, from top to bottom.
But no one allows God to take over and make them over until they come to the end of themselves. We come to the end of ourselves when we hear from God how we have fallen short and cannot lift ourselves any higher – and we believe it. Then and only then, we repudiate self-reliance, and depend instead upon divine mercy. By confession and repentance we become the poor in spirit to whom, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven belongs.
Chuck Colson writes about speaking at a gathering of nineteen movers and shakers organized by a prominent businessman he calls Mr. Abercrombie. Colson felt moved to tell these successful, admired and proud men that each of us is our own biggest problem to overcome and that we are all disabled for the job by our depravity. When his talk took that turn, he faced stony stares and saw a lot of uncomfortable shifting around in chairs. The host of the event, Mr. Abercrombie, rose to challenge Colson on the point. When Colson kept insisting that we all have a debilitating ugliness inside of us, that we are all desperately sinful, and that as a result we all deserve hell and would get it but for the sacrifice of Christ, Abercrombie replied, “I’m a good person and have been all my life. I go to church and do great good.”
Colson answered, “If you believe that… you are, for all your good works, further away from the kingdom than the people I work with in prison.” Someone coughed, another rattled his coffee cup, and Abercrombie’s face flushed red with anger. Something, however, pushed Colson to keep pushing in the same direction, and he added, “We are all more like Adolf Hitler than like Jesus Christ.” Immediately someone rescued people from the awkwardness and brought the program to a hasty close.
Abercrombie hurried up to Colson, grabbed him by the arm, pulled him into an empty office. Expecting to be dressed down, Colson was surprised to hear Abercrombie own up to his own depravity and say that he saw something in Colson that he didn’t have but wanted: peace. When Colson told him it was something Jesus gave him apart from any contribution of his own, Abercrombie dropped to his knees and asked Jesus to take over his life, make it over and give him peace.
With that first step, Abercrombie began a still ongoing ascent up a spiral staircase of confession and repentance toward greater and greater peace. As he climbs it, Abercrombie delights in an enduring friendship and prayerful dialogue with Jesus. Let us each start or renew that conversation. Let us pray.