Proper 19|Ex. 32:1,7-14 | Ps 51:1-17| 1 Tim 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10
“Against you only have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight.” FSHS
A woman and her grandmother were sitting on their porch discussing a member of the family who had really screwed up his life by cheating on his wife and stealing from his boss."He's just no good," the young woman said. "He's completely untrustworthy, not to mention lazy and sort of sleezy. And if, we’re honest he’s been like that since he was kid!”
"Yes, he’s a bad one," the grandmother admitted, as she rocked back and forth in her rocker, “but…Jesus loves him anyway.”
“I don’t see how that could be true at this point," the younger woman persisted.
"Oh, yes," assured the elderly lady. "Jesus loves him." She rocked and thought for a few more minutes and then added, "Of course, Jesus doesn't know him like we do . . .”
All joking aside, the testimony of Scripture is that Jesus not only loves us unconditionally but that he also knows each one of us far better than anyone else in the world, including ourselves. Psalm 139 declares that Lord, “perceives our thoughts from afar” and knows the words upon our tongues even before we speak them. Nothing that has ever happened in our lives, not even the thoughts the flick through our heads, not even our dreams are hidden from God. The love of Jesus Christ is an open-eyed and chosen love. That is part of what makes Jesus’ radical extension of forgiveness through the cross so remarkable and so needed. Hear the Good News, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, who knows our most horrendous thoughts, our secret habits, and the full effect of our selfishness on others, chooses to meet us with mercy.
That’s what this morning’s Scripture readings are all about- God’s unexpected and magnificent mercy. In our Old Testament lesson we see the Lord burn with wrath against the ancient Israelites when they begin to worship a Golden Calf rather than the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt. And yet, upon the pleas of Moses, God lessens his anger and remains in relationship with his people, albeit after striking down several hundred of them. In our reading from 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul testifies that he was a blasphemer, persecutor and opponent of all followers of Jesus, who by the Grace of God received not only mercy but a calling to become one of the great apostles of the church. Out of his experience of forgiveness he declares those amazing words we sometimes read after Confession: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (15). And, of course, in the famous and precious passage we heard from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reveals to us that, God’s relationship to sinners is like that of a person who is eagerly searching for what he or she has lost. A shepherd who has lost one of his sheep, a woman who has lost one of her coins. The Lord is not stingy with his mercy but rather eager to show it forth in our lives. Jesus tell us that when even one sinner repents of his or sins, there is joy before the angels of Heaven. God is not longing to punish and destroy us, but to restore us to himself.
However, sometimes, the Gospel’s radical portrayals of God’s love and forgiveness makes us be suspicious. If God loves us despite knowing the depths of our sins, does he really find them so abhorrent? Sure to us humans the consequences of things like lying, cheating, abuse, self-harm, and sexual perversion are devastation and destruction. But perhaps from God’s Cosmic perspective, that’s not such a big deal? He’s taking a long view of things right? As long as we get to Heaven by the dawn, perhaps God doesn’t care much what we do in the night of this life. Some other faiths, Islam foremost among them, accuse Christianity of portraying God as complacent about sin. They side with the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled against Jesus, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!”
But do not mistake God’s enthusiasm to save sinners, for indifference to sin. As the one most deeply acquainted with us, God is also the one most grieved and upset by our sins. God comprehends not only the depths of sin’s destruction, but also the beautiful alternatives of goodness and righteousness that sin destroys. King David gets it right when he cries to God from the depths of his contrition: “Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless in judgment.”
Although in his mercy the Lord extends forgiveness even before we recognize our sins or ask for it, part of full repentance is realizing that our sin are extremely offensive to God. One might even say they cause God spiritual pain.
Some theologians hesitate to attribute experiences like emotional or spiritual pain to God. God is changeless and constant by nature, so how could little human actions cause him to experience pain? The answer has to do with Love. God’s perfect goodness combined with God’s perfect love bind him to his creation in a way that brings him both delight and grief. We worship the god who comes near. Scripture is replete with examples of the Lord viscerally responding to the choices of those whom he loves. If God could not be grieved by our sins, then Jesus would not compare him to a shepherd tirelessly searching for his lost sheep or a woman frantically sweeping her house to look for her lost coin. But that is how Jesus describes him. Likewise, if God could not delight in the restoration of sinners, Jesus would not have compared him to a shepherd who finds his sheep and celebrates or a woman who finds her coin and rejoices. But Jesus does describe that kind of joy over sinners who repent.
God’s perfect love for us means that our sins are truly and primarily offensive to him. It also means he desires our redemption more than other being in the universe.
How could our little human actions have this kind of effect on God? I never had or lost a sheep. But I have had several experiences with lost and wayward pets that give me a little insight into Jesus’ comparison. Perhaps the most poignant of these happened a few years ago when Julianna had two darling little dwarf hamsters named Fuzzy and Wuzzy. Fuzzy and Wuzzy were sisters who had been together from birth. I did hours and hours of research before letting Julianna get these hamsters. We read that many hamsters don’t live well together but that dwarf hamster sisters were often an exception. Many were known bonded so deeply to one another that when one died the other would go into mourning. After reading many such reviews we found Fuzzy and Wuzzy and brought them home. For about two months Julianna spent every afternoon holding and cuddling Fuzzy and Wuzzy and I felt a sort of motherly satisfaction in her enjoyment of her pets. Fuzzy was the more interesting hamster; Wuzzy the more affectionate. It seemed like all that research had paid off. But then we took a short vacation. We hired one of our teenage neighbors to look in every few days on the hamsters. Justus left to come home a few days ahead of the rest of us. The morning after he arrived home, he called me with some very sad news.
“Heather, I don’t know how to tell you this…but this morning I went to check on the hamsters and well…I think Fuzzy ate Wuzzy…” I’ll spare you the graphic details but let’s just say, we had to have a closed casket funeral hamster funeral. Julianna was devastated. For several days she just burst into tears. I felt terrible for her. A few days after we got home, Julianna came to me and said, “Mommy, now I hate Fuzzy. I don’t want to feed her or take care of him anymore. When I see her all I can think is, ‘You murdered your sister!’”
Of course Fuzzy could never fully comprehend the reason for Julianna’s wrath and she certainly could not know about my sadness. She was just a hamster. We weren’t even sure if she remembered eating her sister. But we were angry and sad just the same. Still, I told her Julianna needed to forgive Fuzzy, “She still needs us and can’t understand what she did.” Although the relationship was never quite the same, Julianna chose to keep taking care of Fuzzy. And yet the relationship was never quite the same. There was still love, but less joy.
God’s love for us is constant and never changing. But God desires not just to love us, but to take joy in us. Being a hamster, in Fuzzy’s case, there was no real mechanism whereby she could ever admit what she’d done, confess her sins and ask for forgiveness and start again. Thankfully, it is not so between us and God. In his infinite mercy and love, the Lord gives us a way to confess our sins and make things right. And this process begins with recognizing God himself as the primary recipient of our sins.
Psalm 51 gives us a powerful example of what it looks like to repent in a way that restores our relationship with God. The occasion behind this Psalm is one of the most horrific stories of sin in the Bible. King David, the Lord’s anointed and beloved King, decides one spring to stay home from war. Standing idle on the roof of his palace, he looks down at his kingdom and sees his neighbor Bathsheba taking a bath on her own roof. Rather than doing the descent thing and looking away, he is consumed by lust and orders her to be brought to him. Bathsheba is forced to sleep with David and soon discovers she is pregnant. Scared that he will be caught in his adultery, King David orders Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to come home from the war and give him a report. After receiving the report, David encourages Uriah to go home to his wife. But Uriah refuses to take comfort with his wife while all of his fellow soldiers are out in the fields of war. After several more unsuccessful attempts to get Uriah to see his wife, David at last sends Uriah back to battle with a sealed letter for his commanders. The letter orders that Uriah be sent to the front line of battle and then abandoned. As planned, this results in Uriah’s death. Then David, thinking he has gotten away with his sin, marries Bathsheba and hopes that no one will ever be the wiser.
But David’s view from his castle was not the highest view in the story. While David was looking down upon Bathsheba, the Lord was looking down upon him and the Lord saw all that David did and said and it displeased him. Being all powerful, the Lord could have simply struck David down for his sin. But God loved David. So he sent him the prophet Nathan instead.
Upon being confronted, David immediately confesses that he has sinned, as he says, “Against the Lord.” In saying that he has sinned against the Lord, David is not failing to admit he has also sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah and basically his entire kingdom. Rather, he is recognizing that his sins against them are ultimately a terrible betrayal of the trust the Lord placed in him by making him king. Unlike Fuzzy the hamster, who surely never imagined the affect her sorocide had on all of us, David realizes his actions have grieved and angered the Lord who established them all and whose love is the treasure of his life. And out of that vital spiritual realization, David writes the prayer of confession that is Psalm 51.
David begins with a description of how his relationship with the Lord currently stands. “Have mercy upon me, O God, out of your steadfast love.” The version of the Psalm we read this morning uses the phrase out of your “great goodness,” but actually this is the Hebrew word, Hesed, which has more to do with God’s character as one who loves faithfully. It is because of God’s changeless character that David dares to ask for forgiveness: “According to the multitude of your mercies wipe away my offenses.”
Once we realize that our sins are ultimately against God, we must also recall God’s love. It is because God is love and God loves us, that our sins grieve him so deeply. And it is because God is love and God loves us, that not only may we dare to come ask for his mercy, but we realize that is precisely what he is longing for us to do.
Fully acknowledging to God, and especially to ourselves, that our sin grieves the one who loves us the most is painful for us. We are filled with a feeling of regret and sorrow called contrition. David cries out, “For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is ever before me.” And then the verse I’ve been talking about “Against you only have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless in your judgment.” This is a relational confession. It’s not about having failed to live up to our personal potential or even about getting caught. It’s about really acknowledging the relational effect our sin has on God.
When we realize we have betrayed the one who loves us most, we often ponder how we could have wandered off so far. Some sins are committed because of ignorance, some because of pride, most are a bit of a mix. Like many of us, David traces his sinful behavior to the patterns of his family. “Behold, I was brought forth in wickedness, and in sin my mother conceived me.” On one level David is speaking metaphorically here about the overall backdrop of sinfulness in our human nature. Sin has been a part of him since before he existed. However, it’s probably also more personal than that. The first love any of us know is the love of our parents, particularly usually our mothers. So much of our sin springs from brokenness in those primary parent-child relationships. As David thinks about his out of control lust and violence, could he be thinking about his family of origin? There is some really old Bible fan-fiction in the Jewish Talmaud that imagines a very complex and broken relationship between David’s parents. Maybe now as he feels the burn of his own shame and failure, David is starting to grapple with how his parent’s failures have misshapen his own desires.
Looking back in this kind of a fashion can be extremely helpful in setting us free from the lies Satan uses us to drives us into sin. However, we shouldn’t let the brokenness of our origins or our past define us. Notice that unlike a modern person who would at this point write a personal memoir about his deep inner psychological stuff, David immediately turns back to the task at hand: restoring his relationship with God. “But behold, you desire truth in the inward parts and shall make me understand wisdom secretly.” No amount of navel gazing and self-reflection can substitute for the healing touch of the Lord upon our souls. So it is to the Lord that David submits the darkness of his soul.
The rest of this prayer is a prayer for cleansing and healing. “You shall purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; you shall wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…turn your face from my sins and blot out all my misdeeds…create in my a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Just as David recognizes that ultimately his sin are between him and the Lord, he also recognizes that the Lord alone has the ability to cleanse him and in love has the will to do so.
To confess our sins to the Lord and as for his mercy is an act of worship. It is not just the groveling of a person who is trying to avoid punishment. It is a declaration of the character of God. As we say each week before we receive communion in the Prayer of Humble Access: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy.”
Asking for mercy is also a way of showing that we love God. “Cast me now away from your presence,” cries David, “and take not your holy Spirit from me.” We repent of our sins because we do not want to be separated from God. We also repent of them because we know they break the Lord’s heart. God longs for our wholeness like a shepherd who has lost his sheep. He doesn’t need us. We need him. But when we begin to comprehend the infinite, burning, faithfulness of his love for us and his total sorrow over our sins; we realize that part of showing our love to God is letting him find us again.
The love behind God’s mercy is what draws us to confession. It is because of that love that God became one of us and sat at tables full of sinners. Jesus didn’t extend welcome to sinners becuase sin doesn’t bother him, he extended them welcome because we wanted them to come home. And home, he knew, was with him him, cleaned by love from our sins by his own blood, forgiven by his sacrifice. That is why sinners repent when they meet Jesus. That is why we love him and sing his praises. Today may you too be filled with a love for
Jesus came to show us God’s broken heart…Jesus knows our sins better than anyone in the universe, but he also loves us better than anyone in the universe. That’s why, despite the fact that he has no need of us at all, he follows us even when we wander far off, he invites us to eat and drink with him even though we are sinners, and when we dare to look back and see the mix of grief and love in his eyes, he washes us by his own blood and bring us home.