22 March 2020
Every one of us listening today has compromised our walk of faith in one way or another. We are united in this. We are sinners. We are all prone to engaging in sinful acts. Not one of us, wherever we may be hearing or reading this is exempt. And to unite us even further, every one of the sins that we commit is horrible and ugly and miserably destructive. There is no such thing as petty sin, however much we wish it to be true. All of our sins are a grievous offense to God. We are as united by our bent toward sinning as we are by the forgiving blood that Jesus shed on the cross. We are wanderers from the truth, and wanderers from the path of life that God has established for us.
There. Now having established that terrible reality, we can move on, because no one, myself included, likes to be reminded that we are genuinely miserable creatures who regularly bring sorrow and grief to one another and to the God who loves us. We would much rather be known as joy bringers to God and to one another. We would rather be done with the business of sin and destruction and death, and praise be to God, some day that day will come. One day, the glory of the Lord will be fully revealed, and we will be completely released from the tyranny of our sinful natures. The Apostle John, while he was exiled on the Island of Patmos, heard these glorious words shouted from the very throne of God:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them: they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3b,4)
What a glorious hope for this present time! But for now, we struggle with the terrible effects of sin in our own lives and in the lives of others. And yet for generations, followers of Jesus have long pondered the glorious wonder of sin forgiven. And it is a mystery, but it is a wonderful mystery.
All of the work of forgiveness that God needs to do, has already been done. There is nothing left for God to do. All of the work of forgiveness was accomplished by Jesus on the cross when he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That prayer was not simply a prayer for the forgiveness of those who had a direct hand in engineering his death, and who may or may not have been present to hear it, but rather it is a prayer for the forgiveness for all human beings in every time and in every place: past, present and future. Until we came face to face with message of the gospel, we did not know that Jesus had prayed this prayer on our behalf, nor did we care that it was our sin that brought about the death of Jesus, nor did we know or care that it was his death that brought about our forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And so when we come to Jesus Christ, and when we acknowledge him as our savior, our sins are forgiven: all of our past sins, all of our present sins, and most gloriously, the sins that we haven’t even been tempted to commit yet. Forgiveness makes us new creatures. And when God looks down from the throne room of heaven, God sees not sinful and broken people, but rather, God sees people who have been wondrously perfected by the awesome power of grace.
And yet we know that we have not fully arrived. Yes, we have been redeemed by grace, yes, we have had all of our sins forgiven, and yes, we are citizens of heaven, but the reality is that we still behave as if we are the children of hell. And in God’s wisdom, not ours, we carry within us, simultaneously, an ugly, sinful and destructive nature, and a beautiful, creative, redeemed nature. And this is precisely why Jesus, the very one who brought about our salvation, taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Last Sunday we spent some time discussing the ways of Adam and the way of Jesus. In verse 4, the psalmist writes, “make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” In much of the Scriptures, those two words, “ways” and “paths” can often be interpreted in such a way that they mean exactly the same thing. They are examples of Hebrew poetic parallelism. And, because this is poetry, perhaps we can ferret out a bit of nuance between them.
For our purposes today, let us assume that the “ways” of God are the ways in which God operates. This is the stuff that God does. And how often do we give much thought to what God is up to? Is God up to anything? Don’t most people think that God is a severely aged man who spends all day sitting on his big, reclining throne, twiddling his thumbs, perhaps listening to the latest angelic oratorio, just waiting to push the “smite” button on his computer?
But here, the psalmist wants enlightenment. He wants to know about God, and he also wants to know God. And he wants to know these things so that he can put himself on God’s path. And he wants to know God’s path, because that’s the very thing that he so frequently finds himself straying from. If he can find and stay on God’s path, he’ll be less likely to sin.
We are miles ahead of the psalmist in this respect. Like the Psalmist, we still ought to be praying for a deeper, more solid relationship with God; we still ought to be praying for more insight into the mysterious ways of God. But, unlike the psalmist, we have the Scriptures. We know that the mind and the will and the ways of God are revealed on every page. We understand God’s ways by engaging, as often as possible, with the Scriptures. During this time of global and personal crisis, it is even more imperative that we engage with the Scriptures. In that way, we also learn the paths of life and creation that God has established for us, so that we can better avoid the paths of death and destruction that sometimes so easily beset us. The psalmist is really praying for a teachable spirit. He later mentions a humble spirit, too, but both are nearly synonymous when it comes to discovering the ways and paths of God.
And so, a prayer for forgiveness shows up specifically in verses 6 and 7. But, really, the entire psalm is a prayer for forgiveness, and that’s because forgiveness comes to us as part of a vital relationship with God, and that’s what this whole psalm is about. Without a vital relationship with God, without intimacy with God, forgiveness doesn’t strike us as being all that important. But when we are living by faith, forgiveness is everything. Forgiveness is the very hope of our lives.
In verses 6 and seven, “memory” is also very important, at least to the psalmist. And that’s because God has a perfect memory, and ours is flawed. The psalmist prays, “be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love.” Now ponder that a bit. Does God need to remember that he is merciful, and that he overflows with steadfast love? Of course not! God extends mercy all day, every day, and God does nothing that is not out of deep, deep love. God loves the unlovely, the unlovable, and even the hateful. So who needs to remember that God is merciful and loving? We do, because too often we doubt that God is merciful and loving, especially when we know that we are in need of forgiveness.
And then the psalmist prays, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions…” Wow. This is it, isn’t it? Oftentimes, and the psalmist was no exception, the stupid and foolish choices that we made in our youth and in our early adult years live on to haunt us, sometimes for the rest of our lives. We can’t ever seem to forgive ourselves. We can’t ever seem to be rid of our painful memories of our transgressions. But hear this: God has a perfect memory. And part of God’s perfect memory is perfect forgetfulness. When God forgives a sin, it is gone, gone, gone. Gone as far as the East is from the West. God is not the one who keeps the memory of our sins alive. We are the ones who do that. The psalmist is praying for a memory that imitates God’s memory. He’s praying for a memory that celebrates God’s mercy and steadfast love, but he’s also praying for a memory that includes forgetfulness. He is praying for a cleansed soul. This also, must be our prayer, especially when painful memories from hell surface to haunt us. Keep in mind that these memories do not exist at all in God’s heart. There is no cause for further guilt.
Finally, the Psalmist prays, “…remember me for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” We are living right now, in a time of great mystery and confusion. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. People all around us are panicking and exhibiting behaviors that display the profound depths of fear and dread that now rule their hearts. This is because they do not know the one, who out of his goodness, remembers them, cares for them, and wishes for them to comprehend his great love for them. In the struggle of the coming weeks, let us, the ones who know the ways of God, share those ways with those who do not. Let us always in imitation of our Lord, be characterized by mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness, and forgiveness.