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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: The Agony of Sin

July 7, 2013

Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms:  The Agony of Sin
Test:  Psalm 51


Two psalms act as corollaries when we come to our study of the Psalms, Finding Ourselves in the Psalms.  Psalm 51, which we will look at today, and Psalm 55, which we will consider next week, serve as bookends for a large part of our human experience.

I consider David Tanner my personal philosopher.  He lived on the King Line down behind what is now Bronco’s Restaurant and walked past my house almost every day.  It was very common for me to walk out my front door to get the newspaper at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning and see David sitting in a rocking chair on my porch.

David attended our neighbor church down the road, Mount Sinai, where he sang in the choir.  We often talked about his church.

One Monday morning when I found him rocking on my porch, I inquired, “David, did you go to church yesterday?”

He answered, “Yes, sir!”

I asked, “How was it?”

“It was really good.”

“What was good about it?”

“The singing was especially good.”  Choir members always say the music was good.

“How about the preaching, David?  How was that?”

David answered, “It was good.  The preacher preached about sin.”

“What did he say about sin?”

“Well, he’s ag’in’ it.”

With that said, maybe we could just offer a benediction and go home.  Knowing that a preacher is “ag’in’ it” is about all the sermon you need to know about sin.

For the past several weeks since Clare and I returned from Chicago, one of my biggest tasks has been weeding the flowerbeds.  The rain has been wonderful for the plants, but the weeds have also grown and spread quite rapidly.

While working in those beds this past week, I began thinking about an incident that happened several years ago. I was weeding the flowers in the front of our home on a day that was particularly hot.  The knees of my pants were muddy, my shirt was in a most unkempt condition, and the old hat I wore was slouched on my head.  I had just gotten up from kneeling and had begun to dust myself off when a car pulled into the driveway.

The woman driver lowered the passenger’s window, and the other woman said, “I’ve been admiring this yard.  Do you take care of this garden?”

I answered, “Yes, I do.  I try to keep up with it.”

She asked, “Do you do this kind of work regularly?”

“It’s pretty steady.”

“May I ask how much you get paid per hour for doing this work?”

I replied, “I don’t get paid anything at all, not one red dime.”

The most puzzled look crossed her face.

I wiped the sweat from my brow with my red bandana and remembered a comment I had heard someone else say.  I pointed to the house where Clare and I have lived for thirty-three years and said, “You know, the lady that lives here lets me sleep with her.”

You have never seen such skid marks in my driveway.  That car roared out into the street, and that was the last time I ever heard from the two women.

I must tell you that I did ask for Clare’s permission to share this story. She responded to my request with her usual, “Why even ask?  You’re going to tell it anyway.”

Whenever the rain lets up a bit, I get down on my hands and knees and dig weeds with a tool known as a Korean trowel.  I bought it at a garden show in Charlotte several years ago, and it is the handiest tool I own for digging all the way down to the roots of the weeds.  You do not destroy a weed if you just cut off its top.  You do not do any good if you just cover the weeds with mulch.  Those techniques may work for a little while; but in order to destroy a weed, you must destroy its roots.

I have to contend with Bermuda grass, which is insidious; crab grass, which appears every year no matter how much I try to prevent it; and nut grass, which has tendrils that grow under the ground and pop up throughout the flower garden.  In order to eliminate the grasses in the beds, I have to dig all the way down to the roots.  Gardening has two rules regarding weeds.  First, never allow weeds to go to seed because they make more weeds.  Second, get to the root of the problem.

After working awhile yesterday, I sat in the shade, sipped a cup of ice water with lemon slices, and thought about today’s sermon.  I realized just how much weeds and sin are similar.  We try to cover up sin and make it appear as if it did not happen.  We also try to give weeds a cosmetic treatment, but dealing with sin requires getting to its root.

King David possessed many admirable traits.  Called the “sweet singer of Israel,” he must have had a beautiful voice.  That musical talent and his ability to play a shepherd’s harp certainly aided him in calming the temperamental Saul.  Hailed throughout the land as a fierce warrior, David was a man among men.  Remember that he had proved himself from the time he took on the Philistine, Goliath.  David was an astute politician.  When it came time to choose his capital city, he selected the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, which was neutral.  There he would unite all of Israel under a single monarchy.

David, “a man after God’s own heart,” had a huge deficit in his life.  He neglected his need for intimacy.  You might wonder at that statement, knowing that he had at least eight wives and ten concubines, as revealed in II Samuel 3.  We learn in II Samuel 5 that he took even more wives and concubines when he went to Jerusalem.

How can we say David lacked intimacy?  We often confuse intimacy with a physical relationship.  That is certainly an important dimension of intimacy, but marital intimacy is much more than that.  It includes emotional intimacy; a husband and wife must be able to talk with each other about any topic.  They have to know that nothing is unspeakable.

Marital intimacy includes an intellectual aspect.  I am not saying that a couple must agree on every issue.  The husband and wife are not required to vote for the same candidates, but they should be able to share their thoughts and beliefs, their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Their core values need to be the same.  An intellectual intimacy means that both people in the relationship must be students, and both must be teachers.  One person’s decision that he or she has nothing else to learn will undo a marriage quicker than anything else.  Jesus even spoke about a broken marriage by saying, “It was because of the hardness of your hearts that Moses allowed divorce.”  The New English Bible translates that, “…because your minds were closed.”

In addition, intimacy in marriage involves spiritual matters.  Husbands and wives must pray together and worship together.  They must share the things of faith.

David had so much going for him, but I suppose we could say that he experienced one horrific mid-life crisis.  During one time of war when his army left for battle, David stayed home, something a king never did.  One evening during that time he took a stroll out onto the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful woman below, bathing in a garden.  He decided to make her his own.  After all, he was the king and felt he had the right to do just about anything he wanted to do.  David sent for this woman, Bathsheba, to be brought to his royal chamber.  Wouldn’t you know it?  She became pregnant.

As the events of this affair unfolded, every cliché and wise saying you have ever heard about sin fit this situation.

“Your sins will find you out.”  David tried to cover up his role in Bathsheba’s pregnancy.  He requested that her husband, Uriah, return home and have a time of respite from fighting on the battlefield.  Of course, David hoped that Uriah would have a physical relationship with his wife, thus providing an explanation for Bathsheba’s pregnancy.  Uriah, a loyal soldier, refused to violate the soldier’s code of honor, however.  He slept on the porch and declined the opportunity to enter his wife’s room.

“O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”  When Uriah’s return proved unsuccessful, David began plotting, scheming.  He ordered Joab, his general, to position Uriah on the front lines, knowing that Uriah would likely be killed during battle.  With Uriah’s ultimate death, David assumed he had ended the problem.

“Surely, a king or person of his rank can get away with anything.”  No.  “Might makes right”?  No.  “Commit two sins, one sin to cover the other”?  No.  “Two wrongs do not make a right.”  David had committed a double sin, both adultery and murder.

A courageous man named Nathan, a court prophet, confronted King David in a skillful manner with a parable.  He told David the story of a wealthy man planning a meal for guests in his home.  Wanting to serve lamb chops at the meal, the host stole the only lamb belonging to his much poorer neighbor, instead of killing one of his own lambs.

When Nathan finished the story, David was furious.  Having a quick temper and a tendency for impulsiveness, David ordered, “Bring that man to me!  I will have justice!”

Then Nathan held up a mirror and asked, “David, do you see what I see?  That man is you.”  “Surely, your sins will find you out.”

David might have thought his sins were hidden; but Nathan’s harsh, yet skillful, confrontation brought David to his knees.  The entire encounter between the prophet and king, recorded in II Samuel 11, concludes with these words:  “The thing David had done displeased the Lord.”  Sin always displeases the Lord.

William Shakespeare tells the story of a man and his wife, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who are consumed with ambition and pride.  Encouraged by the subtle prompting of three witches, they carry out their plan to kill Duncan, the king of Scotland.  One murder leads to another and another. During the course of the play Shakespeare exposes the unrelenting agony of sin as this husband-and-wife team spiral down into the depths of guilt and despair.

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.”  Sin will absolutely kill your spirit.  You can hear Paul’s agony in Romans 7:15-25 as he records his thoughts about his own sin.  He describes a kind of civil war occurring in his own soul, saying, “I don’t understand what I do.  What I want to do, I am not able to do.  What I hate is what I do.  I have the desire to do good, but I cannot do it.”  He adds, “Wretched man that I am.  Who will deliver me from this body that is taking me to death?”  That kind of agony is a part of sin that affects not only the person who has sinned but many others as well.

Nathan’s confrontation about the king’s sin did not turn David to witches.  He turned in a different direction, to prayer, which Psalm 51 records.  I invite you to turn to that passage with me.  Notice the heading, which I hope is in your Bible as it is in mine:  “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  David’s psalm is a prayer that reveals his agony caused by being entrapped by sin.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.

Sin is always right before us until we deal with it, until we root it out into the open.  Sin haunts us in our dreams. It keeps us awake at night and remains in our thoughts constantly until we deal with it.  Sin simply will not go away by itself.  The Apostle Paul says that our “consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:2).  After a time, though, we may come to the point that we ignore sin because we have become so used to its presence.  We just do not feel the sting of guilt anymore. 

David laments in Verse 3, “My sin is ever before me.”  You cannot scrub it away as Lady Macbeth tried to do.  You cannot scrub it away as Pontius Pilate tried to do.  An old hymn words it this way:  “What can wash away my sin?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  David continues his prayer by asserting that he knows he has sinned against God and deserves whatever punishment God renders. 

Against you, you only, have I sinned    
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict    
 and justified when you judge.

Sin has far-reaching consequences.  The cliché “We reap what we sow” is so true.  The sin of Adam and Eve, described so vividly for us in Chapter 3 of Genesis, leads to domestic violence within their family when one brother kills another brother.  Abraham and Sarah, promised that they would have a child, grew tired of waiting and decided to take matters into their own hands.  They sinned by choosing Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl, to serve as a surrogate mother.  Now to this day, the descendents of Ishmael are at continual war with the descendents of Isaac.  The sibling rivalry has been protracted.

David’s sin also had far-reaching consequences.  You wonder how his other wives felt.  How did Abigail feel, for example, when David committed this sin of adultery?  We know something about how his children reacted.  His sons Absalom and Adonijah both turned against him.  He committed a sin against Bathsheba, who could not deny the king; and he certainly sinned against her husband, Uriah.  Sin is, above all, against God.  “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done that which is evil in your sight.”

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;     
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

It is from Verses 5-6 that we get the doctrine of original sin, a theology the Roman Catholic Church still holds tightly.  At one time the Church took this doctrine so seriously that it baptized children in utero, believing that baptism was salvation. 

When people ask me theological questions, I try to give them a practical answer.  When people ask, “Do you believe in original sin?” I answer that I just do not see much sin that is original.  People are not creating fresh ways to get in trouble.  It really has all been done before and is not original at all.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

We can remedy the agony of sin only through a three-fold process.  Verse 4 promotes honest confession:  “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done that which is evil in your sight.”  Verses 11-12 reveal the second part of the process: receiving the grace and mercy of God:  “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”  Verse 17 notes the requirement of genuine repentance:  “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”  Nothing else will work.  God’s grace and God’s mercy bring forgiveness for our sins. That forgiveness is the desire of all who sin. 

Who are the sinners?  You heard as our Call to Worship this morning a passage from Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We are all sinners saved by the grace of God who demonstrates His love to us in Christ Jesus.  Christ died so that by faith in him we can receive forgiveness for our sins.  It is the only way to root out sin and be done with it.  You know the verse in Horatio Spafford’s hymn, “My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Do you want the assurance of knowing that your sins are forgiven by the only Redeemer, Christ Jesus?  That assurance is available.  The gift of God in Christ Jesus is absolutely free, but it is a very expensive gift.  We invite you to accept Christ as your Savior.  If you have never done that, there is no better day than this one.  You know what God has laid on your heart.  We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2013

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