Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The hospital was eerily quiet as I made my late-night rounds.
The sound of my shoes echoed throughout the hallways as I peeked in on different patients, asking if anyone of them wanted “pastoral care.”
Most of them were asleep.
Those who were awake waved me away with their televisions remotes as they sifted through the early morning informercial marathons.
It felt, in that moment, like a rare opportunity to crash on the bed in the dim lit pastoral office and enjoy some blessed rest. But before I turned to head that direction, a message popped up on my beeper beckoning me to another part of the hospital.
She sat up when I entered the room, old enough to be my great-grandmother, and she gestured for me to come closer. I reached for a nearby chair but she patted on the bed. She explained that eyesight and hearing were such that she needed me to be as close as possible, so I obliged.
She took my hand in hers and said, “Father, I need to confess my sins.”
“Well,” I began, “I’m not actually a priest, and neither am I ordained, I’m basically a glorified pastoral intern.”
She said, “God loves to work through people like you. Will you hear my confession?”
“I guess so.”
“I lied to the nursing staff this afternoon. They asked if I was comfortable and I said ‘Yes’ even though I feel terrible. They asked if I like the food here and I said ‘Yes’ even though I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs. And they asked if I needed anything and I said ‘No’ even though, honestly, I need a miracle.”
We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Aren’t you supposed to say something.”
“Yes,” I muttered, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
“Thank you,” she replied as I saw the worry drift away from her face, “I know God already forgives me, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone else say it.”
I then prepared to get up from sitting next to her on her bed when she tightened her grip around my hand and said, “Now its your turn.”
“My turn to do what?” I asked.
“To confess your sins to me.”
So I did.
Psalm 51 is read by the people of God to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. It is, as we call it in the church, one of the penitential psalms – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.
And yet, Psalm 51 does not begin, as we might suspect, with a confession of sin. Rather, it begins with a request for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
That might not seem like a big deal – but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worthy confessing, that if the psalmist is to be helped (at all) then the sins must be taken away completely, that the psalmist cannot do this on their own, and that the psalmist can ask for forgiveness because the psalmist worships a merciful God.
And that is astonishing.
Let me put it this way. In so much of our lives it go like this: We do something wrong or we avoid doing something we know we should do. And then, for awhile, we stew over what happened, or didn’t happen. We know we should probably admit what we did but it’s terrifying. What if we wronged someone and when we tell them the truth they cut us out of their lives forever? Or we wrestle with it because we don’t want to admit that we’re the kind of person who could do such a thing. And then we either bite the bullet and confess, or we keep in in our heart of hearts as it seeps throughout our being and does far more damage and the initial indiscretion.
But the psalmist sees it different.
The psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred.
The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.
The psalmist understands that God can redeem even the worst mistake.
For us, people entering the season of Lent, this is something to keep at the forefront of our minds – we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, while we were yet sinners God proved God’s love toward us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (who, by the way, happen to be everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross).
The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.
The challenge is whether or not we have the constitution to confess the condition of our condition.
Because even if we can summon the words, Lord have mercy upon me, most of us go around convincing ourselves that we’re, all things considered, pretty decent people.
After all, we’re tuning in to a midweek first day of lent service online!
Sure, we know we’re not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). We’re happy to get on Facebook and Twitter to call out the specks in other’s eyes all while ignoring the log in our own.
That’s why Lent is both so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to turn back to the Lord who came to dwell among us – it is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the One who breathed life into us.
But Lent is also a time for honesty.
Honesty about who we are, how we have fallen short, and how in need of grace we really are.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, the disciple Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, the church, then don’t exist to show the world how wrong it is in its trespasses but to confess first that we are sinners in need of a Savior who can do more with us and for us than we could ever do on our own.
Confession, what we’re doing tonight, is not just an apology, it’s not just a feeling bad about what we’ve done. It’s about agreeing with God about who we really are.
We are dead in our sins.
And we have no hope in the world of being anything else, except for the fact that God has come not to fix the fixable or teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.
We can’t fix ourselves. But that’s actually Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
The Kingdom is heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is thinking we need no part of forgiveness. Amen.