“Happy are they whose Transgressions are Forgiven, and whose Sin is Put Away!”
Mar 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Text: Psalm 32
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
It’s week four of Lent, and also of our focus on the Psalms.
Did you ever consider when it was that the Book of Psalms, located in the middle of the Bible, was assembled into a book? I don’t mean when the Old Testament was brought together, but when an ancient collection of poems and songs became a book to use in worship. You may have never thought about how scrolls, containing words we still read today, were gathered to create a book. Scholars say it was during the fifth or fourth centuries, or 500-300, BCE., more than 500 years after some of the psalms were written.
The editors probably were priests in Jerusalem who wanted to make the disparate psalms more available for public use. Our Bibles have 150 psalms in them, but originally it would have been “around” 150 since over time some psalms were combined, and others divided. The collection has five sections or books.
And one more interesting detail … the Hebrew word for psalm is “mizmor”, which means something sung, and possibly implies accompaniment by a musical instrument. But the book itself is not called “Mizmorim”, or Psalms, in Hebrew. Instead, it’s called “Tehilim”, which means praises.
That’s interesting because there are basically two types of psalms in the book – songs of thanksgiving and praise and songs of supplication (or asking that a need be met). There are more of the latter, of supplication than of thanksgiving and praise. Yet, the book is called “Praises”, not “Psalms”. Why? Perhaps because in most of the poems or songs, whatever type they are, God’s greatness is celebrated and gratitude for God’s blessing is expressed. (1)
In today’s psalm, #32, a lesson is taught – that the path to blessing (or happiness), even physical or mental well-being, is confession. As one commentator noted, confessing sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough. In fact, you need to keep up with the task daily, so the house does not start to stink!
It is as if three voices are speaking in this psalm. The opening and closing lines are by the leader/priest who proclaims that the way to be really blessed in life is to be a person who knows he or she is forgiven by God. Then, in verse 3, another voice chimes in to affirm the truth of that statement.
The gist of it, the person announces, is that being quiet about sin led to being miserable, Day and night it felt as if a heavy burden was weighing that one down, and as if there was a constant thirst that could not be quenched. But, when the sin, the guilt was acknowledged, God’s forgiveness lifted the weight and quenched the thirst. So, this voice proclaims, the faithful will not be overwhelmed in difficult times. Instead of despair, there will deliverance and shouts of thanksgiving.
Now, in verse 8, the third voice joins the psalm, the voice of God, affirming that God is not aloof, but will offer instruction and guidance. Now we get to my favorite part of the psalm because it’s so vivid and so true. God advises: “Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” As commentator Stan Mast notes, when horses are approached by a stranger or even people they know but with whom they do not want to interact, they will put their ears back and shy away, even run away. The horse must be controlled by a bit or bridle and be led.
Do not do that, God says! Do not shy away or run from God, especially when confession is in order. Instead, come willingly, with gratitude. God does not want to rein us in, guide us with force or exert not-so-gentle pressure on us. (2)
Finally, we come to the closing verses and the priests’ voices again. Mercy is God’s gift to us, it embraces those who trust in the Lord; so, be glad, rejoice and shout for joy!
There’s a choice here, though, we human beings can decide whether to take the road of humility, pride, of defiance, or trust. Quoting Commentator Mast, “Unconfessed sin takes a toll in the body and spirit. Or, you can trust the Lord and discover God’s amazing, unfailing love all around you.” (3)
A week ago, last Wednesday, the Catholic churches in this area, perhaps state or country-wide, held an annual opportunity for people to go to any parish during particular times for the rite of confession with a priest. I’ve been aware of this practice because it is in Lent and always causes Father Steve (next door) to arrive late at the Interfaith Justice Series gathering.
He was telling me about it and said that often people go to a congregation other than their own so that the priest who hears their confession does not know them. A lot of people come, often with a significant need to confess. I imagine they walk out much lighter than they walked in.
When I first heard about this, it seemed odd to me, as if it was the “get out of jail free” card in the Monopoly game. But isn’t that what forgiveness is, for us all, regardless of how it happens? Perhaps a ritual, and hearing words of absolution, make it more real. So now I’ve decided that this Lent practice is a good opportunity because people make the choice to, as verse 5 states, acknowledge their sin and experience the forgiveness of their guilt. That always is a good thing.
With that in mind, I want to focus our attention briefly on today’s Gospel lesson, the pinnacle of forgiveness. It is a very familiar story; the account of the son who disrespects his father and his faith wastes the resources he has been given on “dissolute living” and suffers the consequences. He decides to go home, confess his sin and his unworthiness, and ask to be treated as a servant in the household. There’s some debate about whether or not his repentance is sincere, or if he just wants enough to eat, but the fact is that it does not matter.
When his father sees him coming, he is filled with compassion (that’s probably the most important sentence in the story), runs to him, and embraces him. That’s even before a word of repentance comes out of the boy’s mouth. He does repent, though, and an amazing celebration is held because the one who was lost was found. (Of course, this does not sit well with the older brother, who has done everything right, without acknowledgment, while his worthless brother is the recipient of undeserved mercy. But…that’s another sermon.)
We often call this the story of the Prodigal Son, prodigal meaning to spend money or resources freely and recklessly or to be wastefully extravagant. So, the title fits the younger son.
But prodigal can also mean to give something on a lavish scale, so this also is the story of the Prodigal Father, who lavished grace and forgiveness on his son. This is what God is like, Jesus is telling his listeners, the lavisher on unconditional mercy.
Psalm 32 is less bold than Jesus’ parable in its description of grace, and yet the message is clear, confession is the path to blessing, tomercy, to grace. Our memory verse from last week, from Psalm 63:3, expresses the gratitude we feel for God’s love. “For your steadfast love is better than life itself; my lips shall give you praise!” Today we have focused on why that is true, so our memory verse for today is 32:1: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!” Let’s say it again: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!” AMEN
1.The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter, 2007 W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY, pgs. Xviii ff
2.“Psalm 32 Commentary” by Stan Mast, March 5, 2017, www.cepreaching.org
3.“Psalm 32 Commentary” by Scott Hoezee, March 27, 2022, www.cepreaching.org