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Psalm 51:1-12

Psalm 51 is one of those Psalms that can be hard for us to read because it causes us to reflect on our own sin and brokenness. We do not like to talk about our sin, let alone talk about the consequences of our sin and the ways our sin has affected and impacted others. Yet, here is David, crying out to God, recognizing the impact and reach of his sin.


The designation before our text gives us the context of this Psalm. It is a psalm of David that was written after the prophet Nathan came and addressed David’s sin. We know the circumstances surrounding this sin. We know the ways David tried to cover up his sin. We know the consequences that followed – and not just for David, but for others as well. David’s sin did not just cause brokenness and fracture relationships for David – the ripples were felt by many.

This psalm is a prayer – a prayer of confession, a prayer of repentance, a prayer of renewal. In these words, we see the results of David’s self-examination, his soul-searching – and what David finds as he looks at his life and his sin causes him to cry out to God. Brian Erickson writes, “Of all the penitential psalms, this is the one that most passionately witnesses to the pain of sin and the hunger for salvation. This psalm is not for reading; it is meant to be wailed. It outlines the paradox of the Lenten journey: our liberation will come through our suffering, not in spite of it” (Bartlett, 2015).


In this season of Lent, we are invited to this posture and practice of confession. Lent is a time for us to take a deep look at ourselves and allow God to reveal those places within us where we need God’s mercy and forgiveness. This is not easy for us. We do not like to go to these places – mostly because they force us to take a deep look at ourselves and the ways that we have sinned against God and others. But, in this psalm we learn that the posture and practice of confession is not only necessary, but it can be a place of healing that leads us into deeper relationship with God.


If we were to be honest, we do not do confession well, especially in the evangelical church. We have turned confession into a “catholic” thing. We do not see the value or the necessity of the type of confession we see from David in this psalm. We need to reclaim the practice of confession as not just a “catholic” practice, but a “Christian” practice. We need to be teaching our congregations the importance of confession, value of confession, and how to practice confession.

Confession is not just an “I’m sorry,” in order to get out of being in trouble or to avoid consequences. Confession is deeper than that. Confession requires self-examination, it requires recognition on our part of that hurt and pain caused by our sin. Confession requires repentance – a turning, a change.


In Psalm 51, David teaches us how to confess. In the opening words of this Psalm, we see the honesty, transparency, and vulnerability of David. David does not mince words and he does not hide his sin. David not only recognizes his sin, but he also begins to recount the weight of his sin, the damage of his sin (verses 1, 3). He talks about the ways his sin has broken his relationship with God and calls out to God for forgiveness. David is not looking for a “quick fix” type of forgiveness. David is crying out for new birth, recreation – David wants to be made new, fully restored. He uses language like “cleanse,” “restore,” “wash,” blot out” – platitudes will not do! David pleads for the restorative grace of God and He cries out to the only One who can make him new. We also see David’s repentance here – as we read, we see David turn from his sin toward the forgiveness and redemption of God.

 

While this psalm is a prayer of confession woven so deeply within it is a declaration of God’s grace that you cannot separate the two. In these words from David, we come to see that no matter the brokenness, no matter how far we have gone – none of it compares to God’s grace. God’s grace can restore and redeem! As you read through this Psalm, almost every time David cries out in confession, he echoes that with a statement about God’s grace. As he is confessing his sin to God, he is also reminding his heart of the goodness of God. This shows David’s complete faith and trust in God. David knows that God can and will forgive him so he can confess his deepest sin before God – he does not have to be afraid to be this open and honest with God because he knows that God hears and answers prayers, he knows that God loves him and has the power and desire to forgive him. No where in this psalm does David try and get out of the consequences of his sin – he does not ask God for that. David asks God for restoration, redemption, forgiveness, and grace.


We have people sitting in your pews that believe they have gone too far; they believe their sins are too great; that God’s grace cannot forgive them. We have people sitting in our pews who need to hear about the unlimited, unmerited, powerful grace of God! And not just hear it – we have people sitting in our pews who need to experience the unlimited, unmerited, powerful grace of God! David shows us that God’s grace does not come with conditions – God’s grace is for all! God wants to pour out God’s grace upon us to wash us clean, to restore us, to purify us, to create a clean heart in us, to restore our joy.


God wants to breathe new life into the places of death within us, But first, we must sit in the ashes, we must be honest about our sin and brokenness. As Brian Erickson states, “grace does not come without grief. For our hearts to heal, we must first be honest about [our] brokenness” (Bartlett, 2015). As you prepare to preach this passage, the questions that keep stirring in my mind are: How might God want to breathe new life into the people of my congregation? How might God want to purify them and restore them? What might the people in my pews be holding on to because they think God could never and would never forgive them? May these ancient words move our people to know and experience the amazing grace of God!


Note:

Preaching this Psalm invites us to some good pastoral teaching – to teach our people the lost practice of confession. A sermon on this text would lend itself to leaving time at the end of the message to invite people to the practice and posture of confession. You could simply use the text itself to walk people through the practice – giving space for them to sit with the words and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts. Find a way that best suits your congregation and context and lead your people through the practice of confession.

 

Bartlett, D. L. (2015). Feasting on the word. Year B, volume 2, Lent through Eastertide. Westminster John Knox Press.