The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Today we continue a sermon series called “Words Matter” by looking at Psalm 32 and the word forgiven. Notice that it’s not the word forgive, which could lead to a lot of finger shaking and a stern lecture about how we need to forgive others, but the word forgiven, which is about how good it feels to come clean, to confess our sins, and receive God’s pardon. Two times in the opening verses David uses the word happy, as if the person whose sins are forgiven is doubly blessed.
It’s no accident that Psalm 32 is paired with the story of the Prodigal Son in today’s lectionary readings, because in that story the son comes to his senses, goes home to his father and confesses his sin, and as a result receives the kind of forgiveness no one could have anticipated. The father throws a party, celebrating his son’s return. Where there might have been weeping and gnashing of teeth there is instead music and laughter. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,” writes David. “Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity.” So, what about you? Do you want to be happy?
You might need to confess your sins.
I visited my older brother Scott last week and as we were talking I asked him if he had ever had any experience with unconfessed sin. Immediately he began to tell a story about something I had completely forgotten. He said, “When you were six or seven years old you had this little plastic soldier with a parachute, and you would wind that parachute around the soldier and throw it into the air, or drop it out of an upstairs window, and it would float gently to the ground. You loved that little soldier and you loved his little parachute. But we were living in a house that had an office in it, and in that office there was a fancy ‘stapler’ that joined paper by crimping the sheets together. For some reason I tried to crimp the strings of that parachute, but I ended up cutting them, and you were devastated. When you found your little soldier, and saw that the strings of his parachute had been cut, you began to cry, and Dad came to see what all the commotion was about and when he asked me if I knew anything about it I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘No.’”
I said, “Scott, I remember that little soldier and that little parachute, but I don’t remember the rest of that story. I mean, if you need my forgiveness you’ve got it.” But he said, “No, you weren’t the problem. I confessed my sin to you. The problem was Dad. I had lied to his face and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about it. In fact, I didn’t tell him about it until I was eighteen or nineteen years old.” Can you imagine? This boy who must have been seven or eight years old when he accidentally cut the strings on that parachute, lying about it to our father and then carrying the guilt of that lie around for ten years? And can we pause long enough to appreciate the fact that a little boy was plagued with guilt because he had told a lie? You don’t hear much of that these days. And I don’t know what Dad said to him when he finally came clean. I forgot to ask. But I’m guessing that Dad forgave him, and when he did Scott felt that rush of relief David talks about in this psalm.
David writes: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” I don’t know what David had done, but it must have been something big, because in those few short verses he uses all three Hebrew words for sin.[i]
The first one is Chata’, which means something like “failing,” or “missing the mark.” It’s when you pull back the bowstring, aim for the target, but the arrow flies wide. As I say to people sometimes, “Hey, at least you were trying to hit the target. It’s not like you were aiming in the wrong direction.” So, as sin goes, it’s not only the most common, but also the least offensive. My brother Scott, for example: he wasn’t trying to cut the strings on that parachute, it just happened (although I’m still not sure why he thought they needed to be crimped).[ii]
The next word for sin is Pesha, which is often translated “transgression.” It’s when you break trust with someone, or break a covenant. It’s a word that is frequently used in the Old Testament, because God’s people were always breaking their covenant with him. It’s probably the word that best describes Scott’s sin against my dad. Dad trusted him to tell the truth, but in this case he didn’t. Dad didn’t even know it, but Scott did. It took him years to get up the courage to tell Dad the truth and try to mend that broken trust. And can I just tell you this? It is hard to mend broken trust. I have my own stories to tell about that.[iii]
The third Hebrew word for sin is Avon, and it is often translated “iniquity.” It’s related to the verb Avah, which means “to be bent,” or “crooked.” Someone’s back can be bent, a road can be twisty. Avon is when you take something good and twist it into some perverted shape, and in the Bible (and in everyday life) that sort of thing happens all the time. When Dad asked Scott if he knew anything about my parachute he was hoping for a straight answer, but he didn’t get one.[iv]
Now, as I said earlier, whatever David was feeling guilty about must have been something big, because he uses all three of the Hebrew words for sin. The traditional understanding is that he was feeling guilty about his adultery with Bathsheba, and that’s probably a good guess. When it comes to that first word, Khata’, David certainly “missed the mark” of being a good king, didn’t he? Good kings don’t sleep with the wives of their best soldiers while those soldiers are off fighting their wars, but that’s what David did. And when it comes to that second word, Pesha, David broke his covenant with both God and neighbor. First he coveted his neighbor’s wife and then he committed adultery—two of the Ten Commandments. And when it comes to that third word, Avon, David twisted the ideal of marital love into an ugly perversion. There wasn’t anything loving about what he did. He was simply using his power to take what he wanted. When it was over he sent Bathsheba home.
He thought he had gotten away with it until she sent word that she was pregnant. And then he tried to cover his sin by bringing Uriah home from the war, by sending him down to his house to spend the night with his wife, so that when the baby was born everyone would assume it was Uriah’s. But that didn’t work either. So he ended up having Uriah killed—another of the Ten Commandments—and after a brief period of mourning he took Bathsheba as his own wife so that when the child was born everyone would assume it was his.
And maybe some people did assume that, but not Nathan, the prophet. He’s the one who came to David and confronted him with his sin. He told him a story about a rich man who had very many flocks and herds, and a poor man who had only one little ewe lamb that he loved like a daughter. When the rich man had an overnight guest he didn’t take a lamb from his own flock. He took the poor man’s lamb, slaughtered it, and served it to his guest. When David heard that story he said, “The man who has done this thing deserves to die,” and Nathan said, “You are the man!”
As soon as David heard it he knew that his secret was out. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” But thank God the secret was out! Because any of you who have tried to hide your sin know how difficult it is and how damaging. David says, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
In biblical times there was an understanding that sickness and sin were related: that if you were sick, it was because you had sinned. The best illustration of this is the Book of Job, where Job loses everything in a single day and later ends up sitting on a heap of ashes, covered with sores, and scraping his skin with a broken piece of pottery. His friends come to see him, and for a full seven days they simply sit with him and say nothing. But eventually they begin to ask him what he has done to deserve this kind of punishment. He insists on his innocence, and if you’ve read the book you know: he is innocent. But they can’t get past the idea that he must have sinned and they keep asking him to spill it. “Tell us what you did,” they say. “You’ll feel better!” In Psalm 32 David does feel better. Nathan confronted him with the truth, and David confessed his sin, and God forgave his guilt. At the end of it all he was able to say, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity!”
As I said, it’s a good guess that the guilt David was feeling in Psalm 32 was his guilt about his adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband. But there is one part of that theory that just doesn’t add up, and it’s this: in Psalm 32 David appears to make up his own mind about confessing his sin. After all that talk about his body wasting away through his groaning all day long and his strength being dried up as by the heat of summer he says, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’” It doesn’t say that he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. It doesn’t say that he was forced to acknowledge his sin. It sounds as if he took the initiative and said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” Which means he could be talking about some other sin, and not only his most notorious one.
And I think that’s helpful. Because if you’re like me, you haven’t sinned only once. And if David was anything like me, he didn’t sin only once. Psalm 32 then becomes a kind of prescription for dealing with sin of any kind and not only the kind that makes the front page of the newspaper. So, what do you do with sin?
- First of all, you become aware of it, and in the example we’ve been talking about it was Nathan who helped David see that what he had done was sinful. David may have already known that, but if he did he was keeping it to himself.
- Secondly, you acknowledge your sin. Once David had been confronted he was able to own up to his complicity. After Nathan told him everything he had done David acknowledged, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
- Thirdly, you confess your sin. Our Catholic brothers and sisters practice this more regularly than we do. They go into the confession booth and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” We Baptists probably don’t do it as often, but when we do we go straight to the source. We say, “Forgive me Heavenly Father, for I have sinned.”
- In Psalm 32 that’s enough: David says to the Lord, “I acknowledged my sin to you and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
- What happens after that is the joy that pervades this entire psalm. God forgives David’s sin and he can hardly believe it. It’s a taste of that amazing grace we sometimes sing about. It’s the experience of the Prodigal Son. David says, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity!”
This might be a good place to point out that just as there are three Hebrew words for sin, God has three ways of forgiving sin. In a commentary written specifically for preachers Old Testament scholar Stan Mast points out that the Hebrew word translated “forgiveness” in verse 1 has to do with “the lifting of a burden.” [When you preach this passage], he suggests, “work with the idea of struggling through life under the heavy load of sin and guilt. The next word is ‘covered,’ which suggests that God can’t even see the ugly blemish of our sin anymore. The end result, says verse 2, is that the Lord ‘does not count our sin against us.’ That’s an accounting term; think of God cancelling debt or, as Romans 4 puts it more positively, giving us the credit of Christ’s righteousness. The lifting of a burden, the covering of an ugly stain, and the cancelling of a debt are all images that will resonate with even the most biblically illiterate seeker. No wonder God’s forgiveness brings happiness unmatched in human experience!”[v]
That Prodigal Son, for example. When he made up his mind to go back home I don’t think he was expecting what he got. He wasn’t expecting forgiveness; he was expecting to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. But then he did what David recommends in Psalm 32. He became aware of his sin, he acknowledged it, and then he went home and confessed it. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired hands.” But the Father didn’t do that; he treated him as his son. Because the thing that had stood between them was no longer between them. The sin had been confessed and forgiven. And when that happens,
The party can begin.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] This next section is informed by Tim Mackie and Jon Collins of the BibleProject.com and their three videos on “Bad Words of the Bible” (see below).
[v] Stan Mast, “Psalm 32:1-7 Commentary,” The Center for Excellence in Preaching (https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2016-10-24/psalm-321-7/).