The psalm we have read together this morning, the first part of Psalm 51, is a very Lenten psalm, a Song of Lament. It’s attributed to King David, a cry of sorrow and repentance. It is subtitled within the collection as being David’s response after being confronted by the prophet Nathan of having slept with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.
The poem expresses deep repentance, echoing the pain that comes of the burden of guilt. If it was, indeed David’s response to his wrongdoing, we can understand the depth of his remorse. The psalm calls for forgiveness and for cleansing.
Repentance and forgiveness are, of course, important Lenten themes; I invite you to think with me about them today.
Often the sorrows we suffer have to do with things that have happened TO us, things we haven’t been able to control, like losses, hurts, and disappointments. There are plenty of psalms that lament this kind of experience, bemoaning life’s general unfairness and the wickedness of others.
When wrongs are done to us by others, the unresolved hurt and anger can become a continuing burden that weighs us down and stands in the way of our living full and abundant lives.
The words we’ve read this morning, however, echo a different kind of pain.
In a moment that probably all of us have known at one time or another, the poet is confronting his own responsibility for that which brings him great sorrow:
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,
When we pray the confession each week, we acknowledge the repeated ways in which we fall short of God’s will for us. Most of our failings are not so much a matter of malicious intent, as they are the result of laziness and inertia – taking the easy way.
As David did, though, most of us also carry a few places of deep regret where we are burdened by our more serious errors – the choices that linger in our memory and, when we dwell on them, stand in the way of living with joy and freedom.
One of the themes to which we are called, in Lent, is that of repentance. In the call to repentence, the Christian tradition has often emphasized the judgment, shame, and guilt that we hear it in today’s psalm:
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
The repentence Jesus called for, I would argue, is not primarily about shame and guilt, but about turning away from small and self-serving ways of thinking and living.
The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims a message of acceptance, of affirmation and love that lead us to be outward-looking and life-affirming, loving because we understand ourselves to be loved.
But letting go of shame and guilt is not always easy.
Regret may be especially difficult in modern life because technology has enabled us to control so much of our experience. Technology allows us so many ways of enjoying “do-overs” that save us from having to live with our mistakes: we can just hit that little arrow and erase the words we’ve just typed; we can defriend and unsubscribe. Watching the lives of the rich and famous (as the media encourage us to do,) we know that some can buy their way out of many problems.
But the wrongs we can’t undo, the errors that result in broken relationships and harm done to others, cause us deep despair.
Let me suggest that painful as it is, a certain measure of regret and remorse can be good for us. They remind us that we can do better, they give us the incentive to repent, to recommit to who we want to be and how we want to live.
Further, experiences of remorse and repentance help us remember what matters. They put things in perspective and help us to see with clarity what is trivial and what is important.
The danger in regret, remorse, and shame is, as I’ve said already, the way in which they can disable us. They’re good when they remind and motivate us to work harder. When we cannot let go and move beyond remorse and shame, however, we become captive to painful memories that prevent us from experiencing joy, from exercising the giving parts of ourselves.
And, it seems to me, this is where this morning’s words from Jeremiah come in.
Jeremiah assures spoke to the people of Israel of God’s deep concern for God’s relationship with us. God expresses heartache over the sins of Israel, but looks toward time to come when God’s covenant will be written in people’s hearts – when relationship is not built on rituals and sacrifices, but on people’s genuine knowledge of and trust for God.
The last line in the passage is the important one here, in the context of thinking about repentance:
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
God promises forgiveness. Even more unbelievable, God chooses to forget.
Like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, God awaits us with open arms, ready and longing to celebrate God’s love for us.
God chooses to forget. God wants to wipe away the shame and guilt that shadow our hearts, so that our hearts may be open to God’s grace.
How much different would our lives be if we could forgive and forget – both one another and ourselves - as fully as God does?
As we approach these final days of Lent, preparing to travel with Jesus the final journey, anticipating the empty tomb, I encourage you to do some inventory-taking this week.
Where are the areas where you want to live with deeper commitment to the life of generosity and love to which we’re summoned?
What burdensome memories do you carry of your own mistakes and failures that still require forgiveness? Ask God to help you believe that you are forgiven, and ask God to help you forgive yourself.
What burdensome memories do you carry of wrongs done to you that YOU would like to let go of in order to lead a fuller, more free, more joyful life? Ask God to help you with these, too.
In the name of the One who spared no cost in giving himself for our redemption.
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