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09.27.15 The Hope of Reformation Psalm 51 Sermon Summary

by on September 28, 2015

It’s easy to lose hope, what with all that’s going on in the world, not to mention our own personal disappointments. Fortunately hope doesn’t depend on these things.

Summary Points

  • An understanding of what hope is
  • The basis of hope
  • Where hope begins
  • Where hope leads us
  • When hope matters
  • Where hope applies
  • A eucharistic reflection

Hope is one of my professional values (the others are: grace, vocation, love, faith, truth, and unity). I think of hope this way: because of who God is, I accept my imperfections, seek continual improvement, and am patient with my progress. Psalm 51 is an example of why I have hope.

The reason we can have hope is because of who God is. Psalm 51 starts with the words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.” The Bible has many metaphors for sin. The primary metaphor in Psalm 51 is a stain. Recently I found a stain on one of my pants. Immediately I wondered, “Is there any hope to get this stain out?”

The answer depends on the cleaner. Having just pulled them out of the machine, I knew that the regular wash offered no hope. But beyond the washing machine, there are stain removing products, soaking, and professional cleaning. Psalm 51, and all of scripture, assures us that there is hope because of who God is: God has steadfast love and is abundantly merciful in the words of Psalm 51.

The basis of our hope is who God is, and hope begins when we accept our imperfections. Hope only applies when there are imperfections. Paul says, “Who hopes for what he already has? Hope that is seen is not hope at all.” (Romans 8:24) Hope begins by accepting imperfection. Psalm 51 continues, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

Sometimes, in relationship to the corporate confession of sin during our rite of reconciliation, I hear people complain, “But I didn’t do these things.” It’s true that maybe YOU didn’t do them, but WE did. Even if no one present in the congregation did these things, WE as a people did. What we confess in private may be limited to our own sins (may, but probably shouldn’t be). But what we confess together is the sin of and in the world. The larger point, and one Psalm 51 makes also, is that things are imperfect. WE are imperfect.

Psalm 51 is fully convinced of this. It says, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” This may be true sometimes, that the only person offended by our sin is God, but almost always it includes more. Remember the disobedience of Adam and Eve? It resulted not only in God being disappointed, but in strained relationships between humans, and negative consequences for all the rest of creation.  The point of this verse is how grave sin is in regards to our relationship with God.

Psalm 51 goes on to say “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Despite how this verse has been used in history, it isn’t about “original sin” (which came centuries later through a mistranslation of Romans 5:12), nor is it a blanket condemnation of sex as sinful, nor is it a proof text in the abortion debates. It is poetic statement about the depth of our need for God’s grace. There has never been a time when we didn’t need it. We can be honest about and accept our imperfections only because of who God is. This is part of hope.

Hope leads us to seek continual improvement. God just doesn’t forgive imperfection. God collaborates with us to improve. Psalm 51 says, “You desire truth in the inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” God doesn’t just want to forgive, but to teach, and this teaching occurs in the “secret heart.”

There is a heart we think we know. We refer to it when we say we love something with our whole heart, or when we cry over our broken heart, or we identify something as our heart’s desire. But there is another heart that is “deceitful and unknowable” (see Jeremiah, especially 17:9). This is the heart that is “far from God” even though the lips confess God (see Isaiah 29:13). And finally, there the “secret heart” that is known to God (see 1 Samuel 16:7) and the place where God teaches us. This is the heart of flesh that God promised to substitute for our heart of stone (see Ezekiel 36:26). It is the heart of God revealed in Christ and discovered in prayer.

Another place hope leads us is to the teaching of others. God teaches us so that we can teach others. Psalm 51 goes on to say, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” Through hope, we teach the ways of God. We share the way God has led us and what we have learned. And we also share the way God has dealt with us as imperfect sinners. The ways we teach are guidance and grace, law and gospel.

Finally, hope lets us not only accept our imperfections and seek continual improvement, but it enables us to be patient with our progress. Psalm 51 asks God to, “Put a new and right spirit within me,” to “not take the holy spirit from me,” and to, “restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” All this testifies to God’s faithfulness to deliver us. We’ll see it if we are patient.

This is our hope of reformation. It is entirely based on God’s faithfulness. In his book We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McClaren applies this hope to the Bible and God. God is always hopeful, because God is always “improving” through the Bible as evidenced by the stories.

We can apply the hope of reformation in many other ways:

  • To ourselves, when we discover the stain of sin in our lives
  • To our relationships, when sin has strained them
  • To our church, when we have wandered from Christ’s mission and need a new beginning
  • To our nation, as we were reminded by the Pope’s visit
  • To the world, as we relate in ways that improves the conditions of life for all earth’s inhabitants

Because of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy, there is hope of reformation.

Eucharistic Reflection

Like much of scripture, Psalm 51 has been edited. The ending was an addition to the original text, an adaptation to the new setting of ancient Israel in Exile. As they reflected on their situation, they concluded that their own sinfulness had something to do with it. They longed to return to Jerusalem and worship God in the Temple. Here’s the ending in its entirety:

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.

Some people read the first part of this ending and conclude that the Bible is anti-ritual. But clearly it is not. Rather, the passage recognizes first that in the absence of the Temple ritual, God still listens to the contrite. But more, the passage invites us to perform ritual infused with faith. Sometimes faith grows in the absence of ritual. Then later, ritual is enhanced with the addition of deepened faith.

In place of Temple sacrifice, the Lord’s Supper is our ritual today. The same truth from Psalm 51 applies. If you don’t come to the Table with faith, if you don’t hope to encounter Christ here, you probably won’t. But if you come with faith and hope, you may just encounter God.

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