Friday, March 10, 2017

Have Mercy on Me (Psalm 51:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

An author writes: “When I was a boy growing up in the Baptist church, I was told by the adults, "Baptists don't do Lent."  But when I asked, no one knew why.  I suspect now that it was an anti-Catholic thing. It was the old argument, "whatever they do, we don't!"  Whatever the reason I think it is a great loss for any Christian not to prepare for Good Friday and Easter.  Every spring baseball players’ prepare for the season with “spring training;” every spring people prepare for summer by doing "spring cleaning." So why shouldn't Christians prepare for the most important events in Jesus' ministry - what he did for us and the world on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, on Golgotha's cross and at the empty tomb? If it helps you, think of Lent as a kind of Christian spring training or spring cleaning.”

In light of this Lenten season, we turn to our passage from the O.T.  Psalm 51.   This psalm focuses attention on a critical aspect of our spiritual life.   The psalmist begins by acknowledging the greatness, the awesomeness of God. “Have mercy on me, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.”

He prays to God in humility and honesty: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from sin.”  He confesses His sin to God, he confesses His sin from birth, he knows that God desires truth and asks God for wisdom.  He prays for God to purge him, to wash him whiter than snow, to blot out his iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

It is a prayer of repentance.  The psalmist had turned away from God.  He now seeks to turn back to God and once more experience the joy of walking with the Lord.  The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance.   Repentance is a change of heart.  “Repentance means we love our Savior more than we love our sin." “Repentance means we want freedom more than bondage.”

A man was praying with his pastor at the altar.  He prayed the same prayer the pastor had heard countless times before. “O Lord, take the cobwebs out of my life.”  Frustrated the pastor couldn’t help himself and interrupted, “And Lord, please get rid of the spider.”  How often do we ask the Lord to forgive us of some sin, yet we leave the source of temptation in our life?  The psalmist prays because he desires a changed heart and seeks to be in a right relationship with God.  Do you need a change of heart?

The state of our heart is critical.  Heart is a familiar concept in music.  In 1960 Elvis, who inspired me to learn to play the guitar, sang a song titled Wooden Heart.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sing it.  Listen to the words: “Can't you see I love you, please don't break my heart in two, That's not hard to do, Cause I don't have a wooden heart.  And if you say goodbye, Then I know that I would cry, maybe I would die, cause I don't have a wooden heart.  There's no strings upon this love of mine, it was always yours from the start.  Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should, cause I'm not made of wood, and I don't have a wooden heart.”

Today we use the word heart in everyday conversation: “My heart is broken, my heart if full, my heart overflows, my heart is heavy, my heart is sad, my heart aches, my heart is happy.”  Heart is likewise a concept that we see frequently throughout scripture.  Ps. 24 says: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.”  Hebrews 10 says: “Let us approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”  Matthew 22 Jesus says: “Love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In Matthew 15 Jesus says: “The things that come out of the mouth, come from the heart and these make a person unclean.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Medically, we know that having a healthy heart is crucial.  Heart disease is a serious condition.  This is also true emotionally and spiritually.  Jesus is saying the spiritual condition of your heart is paramount.   Jesus is saying repentance is the way to a healthy heart. The biblical teaching about repentance involves four aspects.   True repentance in terms of the Bible is different than the popular notion of repentance.  It involves not only feeling sorry for your sin inwardly, but also outwardly attempting to do what is possible to rectify it.  Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by preaching this message: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news.”

Here are the four aspects of the biblical understanding of repentance: 
·         Feeling sorry, remorseful. 
·          Admitting to God, ourselves and to the person that we have done wrong.  
·          Striving to change so that we don’t repeat the behavior or sin again. 
·         Seeking to repay the person wronged for the damage we have done.  That is, striving trying to repair things, to make things right again with that person.

In our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is teaching about temptations to sin.  He says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  Jesus loved children.  He is speaking about sinning against children. There can be severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray.

And what does Jesus command if you sin?  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.  How do we interpret Jesus' words?   Should they be taken literally?  No, I don't believe Jesus intended his teaching to be taken literally, and neither do other interpreters of scripture down through the ages.   The reason is that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole.  Like he does on the subject of judging others.  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.”

Many people in Jesus day were illiterate.   Jesus employed imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to paint word pictures in people’s minds.   Jesus taught in parables and stories.  Jesus wanted people to remember his teachings.

So we interpret Jesus' words about cutting off hands and feet figuratively.   Basically, this is a word picture about repentance from sin.  Jesus is calling people to repent from their sins.  He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever in your life is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life.    Both the psalmist and Jesus are speaking about the importance of repentance in the spiritual life.

The goal of repentance is to embrace, to receive, to accept God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s saving grace.  “Lord I repent, I am sorry for straying away from you, I am sorry for acting as if you don't exist, I am sorry for what I said or didn’t say, I am sorry for what I have done or didn’t do, make me right with you, bring me back to you O Lord.   The aim of repentance is to return to the lord, our God.

God's priority for us, for you and me, is a clean heart, a new and right spirit within us.  For when our heart is unclean, beauty or wealth or knowledge or power will not stop us from leading a sinful and even evil life.  I don't have to give examples for you to believe this truth.  Conversely, a clean heart, a life lived in and under God’s grace, will enable us to lead a life that is pleasing to God and that is constructive and loving and beneficial to others.

What is the spiritual condition of your heart?   Do you need to pray the psalmist’s prayer of repentance?  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”  Have mercy on me O Lord. Amen!

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