Confession and Absolution, Psalm 32, Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019
Every Lutheran Divine Worship Service has a time for corporate Confession and Absolution. We did it this morning; we did it last Sunday and the Sundays before that. We will do it next Sunday; and the Sundays after that, as well. It is a time when we can confidently approach the throne of God Himself.
And yet, because we stand on this side of our Lord’s final return, we still have with us, the world, our sinful flesh, and the devil. And so, because sin is still working in us, the condemnation of God’s Law still confronts us, lest we have any delusions that we might have something to boast about before our mighty Judge.
Above all else, our time of Confession and Absolution keep us honest, honest with ourselves, and honest before God. Our act of confession is not just some “work” that we lay before the Father’s throne; rather, it is a simple acknowledgment that God’s Word is true and right and when we measure ourselves against His demands, we always come up short.
There are three basic ways to handle sin and guilt. One is to ignore or minimize them. We’ve all been tempted in that direction more than a few times. Isn’t that, after all, what our sinful human nature is all about?
Another way is to institutionalize them, especially the guilt part. After all, if you can keep people feeling just guilty enough, you will keep them coming back for more.
The third way is to give sin and guilt their proper due, and then to silence them. That is the way of God’s absolution. With His forgiveness, our sin is removed from us as far as the east is from the west.
Christians know that, but they also need to hear it often. We need to be reminded of those familiar words, “I forgive you all your sins”. Those words are not just some impersonal announcement. They say what they mean, and accomplish what they promise. Jesus Himself told His disciples that the sins they forgive are forgiven in John 20:23.
The last and greatest absolution that will ever be spoken to us will be on the last day, at the last judgment. In the final pages of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis provides a marvelous description of this event. As each individual comes before Aslan, the lion who is Lewis’ figure for Christ, one of two things happens: either the person gazes directly into Aslan’s face and recognizes his forgiving countenance, or, upon seeing the lion’s stern demeanor, passes into his long shadow, forever to be separated from Christ.
One of the things that alienates many people about the Christian faith is confession. They don’t want to do it. The thought frightens them. I suspect it frightens you, since very few of you have ever taken the opportunity for private confession with your pastor, and none of you has done it very often. People want a religion that pats them on the back and makes them feel good about themselves. Repentance is best done, in the opinion of many, privately and with no one else noticing it.
Psalm 32 is a psalm of repentance that speaks to us about the blessedness of not just forgiveness, but of confessing our sins themselves!
With our Confession and Absolution we are being readied for our appearance before Christ on the last day. And hidden behind those comforting words that our sins are forgiven is the invitation, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
When our Lord speaks those words to us, Confession and Absolution as we know it will cease, for on that day we will then bask in the eternal absolution of the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.
Until that day however we like David, the author of Psalm 32, show our Confession and Absolution as a celebration of happiness as we experience God’s underserved justifying grace.
Psalm 32 is an amazing psalm. David describes what it is like, psychologically and spiritually to have an unconfessed sin. His bones waste away. The hand of God is heavy upon him. He is miserable. Then he describes the relief, the joy, of releasing those sins. Blessed is the one whom God forgives.
The second half of the psalm talks about the promise to share this gift. We often talk about forgiveness a great deal, but do we actually forgive anyone? I am not so sure we do. Or if we do, I am not so sure people are actually hearing or experiencing it.
The result of this is that we have little in the way of a story to tell when we go out into the world. “Come to church and drink bad coffee,” is not an effective sales pitch. But “come to meet the One who forgives and gives me joy!” is a message which draws any hearer.
This Psalm is like a conversation between David and his God, who inspires him. David starts with a confession of faith and the blessedness of one who believes all that God has spoken to him. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” (1-2)
Now, David doesn’t actually say how blessed is the one that believes, but how else would anyone know that their transgression is forgiven and their sin is covered? And he says it in such a Christian way as he speaks of forgiveness, sins being covered, and iniquity not being imputed.
“Blessed” basically means, “happy”. When you know that your sins are forgiven, covered by the blood of the Lamb of God, and that you are accounted as righteous, that is Christ’s righteousness is imputed to you rather than the guilt of your sins, you are happy! Death no longer has a claim on you!
Of course, David was not just speaking theoretically or theologically. He was talking about how it actually felt! He describes the guilty conscience pretty well. “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up [or better understood as my vitality was changed] as by the heat of summer” (3-4) He who does not, in confession, pour out his corruption before God, only tortures himself.
You know what it’s like. You know what it feels like when you sin, and carry the guilt around, and the shame. David nailed it! It feels like torture! You feel like everyone knows your shame. Nothing is right once you do that thing which disappoints, even yourself.
The reason we feel such powerful shame and guilt is that God wants us to repent. He is in us and working on us, and His hand is heavy on us. When we sin, we think we can just walk away and it won’t matter to us or anyone else, but once the deed is done, the Lord begins to lean on us, and we feel the shame, the guilt.
It feels a lot like the misery of an extra hot and humid South Mississippi summer day. Nothing tastes right. Nothing feels quite right, and you have no energy for daily stuff because sin is on your shoulders. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, you just want to hide from God and from the prying eyes of everyone who must know!
We will feel condemned by sins until we hear those words of promise and absolution. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (5) Wow! What a relief!
After all the grief and all the shame, and all that creepy feeling we carry around, finally God wins, we confess our sin to God, and God forgives. We hear those words of absolution and they comfort us like a powerful antacid soothes heartburn after eating Granny Loveless’ five-alarm chilly. Now, there is relief! Once again we can look to God and not feel condemned.
No more guilt that tears marriages apart, no more guilt that destroys our mental and emotional equilibrium. When we confess to God, and to one another, suddenly the lights go on inside. When we hear those words of absolution, when we hear that it is not unforgivable, but is, in fact, forgiven. When we hear it, not as from the man standing before us, but spoken in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, things change! Despair is lifted!
It has such power and blessing that the third section of the Psalm then encourages everyone who is godly to do so, “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.” (6)
Sometimes you just need to hear the forgiveness of God, as clearly and directly as you can, to get yourself, and your own shame, out of the way so that you can hear God. “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.” (7)
Then the Psalm concludes with God speaking through David to those who take Him at His word and trust in His grace. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” (8-9)
There is an easy way, and there is a hard way. Follow, listen, believe, and don’t force God to use the heavier methods on you that some people require. Of course, we know that not everyone will believe or listen, no matter what God does or says. “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.” (10)
Believe His love for you and the forgiveness which He proclaims to you in absolution. Jesus has done all that is needed for your salvation. Your standing in the eyes of the Lord does not rest on your record, or your feelings, but on the Cross of Jesus Christ. If you hold onto that, you will find peace and comfort in Christ. “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (11) Amen.