St Barnabas 20th March and St Michael’s 27th March 2011
Reading – Psalm 51
What, I wonder, is your passion in life? Do you have an interest or a hobby that means you will give up almost everything else to pursue it? I think it’s a rare person indeed who does not have something on which they love spending time and energy, whether it’s following a local football club, or doing a particular craft activity, or watching a certain TV series, or playing a sport. All of us one way or another have our own particular, if not peculiar, passions and interests. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We live in a wonderful, beautiful and complicated world that God has made, and it’s not surprising that some detail of it catches our attention. I’ve recently been doing a lot of bird-watching, and I’ve really enjoyed spending my afternoons trying to identify the little brown jobs wading through the mud in front of me.
We all know what it’s like to have a passion. But let me ask a slightly different question. Do you have a passion when it comes to your Christian faith? Does the fact that you believe and trust in Jesus cause you to spend time and energy pursuing and deepening your relationship with Him? To change the picture slightly, if I was to take your spiritual temperature this morning, what do you think the thermometer would read? Cold – I’m just going through the motions at the moment. Cool – I know it’s kind of important, and I sort of want to be here. Warm – yes, I definitely feel positive about church, and I look forward to coming. Hot – I couldn’t imagine not being here, and I am excited about the way the Holy Spirit is at work in this place.
One thing I’ve been doing on my sabbatical is reading about the history of revivals in the church. Now revivals take many different shapes and many different forms, but the one thing they seem to have in common is this, that they are times when the church together has, maybe after years of coldness and indifference, developed a real passion and a deep desire for the presence of God, and God has seen fit to answer their prayers. And if I have a passion for St Barnabas and St Michael’s it is quite simply that our spiritual temperature is raised. Not just that there are a few people who are on fire for the Lord, or a core group of keen and committed Christians, but that all of us long for, desire, wait upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among us. Is that, I wonder, your passion?
I’ll leave you with that question as I turn now to our reading from the Old Testament, from Psalm 51. Now if you have a Bible that gives the Hebrew introduction to the psalm you will see that it says: For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. Although we can’t be sure that this introduction was originally part of the psalm, there seems no good reason to doubt that David wrote it after this disastrous incident in his life.
What happened was this. King David had become firmly established on the throne of Israel and was gradually defeating all of his enemies. But one spring he decided he was now powerful enough to leave the fighting to his officers and stay behind in Jerusalem. And, as so often happens, his idleness led to temptation. More specifically he found his gaze wandering one evening to a very beautiful woman having a bath. That woman was called Bathsheba. You can guess what happened next. But worse was to follow. David tried to cover up his actions. He tried to get Bathsheba’s husband – one of the officers out on the field – to sleep with her. But when that failed, he arranged for him to meet his end in battle. It’s a compelling story of how sin grows from temptation to lust, then adultery, then murder. You can read it about further in 2 Samuel 11 when you get home. And did I mention that along the way Bathsheba also got pregnant?
In some ways this was the lowest point of David’s life. How then did he end up in such a mess? After all, David was a great king. He enjoyed a close walk with the Lord. He wrote many wonderful and beautiful psalms expressing the heights and depths of his faith. And yet, and yet… when it came to his personal and family life David seemed to have something of a blindspot. Many of the stories about his children are not happy ones, and clearly in his affair with Bathsheba, David did not set a good example. It took the brave and courageous words of a prophet called Nathan to bring David to heel, to show just how much wrong he had committed.
There is, I believe, an important lesson for us here. As I have been reading and reflecting on the history of revival, it seems that without exception all new spiritual awakenings have taken place when men and women, young and old, realise that God is Lord and Judge over their whole lives, over every single part. You see, the whole point of the Christian faith is that Jesus is Lord. It was the earliest and simplest creed of the church, and it’s not hard to understand what it means. But as I heard someone say recently, either Jesus is Lord over all, or He is not Lord at all. The danger we constantly run into is that we put limits on Jesus’ Lordship over our lives. So that while we might sing Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee a more honest rendition of the hymn would be something like:
Take my life and let it be
Slightly committed Lord to thee
Take my Sundays and the odd few days
Let them flow in occasional praise.
Isn’t that true? So let’s think for a few moments where our blindspots might be. It might be something obvious like the way we use our money or what we do at work. Or it might be something rather more subtle and more hidden. For example, I was very struck one day by the thought that Jesus knows my complete Internet history, that He knows all the pages I read online. He knows every transaction on my bank statement, and the things I spend my money on. He knows my viewing schedule and the programmes I enjoy watching. And if Jesus is not Lord over the way I use my computer or my plastic or the television control, then He is in a very real sense not Lord over my life. And that’s a problem, because one day He will judge my life and confront me with the evidence that I have tried to hide from myself of my rebellion against Him.
It’s no coincidence that the psalm proper begins with these words, Have mercy on me, O God. Because who is this God to whom David is praying? The same God whom He acknowledges in Psalm 8 to be the maker of heaven and earth, the creator of the moon and the stars. And I reckon the key reason why so often we lose our passion for God is that He becomes too small in our sight. We have a tame God who is present in our lives on our terms, and we become blind to the splendour and greatness of His majesty. Let’s not forget that in the gospels when people encountered the power of Jesus, their response was one of fear and wonder and awe. When was the last time you came into the presence of God with true reverence and regard for His greatness? Is Jesus Lord over all your life, or is He not Lord at all?
Spiritual revival starts with the greatness of God. So let’s listen again to the way David begins his prayer to the King of King, the Lord of Lords, the maker of heaven and earth.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
David makes no appeal in these verses to his own goodness or his greatness as king or any special ability on his part. Because he knows that when he comes into the presence of such a great God all he can do is ask for mercy. And this leads to a second and vital point about revival – that when we fully grasp the splendour and might and majesty of our God we begin to understand the seriousness of sin.
That’s why David says, Against you, you only, have I sinned. Now of course in one sense that wasn’t true. He had sinned against Bathsheba. He had sinned against Uriah, her husband. He had sinned against his family. But what he is doing here is acknowledging that his primary offence is against the laws of God. And that, it seems to me, is an important point to make about sin. Because I think we so often downplay the way that sin affects our relationship with God. For example, if I say something hurtful to a member of the congregation, then I might later realise I’ve done something wrong and apologise. But if I’m honest, I rarely think how my actions have offended the justice and holiness of God. I might have a sudden sense of conviction, or perhaps on a Sunday morning my actions might briefly come to mind in the time of confession, but by and large I don’t think I’m that aware of the problem I have created with God.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. What does David mean by this? Well, if we want to know the words and judgements of God we have them right here in this book. And what is God’s verdict on us human beings? Another psalm of David – Psalm 14 – gives the answer. There is no-one who does good, not even one. (verse 3). Not you, not me, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, not even the Queen. So what David is saying here is that when we sin, when we do evil in God’s sight, we are confirming the verdict of Scripture that all of us deserve the condemnation and judgement of God, our Creator and our King.
Because sin is actually a lot deeper than the things we say or do or even think. As Jesus makes clear in our gospel reading, it is the basic problem of the human heart that right from our earliest days is in rebellion against Him. You see, sin is not, as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law claimed, breaking laws or failing to be religious. It is about having a heart that produces things such as, evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:19) It’s what Paul in his letters calls – depending on your translation – the sinful nature or the flesh. We might describe it as an inner attitude hard-wired deep within us that is constantly at war with the great commands of Jesus to, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind …and … to love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:37,39).
And the important thing to realise is that not only is this attitude hard-wired within us, but we are by our own efforts unable to effectively deal with it. No amount of religion, or counselling, or self-improvement can root out the problem of sin. Nor can any amount of pleasure-seeking or drugs or painkillers completely dull its consequences. Sin is the most serious problem we face, and our tendency to trivialise it, to downplay it, to say it doesn’t really matter, is one reason why the church today so often appears so weak and ineffective.
This is why the third element of spiritual renewal is a fresh realisation of the cost of the cross. Now I recognise that for many of us gathered here today the cross is already an important part of your life. You have heard the wonderful good news that Jesus has died in your place for your sins, and you can share your story of how you came to trust and believe in Him. But I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can forget just how much it cost Jesus to bring salvation. I can sort of assume that because Jesus died for me, every time I sin, I will be forgiven, as if Jesus is just there, to automatically deal with my failings and wrongdoings. And if I’m not careful my faith becomes a kind of routine process. I do something wrong, I say sorry to Jesus, I am forgiven, and I go back into the world to carry on with the same old way of doing things.
But, let me stress, this is never how our relationship with Jesus is meant to operate. And if you haven’t thought much this year about how to remember Lent, then may I suggest you take some time to read through and reflect on the account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. To grasp the enormity of the love that led Him to die on Calvary. To think why such a remedy for sin was necessary. To dwell on the fact thanks to His sacrifice the way to the Father is now open.
Because if you do, then certain things will follow. First of all, like David you will begin to understand that confession is not about the words you say or the performance of a religious ritual. Rather it involves coming to a great and holy God with a true and contrite heart, with a proper awareness of His justice and holiness, and your own failure and shortcoming. As David says in verses 16-17, You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Because that, in the end, is the only way we can approach God our Heavenly Father. Not presuming on His love and forgiveness, but trusting only in the grace and mercy which led His Son Jesus Christ to bear our guilt and shame and wrongdoing.
And as you come to God in this way you will also begin to see what repentance is truly all about. It’s not simply an act of penance that you carry out once a year, or something you only do when you gather in worship. Rather that it’s a total offering to God of our deepest desires, our hopes, our dreams, so that we allow Him to take and use us in His service. Even if and especially if, that involves Him breaking our stubborn attitudes, and old habits, and our natural-born rebellion against Him. Because this is the proper response to all that Jesus has done for us. As we sing so often: Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. That is the heart of the psalm we have been looking at this morning, and in many ways it sums up all I’ve been saying so far. It is the prayer of a man who has come face to face with the greatness of God, who has realised the seriousness of his sin, and who many generations hence would have a Son who would bear the full price of his sin upon the cross. Can you, I wonder, identify with this prayer? Do you have a passion for the presence of God and a longing for Him to change and transform you?
It seems to me that as we come to our annual church meeting this morning, there is no better place to start than by asking how much we really want Jesus in our lives. Because God won’t usually answer our prayers for growth, or our appeals for more labourers, unless our desire is actually focused on Him. So let’s use the words of this psalm today to challenge and to change us, to the praise and glory of His name. Amen.