On this first Sunday of Lent the Lectionary texts have us looking at themes of sin, temptation and forgiveness. The Psalmist reminds us of how good it feels to confess and how much God enjoys forgiving. Meanwhile the Gospel text deals with the pilgrimage of Jesus in the desert for forty days and his subsequent temptations by Satan.
A well-known quote in the Star Wars movies is from Jedi Master Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
One of the things I think we fear is to confess our sin to God. As a society I don’t believe we are comfortable with admitting when we are wrong, facing up to how we have hurt people
We have a fear of admitting to ourselves the things we’ve done that we are ashamed of. Our fear can be great enough that we have trouble coming before God and confessing what we have done. How it made us feel, how it still affects us.
The problem is that when we leave things undone they can fester and eat away at us. Psalm 32 reminds us that it is good to come before God and confess. More powerfully, it reminds us that God enjoys forgiving, that God is more than willing to forgive us when we stray. Psalm 32 encourages us to rely on and trust in God.
Our trouble comes into play when we think about what it means to confess our sin or sins to God.
In his book The Cross in our Context Douglas John Hall writes, “No word in the Christian vocabulary is so badly understood both in the world and in the churches as the word sin. Christians have allowed this profoundly biblical conception, which refers to broken relationship, to be reduced to sins – moral misdemeanors and guilty ‘thoughts, word, and deeds,’ especially of the sexual variety, that could be listed and confessed and absolved… The result is a petty moralism that no longer speaks to the great and abiding conflicts of human persons in their complex intermingling.” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 2003, p 104).
Hall reminds us that this concept of sin or word sin is about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. There is a profoundness that is evident when we realize that sin is not a laundry list of deeds, but of how we are designed to interact and live with one another. The joy of Psalm 32 is how it frames the issue of forgiveness.
Prof Cameron Howard writes, “By defining happiness in terms of forgiveness, Psalm 32 functions as an important check against any tendency to misunderstand Psalm 1. That is, to be righteous is not a matter of being sinless but a matter of being forgiven, of being open to God’s instruction (Psalm 1:2; see 32:8-9), and of trusting God rather than self (verse 10; see Psalm 2:12). (Cameron Howard)
“Psalm 32 reveals a biblical irony: as grim, dark, and awful as sin is, dealing with this same sin leads to joy!” (Scott Hoezee)
We serve God who drips with grace and the bottom line is never just about sin but about how swiftly God forgives sin! Or we might say it’s not about sin but about how quickly God wants to restore our broken relationships. We are reminded that we can trust in God. On trusting God Karoline Lewis writes, “that space between the assurance of faith and when trusting God is the hardest thing we have ever done.” (Karoline Lewis). It can be difficult to trust so completely, but we know that God forgives us completely.
This is where we link up to our passage in Matthew, the Temptation narratives. Where Jesus is tested by Satan three times. When I look at this passage in Matthew I realize just how deep a man of faith Jesus was. Now of course, Jesus was divine, the Son of God, part of the Trinity. When you read this passage you recognize how much Jesus relied upon God and took scripture seriously.
Satan, the evil one, seeks to undermine our trust in God. To throw doubt in our midst, not only about God’s goodness, but also about our ability to receive forgiveness from God.
The German pastor, preacher, and theologian Helmut Thielicke once told a story in his book “How the World Began” that illustrates something about the devil’s tactics in temptation.
“The people never know the devil’s there, even though he has them by the throat,” says Mephistopheles in “Faust.” Recently I made an interesting experiment in this respect. My students performed volunteer services for several weeks in a camp for refugees and almost every day they put on a Punch-and-Judy show for the children. It was my job to play the devil. I wielded a horrible, fiery red puppet in one hand and mustered up a menacing and horrible voice to represent all the terrible discords of hell. Then in tones brimming with sulphur I advised the children to indulge in every conceivable naughtiness: You never need to wash your feet at night; you can stick your tongue out at anybody you want to; and be sure to drop banana peels on the street so people will slip on them. The pedagogical effects which I achieved in this role of the devil were enormous and generally recognized in the camp. The children suddenly stopped sticking out their tongues and they also washed their feet at night. They would have absolutely no truck with the devil. If they had had anything to say about it, the Fall would never have happened. But then, too, the serpent in paradise could not have been the kind of devil that I was. For then he would have had to play the game openly.”
But Thielicke goes on to point out that the real devil is for this very reason never so obvious as his fiery red, sulphur-voiced devil. The real devil always hides behind a clever mask and it is just then, without our even knowing what is happening as often as not, that he does his best work. (Quoted from Helmut Thielicke, “How the World Began,” Fortress Press 1961, p. 125). (Scott Hoezee)
We need to trust in the promises of God, just as Jesus did. We need to believe that God will forgive us and that it is ok to come before God and ask for forgiveness. God desires that our relationships be good and strong. God doesn’t want us to fear, hate or suffer. Rather, God wants us to flourish. For our relationships to be life giving and affirming. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.