One fun thing about being a young preacher is that I have many “first” sermons: a first Christmas Eve sermon, a first sermon without notes, and many first sermons from different books of the bible.
Last week I had the opportunity for two first sermons: my first Ash Wednesday sermon and my first sermon to the congregation where I received my baptism, Conyers First United Methodist Church (UMC). While Jesus said, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown,” they accepted me and the challenging message of Ash Wednesday with open hearts.
The truth about ourselves
Some of you know that I majored in political science in college and worked on a political campaign just before I headed off to seminary. I’ve always enjoyed keeping up with politics. I love campaigns and elections. And while I rarely watch sports on television, I love following the always-changing nature of the political world through the news, debates, and the fast moving world of twitter. But like many of you, there are times when I get disillusioned and discouraged with the current political landscape. And the times I get most down about things are when I hear a non-apology apology from a politician.
Now I wasn’t aware that there was a proper title for these types of apologies until I began working on this sermon. And while you may not have heard of a non-apology apology before, I think you’ll know one when you hear it.
Here’s one that was offered by Congressman Joe Barton after he made a controversial statement about the government’s dealings with BP in the midst of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a while back. Congressman Barton lamented, “If anything I have said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction.”
Or there’s this one from the chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, John Sununu, after he was caught violating some White House travel rules. He stated, “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.”
But as you probably know, non-apology apologies aren’t just limited to the political realm. When Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctioned at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show Justin Timberlake’s agent offered this apology, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.”
Scholars have even documented the common features of the non-apology apology and have defined a few characteristics that are common among them. First, they tend to offer a vague and incomplete acknowledgement of the offense. Second, they usually use phrases like, “I’m sorry that you were offended.” Third, they tend to minimize the offense. And finally they tend to question whether a victim has actually been harmed or damaged.
I don’t need to spend all this time explaining this phenomenon, because if you’re like myself, you’ve probably had decent practice forming these types of apologies yourself. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but if I did…” “It’s regrettable that our relationship ended this way…” “I guess I was wrong.”
If you’ve ever received one of these apologies, you know how empty it sounds. Yet, they’re very common in our culture that promotes very little sense of accountability towards those around us and our culture that has very little patience for ideas of guilt or fault. Some have even labeled our culture a “sinless society” – a society where things are no longer anyone’s fault.
And while this isn’t a huge concern for many around us, we as Christians should be careful. We should be careful because while living in the midst of this culture, there is a temptation to think that we as humans and as a society have progressed so much that things in this world are really pretty good and we’re pretty good as well, especially compared with past eras. We’re tempted to think that if people just understood us better, if we just had an attitude adjustment, if everyone around us just had more realistic expectations then most of our relational and spiritual issues would be solved.
And some churches and some Christians have bought into this lie. And when we buy into this lie, the symptoms start to appear. Language of sin disappears from people’s vocabulary. Prayers of confession disappear from church services or become so vague that they begin to lose meaning. And the first recorded command that Jesus gave throughout his ministry, “Repent and believe the good news” – it’s left behind.
When we’ve done wrong we’re constantly tempted to come before a God who is full of holy love and give a non-apology apology – just like Adam did in the Garden of Eden when God asked him if he had broken his commands and he answered, “The woman who you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.”
We often think that we’re not as bad as the other woman down the street, and that while we haven’t always kept God’s commandments, the words “sinful” or “rebellious” are a little strong to describe how we’re currently living. We think, “Perhaps those words are too harsh and represent unrealistic expectations.”
Discovering the Truth
But when we read the Bible, we’re confronted with the truth. We discover that we are the person – that man or woman down the street – that we love to judge and withhold mercy from because of their lifestyle. The Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts and through the words of scripture lets us know that we are people made in the image of a loving God, and yet we’ve been born into a world full of sin, sin that we each participate in, promote, endorse, and enjoy as we willfully rebel against God’s invitations, commands, and desires for our lives and our world.
This is a hard truth to face, yet it’s one that we all must face on our journey with God. And it is the truth about himself that David faces in our scripture lesson this afternoon.
You see, while many of us know King David as a man after God’s own heart, he had his own “problems” “issues” or “dysfunctions,” as people may say today.
David had an affair with a married woman named Bathsheba, he got her pregnant, saw that her husband was killed, had her move in with him, and then lived with their love child in his house. Things weren’t so bad until God sent a prophet named Nathan to confront him about his sin, and while David was resistant to hear his message at first, finally he was convicted about what he had done and he broke down. He broke down and admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Psalm 51 is attributed to him as the prayer that he offered to God after this dramatic situation.
Throughout the Psalms we get the amazing opportunity to “overhear” the prayers that individuals and the nation of Israel have offered to God throughout history. And in David’s prayer, we catch a glimpse of his recognition of God’s character and his sin, his repentance, and his renewed life.
Recognition of God’s Character and His Sin
David begins his prayer by calling for God to have mercy on him according to the steadfast love and abundant mercy that is at the heart of who God is. God is full of love and full of mercy, and this is what gives David the basis for even coming before God with his requests. It’s the foundation of his prayer.
And yet, God’s character is also the basis for David’s recognition of his sin. Because as David faces this God who is full of love, whose laws are written out of love, who placed him in leadership over Israel out of love for the people, he recognizes that what he has done stands in stark contrast to the desired will and commandments of God.
God desires life not death. God desires truth not lies. God desires David to show generosity and pity towards his people, not selfishness and contempt. And in verses 3 and 4 David cries out, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
These are not the words of an expected non-apology apology from a politician like David. These are the sincere words of someone who has examined and faced the truth about themselves and arrived at a place of brokenness.
But David doesn’t stop with recognition of God’s character and his sin, he moves forward in repentance.
David’s prayer illustrates his deep desire for the Holy Spirit to work in his life to cleanse him from his sin, wash him whiter than snow, and be filled with wisdom in his heart. He prays, as so many of you pray here in worship on a regular basis, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!” Here, David is making a decisive move away from his sin and his past and turning towards God and the renewed life available to him.
And in the latter half of the psalm we see what kind of renewed life David is anticipating from God.
He is anticipating to be made clean. He is anticipating to be in God’s presence. He is anticipating having the joy of salvation returned to him and to sing praises because of the work God has done in his life. And we read in verse 13 that his recognition of his sin, his repentance, and his renewed life are all catalysts for him being sent out to participate in God’s mission – a mission that is focused on teaching sinners like himself about the God of steadfast love and abundant mercy who has transformed his own life.
Connecting Our Story with God’s Story
David’s journey in this Psalm is the journey God is inviting us on this season of Lent.
We’re beginning this journey with Ash Wednesday – a day in which we confront our sinfulness and the reality that because of sin’s presence in the world, we will all one-day die. But we know how this journey ends. We know that the journey of Lent includes Good Friday and Easter. And as we begin this journey with the end in mind, like David, we’re able to move forward with God’s loving and merciful character at the forefront of our hearts and minds. Because on the cross, we see God’s love for us as his only Son offers himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sin, my sin, and the sin that is present throughout societies and structures in this world. On the cross, we see God’s abundant mercy as Jesus Christ, the judge of all the world, receives the judgment that we deserve. And these truths are what enable us, like David, to recognize and repent of our sin before God.
As we enter into this season of self-examination, we don’t have to give into the temptation to offer non-specific, evasive, minimalized apologies to God. We can face the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God because we know that God’s grace is free, abundant, and available to all.
The Whole Truth
But even as we face the truth about ourselves that we are more sinful than we’d like to admit, we must never forget a second truth about ourselves – God’s love and mercy are greater than we often imagine.
Sometimes we imagine that God is willing to forgive our neighbor’s sin but not ours. Sometimes we imagine that God doesn’t forgive us the seventh time we come before him confessing the same thing. Sometimes we imagine that all God wants to do is forgive us and help “make our sin more manageable.”
But that’s not what God wants to do. God wants to renew us, deliver us from the power of sin, and truly create in us a clean heart. As John Wesley often reminded people, God’s sanctifying grace working in us enables us to truly love God and our neighbor with all of our heart, mind, and soul. And as we journey through this Lent, we must never lose sight of the empty tomb of Easter where we see the grace of God on full display as death is transformed into life.
It’s an amazing thing to be able to “overhear” this prayer offered to God by David. But perhaps it’s even more amazing that God has given us this prayer in scripture so that we can offer it back to him as a prayer of our own. In a few minutes, we’re going to pray it together. And I’d like to invite you to continue to pray it throughout Lent as you examine your life facing the truth about who you are and who you can be through Jesus Christ. Because as we recognize God’s character and our sin and as we repent, we’re positioned to live into the renewed life that God has for us, a life that is fully surrendered to participate in God’s mission in the world.