Make it Your Prayer, Psalm 51:1-15, 7/20/14

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Jul 202014
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 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.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.  (Psalm 51:1-15, NRSV)

 

Many years ago when my wife-to-be, Esther, and I were dating she presented to me one Valentine’s Day a book of love poetry.  Initially I was grateful for the gift, naively assuming it was simply a sincere gesture of affection.  The more I thought about the gift, however, the more I began to question her intentions.  Why would a woman buy a man a book full of romantic love poems?  You see, if that woman was completely satisfied with the romantic words that man was already speaking to her, there would be no need to try and enhance his language with love poetry.  The words he was already speaking to her genuinely from his heart to express his love would be themselves sufficient.

 

I have learned since that romance has its own language and as I look back to those early days of our relationship I have a hunch that Esther realized it was a language in which I was not especially fluent.  I think she hoped that exposure to the language of romance in this poetry book might have some positive influence on how I spoke to her.  Let’s just say that in the end, she married me anyway.

 

We quickly learn in life that different contexts require different sorts of language.  As a kid I figured out pretty quickly that I could not use the same words and tone with my parents at home as I used on the playground with my friends.  More than once I was reminded by my father, “Jeff, that is not how you speak to your mother.”  Things don’t change as we grow older.  You speak differently to an employee than you do to a boss, a teacher differently than a fellow student, a stranger differently than a lover.

 

But what about God?  How do we speak to God?  What language do we use, or should we use, when we pray?  Most of us here do pray, at least in private.  When you pray, what words do you use?  And would you describe yourself as somebody who is fluent in the language of prayer?

 

I know a little Spanish – un poquito – enough to get me in trouble.  I certainly, however, don’t know enough to preach a whole sermon in Spanish.  This is how many people, even in the church, feel about prayer.  They may pray a little on their own – un poquito – but feel completely unqualified, even embarrassed, to pray publicly; they say they’re just not good at it.  Some of us even struggle in our private prayers, not knowing exactly what to say when we come before God.

 

Prayer is hard for us, and yet we know it’s important.  Writer Eugene Peterson claims that prayer, in fact, is our core activity, the “most deeply human action in which we can engage.  Behavior we have in common with the animals.  Thinking we have in common with the angels.  But prayer – the attentiveness and responsiveness of the human being before God – this is human.”[1]  As Christians we have to readily agree.  If we claim that God is the absolute center of our lives, the one we love with all heart, soul, mind and strength, than communion with God, especially through scripture and prayer, needs to become nearly as regular as breathing.

 

The problem is that unlike breathing, prayer is not a natural reflex but, instead, a learned behavior.  Like any language, prayer needs to be mastered, and is best mastered when we learn from those who are already fluent.

 

Thankfully, right in the middle of the Bible we have a book called the Psalms, a collection of 150 hymns and prayers which were, long ago, the prayer book for ancient Israel.  Authorship of many of the Psalms is traditionally attributed to King David.  These prayers were recited regularly in those days by the community when it gathered for worship or by individuals in times of private joy or distress.  When the people of ancient Israel prayed, in other words, they prayed the language of the Psalms.

 

Fact is, this is how it continued to be in the church for the first 1,800 years after Christ as virtually every Christian community in every culture and tradition used these same sacred texts as their language for prayer.  St. Augustine once called the Psalms our “school of prayer.”  St. Ambrose called them a “gymnasium” into which we go for our daily spiritual workout.  Martin Luther claimed that the whole story of God was contained in the Psalms.  John Calvin called them an “anatomy of the soul.”

 

You see, it’s really only been in the last 200 years that the Christian church, by and large, has neglected the guidance and language of the psalms in prayer.  Think about it.  Of all the times you have prayed over the course of your life in the church, how often have you used the Psalms to guide your prayers?  Many of us never have.

 

Our predecessors in the faith understood something which has been largely forgotten.  Prayer, one of the most central and life-giving of all human activities, is meant to be heavily influenced by the Psalms.  This Old Testament book is a gift from God to his people, given to shape and inform the language we use when we approach God in prayer.  When we pray, the Psalms is the place where we begin.

 

But somebody asks, aren’t the best prayers spontaneous?  I mean, what do we gain from praying words somebody else wrote down thousands of years ago?  Isn’t prayer supposed to be personal, and honest, and from the heart?  And, of course, it is.  Scripture consistently teaches us that God rejects prayer when it is full of hypocrisy or insincerity.  At the same time, just because we pray words which were given us to pray, that doesn’t mean that those words cannot still be honest and heartfelt.  If you’ve ever prayed the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, you know exactly what I mean.  That prayer contains the ancient words of somebody else and yet I would bet that yet every person in this room has used those words in prayer in ways that are deeply personal and genuinely heartfelt.

 

In my last church I was responsible for the Prayers of the People in most every worship service.  It was a challenge for me because whether I prayed spontaneously in the moment as I felt led or whether I worked beforehand to compose a prayer I felt was fitting for the occasion, either way my prayers nearly always seemed to travel the same worn out ground.  They did the job, I suppose, but somehow they lacked power and depth.  At one point, however, I stopped trying to come up with my own prayers and instead began basically praying a Psalm each Sunday.  I wouldn’t usually pray it word for word, but would either re-write the Psalm in my own words, or let the themes of the Psalm guide the themes of my prayer.  Amazingly, as soon as I began doing this, people in the church started coming up to me after the service and thanking me for my prayers.  Now I’d had people thank me for a sermon before, but never for a prayer.  But now it was happening all the time.  They’d say, “Thank you, Jeff, for your words in the prayer this morning.  Somehow they helped me finally say to God exactly what I have been unable before today to say to God.”  Honestly, it always felt a bit uncomfortable accepting thanks for somebody else’s work.

 

Sometimes in our relationships with those we love in the world we find a poem or song or piece of art which we feel expresses our love for another in ways that we, on our own, struggle to express that love.  Couples, for example, find a song that becomes “their song” because it conveys what they feel in ways they never could.  In a similar way, that’s what the Psalms help us do with God.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Psalms take our prayers to a world that is far larger than our own experience, to prayers that are adequate to the largeness of God with whom we are dealing.”

 

Now, one of the beautiful things about the Psalms is that they are uncensored.  Read them and you will find that they are not nearly as polite as many of us might think prayer ought to be.  The psalms are honest prayers of real people facing real life and so they often lack the polished, sophisticated language we sometimes imagine we ought to use when addressing God.

 

The psalms reflect the full range of human emotion and circumstance.  Many Psalms, of course, are full of joy and praise and adoration for God.  Psalm 23 praises God as a gentle shepherd.  Psalm 27 thanks God for being our light and salvation.  Psalm 150 instructs us that everything that has breath should praise the Lord.

 

Other Psalms, however, are full of deep sadness, or impassioned anger, or anxious doubt, or brutally honest confession.  Listen, for example, to the words of Psalm 6:

 

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.  Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.  My soul is in anguish.  How long, O Lord, how long?  I am worn out from groaning all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.

 

You don’t hear prayers like that in church very often these days.  And yet, many of us have been in this sort of desperate place in life which means that words like this can help us take what is in our heart and express it before God in prayer.  No matter what place you might find yourself in life, there is language in the Psalms to help you speak from that place to God.

 

The Psalms are also beautiful in that they help us remember that prayer isn’t only, or even primarily, about us.  When I pray on my own, without guidance from the Psalms, I have to admit to you that my prayers tend to be very self-focused –  what I’m feeling, what I need, what I’m thankful for, and so on.  When I pray the Psalms, however, I immediately find my view expanded beyond myself.

 

For example, imagine trying to pray those words from Psalm 6 on a day when you are feeling joyfully grateful.  That’s not easy.  The words don’t fit.  And yet, even though the words don’t exactly describe my place in life at that time they do describe the place in life of many others around me in the church and in the world which means that if I let it, the Psalm can lead me to pray for the person whose soul is in anguish and whose bed is drenched with tears.  And that’s a good thing as suddenly my prayers are taking me beyond myself.

 

Furthermore, not only do the Psalms widen our focus in prayer to include others, they narrow our focus in prayer to God.  When I pray on my own my prayers often remain horizontal in focus.  The Psalms won’t allow that.  Over and over they force our focus vertical, back to God.  If we claim God to be the center of our lives, then God certainly ought to be the center of our prayers and the Psalms keep God always at the center.

 

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Well, in the time I have left, let me take one Psalm, Psalm 51, and show you how this might work.  Psalm 51 is a prayer of confession first prayed by King David after he sinned against God by committing adultery with Bathsheeba and then deceit and murder in an effort to cover it up.  As you remember from last week, when God sent the prophet Nathan to David to confront him with his sin, David repented from that sin and received God’s forgiveness.  As tradition has it, Psalm 51 records David’s prayer after his sin was exposed.

 

Now, I believe we have this prayer included in scripture so that as our sin before God is exposed we have language available to us to use when we approach God in confession.  When we pray the words of this Psalm, or even allow the words of this Psalm to guide our words, we find our prayer of confession suddenly made “adequate to the largeness of God with whom we are dealing.”

 

This morning I’d like to ask you to imagine what it would be like to make these words your own, to let this Psalm guide the language of your confession before God?

 

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

 

David offers no defense for his sin.  There are no excuses, no justification, no blame directed elsewhere.  He doesn’t try to explain himself.  His prayer, in fact, doesn’t even begin focused on himself at all.  Rather, his confession begins with the unfailing love and the boundless mercy of God.  He does not imagine that God will forgive him if he makes a case for himself.  No, if God is to forgive it will be because of, and only because of, the character of God.

 

Notice also that David is bold in his confession.  Is this how you pray when you have sinned, with such audacious confidence?  Blot out my transgression.  Wash me thoroughly from my sin.  David doesn’t ask to have his sentence reduced.  He is asking an absolutely holy God for total and complete pardon for absolutely evil behavior.  He dare not ask for such astounding mercy unless he is confident that such astounding mercy exists in the heart of God.  It does, and so he asks.  So should we.

 

For 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.

 

Here is a wonderful example of how this Psalm can take our prayers to places we might never naturally venture.  When we sin we usually imagine that it is the person we sinned against who has endured the greatest offense.  David knows better.  Here is a man who has murdered innocent people and yet even so he prays to the Lord, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.”

 

Remember that sin, at its core, is never about the act itself, whether that be adultery, or murder, or greed, or malice, or whatever.  No, there is always a sin beneath the sin and that sin is always the same thing, a willful insistence that we must be satisfied in life with something other than God and God’s provision.  I am not satisfied with the wife God gave me so I look at somebody else’s wife.  I’m not satisfied with the wealth God has given me so I envy or steal the wealth of another.  I’m not satisfied with the grace God has shown me so I put others down in an effort to feel better about myself.  Our sin is always ultimately against God, ultimately displays a lack of faith in God.  This is why even when our sin seemingly does not affect anybody else around us, it is still an offense to God who sees our rebellious and faithless hearts.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

 

The tendency in our day is to assume that people, in general, are inherently good and that when we do wrong we are only acting out of character.  Another way of putting this is to say that our sin says less about our nature and more about our nurture; we didn’t start out as sinners, it’s the circumstances of life that have infected what was once pure.

 

Once again, David’s prayer keeps us from deceiving ourselves in this way.  “I was born guilty,” he prays.  “I’ve been a sinner from the very moment I was conceived in my mother’s womb.”  This isn’t an excuse, this is a confession.  There is nothing in me which is deserving of God’s favor.  From the very beginning I had no hope of being the man or the woman God made me to be.

 

I know many people who adamantly refuse to concede that they or anybody else are sinful to the core because they fear doing so leads to defeat and desperation.  It’s a tragic perspective because, truth is, this level of admission leads instead to hope.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

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.

 

As he prays here for personal restoration, David prays for four things.  This prayer gives us language to pray for those same four things in our own confession.

 

First, David asks God to help him experience joy and gladness.  You see, sin sucks away our joy.  It’s a crushing weight and a burden on our soul.  When forgiveness is extended, however, joy comes and lifts the weight.  We need to ask for that joy.

 

Second, David asks God not only to forgive but to forget, to blot out his sin completely.  In a world where people may forgive but never forget, we are invited to ask God to forget.  And maybe if God can forget, so can we.

 

Third, David asks to remain in God’s presence.  He knows that sin always causes separation and David cannot imagine life separated from God and God’s blessings so he pleads that would never happen.

 

Fourth, David asks God to move him in a new direction.  This is critical.  He doesn’t only desire forgiveness but transformation, a clean heart and a right spirit.  If you want God’s forgiveness for your sin but not God’s help in changing so that we don’t continue to sin, are you truly sorry for your sin?  This prayer leads us to not only ask for pardon for our old life but help to move towards a new life.

 

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

 

Ultimately, David’s confession ends up where all confession should end up, with thanksgiving.  The person who truly grasps the depth of their sin but also truly grasps the even greater depth of God’s grace is the person who is, at the end of the day, filled with nothing but humble gratitude.

 

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In a way, we’ve only scratched the surface of this prayer in Psalm 51.  A person, in fact, could pray this prayer of confession over and over in their lives and never reach the bottom of it.  It will never stop teaching you language to use when you confess your sins to God.

 

And remember this is just one Psalm out of 150 Psalms!  Can you begin to see why this book is such a gift to us and to our prayers?  It’s such a gift that even Jesus’ prayers were rooted in the language of the Psalms.  Did you realize, in fact, that two of the three prayers from the cross are taken directly from these sacred texts?  Psalm 22:1 reads, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Psalm 31:5 reads, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  Here is Jesus reaching out to his Father at the most desperate moment of his life.  If at any time he was going to pray an honest heartfelt prayer it was going to be from the cross.  And yet when he prayed in those moments, he prayed using the language of the Psalms.  That’s no small thing.

 

For the same reason that a woman might give a man a book of love poetry, God gave his people the Psalms, our school for prayer, that we might be have access to language that is rich enough and deep enough for the relationship.[2]

 

Amen.

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The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Why do you think so many people, even people who have been Christians their whole life, are often uncomfortable praying aloud in groups?

 

What makes a “good prayer”?

 

Where did you learn to pray?  (Or have you ever learned to pray?)

 

Do you use a different language when you talk to God in prayer than you use when you talk to others?  Why or why not?

 

Have you ever let the Psalms teach you how to pray?  If so, what has that been like?  If not, would you be willing to?

 

When you confess your sins to God, what do your prayers usually sound like?  What sorts of things do you say to God in confession?

 

Read Psalm 51.  What does this prayer teach you about confession?

 

What is one part of this prayer of confession which you could include, but usually don’t include in your own confession?

 



[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing, c. 1992), p. 111.

[2] Once in a while you are led to preach a sermon and you find that you just can’t say it much better than you said it once before.  This was one of those sermons.  Much of what is here is taken from two sermons I previously preached at Faith Presbyterian Church entitled, respectively, “Is That How You Talk to  Your Father?” (May 22, 2005) and “Learning to Pray in the School of the Psalms” (June 5, 2005).