a sermon on Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 51; Romans 5:6-11
An old Scottish proverb says that confession is good for the soul, and there’s a lot of truth to that statement. There’s nothing quite like clearing your head of something that is bothering you. There’s a real gift in letting go of those burdens that unknowingly weigh us down. And there’s something wonderful about seeking God’s pardon so that we can be made new and whole again.
But when we gather for worship each week and offer a prayer of confession, is this really what is going through our minds? Are we really trying to clear our heads and get our souls in order, or is there something more going on here?
Our readings today suggest that there is more than just something good for the soul happening when we confess our sins together in worship. Confession and pardon not only open us to what we have done wrong—they show us how God changes us long before we even think of confessing our sins and assure us of the depth of God’s amazing grace each and every day.
The beautiful reflective words of Psalm 51 that we read responsively this morning are the most direct in their thinking about sin and pardon. These words are traditionally attributed to David, seemingly serving as his response after he is confronted with evidence of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and David’s inexcusable actions to get her husband Uriah out of the picture by sending him to fight at the front of the Israelite army.
From this place, the psalm speaks directly to the depth of pain, hurt, and brokenness in all souls that comes when we are confronted with the reality of our sin. These words reveal the depth and breadth of our wrongdoing:
In my birth and my beginnings were the seeds of my distress.
In the womb, from my conception, my brokenness began.
These words expose how all our sinfulness is an affront against God’s holiness:
Against you, you alone, have I sinned.
I have done what is evil before your very eyes.
And these words express how deeply we need to be changed, sharing our continual cry:
Create a pure heart in me, O God;
put a new and right spirit within me.
This psalm, then, is quite likely one of the first recorded prayers of confession. It is no wonder that we use it each year on Ash Wednesday, when we reflect at length on the depth of our sinfulness and the pain that it causes God, our world, and ourselves. Building on the example of this psalm, our prayers of confession cover the full gamut of our sin—the things we have done that go against God’s intentions, the things we have left undone that God has called us to do, the ways that we have violated the image of God in others and ourselves, the harm that we have done to God’s creation, the myriad ways in which we have broken relationships and abused others, the pride that has driven us to think of ourselves as better than what we actually are, the self-deprecation that leads us to think less of ourselves than we actually are, and the brokenness that results from all the ways we rebel against God’s intentions for our lives and our world.
Confession opens us to the full reality of who we are so that we can live in the new and different and changed way that God intends for us and opens for us by the mercy and power and grace of Christ. Even with our sin laid bare in this way, we actually don’t start with our sinfulness when we consider it in worship—we begin instead with God’s grace. The wonderful Baptist preacher and southern writer Will Campbell put this about as well as anyone: “We’re no damn good, but God loves us anyway.” (Brother to a Dragonfly, p. 220)
The apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear in our reading from his letter to the Romans when he says,
While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.
God’s grace comes first—before our confession, before our knowledge of our sin, before even our sin itself. Paul goes on to assure us of this:
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
So when we confess our sin in worship we begin not with the depth of our sin but the breadth of God’s love and grace. We do not have to offer our confession in order to receive this. God’s love and grace for us is not dependent upon the accuracy or even presence of our confession. And God’s mercy is sealed upon us even before we can understand it and make it our own. And so before we confess our sin, we are called to confession with words that reveal this depth of grace:
While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.
Our confession comes not from any fear but rather from deep hope—hope for restoration of brokenness, hope for changed selves, hope for a different way of life, hope for deep and real newness of life.
If the deep hope that inspires our confession weren’t enough, we receive more assurance in the words that proclaim God’s pardon. Since the earliest years of the church, we have associated the words of our reading from the prophet Isaiah with Jesus:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…
he was wounded for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities.
These and so many other words give us confidence that God in Christ has transformed our sinfulness and made our brokenness whole. These words show us that God understands the causes and effects of sin better than anyone else ever could and seeks a new and different way that transforms us and our world. And these words assure us that God’s response to sin is not retribution or punishment but grace and mercy, enabling us to approach one another with those same gifts. So the assurance of pardon reminds us that even amid our brokenness, God loves us so much that we are freed to love others, that we can find a way to a new and different way of life, that we can embody God’s love and grace and mercy in our lives, our church, our community, and our world.
Confession is certainly good for the soul, but it is good for so much more, too. It helps us to understand and experience the depth of God’s amazing love in our lives all the more. It opens us to the ways that we can be changed by the gift of God’s mercy and so live in deeper and greater hope. It models a different way for us to respond to the pain and hurt and sorrow of our world so that we do not offer retribution or retaliation when we are wronged but instead seek the path of reconciliation. And confession shows us how God makes brokenness whole, how God brings grace out of pain and struggle, and how God changes hurt into new life.
So may we know the depth and breadth of God’s amazing love every time we confess our sin so that we can offer and share it with others each and every day as all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.