Monday, June 17, 2013
June 16, Proper 6, The Geography of Prayer 3: The Desert
2 Samuel 11:26—12:10, 13-15, Psalm 32, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36—8:3
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 45
This is the third sermon in my series entitled “A Geography of Prayer.” My title is from our Psalm, verse four: “My moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.” When I say desert I mean desiccation and desertion, I mean the drought of desolation and the aridity of alienation. I mean that God is gone from you and you are gone from God, when this mutual desertion is caused by guilt and shame. I mean when the silence between you and God is a guilty silence and not a quiet repose.
The sinful woman does not say a thing. It is Simon who can talk. He’s the one who claims the right of moral discourse. He’s a good man. He works at being good and keeping good, which is why he is a Pharisee. He’s so good he will have Jesus over for dinner, even though he opposes Jesus. He’s so good he lets the poor people in to gather up the leftovers, which is why the doors are open. He’s so clean he never once touches Jesus, because Jesus is notoriously unkosher. So he will not honor Jesus with the customary kiss or water for his feet and oil for his head. Which could be considered rude, but Simon can justify himself in terms of ritual restrictions. “Look, am I not trying to be a nice guy?” It ends up as a patronizing hospitality, and an insult is implied, if Jesus wants to take it.
But Jesus doesn’t hold it again him. Jesus is more gracious than his host. Jesus has been forgiving Simon all along, without Simon asking for it or understanding that he needed it. There’s a point: God forgives you long before you ask for it, and God forgives you of far more than you ever ask forgiveness for. In God’s economy of grace, forgiveness comes before confession. God has forgiven your sin before you ever confessed it. The reason you confess it is not to get God to forgive it, the reason you confess is to honor the truth of God’s grace and how much you need it.
The woman knows she needs it. She does not hide her status as a sinner. The nature of her sin is strongly suggested, but it’s only suggested and we do not have to know for sure. In fact, whenever it comes to another person, you really can’t know anyway. Simon thinks he knows, but what does he really know about this woman and her predicament and why she might have sold herself, if that in fact is what her sinning is. Not that we need to justify her choice. She does not attempt to justify herself, she offers no explanations or excuses. All she pleads is the expression of her love. And again, we are not told why. We do not need to know. That’s a second point: the true confession of your sins is not an accurate enumeration of your sins. No, it’s far more simple than that: You just say, “I am a sinner. For what I have done I make no excuse, and I do not try to justify myself. I believe you, O God. I am a sinner. Be merciful to me. I want to love you.”
She washes his feet with her tears. How is that possible? Who is physically able to cry out a whole pint of tears? And how long is her hair? How sexual was it when she loosened her hair before them all? Or when she rubbed the cream on his skin. Propriety is threatened here. But it also threatens propriety if the forgiveness of God is so extravagant. If God forgives us so freely how shall we protect morality? How shall we keep things good and right, with good boundaries, and keep things safe for children, and responsible, and respectable? These are right considerations, but they do not capture God, and God’s capacities, and God’s extravagance.
I hear it often said that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry for your sin and if you repent of your sin. Your forgiveness is conditional on your repentance. That was the import of the Old Testament, as you saw in Psalm 32, and it’s still the official teaching of some Christian churches. They teach that a sin is not forgiven unless it is repented of, and it might not be forgiven if you are not sorry enough. That is certainly not the official teaching of the Reformed Church. Our teaching, which we got from Martin Luther, is that your forgiveness does not depend on you or on the depth of your sorrow or even on the value or veracity of your repentance.
Your forgiveness is an absolute and unconditional gift of God which comes from the cross of Christ, once-for-all, for all of time and all of humanity and all of human sin, past, present, and future. There is therefore now no condemnation, there is no more punishment, no more little babies dying because of the sins of their fathers like King David. That’s all completely done with as of that first Good Friday. Your forgiveness does not depend on how truly sorry you are or whether you repent or whether you stop doing the sins you say you’re sorry for. Which is apparently too drastic and radical and lavish and extravagant for many churches to believe, because that means that all of your future sins are already forgiven too, before you have confessed them, before you’ve even done them. That’s right.
Then why do you confess them? Not to get them forgiven but because they are forgiven. You confess to let the load off of your guilt. You heard that in our Psalm today. “God’s hand on me lay heavy night and day, while stubbornly I hid my guilt away.” Guilt is what you deserve when you’re a sinner, it’s what you really do deserve. So knowing this, and in fear of others knowing what you deserve, you hide your sin, and when you hide your sin, your guilt weighs down on you. And that cuts you off. That drains you and it dries you out. You know what it’s like when you’re hiding something, you know what’s it like to feel the weight of guilt, and you know how you get. So you confess your sin in order to release the guilt you feel. You will have to pass through the shame of it, like the woman in the story, but that’s the death you have to die in order to be free.
You confess your sin to tell the truth about yourself. You learn to tell the truth about yourself, even when it’s an inconvenient truth, especially when it’s an inconvenient truth, because it is a liberating truth. That your goodness is a goodness given and not a goodness gained, which frees you from the hardness of trying to keep good like Simon the Pharisee, in order to be free like the Lord Jesus, who let himself enjoy the wet and fragrant contact of the woman’s love. You confess your sins to tell the truth about yourself, which, if you accept the humiliation, gains you liberation.
You confess your sin to tell the truth about God. Your prayer of confession is also a confession of faith. When you confess your sins you’re saying that you believe God, and what God says about our human race, and you believe in the value of what God had to do in Christ for the salvation of the human race. That’s why in our liturgy we first confess our faith and then we confess our sins, because the confession of your sins is also a confession of your faith, you confess your sins to say, Yes, God, I believe it when you say that I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. You confess your sins as a statement of your faith.
Which is why in the Reformed Church we keep our prayers of confession very simple. We don’t generally enumerate our sins. Sometimes there’s value in this, in doing a searching moral inventory, or in therapy, or in spiritual direction. But even then you cannot fully know yourself, and you have to come back to trust in what God says about you, and trust the promise that as far as God is concerned you are fully justified, just receive it and believe it. And be grateful.
You confess your sin as an act of gratitude. How much God has done for you, thank God!
You confess your sins as an act of praise. Let me tell you how great God is, how gracious, how merciful, how lavish and extravagant.
You confess your sin as an act of love. You love the Lord because you have been forgiven much. To recite in your prayer that “you have not loved God with your whole heart nor your neighbor as yourself,” even that recital is act of loving God with your whole heart.
This story is like a parable, and it is mystical. The woman stands for Jesus. The woman is Jesus, who became sin for us, Jesus weeping, Jesus with his dirty hair, smelling of your sweat and your dirt, and his oil on your desiccated skin. The woman is also you, when you confess your sins, and then Jesus is God, whom you are grabbing for, in your broken love and your bad attempts at love, and God accepts your love, and you need not speak, because of how much God loves you.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.