Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sermon: Facing our Failures -- Finding Forgiveness (August 2, 2015)

Facing our Failures – Finding Forgiveness
2 Samuel 11:1-2:13a
August 2, 2015[1]

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…  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.”  (Psalm 51:3-4, 10-12).


David sinned.  The one who Samuel referred to as a man after “[the Lord’s] own heart,” (1 Samuel 13:14) betrayed the trust and confidence of his Lord.  In a story that would earn an R rating from the Motion Picture Association, David messed up--royally. 

·      He committed adultery—a violation of the seventh commandment.  (Exodus 20:14).

·      A number of people suggest that because Bathsheba had no power to say, “no,” David’s action amounted to rape.  Since women were treated almost like property in those days, you could say that David stole a wife that was not his—a violation of the eighth commandment.  (Exodus 20:15).

·      When faced with the consequences of an unintended pregnancy, David tried to cover up his responsibility by bringing Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back from the battlefront so that the child would appear to be Uriah’s.  That was bearing false witness—a violation of the ninth commandment.  (Exodus 20:16).

·      When Uriah remained loyal to his duties as a soldier and refused to cooperate, David had Uriah sent to the fiercest part of the battle to be killed.  But all of these sins—breaking the commandments against adultery, theft, false witness, and murder—began with the tenth commandment that we don’t pay much attention to these days:  “Thou shalt not covet.”  (Exodus 20:17).

·      And to take this yet another step further, all of this came about because David forgot commandment number one:  “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3).

David’s sin seems so blatant, we wonder how could such a strong, powerful man, a man who could go up against a giant and take him out with a sling shot, how could such a man fall prey to an enemy that was only within himself?  Some people might try to make excuses for David—his men made him stay home during the battle.  He was restless, anxious.  Even worse, some try to blame the victim Bathsheba—what was she doing bathing out in the open, anyway.  But these excuses don’t change the facts.  David was the man in power, he made the choices, and he bore responsibility for his own actions.

There are lots of definitions of sin and lots of explanations for its origins.  We try to dress it up, explain it, make excuses for it.  “Mistakes may have been made,” we say in our corporate press releases.  “The King regrets the error.” 

But the Bible doesn’t bother explaining it; it simply describes David’s sin with these short and direct words:  “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”  (2 Samuel 11:27).  David, the man after the Lord’s own heart, forgot Who had given to him all that he had and all that he was.  David forgot God.

David had to face his failure before he could find forgiveness and restoration.


It’s easy for us to get smug about David.  After all, we haven’t done anything that dumb.  Oh, maybe our presidents and other political heroes have, but they seem to play by different rules.  Maybe our military and corporate leaders have messed around a little bit, but isn’t that all part of the heat of battle—military or otherwise.  Maybe our entertainment icons and sports idols have, but we don’t mind living with a little vicarious sin through them.  We haven’t done anything that bad!

But let’s look again at the root of David’s sin.  David forgot the One who had made David king in the first place.  David forgot the One who had spared him from the spear of King Saul when David sang for him to sooth his troubled mind.  (1 Samuel 18:11 and 19:10). David forgot the One who spared him from the sword of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:48-49) and from the jaws of the lion and the bear when David was a mere shepherd.  (1 Samuel 17:34-36).

How different would David’s story have been if he remembered, with gratitude, all that God had given him?  How different would David’s story have been if, instead of wanting a woman that wasn’t his, he gave thanks for the love and companionship he already had? What if David had chosen to thank God for the way he was made, and asked God to direct his desire and energy towards faithfulness?

We tend to make the same sort of excuses for our bad behavior.  If we are aware of our sinful behavior at all, we try to cover it up and act as if nothing happened, or we look around and find someone else to blame.

One classical definition of sin identifies it as “a willful transgression against the known law of God.”  If you break the rule, you deserve to be punished.  That seemed, inevitably, to lead to a faith that is built on law.  Grace is seen as a way that God forgives the law breaker.  Some branches of Christianity view sin more as a sort of brokenness—more like a disease.  We are broken human beings because of sin in our lives.  Grace comes along to heal us.  Both of these ways of thinking about sin have merit.  They both help us understand what is going on in our lives. 

This week, I learned another way of viewing sin.  Sin is anything that draws us away from God and God’s intentions for us.  Even things that are not inherently bad or evil can become sinful for us if they come between God and us.  When we worship these other things—even good things like family and friends and our jobs—they become gods for us.  We place our trust in them instead of the living God, and we forget that all that we have and all that we are come from God alone.  Do not underestimate the sin of ingratitude.  Ignatius of Loyola wrote that “ingratitude was likely the cause and source of all evil and sin.”[2]

Really?  What about things like greed and lust and pride? They certainly have their part in all of this.  But even if Ignatius overstated his point for effect, this much remains true:  when we focus on the things we lack rather than on the things God has given us, we push God further and further from the center of our lives.  We move further and further from the reason God created us:  to be in relationship with Him, and to be part of His plan for creating His kingdom of love in this world.  As long as we are focused on other things, we remain separated from God.

Like David, we too have to face our failures before we can find forgiveness and restoration.


There is grace in this story.  David faced his failure and found forgiveness and restoration.  But he didn’t do it on his own.  He had help.

The prophet Nathan enters the picture here.  Nathan had taken over for Samuel after Samuel had died.  We spoke about Nathan a few weeks ago—as the one who had to break the news to David that God had chosen someone else to build a Temple for Him.

Nathan has to confront David again with bad news, and I suspect that Nathan did not look forward to this task at all!  Rather than starting out with accusations, Nathan tells David a parable about a rich man that takes a young lamb from a poor man—the poor man’s only possession—and used it to entertain a visitor, sparing himself the need to take one of his own flock.  David took the bait, and immediately opined that the rich man who did this deserves to die.  Nathan then drops the bombshell:  “You are the man.”  Nathan goes on to spell out the indictment against David and pronounces the Lord’s punishment against the man who was after the Lord’s own heart.  Nathan forces David to face the reality of his own behavior that David could not see on his own.

David could have reacted badly to this.  We have seen David do this before, when his wife, Michal, told him that he had embarrassed himself with his wild dancing as he escorted the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem.  David responded by shunning Michal—he never saw her again.  (2 Samuel 6:20-23).  This time, David’s response is different.  We see him confessing, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  By God’s grace, David was able to face up to his own failures and find forgiveness.


We too can face our failure and find forgiveness and restoration; but it takes awareness, humility and repentance.  Part of the problem is that we have a hard time seeing our own sin.

Have you ever had someone confront you with your own failures, or told you that you were heading in a dangerous direction.  If so, were you thankful?  That sort of advice can be hard to receive.  If you have had a friend who loved you enough to confront you with the truth about yourself, risking their relationship with you, give thanks.  [There is an entirely different sermon about when to take that risk of confronting someone else with their sin—but that is for another day.]

More often than not, we need to rely on the Holy Spirit to confront us with our sin.  This means more than a quick reading of a corporate prayer of confession on Sunday morning.  This means taking the time to pray, as the Psalmist did, “Search me, O God and know my heart; test me, and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24). 

We do this in a practice that Christians call “examination of conscience” or “examen.”  There often is an atmosphere of sadness to this process—after all, we are dealing with sin.  But this week I learned some ways to ask the questions of the examen in a more positive way that has changed my way of thinking.  I have learned the importance of approaching my self-examination with thanksgiving. 

1.    We begin with thanksgiving, by giving thanks to God for the benefits and blessings that we have received in life, that we have seen in others, and that we have seen in our world.  We recognize right up front that all we have and all that we are come from God.
2.    We ask for grace to recognize God’s presence in all the particular things that have happened—to us or to others—that we are grateful for.
3.    We review our day, hour by hour, looking first for the good thoughts, ideas and intentions we have had, for the actions that have been helpful to others, for the actions of others that have touched our lives, and we give thanks.  When, in this process, we see times that we fell short, we ask God for the grace to live more lovingly.
4.    We praise and thank God for all the opportunities we have had to make a difference in the world; and we ask God to help us recognize more and more the opportunities that come our way in the future.
5.    We thank God for all God has done for us, and we ask:  What can I do that would lead me to be even more grateful?[3] 

In this examination, the Holy Spirit will point out to us the missed opportunities, the times that we acted selfishly rather than lovingly, the times that we took credit for God’s work in our lives.  As those moments come to mind, we have a choice in how we respond.  We can ignore these prompts from God; we can defend ourselves, trying to shift the blame.  Or we can give thanks to God for revealing our sin to us and ask for the grace to do better.  We can try to hide our sin, deflect it, wallow in our sin, or seek transformation. 

The point is to change our focus from our weakness to God’s strength; from our selfishness and pride to God’s infinite love; from our strength to God’s forgiveness.  In this approach to self examination, we ask God to reveal those parts of our lives where we “need to be freed, liberated, loosened, healed, strengthened, and transformed.  Coming into this awareness is … a … grace from God, … uncovering what in [us] and [our] world is ripe for transformation.”[4] 

In short, we deepen our friendship with God.  There can be sorrow in confession as we face our failures, but there also is joy as we are restored in our relationship with God.   We can transform our time of confession from focusing on our weakness into a time to give thanks for God’s faithfulness. 

All that we have, and all that we are come from God.  Will you join me this week in using our time of examination to rediscover God’s faithfulness, with thanksgiving? 

Let us pray.  “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.  (Psalm 51:10-12).  Amen.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost.
[2] Ignatius of Loyola, Letter to Simon Rodriguez, March 18, 1542, quoted by Louis M. Savary in The New Spiritual Exercises:  In the Spirit of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Kindle Edition, (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), location 1015.
[3] Louis M. Savary in The New Spiritual Exercises:  In the Spirit of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Kindle Edition, (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), location 982.
[4] Louis M. Savary in The New Spiritual Exercises:  In the Spirit of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Kindle Edition, (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), location 1079.