What the Lord Can Do

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

I said to myself, I will confess my rebellion to the Lord. And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
—Ps. 32:5b

Lent is the forty days when we prepare for Easter. Christians observe it to commemorate Jesus’ period of preparation in the wilderness between his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. If you’ve ever looked at an actual calendar, you might realize that there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. This is because Sundays are always feast days. They’re days in Lent, but not of Lent. So if you give up something for Lent, there’s actually a Sunday loophole: You can take it up again, but only for one day out of seven.

Anyway, during this season of preparation, I’m preaching a sermon series based on the appointed psalm for each Sunday. And today’s psalm is Number 32. Psalms are usually pretty easy to classify, but not the 32nd Psalm. Some call it a psalm of thanksgiving, and some call it a wisdom psalm. But I agree with those who call it a penitential psalm, since it talks mostly about confession and forgiveness.

Its basic message is this: Not that a person must be perfect, but that if we don’t admit to our wrongdoings, they’ll eat away at us and we’ll be miserable. It’s good religion, and it’s good psychology.

If you’re my age or older, you’ll probably remember a very famous movie called Love Story. I was only ten when it came out, so I admit I never actually saw it. But the big quote from the film—and I do remember this quote quite well, and so will some of you—was Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Even as a kid I thought this just sounded wrong. Sometimes love means precisely that: Admitting that you were wrong, and that you’re sorry for the way your words or actions may have hurt somebody else. To refuse to admit wrongdoing is to allow something to stand between you and someone else—or even between you and God.

And if we don’t like the word sin, that’s okay. This psalm uses at least three different words for the same thing: sin, disobedience, guilt. Wrongdoing and iniquity are words other translations might use. The point is that we do things that aren’t right—things that we’re not able to make right by ourselves. Believers all have a common starting point to fix what’s wrong, and that’s God. Psalm 32 is all about what a happy thing it is to come clean to God.

We didn’t read every verse of this psalm before the sermon, and I left out one that I wanted to talk about personally. It tells us what our relationship with God should be: Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control. In other words, God wants our good behavior to be based on love and forgiveness, not due to coërcion, not due to the threat of pain or punishment.

Traditionally, this is, in fact, how the church has talked about sin—or at least many of the church’s preachers. Talk of sin is a scare tactic, a way to manipulate people and control them. Worse yet, the church has been very good at overlooking the sins of some, while pointing out the sins of others. Certain people and groups of people have suffered abuse at the hands of the church, while others are scapegoats.

Because of this, there are many these days who close their ears any time the subject is mentioned. But during the Lenten season, it’s only appropriate that we pause and think about the things that weigh us down, the things we have done wrong, the things we need to let go of. If we want to celebrate life on Easter Sunday, then now’s the time to take those things that keep us from truly living and put them out of our lives. If we believe there’s no such thing as sin, then we can’t acknowledge the need to admit we’re wrong. If we never confess to God, then, even if God forgives us, we cannot know the joy of being forgiven.

But there are two sides to forgiveness. The 32nd Psalm is about the freedom God’s forgiveness brings us. But Jesus expands on the idea of forgiveness and teaches us that we’re not free unless we, too, forgive others. It’s such an important part of our religion that we pray it in the prayer we pray every day… or at least every week: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

I read a book a while back that I re-read as I was preparing this sermon. It’s called Forgiving What You Can’t Forget, by Lysa TerKeurst. I definitely want to recommend it to anyone who relates to the title. And there are even a couple of things she brought up that I want to mention today. The first thing is that we see what we look for. For example, I got a Subaru last winter. And then suddenly, Subarus are about the only car I see on the road in Chardon. Did everybody in town buy a Subaru at the same time I did? Highly unlikely. What happened is that suddenly I began to notice them and I now see them everywhere I look. It’s the same thing with a brand of shoes or style of clothing. Once we start wearing them ourselves, we begin to notice all the other people wearing them.

And that’s how it is with how we view others. We see in others what we look for or what we expect. If we’ve been cheated in the past, we think we’re more likely to be cheated now. If we’ve been betrayed or hurt, we begin to expect it, and we see it where others might not. This doesn’t mean we weren’t genuinely mistreated. But when we internalize it, we begin to see it in others more often than we should.

And another thing that was mentioned in Forgiving What You Can’t Forget was a bit of exegesis that I hadn’t really noticed before. It was from the story of the man at the pool of Bethesda who was unable to walk. The belief—it was really more of a myth or superstition, because it’s not in the Bible—was that when the waters of the pool stirred, it’s because an angel was there, and the first person into the water when it stirred would be healed.

And so when Jesus met this man who’d been waiting by the pool for decades, and he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” You’d think the man would’ve said, “Yes! Of course!” But instead, he simply told Jesus the reason why he couldn’t. He couldn’t make it in time and nobody would help him, so apparently he never really expected his life to change.

Do you remember what prerequisites were in school? You couldn’t take History 201 till you’d taken History 102. You couldn’t take Intro to Medieval Literature until you’d finished Freshman Composition. We think we have to do that with God, too, and we use other people as our prerequisites. This man couldn’t get to the healing waters because nobody would carry him. I can’t forgive this person because they won’t change. All of us forget what the Lord can do. Forgiveness is always possible. No matter what, I can confess my sins to God, and God will forgive me. And no matter what, I can forgive someone who has hurt me, and I can move forward in my relationship with God and in my relationships with others. They can’t control my relationship with God because of what they will or won’t do.

In the case of the man by the pool of Bethesda, Jesus spoke to him directly: Pick up your mat and walk. And without the intervention of other people, the man picked up his mat, and he walked. And whether we need to feel forgiven or we need to forgive, the Bible is telling us in both the psalms and the gospels today that God’s grace is there for us. We don’t need to wait until we’re perfect people, and we don’t need to wait for somebody else to be a better person.

Asking for forgiveness can be hard. But granting it can be harder—especially for those who have been badly hurt. But remember, the phrase forgive and forget is not in the Bible, and forgetting isn’t required in order to forgive. Forgiving someone also doesn’t mean going back for more of the same treatment. It simply means that they no longer have any control over your life. So today, God invites us into the broad places of forgiveness—the freedom of God’s grace. Let us be people who receive and grant forgiveness.
—©2023 Sam Greening