I have to confess. Really I mean it. This is a sermon about the Christian discipline confession. So unless I do some confessing why should I expect you to confess anything? So here is my confession. There is one question in job interviews I cannot stand.
“So tell me what your greatest weakness is.”
I have to confess. I am a pretty honest guy. So when I first encountered such a question I would answer honestly.
And I would never get the job.
I have learned since then that what the interviewer actually is asking is this.
“You and I both know that you are not going to answer this question honestly. And it is not an honest question. I am hiding stuff. And you are hiding stuff. I am just wondering if you are smart enough to appear humble without giving me a reason not to hire you or think you are not being genuine even though we both know you are not being genuine and neither am I because this is an absurd question to ask a person you just met.”
Generally the correct answer to this question is I work too hard. Which really is a sin in the Bible, but is an acceptable sin in our culture and not really a weakness because employers like people who work too hard. Because if you think about it who would tell a stranger about their real struggles and weaknesses, especially someone they want to hire them?
But isn’t being honest and real and confessing our faults something we value in America and in the church? If we are honest we would confess and say no. We all put on a face of who we want other people to think we are. We say you can’t judge a book by its cover to distract from the obvious fact that we do that all the time. We are not good at confession, may it be giving it or receiving it. We are much better at lying. A lot of the time they are harmless lies and half truths. A lot of the time nothing comes of it. Sometimes lying is even approved of in the Bible. In Exodus 1:15-21 two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh’s soldiers to protect the lives of male Hebrew babies, whom Pharaoh has ordered to be killed. Sometimes lies are necessary. Sometimes they are harmless. One of my mentors once told me whenever you meet someone just ask yourself, “is this person safe and supportive.” We all have a gut feel for people. Some folks have better intuition than others but if your gutt says, “no” this person is not safe, then you are not going to be as honest with that person. We want to trust people. We need to trust people. But we have to confess that it is a broken world. We have all trusted people and been betrayed. We have all gotten burned.
Our first question is how do we get to that point? How did David, the King who the Lord said was a man after his own heart, come to the point where he had committed murder, adultery, and then tried to cover it up? The fact of the matter is we are all sinners, and though all who die in their sins face the judgment of hell without the grace of Jesus, our sins have different consequences in this life. Yes there are psychopaths and serial philanderers in this life but that is not how most of us end up in such dark places. Instead, the Truth about Dishonesty is that it is a slow creep.
Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and author of, “ The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially ourselves.” Professor Ariely says this about lying in an interview with NPR, “ What separates honest people from not honest people is not necessarily character. It is opportunity.” We all have a tendency to lie to ourselves before we lie to others. And given enough power and opportunity to misuse that power we can all be led into acts that may seem to be out of our character.
Thus David could be a man after God’s own heart. He could be a man who loved God and loved his people and still break two of the Ten Commandments, committing murder and adultery. This story occurred when David was at the height of his power and success. Things were going well on the military front. And in his mind David did not see himself as sinning against the Lord. He thought the Lord had anointed him. That he could do no wrong. That as long as he was winning battles for the Lord he could have what he wanted personally. David fell, not because he was a man of bad character, but because he did not understand the nature of people in general. His understanding is corrected in Psalm 51 where he says;
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
David is not just talking about these particular sins. He is reflecting on what is broken in him. Broken from the time he was conceived. Though his heart was for the Lord he did not see his own sin till the Lord revealed it to him. The prophet Nathan revealed to David that there was something off in David as a human being. This is what Christianity calls Original Sin. What the Reformed tradition calls Total Depravity.
The idea is that sin isn’t just about what we do it is about a brokenness in who we are. A brokenness that extends back to Adam and Eve. A brokenness that extends through all of creation. Christians call this the Fall. We interpret differently how this happened. But the conclusion is the same. God’s creation, which once was totally good, has been spoiled by sin. Though we may have lived the most upstanding life we have all denied our dependence upon God. We have worshiped the creation, we have worshiped ourselves, and we have not acknowledged Him. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. We have done the things we ought not to have done and we have not done the things we ought to have done.
In the church and in the world you will find two types of people. People who believe in a God of love and people who believe in a God of justice. People who believe in a God of love cringe at the idea that any would not be saved. That God would cast any into hell. People are inherently good, the world was made inherently good, and if we would just accept one another and not judge one another than all of the world’s problems would be solved. The Beatles might sum up this view in their song all you need is love. But is a God who is only love a God worth worshiping? We all have a sense of what is just and when that sense is violated we feel like restitution must be made. We can’t accept a God who would cast good people into hell but the alternative is to accept a God who lets bad people into heaven. If all are saved regardless of what they do then will the victims of the Holocaust ever see justice? Do you want to worship a God who says to Hitler, Stalin, and Osama Bin Laden, you folks were bad but it is all relative and I am a God of Love so just forget about it? But who draws the line as to what sins should be punished and what should not be. We all want the judge to lock them away and throw away the keys till it is us or one of our children.
And yet those who care only for a God of justice tend to live lives devoid of mercy. They tend to look at the sins of others and not their own. They see themselves as instruments of God’s justice while forgetting about his mercy. People who focus on the judgment of God think they are chosen and anointed. They think they are King. They are doing God’s Will. Their success is a sign of the favor of God. The failure of others is a sign of the wrath of God. And very quickly any sense of humility vanishes. And when humility vanishes we often become the very things we claim to rail against. Hypocrisy grows as power grows because as power grows humility is lost. But in Christ the love and justice of God are satisfied. As Psalm 51 says in Christ the Lord hides his face from our sins and blots out our iniquities. Jesus stands in our place and he cleanses us and shapes us into his image. This is accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection. Our salvation was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ. But we become more like Jesus through our continual confession and repentance. As the book of James would say, “ confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
So that is how David and we get to such dark places in our lives. It isn’t always about our character, that we are necessarily horrible people. It is because we are sinners and when given the opportunity and power many of us take the least path of resistance and are led into temptation. How then do we repent? How then do we turn around? Our text today shows that David does not think he is in the wrong. His mind has become twisted and he has found a way to justify his actions. But the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to him to convict him of his sins. This goes along with the Biblical teaching that repentance is only possible through the Holy Spirit. We cannot even realize that we are sinners, we cannot even desire the things of God, without God’s help. Often this is not a direct process. God’s grace works on us before we know God’s grace is working on us. The Methodists call this Prevenient Grace, the Grace at work before we know God. When we refuse to acknowledge God directly the Holy Spirit will lead us on a journey where we meet ourselves and see ourselves clearly at the end of the road.
Notice Nathan does not say to David at first that what he has done has displeased God. Sometimes folks do call people out on their sins directly and folks repent. This happened when Peter spoke to a crowd in Jerusalem after the Holy Spirit had been poured out at Pentecost. Peter gave one speech calling people out on their sins and he won 3,000 souls that day. But elsewhere the disciples are very direct and they get beaten and rejected. It seems the Holy Spirit uses different approaches at different times. Here, Nathan doesn’t start out with judging David, instead he tells David a story. He tells the story of a rich man with many flocks and a poor man with one little ewe lamb.
Why did Nathan tell this particular story? The thought occurred to me that perhaps Nathan told this story because before David was a King he was a shepherd. Before David took on Goliath he learned to fight by protecting defenseless sheep from lions. So David would clearly empathize with a poor shepherd who only had one little ewe lamb because he had started his life from such humble beginnings. And he wouldn’t stand for someone taking his sheep when he was a shepherd. So why would he stand for someone taking this man’s sheep when he only had one. And then Nathan dropped the bomb on David,
“You are the man”.
The Apostle Paul puts it another way, “you have no excuse, O man, everyone of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man-you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself-that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:1-5).
Jesus tells us to look first for the log in our own eye instead of the speck in our neighbor’s so that we may help remove the speck from our neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5). The point is not that the speck is imaginary but that we tend to see the sins of others and give ourselves a pass. But when we deal first with our own sin we can judge rightly and lead others to repentance. This requires a level of empathy and understanding. Nathan knew that David had a good heart. He had been a good shepherd. He had to be reminded of the good God had placed in him to see clearly the bad. When he was reminded of his time as a shepherd David came to see how far he had fallen as a King. Nathan helped David by empathizing about where he was coming from. He did not sympathize with David. Empathy is understanding where someone is coming from. Sympathy is siding with that person as being right. Often when we sympathize with people we do them no favors. We approve of sinful and destructive behavior in the name of love. But when we lose empathy we begin to believe we would never do such things. I am sure David hated rich people who tried to take sheep from his flock when he was young. Then he became that which he hated because he forgot the power he was given was to serve his people not to abuse them.
True confession, once someone I trusted betrayed me in a big way. I was so angry at this person. I was right to be angry. What was done to me was not right. I stood in judgment towards that person. I said to myself I would never betray someone like that. And then I betrayed the confidence of someone I cared about in a big way. I was angry and frustrated with this person. In my frustration I told someone else something I told my friend I would never tell anyone about that person. The issue came up in conversation. A moment came where I could have lied and told this person I had not said anything about the issue. But the Holy Spirit convicted me and I told the Truth. My relationship with that person was never the same, indeed we are not friends today. But I would be lying to myself if I didn’t tell the truth. In that moment I remembered the person who betrayed me and I realized I had become that which I had railed against. I was deeply convicted of my sin.
We in the Presbyterian Church do not believe that you need a priest to confess to. In fact we believe that we as Christians are all priests and saints in Christ. We only have two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Confession is not a sacrament because we believe you can go to the Lord directly and confess your sins and be forgiven. That is why we have the prayer of confession in our liturgy. So that we may examine our hearts and be washed whiter than snow. And yet the heart is deceitful above all things as the book of Jeremiah says (Jeremiah 17:9). We deceive ourselves in the little decisions in our lives. While we can go directly to the Lord to confess our sins the scripture say it is helpful to have other believers to hold us accountable. Indeed, whenever I go to a new place I seek fellow believers that can hold me accountable outside of the church I am working at.
It is a hard thing to give and receive confessions. But we as believers in Christ have the privilege of standing in the gap for people. Not just pastors but all believers can offer forgiveness and healing in the name of Jesus. People can share with us their weakness and be restored by a Spirit of Gentleness as Paul says in Galatians 6. Any person can say hard things with a hard heart. Any person can say gentle things with a gentle heart. Only a Christian can say hard things with a gentle heart. As your shepherd I am to restore you with a Spirit of Gentleness. I haven’t always been perfect but the Lord has given me a contrite heart. I am not defined by my past mistakes. And neither are you.
Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline calls the art of receiving confession, “living under the cross. “ When we see that we are the man, that we could do that as well, the anger leaves us and we can receive confession. Proverbs 14:9 says, “fools mock at the guilt offering but the upright enjoy acceptance.” Translation, self righteous people mock and shame those who confess their sin but the righteous accept those who confess their sin for they know their own sin. There is a difference between being righteous and self righteous. When we become self righteous the Lord has a way of humbling us. When we become righteous the Lord has a way of using us. The prayers of the righteous are powerful in their working. The prayers of the self righteous are just polite ways of thinking and speaking badly of others.
I know what it is to become that which I hate. I stand not in judgment of you. Yet, the words I speak they are Spirit and they are Truth. Confess your sins to one another so that you may be healed, so you may be made whole. Let us believe the words of that old hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.