A Clean Slate
Every Sunday for 22 years the members of the Landisville, PA Mennonite Church stop everything they are doing and gather to pray for a young man who grew up in their congregation. Every month they take up a collection to send him a small sum of money, and every month members take a day trip to go and visit him. Now I know that praying, collecting money, and visits all sound pretty typical for a church that cares about its members. But until you know the whole story, you have no idea how untypical this situation really is. At 8 pm on February 17th 1991, after his family was finishing dinner, 14-year-old Keith Weaver killed his parents and his sister. The horror of the crime rocked the church, and the community to the core.
In the midst of their grief and distress Leon Stauffer a member of the church challenged the church members to put their faith into action. They helped clean the house where the murders occurred, established a legal support committee to care for Keith’s needs so that the surviving brother and sister wouldn’t have to, and founded a seventy times seven fund to collect money for his expenses.
They took serious the call of grief and forgiveness. After a memorial service to lament the loss of their loved ones, and the establishment of a peace garden on the church property, they have shown themselves committed to the journey of forgiveness. In the last 22 years they have studied and baptized Keith, living out their faith as they remember, visit, and forgive in an effort to reclaim a young brother.
I want to share with you the words of Sam Thomas who was the minister of the congregation at the time, “Forgiveness is an act of God’s grace. You don’t forgive and forget. You forgive again and again and again.” I asked Leon Stauffer, how long would they continue this process of forgiveness, and he responded, “Until we are done”.
Their story humbles me. These folks are in a continual process of a huge act of grace and I know that forgiveness is a tricky thing. Human nature allows us to handle forgiveness in one of two ways: You either live like you deserve it or you live out of appreciation for it.
This morning our journey through the Psalms of ascent brings us to Psalm 130. Time and time again during this series we have looked at the attitude we must have if we are going to come before the Lord and give Him the worship that He deserves. Today we are reminded that without God we have no hope. We gather to worship God because He has done for us the things that we need the most. Our Psalm address any tendency that we might have toward self-righteousness or feelings that we somehow deserve God’s forgiveness. Our text reminds us that forgiveness is truly a gift from our creator and in order to fully experience God’s gift we must be willing to confront our own sinfulness.
Maybe some of us will struggle with this psalm because we live our whole lives with little to no awareness of our sin. We have been lulled into a false sense of security thinking that we are better than most people. I mean if I don’t beat my wife, steal from my company, and if my name hasn’t been in the paper or on the news then I what sin is there in my life, why do I need to be forgiven?
The truth is unless I get a better sense of who God is I will never understand who I am. Unless I come to a better understanding of God I cannot realize how desperate my situation is. We all can recite Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But very few of us understand how hopeless our situation is. It is not until we come out of our sad fantasy world and acknowledge that God’s grace is mirrored by His wrath that we will actually seek after His forgiveness. And once we have received His forgiveness then will we be able to come and worship God the way we were created to.
As I read through this song I noticed that it was like a stair case that could take us from depression to hope. So my plan is for us to look at two of those steps and then sing about it and then look at the last two steps and sing.
The First Step is Out of the depths
Our psalm begins: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” What a powerful image! What an incredible way to begin a prayer to God. That word depths describes the destruction, devastation, and death sin brings in our lives. These depths are the sin that the psalmist is struggling against. It is in this struggle that the psalmist cries to God for mercy!
Then in verse 3 the psalmist is crying out, Lord, please hear me, please listen to me! I cry to you out of the depths of my sinfulness! I realize how much I have failed you! My sin is killing me and I need your help! Please hear me and listen to my cry for mercy!
Have you ever felt this way? Feeling the weight of things you’ve done wrong, and feeling your sin almost consume you? Have you ever found yourself crying to God out of the deepest part of your heart and soul? I suspect that most of us have at one time or another. Most of us wouldn’t be here today unless at some point we have come to God and cried to Him out of the depths.
Our struggle comes when we no longer feel the sting and weight of our sin, when our conscience becomes immune. We’ve all heard of the disease leprosy, it causes nerve damage in the arms and legs. People with long-term leprosy may lose the use of their hands or feet due to repeated injury resulting from lack of sensation. Can you imagine getting injured because you can’t even feel that you’re being hurt? Sometimes, unfortunately, sin can be the same way. People are becoming more and more injured and can’t even feel it anymore.
Psalm 130 reminds us of the importance of taking sin seriously. It reminds us that we’re better off feeling the effects of sin. Sometimes churches are even afraid of using this dreaded “s” word, but we must use it. It reminds us that there is something wrong with us that we can’t fix. It reminds us that we’re inclined to do things our own way rather than God’s way. So if you’re one of those people who no longer feels the weight of sin, my prayer is that God will awaken you to your condition before you sustain any more serious injuries.
You see, sin destroys. It destroys our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. But however seriously we take our sin we ought to take the Lord’s mercy even more seriously. The fact is our need for the mercy of God can hardly be felt unless we also know the weight of our own sin. If I’m not feeling sick and show no symptoms of illness, why would I go to the doctor? Jesus told the Pharisees: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Which group had spiritual leprosy?
Step Two: Forgiveness
Verses 3 and 4 contain the meat of the psalm. The psalmist’s cry for mercy finds a response in God’s mercy. God’s mercy and willingness to forgive is the ground on which we can kneel and confess our sins before Him. This is the cry for mercy and the recognition that only God can forgive. Here the Psalmist realizes his need for forgiveness, he cries out of the depths!
The Psalmist is intimately aware of his sinfulness and his need for God’s action in his life. He is passionately asking God to listen and take seriously his cry for mercy. He wants God’s attention. He almost seems to beg for it.
Many of us are drowning in guilt because we refuse to let go of a sin that God forgave long ago. When we lived win Atlanta, I had the privilege to studying and baptizing with a young lady who was a Wicca and who lived a very different lifestyle than many of us were raised in. There were many times after her conversion that she struggled with depression. One night she admitted that as a young woman she had become pregnant and made the decision to abort her child. Her struggle was she believed that God forgave her of all of her sins but that one. She was living with guilt that she couldn’t put down.
Everyone of us need to be reminded of what D.L. Moody once said: “The voice of sin may be loud, but the voice of forgiveness is louder.” Knowing that the voice of forgiveness is louder than the voice of our sin, is what brings the psalmist to pray in the first place. In verse 3 the psalmist is reminding God of His own character. Feeling the weight of sin brings him before the throne of grace. The Psalmist reminds us that we can never keep a complete record of our sin because God decides not to keep such a record.
Someone once said: “Looking at the wound of sin will never save anyone. What you must do is look at the remedy.” God’s willingness to forgive is based on His character as a merciful and gracious God who still offers us grace that is amazing. In His unconditional love He has removed the chains of sin from our lives.
Step Three: Waiting on God in Hope
We offset despair with two words in verse 5: wait and hope. We respond to suffering by turning to God, not by denying our pain, and not by trying to fix things on our own. Our message to self-reliant people is: You’re not the one who can fix it.
At the same time, there is no quick cure offered. What is offered is a process. We are convinced that God is at work rebuilding our lives, cleaning up the mess we’ve made. Because we’re sure of God and His plan, we don’t give up; we trust even though we don’t understand.
Norman Cousins has written several books on healing. He’s developed a theology of hope. He writes: “People tell me not to offer hope unless I know hope to be real. I don’t know enough to say that hope can’t be real. I’m not sure anyone knows enough to deny hope.” Cousins maintains that there is no such thing as false hope. Although we all eventually die, we can live until we die. The will to live is a powerful force.
Some people choose to remain in the depths; they give up and become victims of their hopelessness. Despair is spiritual decay which causes people to die within. A Scottish minister remarked, “The most profane word we can use is ‘hopeless.’ When you say a situation or person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.”
Hope is good medicine; it triggers an internal pharmacy that provides us with forward motion to meet our goals. At the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, the staff asserts that the single most important factor in treating emotional distress is hope. Hope is a renewing force, and faith puts that force to work. Hope does not deny our problems, it defies them. Hope means learning to live without fear, to be at peace with life. It means confidence in God’s care.
Step Four: Tell What God Has Done
Our song doesn’t end with hope, it goes on “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” At first this just seems like a repetition of things already said. It repeats themes already mentioned. And like the ending of many psalms it functions like a closing prayer a way to send off the congregation. And it is all these things, but it is also more.
This is the first mention in our psalm of Israel, of the whole people of God, and so it is the first time the psalmist is speaking directly to other people. He is addressing the congregation. He’s making his experience of forgiveness public. He’s taking his words out into the streets! He’s climbed onto the rooftop to sing God’s praises! He’s shouting at the top of his lungs, “O Israel, hope in the Lord . . . with him is great power to redeem!”
The last step is this: for any of us who know the Lord’s mercy, and have experienced His forgiveness, we are called, like the psalmist, to proclaim what the Lord has done. In this sense, we’re all supposed to be preachers, we are all called to give witness and testimony with words and deeds what the Lord has done for us. And why shouldn’t we?
Psalm 32 says: Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Indeed, our sin is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. It is when we bring together the awareness of our sinfulness, the weight that makes us cry out of the depths, and our recognition of God’s infinite mercy, apart from which we could never stand, that we have the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law. The word spread from Capitol Hill down into the valleys of Virginia, and the Carolinas, and evens into the plantations of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The headlines read, ’Slavery Legally Abolished!’
However, the majority of slaves, in the South, went right on living as though there had been no emancipation. They went on living like they had never been set free. In fact, when one slave was asked what he thought of the Emancipation Proclamation he replied, I don’t know nothing about Abraham Lincoln except they say he set us free. And, I don’t know nothing about that neither.
How tragic. Slaves were legally set free, yet most continued to live out their years without knowing anything about it. They had chosen to remain slaves, even though they were legally free. Even though emancipated, they kept serving the same master throughout their lives.
But even more tragic is that fact that many Christians have been set free, yet they have chosen to remain slaves to the same strongholds that have gripped them all of their life.
Questions For You To Consider
What would you say is the major trait of your life: Complaining, Holding Grudges, Acceptance, Forgiveness, or something else?
Do you think other people would agree with your conclusion?
How confident are you that the Lord hears your prayers?
Why would we think that He would not hear us?
The psalm begins with a cry to the Lord from "out of the depths"; what pictures come to mind as you read this phrase?
The psalmist's distress seems to be related to a struggle with guilt. How can guilt lead to hopelessness?
If God forgives us so readily, why are we so hard on ourselves or so hard on others?
What area of life is it difficult for you to be hopeful about?
In verses 7-8, what reasons does the psalmist give for hoping in the Lord?