For those of you who were here last week, you will remember the story of the young boy in South Africa who had stolen a loaf of bread. For those of you who weren’t here, let me recap the story for you. He lived in one of the townships, was a member of the church where I was a student minister and he stole a loaf of bread from a corner store. He was arrested, and held by the police. The store owner, upon hearing about this, asked to see the boy’s home and noticed that there was absolutely no food in the house. This was a very poor family. So the owner of the store decided not to press any charges. He was a Christian, and forgave the young child. The young boy came back to our community and our church. But there was a problem with this young boy, and it goes beyond the story of last week. You see, he wasn’t happy. The young boy who’d had such a joie de vivre was now very remote. He barely spoke to anyone in church, and we were hearing that he wasn’t completing his work at school. All this and he had been forgiven by the store owner! You would think that the he would be ecstatic and grateful, but he wasn’t, for while he had been forgiven by the store owner, in his own heart he knew that he had stolen that bread, and it was wrong.
One of the surprising traditions in the part of South Africa where I lived was that during the prayer of confession on the Sunday morning members of the congregation would actually, before the entire congregation, confess their sins. Now, how would that make you guys feel? A little uncomfortable! When I first encountered this, I was in a state of shock, but there was wisdom to it. The boy decided he would do this, and he stood up and said, “I stole a loaf of bread and I was wrong. May God forgive me!” We were all shocked but what surprised us all the more was that after he had done this publicly, he reverted back to his usual self – full of fun and play and teasing, full of life again. It is almost as if he had read Psalm 32! This is today’s passage – a fantastic Psalm, isn’t it? This boy had taken this Psalm to heart, because it is about sinning, confessing, repenting and receiving your joy. It is all there! This is known as one of the Penitential Psalms. It is one of those where you feel penitent. The Penitential Psalms were written to say you were sorry to God, to offer penitence. In many ways this Psalm is what I call good news that needs fulfillment.
There is great news in this Psalm, yet, that good news is rooted in something profound within The Old Testament. Many scholars believe that this Psalm was actually put together after the Exile, after the people of Israel returned from foreign lands to Israel. It was the symbol in a sense, a liturgy, about what happened in those dark days, and how they now celebrate life back in Israel. The subscript to it says that it is a Psalm of David, what is known as a Makil. David was probably the original author of this Psalm or most of the contents of it, but then as a canonical piece later on, it was formed in the way that it was, but at the heart of it is David. It is good news: someone who experienced the blessing, the beatitude of having had their sins forgiven. At the core of all of this is “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord” and “Blessed are those whose sins have been forgiven.” The Psalm is not facile. The Psalmist has to get to the point of blessing, but to get there is a hard road. A road of temptation, suffering, and self-doubt. One of the most amazing things in the Scriptures is that many of the greatest people repented for sin and to turning their backs on God.
Many of the iconic figures, to use that overused phrase, were those who at some point in their life had been tempted, even at moments of their greatest strength. A classic example is Moses. We forget that he had murdered an Egyptian person because they had harassed an Israelite woman. This is captured, and you can go online and see this if you want, or into an art book by the great Botticelli, who has an incredible painting of Moses committing this terrible crime. Moses, of all people, had been tempted and succumbed to temptation at a point where he was most powerful and influential. Another one is Elijah, who had just taken on the prophets of Ba’al, and won the great big battle on Mount Carmel. Elijah was the great prophet where the fires of God had come down at his command. But then his life is threatened, and he is tempted to run away from the challenge before him. He had a moment of great triumph, followed by that great temptation to run away. Even Elijah – you see this in 1Kings 19 – was tempted and could have easily fallen from grace.
Perhaps the biggest of all is the one responsible for this Psalm, and that is King David. David succumbed to the temptation! Most of you know the story of David and Bathsheba. David saw a beautiful woman when she was bathing and he lusted after her. He wanted Bathsheba but she was married to Uriah the Hittite, who was one of his soldiers. As the story goes, David plotted to have Uriah the Hittite killed so he could have Bathsheba. After which he could not run away from himself and was consumed by his own guilt.
Before that happened, though, he had to be reminded that of this. He was full of himself and was reminded by his friend Nathan, sent by God, of the deplorable thing he had done. Nathan, rather than coming straight out and saying to David, “You succumbed to temptation” told a story, and you find this in 2 Samuel Chapter 12. It really is heart wrenching! Nathan said to David, “There were two men in a city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb, which he had bought. He had brought it up, and it grew up with him and his children. It used to eat of his meagre fare and drink from his cup and lie on his bosom. The little lamb was like a daughter to the poor man. One day, there came a traveller to the rich man. He was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for this wayfarer traveller who had come to him, so he took the poor man’s lamb, prepared it for his guest and ate the lamb.” Hearing this, David’s anger was kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die. He should restore the lamb four-fold because and had no pity on the poor man and his one lamb.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus, said the Lord, the God of Israel.” David shuddered. “You have stolen from a weaker, poorer person. You should repent before the Lord your God!” David was crushed! He knew that his sin and his temptation had caused him to resemble the man he despised in this parable. Nathan got to David’s heart.
You see, it is often when we are at our strongest and most powerful that we are the most easily tempted. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that this happens when we forget there is a God. Bonhoeffer wrote about the temptation:
In our body there is the slumbering inclination towards desire, which is both sudden and fierce; an irresistible power, desire seizes mastery over our flesh. All at once, a secret smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns as in flames. It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire or ambition or vanity or desire for revenge or love of fame or power or greed for money, or finally, the strange desire for the beauty of the world and nature to be ours. Joy in God is extinguished. We seek the pleasures of a creature. At this moment, God is quite unreal to us. He loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real. The only reality is evil.
He suggests further that there is often no discrimination in the way that our desire seizes us, that we are all tempted. Well, this is a happy sermon, isn’t it? You would think that in the light of all of this, we might as well just pack it in. All is desire! All is evil! All is temptation! But it is there!
Similarly, the result of this temptation often leads to a barren life. The sinful life with all its promises does not make for us a beautiful life in the end when we succumb to the temptations of power and lust. That psalmist described this as like his bones getting weary and tired. Like having sat out in the hot summer sun, drained of all his forces and power. He goes to great lengths in the Psalm to describe exactly what that feeling is like: it is as if he has nothing; his life has been destroyed; and he is consumed by guilt.
Recently I have been re-reading one of the classics, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I love to do that every now and again. I probably read it twice before, once academically, which meant all I did was underline it and spew out what other people thought; the other time I read it I was feeling miserable– and that was another time in my life! This time, I read it as a neutral, a disinterested third party, only to find I got sucked in to the story! Raskolnikov, the main character, does something terrible: he murders a pawnbroker, an old woman, and her sister. He does it because he is no longer able to go to university and is living in penury and poverty. He feels that by stealing from the pawnbroker he can put his life back on the right path. He also feels that the pawnbroker is not really an important person. He has the world neatly divided between the important people and the unimportant people, and he feels that the pawnbroker and her sister are unimportant, so it doesn’t matter. He takes their lives, but not only that, he feels that his life as an important person is going to be the richer for it; because now he can go back to university, make a contribution to society, and be a good person now that he has this money. The only problem is Raskolnikov cannot run away from himself. This masterful work of psychological torment, of the struggles with life and with being himself by Dostoevsky. He finds that he is “dying inside” – that is the language he uses! He feels no matter his remorse, it is killing him. Like the psalmist with the dry, hot summer sun, wearing him down to his bones. Raskolnikov had been tempted to think that the unimportant was worthy to be taken, but he is not as important as he thought he was.
The psalmist says, “Oh, we are often like horses and mules. We bite into to the bit and we get dragged around so easily when we are tempted, but when we do that we are not going in the direction of God, we are not doing the right thing; we are being led astray and it hurts, it destroys, and we become dead inside – to quote Dostoevsky. But does the Psalm end there? Thank God, no! The psalmist talks about rejoicing in the Lord: “The Lord is our shelter from all of this. The Lord is the One who is to be blessed and to be praised! Blessed are those who experience the forgiveness of God, for the forgiveness of God puts you into a different state of being.”
Raskolnikov would have described this when he was finally redeemed because of the witness – and here is the irony of a prostitute named Sonia! She was devout and had brought Raskolnikov closer to Christ. He described the witness of the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness of Christ to be like Lazarus, to be like someone who was dead and comes back to life. He says, “I have been restored to life.” Nothing in his physical sense had changed. He was still in prison. He was still guilty of the crime he committed, but the weight of the sin and the guilt from having committed the crime was like he had died inside, and to receive the forgiveness of God was like new life had been given to him. Raskolnikov changed from psychologically tormented into someone who regained, in a sense, his very life.
All of this Psalm, it seems to me, really finds its power as a proto-Christian zone. In other words, this is as I said at the beginning, good news that needs to be fulfilled. The fulfillment we find in The New Testament. We find it on this Sunday when we celebrate and remember the temptations of Jesus, who was taken out into the wilderness and tempted three times. If you want, you can read for yourself in Matthew, Chapter 4. As Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness, he resisted the temptation by using the Word of God. He did it with God’s assistance. It was the Word that enabled Jesus to resist. That resistance was important, because you and I are not Jesus. This was unique to him because he was the one who was going to bear the Cross. It was the sinless one who had to bear the Cross, but he didn’t go to the Cross to bear his own sins and to carry the weight of his own iniquities; rather he went to the Cross to carry the iniquities of all who are tempted and broken, who feel dry in the desert, and like Raskolnikov, dead inside. The temptations are powerful precisely because the One who went through them, as The Book of Hebrews says, can identify with us, and in so doing, can bear the Cross. It doesn’t end there because in that very Cross is the Resurrection, and in the Resurrection there is the life, and in the life is the power to be with those who will confess him when they themselves are tempted, when they themselves are facing that valley that is so dark and so deep.
The boy in South Africa was a lovely kid! I will never forget that one time in the church year he and the other children sang praises to God with our Junior Choir, which consisted of six – that was it! But they were a faithful six. They sang pieces that were full of joy, life and hope. When I look at the state they lived in, I couldn’t see a lot to be joyful for, yet in their hearts they were full of joy, because it was not coming from the things that were around them but from the presence of God in Christ! It was the joy of the power of forgiveness! It was the joy of the Lord! As you and I approach the Easter period – and God willing we are all here on Sunday morning when the trumpets blare and the flowers are out – may we remember Psalm 32: When our bones are dry, when we are being tempted, for we all are. When we have fallen short, there is someone at the end of it all who said, “You might have been tempted, but I am there with you, and I will forgive you.” Amen.