Saturday, 12 March 2011

Sermon for Sunday 13 March 2011 – Psalm 32 and Matthew 4:1-11 – Whoops, Sorry! (Kim)

Ash Wednesday was the start a series of readings by Tom Wright in his book ‘Lent for Everyone – Matthew’ which the Encounter Groups will be studying during Lent. During the coming Sundays we will be looking at the Psalm for the day. Today is Psalm 32.

One of the great theologians Saint Augustine said ‘that the beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner’. So it is no surprise then that Psalm 32 was the his favourite and It was reported that as he lay dying, he had the Psalm posted next to his bed, so he could constantly remind himself not only of his need to admit his sin, but also to remind himself of God’s forgiveness. Knowing that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and that God offers His mercy to those who confess their sin should be the greatest delight of every person.

Now I am not sure which particular sin David refers to in this Psalm and is not important. There are plenty to choose from - that's one of the reassuring things about David's life, he was "just like us," with all the weaknesses and frailties that we experience. Maybe it was his sin of adultery that he committed with Bathsheba, or the sin of murder he committed by ordering Uriah to be executed on the battlefield. It may be been something else. The important issue of the Psalm is not the sin but the forgiveness that God gives to those who repent. And with forgiveness comes joy. In verse 1 we see that God provides happiness and happiness comes when we have the correct view of ourselves - (verses 1-2a).

As we look at the Psalms, we will see the words Transgression, Sin or Iniquity, often and please forgive me if I am explaining something you already know but I feel these words need explaining in order for us to understand just how easy it can be to fall into error sometimes without realising.

The word transgression means to rebel against God’s authority. Or move away from God’s rule. To have an attitude of rebellion, a mindset of corruption. It's a self-centered decision to ignore God as we go about our life. Does our day go by without reference to God? So often we can go through our daily routines and God does not enter the picture. Excluding God from it – that’s transgression.

Sin describes a faulty action, or to miss the mark. It refers to individual, specific acts of wrongdoing. These are the "things" we do or do not do. But to call ourselves sinners is to admit the obvious - we fail God’s commands in all we think, say and do.

Iniquity comes from the same Hebrew word meaning "twisted" or "distorted." Iniquity refers to a basic "crookedness" in our nature, which leads to the attitude or mindset of rebellion against God (transgression) which in turn leads to actual, specific "sins."

By piling up these words, David covers the ground of what is offensive to God. The happiness which God provides comes only when all that is offensive to God is removed. How does God bring happiness, bless us when we have such a record of wrong doing? By His grace to forgive us. Forgiven means to lift or remove. The transgressions, the rebellious attitude, the self-centered outlook which demands our own way and ignores God’s, are taken away. When we come to God sin isn’t hidden from us as though we no longer see it, nor is it covered from God’s presence, but from His vindicated justice. When God pardons sin He does not dredge up the past. Not counted against means that the distortion which is at our core is no longer considered an issue. In its place the righteousness of another is considered ours; Christ’s right standing before God is ours and our sin His. Happiness comes when we agree with God.

In the mid 1990’s, an issue came to dominate British politics – the question of sleaze. Hardly a week went by, without some sordid scandal emerging about an MP or public figure, so much so that this matter in larger part contributed to the humiliating defeat of the Conservative government in 1997. Today as well as back then countless prominent people have had cause over the years to wish they had come clean when they could, rather than have their guilty secrets splashed out later on the front pages of the newspapers. The reason they keep quiet, of course, is that they are afraid honesty might harm their careers.

Fear can similarly come to rule our lives. The stakes involved may not be quite so high, but we hesitate to admit to past errors or present indiscretions for fear of losing face, endangering a relationship, or causing hurt to others and embarrassment to ourselves. At the time, sweeping a mistake under the carpet might have seemed like an attractive option; but it is only later that we learn how wrong we are, as guilt eats away at our conscience and the fear of being found out nags away at the back of our minds. Saying sorry is never easy and can prove costly, but it is the only way to resolution and reconciliation. Refusing to admit our mistakes may ultimately prove more costly still. How easy is it for us to admit we are sinners? How easy is it to admit to sin when confronted?

It is time we stop dealing deceitfully with ourselves and God and readily admit our inward corruption. We need to get beyond the moral point that distorts our view of ourselves. Each Sunday we confess our sins as God’s people; each time we pray we should readily acknowledge this truth. Recalling and confessing our sin is like taking out the rubbish - once is not enough, we have to do it daily, weekly – at least!

When we refuse to see our sin for what it is, it can feel that God is weighing us down. When thoughts rattle around our heads until we can’t see or think straight and sleep escapes us. We become tormented. Remember that discipleship means discipline. The disciple is one who has come with his ignorance, superstition, and sin, to find learning, truth, and forgiveness from the Savior. Without discipline we are not disciples. And when we are forgiven the weighing down is lifted off of our shoulders – the heartache is removed. God is only too pleased when, bleary eyed and on our knees through tiredness, we hand over the whole problem and ask him to forgive us. The relief hits us like a bucket of cold water. None of us is so near perfect that getting things wrong never enters our head. It is easy to get messed up with things that are unhealthy for our hearts and minds, but it is just as easy to prevent all the hassle that accompanies the mess and talk the whole thing through with God.

We all know how we feel when we have got involved in situations that mess up our heads and cause us to feel dreadful. And just because we know that feeling, it’s important that we don’t make other people go through the same trauma. Forgiving somebody doesn’t make their actions right but it goes a long way to restoring the relationship and then trying to sort out the difficulty. We need to remember that when we are trying to deal with a hassle, we need to get God involved. After all, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

When Robert Bruce of Scotland led his men in a battle to gain independence from England, he knew the English wanted to capture him to keep him from the Scottish crown. The English put his own bloodhounds on his trail. When the hounds got close, Bruce could hear their baying. Bruce headed for a stream that flowed through the forest. He plunged in and waded upstream and came out on the other bank, just as the hounds reached the bank but they went no further. The English soldiers urged them on, but the trail was broken. The stream had carried the scent away. A short time later, the crown of Scotland rested on the head of Robert Bruce.

The memory of our sins, prodded on by Satan, can be like those baying dogs - but a stream flows, red with the blood of God's own Son. By grace through faith we are safe. No sin-hound can touch us. The trail is broken by the precious blood of Christ. And freedom and joy are poured within us. This can only lead to celebration as our rubbish dumps are cleaned out and are filled with the rich blessings and joys God so longs to give us.

Father, help us, this Lent, to confess our sin honestly and to celebrate the new life you give to those who trust you. Amen.


Bruce has been leading us week by week through the Lord’s Prayer and it falls to me to tackle the final phrase in the last in this series: ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ And, of course, when we say the Lord’s Prayer, it comes naturally to add the phrase from the version in Matthew’s Gospel 6:13 – ‘But deliver us from evil’ (or, probably better) ‘from the evil one’ – that is, Satan or the Devil.

‘Lead us not into temptation.’ When you don’t just rattle it off, but start to think about it, this is undoubtedly a difficult idea to grapple with. If we take the word here translated ‘temptation’ to mean enticement to commit an evil action, contrary to God’s commandments; or If we picture someone beckoning us like the serpent in the story of the garden of Eden, and saying: ‘I know it goes against the commandments, but do it anyway’; Or ‘Look, that person is really attractive, surely it won’t do any harm to commit adultery just this once.’ Then, of course, we are in serious difficulties with this phrase. Is it God who is leading us into such temptations, and we have to pray that he won’t? That sounds not only entirely unlikely but entirely false. God surely does not ‘entice’ or ‘beckon’ or ‘invite’ us to commit sin. This cannot be the meaning of ‘Lead us not into temptation’.

And we have good scriptural evidence that God doesn’t do it. Look at the letter of James chapter 1 verses 13 – 15: “When tempted, no-one should say, ‘God is tempting me’. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

That is a very graphic description of what happens to us. It rings true, and it tells us quite specifically that God cannot ever be the initiator of temptation to sin or evil. So the idea that we have to pray that God will not entice us into temptation, sin or evil cannot be right.

But the word used here can have an equally powerful meaning which translates best as ‘test’. Think of a person taking a driving test. It is not the examiner’s specific desire that the person at the wheel should fail. That is not the point of the test. But the examiner will subject him or her to a rigorous examination, a test, to make as absolutely sure as possible that – let loose on the road with control of a car – the person is fit and equipped to drive safely, for his or her own sake, and for the sake of everyone else. It is an essential test. And if the person cannot satisfy the examiner, then they will have to take more lessons and take the test again – and, if necessary, again. It is for their own good, and for the good of everyone they meet.

So, does God ‘test’ us – or allow us to be tested – in order for us to mature and become competent to handle the life he has given us? Let’s go back in Luke’s Gospel to chapter 4 and the temptations of Jesus. We read in verses 1 & 2: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit (that’s God Holy Spirit) into the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” In Mark’s Gospel (1: 12,13) it is even stronger: “At once the Spirit drove him (or sent him) into the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan.” God knew very well that, after his baptism, it was essential that Jesus faced the reality of the ministry to which he was committing himself, considered the various options open to him, and made the right and irrevocable choice as to how he would fulfil his ministry. And that meant allowing Satan to offer him various false options, so that Jesus might see their flaws and deceits, and settle once for all on the right path.

Now, if we follow this through in the New Testament to the letter to the Hebrews, we find in chapters 2 and 12 that God subjected Jesus to testing, and because Jesus was fully human as we are, we are brothers and sisters to Jesus in being subject to a father’s discipline. So - Hebrews 12 – quoting Proverbs 3: ‘We must not lose heart when God rebukes you, “Because the Lord disciplines those he loves and punishes everyone he accepts as a son” therefore “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you like sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (See Hebrews 12: 5 – 13 and chapter 2: 10 – 18).

So we are encouraged in the New Testament to regard God’s testing as a privilege. We are being treated as his beloved children, (and as brothers and sisters of Jesus) and it is imperative that we mature and grow in character. In Romans chapter 5: 3 – 5, Paul puts it like this: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope...”

Now, if being tested and facing down temptation is so necessary, and indeed a privilege, we have now to ask why Jesus teaches us to pray ‘Lead us not into temptation (or testing)’. If this testing is good and necessary, why pray against it?

My answer to that lies in the fact that each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer is very condensed and needs to be thoroughly unpacked and expanded, as indeed we have been discovering over five weeks of sermons. Testing, suffering and temptation come at many levels and at many degrees of intensity. I don’t think we are here in the realm of all the various difficulties we face more or less every day, and which test our character and perseverance. We all have our ups and downs, our successes and failures, our worries, temptations, illnesses and frailties. As the hymn says, we take them to the Lord in prayer, and press on with life as best we can.

But there are certain things which make us deeply afraid – death, loss of a loved one, falling into Satan’s grip, and – perhaps worst of all – losing our relationship with God which must lead to despair, the end of all hope, and the death of the soul. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced all of those, and himself faced the very depths of human experience and existence. And in one translation of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is rendered ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’ which has an implicit reference to the final day of judgment.

So when we pray “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” I think that it is the realm of all-encompassing darkness, dread and death that Jesus has in mind. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples this prayer while he is on his way to Jerusalem for the last and fatal time, knowing very well what is in store, and the horrors he must face. In Matthew’s Gospel they are going to culminate in the terrible cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I believe that may be the true context.

We pray, then, in the Lord’s Prayer that God will not bring us into such deep, dark and overwhelming waters of eternal trial and death. That is why this last phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is coupled today with the famous passage in Ephesians chapter 6. It enables us to end this series, not leaving us in fear of death and ultimate despair, but on a strong note of power over the evil one. “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s that, when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Buckle on the belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the shoes that carry the gospel of peace; the shield of faith; the helmet of salvation; keep alert and pray constantly in the spirit. The Christian life is not easy. It was not easy for Jesus. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. But if we are strong in the Lord, then we shall stand indeed and conquer in the power of his might. And you and I will win through to the crown of glory which God has promised to us on the last day.


1.Looking back over the series on the Lord’s Prayer, what are the points that have struck you most strongly? Are there specific lessons you feel you have learned and can share?

2.The phrase ‘Lead us not into temptation’ trips easily off the tongue. Do you find this sermon helpful in understanding what it means? In what way(s)?

3.As time allows, look at the various Bible passages referred to above in their biblical context, and work through them. They are powerful. What particular points strike you most? What can you learn?