November 15, 2009

Create a Clean Heart in Me

“You the man!” This phrase is heard often today and is meant as an exhortation of the recipient’s relative awesomeness. Generally speaking, it is considered a good thing to have this exclamation directed our way. Everyone wants to have the opportunity to be “the man”—unless of course you are a woman, in which case you would be “the woman,” though that just doesn’t have the same ring to it—at some point in their life. Yet this has not always been the case. A long time ago, this phrase was used to rock the world of someone who had gotten pretty far off track. But God in His graciousness pulled this man back on the path by reminding him of who he was: a man after God’s own heart. Let me tell you his story this morning…

My name is David; King David to my subjects. And I’ll tell you: I still can’t believe that Nathan had the guts to lay that parable on me. What parable you ask? Well, it went down like this. I was sitting in the throne room and the herald comes in to announce the arrival of the prophet Nathan. I always like seeing Nathan. I could always count on him to bring a word from the Lord. Though hearing from our God isn’t always the most pleasant experience in the moment, His words are still the words of life are they not? Anyway, on this day Nathan came in and said that he had a story to tell me. Well who doesn’t love a good story, and Nathan could tell a story with the best of them. He tells me about this rich man and this poor man. The rich man had everything he could have ever wanted. He quite literally lacked for nothing. The poor man, on the other hand, lacked for everything. The only thing he had in this life was a little lamb he had bought to eat but felt so bad for he kept it as a pet. This lamb was the poor man’s best and only friend aside from his family. He would have given his life for this lamb instead of the customary reverse of that. One day the rich man decided to throw a dinner party. For this he was going to need a lamb to serve as the main course. When it came time to select a lamb for slaughter, though, in spite of having more lambs than he could have ever eaten at his disposal, he sent his servants out to the gates where the poor man was settling in for the night with his lamb and had them take the lamb from him and bring it in for the rich man’s feast. Well I’ll tell you, the more of this story he told the angrier I got. When he finally finished talking I exploded out of my chair and exclaimed: “This man should be put to death for this awful crime! He should be put to death and his entire estate should be transferred to the name of the poor man!” And I’ve got to tell you: I’ll never forget what happened next until the day I die. Nathan slowly walked up to me and when he was close enough that my guards were starting to get nervous he looked me right in the eye and said: “You are this man.”

Ever have your world explode to bits in a second? What was I thinking? I mean, how could I possibly have thought that I would have gotten away with all that? All the desires, the emotions, the sickening thrills, and the guilt washed back into my mind like a flood. The next things Nathan said passed by like a ship in the night. I remembered the lusty boredom on that fateful night. I could see just as fresh as the original visage this exceptionally beautiful woman bathing when she thought no one would be around to see her. The frightened looked in her eyes when she was escorted into my bedroom chamber will never leave me. And then her message—and by the same messenger who had originally brought her to me no less—“I’m pregnant.” What a weight to bear: adultery and a child to proclaim the act to the world. I did the only thing that made sense in the moment: if her husband Uriah could have been lured to sleeping with his wife things could have just quietly gone away. I mean, with a wife like his who wouldn’t be interested in that when drunk and back with her for the first time in months? Apparently Uriah wouldn’t be. His righteousness and trust in me only served to punctuate the vileness of the things I was doing. I confess that I wrote his death note to be carried to Joab on the next day when I sent him back to the battlefield with some decidedly unrighteous indignation. Who was this man to behave so righteously when his king was such a moral failure? I wasn’t even afraid he would open the note and realize what he carried. He was way too trustworthy for that to be a concern. Joab carried out my instructions exactly as I gave them. The righteous face I carried for the next few weeks fooled everyone who didn’t know the truth. They all thought it was incredibly magnanimous of me to take this faithful servant’s widow into my household in order to care for her. If only they knew.

Nathan was right. God had given me so much and I threw it all back in his face with this single act. This is not the way God has set out for us to follow. Yet in my pride and selfish desires I threw all that aside for a moment of pleasure; a moment for which I will surely be paying the rest of my life. “Be gracious to me, God, according to Your faithful love; according to Your abundant compassion, blot out my rebellion.” I have nothing to go on from here but Your faithful love, God. Because of the filth of my sin I can’t even get close enough to Your throne to be made clean. Have you been there? Ever felt so covered with filth that you didn’t think you’d ever get clean? I know that some of my fellow Israelites take some of the sacrificial system for granted as a means of cheap forgiveness making maintaining a life of illicit pleasure that much easier, but there’s something to be said for the ritual as a reminder of the real horror of sin. The stain it leaves makes Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter seem a barely noticeable imperfection. There is a constant reminder of this grievous rebellion against the Lord inscribed on our souls until we let the Great Launderer have at our grimy garments. “Wash away my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.” For too long I thought sin not a very serious malady. I bought all those lies about forbidden fun and make-believe mischief. All the while I was separated from the God whose strength I needed to get by. This is the beauty of the sacrificial system. It speaks to the separation and the death it takes to bridge it. The ugliness of the butchered animal is a reminder of the offensiveness of my sin-riddled life. We need the ritual to give us something to grasp so that we fully appreciate the reality of the situation and beauty of forgiveness. I need this stain, this defilement removed so I can find comfort in the arms of my God once again. I need the real forgiveness that restores real life.

Because I’ll be honest with you, I’m not making it without that. My God “I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me.” I see Uriah’s face on every man. Everywhere I look is this former friend sadly asking me why I betrayed him after so my years of faithful service. This was one of my famed “Mighty Men.” He had risked it all in order to see the plans of God for my life come to pass. “My king, was my service not enough?” they all ask. “If I could have better served you in another fashion you only had to ask. I would have followed you to Sheol and back again, my Lord.” Stop it! Can’t you see it wasn’t you my brave Hittite? It was my sin that did this. You committed no crime except putting your trust in one so untrustworthy. I forced my seed into your wife at her most fertile moment while you were away and had your commander on the field—in my place—ensure your death to cover it all up. Yet here you call from the grave. The Lord has given me ears to hear the cries of your blood in the earth ringing to similar to those of our uncle Abel. Speaking of your wife, I can’t look at Bathsheba without remembering what my unbridled desire has wrought.

And I know that many of you are breathing sighs of relief that your crimes were not nearly so heinous as mine but take no comfort in this fact. Sin separates us from God regardless of the nature of the sin. I know that Bathsheba and Uriah were hurt, but that night while I was walking around on the roof I told God in the quiet of my heart to take a hike. I didn’t need His counsel or companionship any longer. He was dead weight keeping me from having what I wanted. Oh God! What am I saying? It is “against You—You alone—I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight.” Do you understand friends what I am saying? Anytime we transgress the holiness of God He is the ultimate object of the sin. Of course there may be others hurt—there’s no such thing as a victimless sin—but our Lord is the chief offended party. I know that’s hard to hear but take it as fact fellow journeyers in need of grace. It matters not what the act is for the intention in the depths of our hearts—whether we think it through or not—is the same: rejecting God as the Lord. Because of this, His forgiveness is the one we must seek before anything else. Without this no other steps we take towards restoration will be sufficient.

Though this may be truth it is not a pleasant one to bear. Father, You are righteous and we are not. “So You are right when You pass sentence; You are blameless when You judge.” This is so even when the judgment seems too heavy to bear. The one joy we held out for—a child—to ease some of the load of our adultery was taken. Even in the birth there were no happy cries for we knew. Nathan was as clear as he could be. I would not die for my crimes, but the son growing in my new wife’s womb from that infelicitous night would. Yet still the Lord is right. His ways are above reproach. He took this young one back into His arms so that I might see the weight of my sin.

If only I had never been born. Such misery as this might then have not ever had a chance to be inflicted upon the world. “Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” I know what you’re thinking. My birth didn’t result from a union like this child who never had a chance at life. I had eight brothers ahead of me all with the same parents. What I mean is that there has never been a time in my life that I have been without sin. No, I didn’t kill anybody when I was in the womb, though sometimes my mother mumbled that I nearly did. But I have always had a sinful nature and the potential to sin existed within me. It was just waiting for a chance to become kinetic. Children raised in the ways of Yahweh may not depart from them forever, but that doesn’t mean we won’t stray from time to time. This ever-present potential for sin chokes the life out of us until we can rest snuggly in the forgiveness of the Father. Real forgiveness restores real life.

You see, the desire of God is for righteousness. “Surely, [my Lord], You desire integrity in the inner self, and You teach me wisdom deep within.” This righteousness is an inherently simple thing. If only it were easy. It is not the outward that God desires, but what is in here. The stain of sin is not on the outside for the world to see (most of the time anyway), but inside where the whiteness of our souls is blackened with its filth. “Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Just like my fathers in Egypt were saved from the wrath of the angel of death thanks to blood smeared with hyssop, let my soul be saved from death with Your scouring hyssop, Father. Just like water sprinkled with hyssop renders supplicants worthy to stand in Your presence once again let me be scrubbed with Your spiritual hyssop in order that I might stand before You once again; in order that I might seek Your heart as my true desire and prize. Have you felt this cleansing before, friends? Has God who is the Lord washed You in His light and life that drives away all your sin? Only then can the weight be lifted. Only then will the joy and gladness return. Only then will bones which were crushed offer the praises they once sang. For sin brings with it a terrible weight. When we are living in a state of sinfulness God has decreed that we cannot be in His presence. This is a pretty big burden for us to bear as we were made for His presence. We were made for worship but we can’t with the weight of sin holding us down. We feel crushed by the weight of guilt and our desires to be made right with our Savior once again. Yet forgiveness and restoration to God’s presence lifts this weight and we can rejoice once more. Real forgiveness restores real life.

And of course none of this is possible without God. Here is what our prayer must be: “God, create a clean heart for me, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not banish me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit.” You see, my desires for the flesh were only temporarily satisfied with the flesh of Bathsheba. Unless God makes us new we aren’t out of the woods. He must create a clean heart for us. Just like He brought order from the chaos that ruled before creation as stated in the first line of the books of Moses, God must bring order to our chaotic souls. And just like the initial creation of the world, this is only a creation that can be brought forth by God Himself. None other in all the universe have the power to change a heart. As I have learned about your culture it is clear that people seek this re-creation in all sorts of places today. This is a deadly fool’s errand. I ignored the signs far too long and was faced with my sins all at once. You will never find the means of changing a heart anywhere other than the hands of God. People may talk flippantly about having a change of heart on this or that issue, but real, lasting heart shifts come only by the Father’s hand. “God, create a clean heart for me, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Give me the faithfulness I need to stay out of trouble next time.

Yet do this not for me alone, but for all those who might walk this path after me. Why should any others have to tread the ground where I’ve walked? Why should they take the trail I’ve blazed only to find it to be a dead end? Great God give me this clean heart. “Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways, and sinners will return to You.” As I reflected on the words Nathan left me with from our God I realized that this was too precious a gift to keep to myself. How many others have been or even are where I am? How many of you are there? Learn from my lessons. This is an okay time to cheat off your neighbor’s paper. Embrace this truth and return to the safe, strong arms of God. And when you have returned to God, go back out and help others do the same. Real forgiveness restores real life. How can we in good conscience live while others are dying? All people can belong to God if only they would go to Him. Let us teach them so that they might join us in serving our Lord together.

You see, in this service we are able to offer praises to God. Sin makes a bloody mess of this praise though. “Save me from the guilt of bloodshed, God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing of Your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.” I’ll tell you, I must have washed myself dozens of times trying to get the feeling of Uriah’s blood off my hands. I wasn’t even there and yet still I felt so dirty. There was no doubt about the bloodshed of my sin. Others have sins that involve no direct bloodshed, but the sacrifices offered on their behalf are bled dry. Sin always involves blood. That’s because sin always involves death. Oh, you may not have killed anyone like I did, but the sacrifice made to appease God has to die. Perhaps one day God will fix a way so that a single death will be able to count for many sins. But it isn’t simply a sacrifice that will bring us back into a relationship with God. “You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; You are not pleased with a burnt offering.” All those sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle are not what it takes to experience the forgiveness and restoration of God. Nathan made clear that a sacrifice wasn’t what he wanted from me. That would have been easy. I would have gladly offered all the sacrifices in the world—every animal in my flocks—if I thought it would have made any difference. But God didn’t want that. He just wanted me. “The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.” This doesn’t mean the sacrifices are without worth, though. These outward aspects of contrition and repentance are necessary as visible reminders of the consequences of sin and what it takes to be free of such a weight. But if we don’t put ourselves into them we are wasting our time and money. You have no idea the sacrifice it has taken on my heart to come to this place of a broken spirit and humbled heart…or perhaps you do. I had run too far afield and God had to break my heart in order to save me. What God wants from us is a heart that doesn’t try to trust in its own strength to get by. Then we can enjoy real life again because we have put ourselves in a place to experience real forgiveness. Real forgiveness restores real life.

Yet if only that were the end of the story… How can I profess to be the leader of the people of Israel with this weight hanging over my head? What if my sin impacts my ability to lead the people? What if my sin has an impact on the people themselves? Surely the Lord will be good to them in spite of my failings. God, I throw myself on Your mercy and forgiveness. “In Your good pleasure, cause Zion to prosper; build the walls of Jerusalem.” And may this prospering be first one of heart. Let me set an example of the broken and humbled lifestyle that brings Your blessing for the people that as You have made me, so they also will be. “Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.” Send Your mercy and forgiveness to this people that they may experience the real life You have so graciously granted me. Thank You for hearing my prayer and hastening to answer. Thank You for accepting the sacrifice of my spirit and making me clean once again in Your sight. Thank You for sending real forgiveness to restore real life.

Friends, take this from me: don’t go where I went. And I don’t mean sleeping with your neighbor’s wife and having him killed to cover it up. Don’t reject the Lord’s reign in your lives as I did. Let not your hearts be satisfied with the filth. Endeavor to be clean, to stand and face our great God with the confidence of one who is wholly in His hands. If you are there, then it’s time to come back. It’s time to be made new; to let God create a clean heart for you. Let us take time to deal with this now. Whether where you sit or up here at the altar, take a minute now and confess your sins. Ask the Lord for the grace to be made new. I can say with confident assurance that is a prayer He will answer if your heart is in it. Pray now with me.

The words of one so fiercely fighting to have and know God’s heart are powerful are they not? With our hearts freshly cleansed by our gracious God, let us celebrate with a small feast. Though David never had the opportunity in his life to know the grace of God through Christ as we do, he was given the assurance that it would come one day. As a result of his faithfulness and the faithfulness of Christ we can celebrate this morning the grace available in Him. In the bread and juice that you will eat individually as your hearts are prepared in a few moments, we remember the broken body and spilled blood of the once for all sacrifice for sin. We remember and thank God that He died for our sins so we no longer must face that frightening prospect. He was the righteous sacrifice that the Father accepted on our behalf so that when we approach Him with humility and a repentant spirit, He will accept us and make us clean in the blood of Christ. In this spirit I invite all those who name the name of Christ to join me in this holy celebration this morning.