Text: Psalm 51:17
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
I had the opportunity one time to visit a prison. It was a women’s correctional facility in Edmonton. It was an eye opening experience. Talking to the women in that prison I very quickly began to realize that at least to a certain degree almost all of them realized that they had done something wrong, they were guilty. Really, this should not have been surprising. Every aspect of these women’s lives was a reminder of their guilt. When they woke up in the morning and were not in their own beds and homes it was a reminder. When they went and did their jobs in the prison rather than their regular jobs it was a reminder. When they ate supper with fellow inmates rather than their families it was a reminder. Everything around them pointed to their guilt. That guilt was everywhere.
You and I could learn something from those women in the prison, I think. You see we are often experts at blinding ourselves to our own guilt. We are well trained in the art of ignoring and not noticing the things that we do wrong. Like Adam and Eve we are very capable of passing blame to someone else (“It was the woman!” “It was the serpent!” etc.). We try very hard to make sure that guilt doesn’t stick to us.
There are times in our lives, however, when our façade of innocence starts to break down. There are times when, like those women in the prison, we can no longer deny that we have messed up big time. It could be hindsight that makes guilt a reality for us as we look back on what we did in the past and realize that it was not good or right or it might be something that we are doing in our lives right now, day by day, that we know should not be happening. Whatever it is, guilt catches up with us. Our consciences start to work overtime sometimes and we can’t run anymore from the fact that we are sinners.
The question then becomes, how do we deal with this guilt? How do we move past the guilt and shame that wear us down? How do we calm our troubled consciences?
When I visited the prison that day there was one woman who I remember very clearly. She was asked by the prison chaplain to talk to us about her time in prison and how it had impacted her spiritually. She had become a Christian during her stay there in prison and wanted to share with us how she was working through the guilt that she lived with because of what she had done. She started talking to us about repentance. I don’t remember everything that she said, but one thing that she said a few times was, “God loves us so much that He has given us repentance, something for us to do so that we can be His children again.”
It was heart breaking to listen to this poor woman talk to us about repentance because for her repentance was all about what she could do to make up for the wrong that she had done. She just kept saying, “I can do repentance… I can do repentance…” Here she was loaded down with guilt, staring that guilt in the face every day as she lived there in the prison, and the only way she knew how to deal with that guilt was by doing something. For her repentance was a task that needed to be completed, it was more work to do. Her pastor had let her down big time.
Repentance is not something for you to do. If it was you would never be finished doing it and you would never do it well enough. It is not a task for you to accomplish. It is not a checklist for you to follow. Repentance is nothing more and nothing less than contrition (guilt and sorrow over our sinfulness) and faith which clings to Jesus. That’s it, that’s all. Repentance is not something for you to do, repentance is all about Jesus.
Look at the very first line of the introit printed in your bulletin. These words are from Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken spirit and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” When David wrote these words he was in one of those situations where guilt catches up with us and consciences run wild. David coveted another man’s wife, had an affair with her, lied about it, and killed that man to cover it up. After all that David still didn’t really feel guilty (sinners like us are really good at dodging guilt!). But then the prophet Nathan came and confronted him with the Word of God which plainly calls all of these actions sin. In fact, David had directly violated 4 out of the 10 Commandments (coveting, adultery, lying, and murder). When David realized the extent of his sin he was distraught. He had fooled himself and convinced himself that he had done nothing wrong. He had fallen for his own lies. Now it was all catching up to him though. He had sinned, big time.
When this kind of guilt strikes it feels like the time to do something to make it better, but those words from our introit tell us everything we need to know: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken spirit and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The sacrifice, the thing that God desires, is not our best efforts or our most generous gifts. What God desires are broken spirit and contrite hearts. Hearts that cling to Jesus.
When we come face to face with our guilt and with our sin. When we feel the crushing weight of the wrong that we have done and come to the terrible realization that there is nothing we can do about it we are in the midst of repentance already. This is contrition. This is sorrow over sin. All that remains is to trust in Christ and cling to Him for the forgiveness of our sins. There is nothing else that we need to do.
Christ has taken away all of your sins and put on you His perfect righteousness. He has died and risen again for all of your sins. The sins that plague you with guilt, the sins that lock you up in prison held captive by your conscience, the sins that make us feel totally unworthy to be called children of God, all of them have been taken away by Christ. There is nothing for you to do other than believe this good news. That’s it, that’s all.
That all seems so simple, but when guilt comes around and rears its ugly head we need all the reminders that we can get. This year during Lent we are going to review Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the very basics of the Christian faith, because in the words of the catechism we find this reminder again and again. Luther makes it clear time and time again that it is not about what we do, but what Christ has done for us. Next week we will start with the Ten Commandments and then we’ll talk about the Apostles’ Creed after that and carry on through the rest of the catechism. In all of it we’ll have our eyes turned away from what we do and focused on Jesus.
As I wrote out this sermon this afternoon I prayed for that woman in the prison. I pray that she comes to know Jesus even better and realizes that He has already taken away all of her sin, there is nothing for her to do. This is also my prayer for all of us. When guilt and sin pile up and smack us in the face may we know Jesus, the Son of God, who died and rose again to save us. When sin and guilt overwhelm let us trust in Him, not in our works of repentance, because He is our rock and our salvation. In Jesus name, Amen.