November 16 2014, Twenty-second After Trinity
Proverbs 25:8-24, Psalm 32, Philippians 1:3-11, St. Matthew 18:21-35
A certain Augustine, later to gain renown as St. Augustine of Hippo, found himself geographically in Milan and emotionally, intellectually and spiritually at a fork in the road.
Born in North Africa, he was the son of a minor Roman official who followed the prevailing pagan religion of the day and a devout Christian mother named Monica. Both parents recognized the boy’s intellectual gift and they provided for him a top-drawer education.
He became a teacher of rhetoric, a high calling in the fourth century, and migrated from the great North Africa commercial and cultural capital of Carthage, where his students behaved boorishly, to Rome, where his better-behaved students were slow to pay, to Milan.
Along the way he acquired a concubine, who bore him a son.
Augustine dallied for a decade or more with Manichaeism and then graduated to Neo-Platonism. Both are dualist philosophies which resolve the conflict between spirit and matter by inventive means, including the use of astronomy.
He found himself unable to sustain belief in either and by the time he reached Milan he seems to have been at a loss for a philosophical/theological grounding.
What, you wonder, of his mother’s faith? The biblical writings didn’t follow the rules of rhetoric and so were inelegant; their authors even trafficked in tales of such crudities as deceit, rape and murder. What’s more, the Scriptures failed to answer his questions about the origin of evil.
If God was pure goodness, evil could not be His creation. And if God created all things, including the evil things the rhetorician found in and around himself, God could not be supremely good.
Monica, who was with her son in Milan, insisted that he attend the church where Bishop Ambrose held forth. Because Ambrose was known as the greatest rhetorician of the region, Augustine began attending church to study the preacher’s style . . . and not his content.
Over time, Augustine caught himself listening to the message and Ambrose untangled the younger man’s intellectual quarrels with Christianity. He got his mind right to become a Christian.
Yet a problem remained, and it was as sordid as those crude Bible tales. Plain and simple, Augustine’s problem was lust.
Confronted now with the truth of the gospel, he yearned for his own spirit and matter to be pried apart. He prayed in those days, he later wrote, “Give me chastity and continence . . . but not yet.”
This Augustine was no saint. But we can celebrate him even in this period as an honest sinner – no small thing. He would not delude himself: To become a Christian is to live for Christ. Yes, cultural Christianity had been invented by his day . . . but he would have no part in it. He would not confess Christ and withhold part of himself from Christ.
He added, “When I thought of devoting myself entirely to you, my God . . . it was I that wished to do it, and I that wished not to do it. It was I. And since I neither completely wished, nor completely refused, I fought against myself and tore myself to pieces.”
Still in Milan, he was sitting one day under a fig tree in his garden asking, “How long, Lord, how long? Will it be tomorrow and always tomorrow? Why does my uncleanness not end this very moment?”
And in that moment the words of a child at play wafted over the fence: “Take up and read. Take up and read. Take up and read.”
Not long before, he had been reading a manuscript. He now returned to the spot where he had left it and took up again the words of the apostle Paul from Romans 13:
“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
In that instant, he took the step he had so long shunned, devoting himself to the service of God. He would soon abandon his career at a professor of rhetoric and chart a course that would see him installed as bishop of Hippo in North Africa.
He would become the most important theologian since that one called Paul whose words he was reading in his garden.
And now, I pray, you will see clearly why our psalm for today, No. 32, was the favorite of this great doctor of the church.
It is a companion to Psalm 51, David’s outpouring of contrition after his adultery with Bathsheba:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (vv. 1-3).
Psalm 32 probably came later, when David was in a more reflective spirit. It deals with the same crisis in a more sober tone, one that echoes the wisdom theme of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and especially Psalm 1, which begins:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (vv. 1-2).
Now listen again to the opening of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (vv. 1-2).
David is celebrating not the righteousness of a man, as in Psalm 1, but a man’s awareness of his unrighteousness. Happy is he who confronts his unrighteousness and seeks a remedy outside himself. He is the one who finds forgiveness.
One of Augustine’s maxims was, “The beginning of knowledge is to know yourself to be a sinner.” He published an exposition of Psalm 32 in a commentary on the Psalter. Elsewhere in his writings I have turned up 31 citations of this poem of David, and I might have missed some.
He alludes to it in both of his master works, “Confessions” and “City of God.” In the latter he writes:
“David therefore reigned in the earthly Jerusalem . . . much praised by the divine testimony; for even his faults are overcome by great piety, through the most salutary humility of his repentance, that he is altogether one of those of whom he himself says, ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.’”
Men who swim in the murky depths of the lusts of the flesh seek out others like themselves. And men who find forgiveness for the sins of the flesh recognize one another instantly even across a gulf of centuries. Augustine knew David for a kindred spirit. But one intervened between these two.
A certain Saul, later Paul, lusted after the blood of the members of a new sect who would come to be called “Christians.” After Christ smote him blind on the Damascus Road and then gave him the gift of spiritual sight, Paul cast about for a way to explain the excellence of faith compared to works.
In the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, he invokes the patriarch Abraham, of whom it is written, “And he believed the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
In this belief rather than in any merit of his own lay Abraham’s justification before God. Here is the pinnacle of theology for Paul, the great apostle to the gentiles, the accounting . . . imputing . . . reckoning . . . of faith in what God has done as the ground of man’s righteousness.
Paul weaves into his account of Abraham’s faith David’s profession of Psalm 32:1-2. Unlike David and Augustine, Abraham knew no tussle with lust. His trouble was of quite the opposite nature. At 99 years of age, he struggled to understand how God would fulfill His promise of descendants like the sand of the seashore to a man who had gone dead in his loins.
Abraham, David, Paul, Augustine. Four superlative sinners – two consumed by lust for sex, one by lust for blood, one beyond lust. What binds them together? What looses in them the soul-speak that sparks a conversation across the divide of centuries and millennia?
God has reckoned their faith in His promise of redemption as righteousness.
And what of us, beloved; what of us? Are we united with them? So we are, when each time we gather we pray, “And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord . . .”
God’s promise of redemption from the wages of sin is God’s work of redemption in the saving act of Christ upon His cross. Abraham, David, Paul, Augustine, you and I . . . we stake our claim to immortality on what God has willed and what God has done.
But settle for a moment on David, the author of Psalm 32. He would have us see the reckoning of righteousness as the creation – or, if you will, the re-creation – of life. If every sinner is dead, it is this imputation of righteousness to him that restores life.
Abraham? He told the tawdry lie that his wife was his sister and he gave her up to whoredom to save his own skin. He deserved to die; yet he believed in God’s promise of a galaxy of descendants . . . and he lived.
David? He sent his men to war to expand his kingdom and yet he remained behind to take his ease. From his rooftop he espied the fetching Bathsheba, the wife of another, and he plucked her as lightly as a flower . . . the royal prerogative. He murdered her husband, a second crime to cover the first.
But upon sober reflection he put on sackcloth and ashes and threw himself upon the mercy of his Lord . . . and he lived.
Paul? He dedicated his life to exterminating the spiritual seed of the Lord’s Anointed. Yet when the Anointed beckoned him and transformed him he answered in faith to the promise God gave to his fathers Abraham and David. Because of what God had done, he lived.
Augustine? He dug in his heels and resisted the pleas of his Christian mother. Yet when a child cried out, “Take up and read,” he took instruction from that child and read the words of redemption: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” . . . and he lived.
And I? I kicked against the goads for two score and seven, engaged enthusiastically with the death my sins deserved. Yet when God called, like Abraham . . . like David . . . like Paul . . . like Augustine . . . somehow . . . I relied not on my own understanding but on the promise of God . . . and I lived.
And you? Fill in your story. Will you not praise His holy name?
Here is the highway to sainthood. Who but God could begin with what God has done, run it through the filter of man’s passive acceptance and bless it as man’s justification before God? Surely this is an exercise in divine sausage-making in an all-too-human packing plant.
In those first two verses of our psalm we encounter transgression, which is rebellion; sin, which is going astray; iniquity, which is twisting of the truth, and deceit, which is covering up the other three. These are the characteristics of every human heart.
Verse 3: “When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long.”
We will miss the meaning of this cryptic reference to keeping silent if we do not connect it to the deceit of the preceding verse. Afflictions are an imposing theme in the psalms before this one in the David collection . . . but always in reference to his enemies. Here . . . it’s his own damned fault.
He has kept silent. It is the Lord who will forgive his transgressions, cover his sins, not count his iniquities. But David himself must account for his deceit, for keeping silent rather than confessing his sin to his Lord.
Verse 4: “For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer.”
Those who practice deceit feel God’s hand upon them as a burden. Consider the Psalmist’s context. Among the Canaanites surrounding Israel in the land, pagans plotted to placate and manipulate their gods.
Yahweh, too, grows angry with His people . . . but always with regard for their long-term welfare. If they will only put away deceit and own up to their sinfulness He will spare them.
Verse 5: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
Just as David’s affliction does not come now from his foes, his rescue is not from physical danger but from the ravages of sin. Those marks of the human heart reappear in a different order. When David discards deceit and sings out his confession his Lord deals with his iniquity, transgressions and sin.
When he abandons his effort to cover up his sin God covers his sin. We have God’s pledge that he will reckon us as righteous. It is for us only to confess, repent, trust in that promise.
Verses 6-11: “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you. Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the LORD, mercy shall surround him. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
The plurals expand the message, removing it from the realm of the purely personal and fitting it out for the entire congregation. These verses moved Charles Wesley to compose our sermon hymn, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
And Augustine, who sent away his concubine at his mother’s urging when he grasped at last that God’s love was potent enough to overwhelm his own lust, cherished this psalm until the day he departed to meet the One whose love inspired it.
As he lay dying he had it inscribed on the wall above his sickbed. Day in and day out he had found sublime comfort in the very words that most challenged him. May we all do the same. Amen.