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Psalm 38:1-10, 15-22
Psalm 38 is one of the seven penitential Psalms. You are probably much more familiar with two of the other seven, Psalm 51 because that’s where the “Create in Me a Pure Heart” song comes from, and Psalm 32 because it contains a common verse and response, I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord. And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” Like these two more well known Psalms, Psalm 38 helps us understand the struggle with guilt, and most importantly, what to do with our guilt.
Guilt is real. It is powerful. It affects both body and soul. It affects relationships and job performance. It affects everyone because everyone sins. Sin is what causes guilt. Even non-Christians, people who deny that there is such a thing as sin, still experience guilt because God created people with a conscience. The Bible tells us that God has placed eternity in the hearts of men. Our Psalm last week reminded us that because of God’s witness of himself in nature people are without excuse. God has written his law on the heart of every person. Therefore, when anyone does anything that is contrary to God’s will, they will feel guilt. Their conscience bears witness to the law of God written in their hearts accusing and condemning them.
David knew the power of guilt. In Psalm 32 he says, when I kept silent my bones wasted away as I groaned all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me.
The illustration for today depicts what David says in this Psalm about how guilt feels. Indeed, your arrows have stuck in me. Your hand has come down on me. He describes his guilt as a burden too heavy to bear. Guilt causes shooting pain. It feels like the weight of the whole would is on your shoulders, crushing you.
David realized that the guilt he felt had a negative affect on his body. He says, there is no health in my flesh… There is no wellness in my bones because of my sin… I am drooping. I am completely bent over. Even my back burns with pain. My whole body is unhealthy. Those who are burdened with guilt may develop eating problems, either never feeling hungry, or overeating. They likely have trouble sleeping. They jolt awake as their mind replays the foolishness of their sin in nightmares.
The worst thing for David, and for us, is realizing that nothing we have said or done is hidden from God. We might be able to hide things from most people, to keep some sins hidden from others, but God knows everything. David found that out when he tried to cover up his sin with Bathsheba by ordering that her husband Uriah be put in a place in battle where he was sure to die. It looked to most people like David had taken Bathsheba after Uriah died, but God knew what he had done and his conscience constantly accused him. He says, I have become numb. I am totally crushed. I groan loudly because of my anxious thoughts. My heart beats quickly. My strength leaves me. Even the light of my eyes is gone from me.
Anxious thoughts. Heart palpitations. That’s what happens when God’s law makes you conscious of your sin. It terrifies you. It makes you realize that you haven’t just made a mistake that you can correct. It makes you realize that you haven’t just hurt someone’s feelings or caused them pain. It makes you realize that you have offended the almighty and righteous God. It makes you realize that when you stand before God, and you will, he should send you off to eternal punishment because of your sin, and there is no excuse. You know that you are guilty and that’s the punishment you rightly deserve.
We call this feeling, this realization that we deserve to have God punish us for all eternity because of our sins, contrition. The Lutheran Confessions call it, “terror smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin” and the punishment we deserve.
Guilt is powerful. It affects the body and soul. It affects our relationships and our ability to function. It terrifies us. How do we get rid of it?
Unfortunately, the world’s advice seems to be “deny it.” If you believe there is no God, then there is no such thing as sin and there should not be guilt. They would say that guilt is something the church invented to control your life. Get out of the church, forget about God and you will feel better. Good luck with that.
Others try what David did, to hide their sin seeming to think that if no one knows they don’t have to feel guilty. Still others try to silence their conscience with busyness, or drugs and alcohol. But the increase in suicides and need for counseling would seem to be evidence of what we already know from Scripture. None of those things can remove guilt.
What did David learn about getting rid of his guilt? He learned to turn to the Lord. He says, Lord, all my needs lie before you. My sighs are not hidden from you… I wait for you, LORD. You will answer, O Lord my God. I declare my guilt. Do not forsake me, O LORD. My God, do not be far from me. Hurry to help me, O Lord, my salvation. In Psalm 32 he says, Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
The only thing that removes guilt is confession and absolution. David did not get relief from his guilt until, when Nathan confronted him, he confessed I have sinned against the Lord, and Nathan responded, speaking in place of the Lord, God has put away your sin.
Luther instructs us in the Ministry of the Keys and confession, that when we confess our sins and the pastor or a fellow Christian proclaims that our sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are to consider that as valid and certain as if Jesus were standing in front of us and speaking the words himself.
But how can that be? How can God just forgive me when those I have hurt haven’t? It seems too easy, shouldn’t I have to do something? Shouldn’t I have to do some penance, something to make up for my sin?
The first answer is, no matter what you do you cannot make up for your sin. You cannot unbreak what is broken. You are dead in trespasses and sins, Paul reminded us of that in our second lesson today. A dead person can’t do anything. The only way to make up for your sin is to have God give you the punishment you deserve. But God chose to give the punishment you deserve to Jesus instead. It is by grace that you are saved. God took the guilt of your sin, that burden that was too heavy for you to bear, off of you and put it on Jesus and let him bear it for you. He gave the punishment you deserve for your sins to Jesus.
In our gospel reading Jesus takes us back to the time when Israel spoke against the Lord and the Lord sent poisonous snakes into the camp. There was no cure for the bite of those snakes, just as there is no cure for the bite of Satan and no way for us to remove the guilt of our sin. But Jesus reminds Nicodemus and us what God instructed Moses to do. He told him to make a replica of the snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. God promised through Moses, if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live. How could that be? How could it be so easy? Shouldn’t the people have had to do something? No. God offered them healing from the snake bite by grace. He gave them a promise and those who trusted that promise and looked up at the bronze snake were healed.
Jesus says that the bronze snake is a picture of him. He would be lifted up too, on a cross. And there is a promise connected with him – everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Jesus was delivered over to death because of our sins, and he was raised to life because of our justification. The removal of our guilt is a gift of God, not by works, but by the promise of God connected to the cross. Jesus was the one who was hated for no reason, who was repaid evil for good so that we could be considered good, not guilty, in God’s eyes.
When we look at Jesus on the cross, we realize that forgiveness isn’t easy. It cost Jesus dearly. It cost him unjust suffering. It cost him excruciating physical pain. It cost him the suffering of hell itself.
When we look at Jesus on the cross, we realize how much he loves us. We see our guilt, the heavy burden we are unable to bear, taken off of us and put on Jesus, and we can’t help but rejoice. Our heart is light. We feel like calves let out of the stall.
When we are troubled, we go to the Lord. We wait confidently for the Lord because we know that he will answer, and that whatever his answer is, it will be the best answer possible.
We look for those opportunities for good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. We bring forth fruits of repentance. If there is a way we can fix what we have destroyed on earth we do it gladly, returning what was stolen with interest, like Zacchaeus; replacing what was broken; making apologies whether they are accepted or not. We do this, not to earn forgiveness and assuage our guilt, but because God has forgiven us and removed our guilt from us in Jesus.
When David realized that he had God’s gracious forgiveness, that God truly had forgiven the guilt of his sin, he rejoiced. He says in Psalm 51, My tongue will shout for joy about your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
With David, when you are burdened by guilt, by the weight of your sins, by the terror of the punishment you deserve, look to Jesus lifted up on the cross. See all your guilt on Jesus laid. There you will find healing and full forgiveness. There you will see the burden of your guilt removed, and you will be moved with David to declare God’s praise.