Sunday March 1st 2020 — First Sunday of Lent
Pastor Galen Zook
Selah: Life in a Minor Key
Today we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent entitled “Selah: Life in a Minor Key,” where for the next five weeks we will focus on the Psalms in our lectionary readings.
The book of Psalms was the “United Methodist Hymnal” of the Israelite people — it was their collection of poems and songs that were composed and compiled over the course of hundreds of 500 years, ranging from the time of King David through the end of the Babylonian exile.
Some of the songs were composed by the Temple musicians known as the Korahites. Others were written by King David himself, and still others were written by anonymous individuals – perhaps farmers and shepherds, construction workers, homemakers, soldiers, or servants.
The Psalms are a sort of music of the soul. Many of the songs express deep and heartfelt emotion. Some extol the glorious nature of God, others are cries of anguish or lament written during times of suffering. Some of the Psalms were like the African American spirituals that we have in our hymnal — written by an oppressed people who were longing to be set free but who had a deep faith and trust that one day God would deliver them.
Interspersed throughout the Psalms are certain musical notations whose meaning has unfortunately been lost to us. One such term is selah – which was most likely a technical musical term that may have indicated a break in the text or performance or perhaps a cue for the choir to repeat a litany. Or it may have been an instruction for a certain musical instrument — such as a drum or cymbal — to emphasize a word or phrase.
For our purposes, let us hear the term selah as an invitation to pause and reflect on God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, an invitation to recommit ourselves to following Jesus wholeheartedly during this Lenten season and beyond.
This morning we begin with Psalm 32, a psalm of David, in which King David describes the agony of unconfessed sin, and extols the virtues and blessings of having our sins forgiven. Ultimately, David leads us to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness and mercy towards us and to proclaim it to those around us.
Raise Your Hand if You’ve Been Difficult to Live With
The story is told of a massive prayer meeting that took place during the American Great Awakening of the mid 18th century. Over 800 men had gathered together to pray, with the famous revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards presiding over the meeting.
During the meeting, a woman sent a message asking the men to pray for her husband, who she said had become unloving, prideful, and difficult to live with.
Edwards read the note in private and then, thinking that perhaps the man described was present, decided to read the note to the 800 men and ask if the man who had been described would raise his hand so that the whole assembly could pray for him. Three hundred men raised their hands!
I’m not going to ask us to raise our hands this morning if we’ve ever been unloving, prideful, or difficult to live with! The reality is that many of us would probably fit at least one of those categories, and most if not all of us are probably walking around with some sort of guilt about something we’ve done or some way that we’ve treated someone in the past.
Perhaps some of us can identify with King David, who said, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah” (Psalm 32:3-4).
Perhaps some of you can remember a time when we were so wracked with guilt that you couldn’t sleep until you admitted what you had done. Like King David, it felt like God’s hand was heavy upon you, leading, prodding and cajoling you to admit what you had done, like a parent leading their child back to the store to admit to the clerk that they stole a candy bar or a stick of gum.
Of course, there are many times when we might feel tempted to push aside those feelings of guilt or remorse rather than admit the mistake that we’ve made. Rather than confess our errors, we make excuses or blame others. We rationalize away the bad things that we’ve done, comparing them to the much worse things that others have done. We work harder, to compensate for where we’ve gone astray, or we try to drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit by filling our lives with noise or activity, or indulging in excesses that numb our senses or consume our time or attention.
If we continually ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, eventually we might feel less guilt or remorse for what we’ve done. When this happens, we may think that the problem has been solved, since we no longer feel that prompting and nagging in the back of our minds. But an active conscience is not the problem — indeed our conscience is a warning light that indicates that a much deeper issue is going on.
Ignoring the Warning Lights
A number of years ago I had a car that continually had engine problems. It felt like the engine warning light was always coming on, and every time I took the car into the repair shop, the mechanic would spout off a whole list of things that needed to be fixed. Eventually I just started to ignore the engine light when it came on, because I knew I didn’t have the money to repair whatever issue the engine light was trying to alert me about anyway. I drove around with the engine light on for over a year, and eventually the engine light turned off — all by itself!
I thought that I was a genius, and had solved the problem by simply ignoring it — until I went in for my emissions test, and failed due to the fact that my engine light wasn’t working. It turns out that the engine light had been on for so long that it had burned out – so now not only did I have to fix whatever problem was wrong with the engine, but now I had to get a new engine light bulb as well! (Fortunately the light bulb was not very expensive. Unfortunately, the engine was).
Just as ignoring the warning lights on our car usually leads to larger problems down the road, ignoring the promptings to confess our moral failings can lead us to more harm and damage than if we had simply admitted and corrected our mistakes in the first place. If we continually ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can become cold, and callous. We develop hardened hearts, and eventually we may not even be able to recognize ourselves.
Let the Sun (Son) Shine In
But King David tells us in Psalm 32 that there is another way! In the form of a testimonial, King David tells us his story — that after all those sleepless nights, wracked with guilt and shame, after all those days, or weeks, or months, or perhaps even years that his body was wasting away from the knowledge of the pain and agony that he had caused, after groaning in silence, and feeling the strength of his body dry up like the heat of summer, he decided to acknowledge his sin before the Lord. He chose to no longer hide his iniquity. He confessed his transgressions to the LORD, and he says of God, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah” (Psalm 32:5).
You forgave the guilt of my sin! Selah. Pause, repeat and enunciate that last phrase! Sing it again, bang the drum: You forgave the guilt of my sin!
What a humbling, yet amazingly simple solution to David’s problem of sin! What a revolutionary way to deal with our guilty consciences — admit that we’ve done wrong! Get it all out in the open. Rather than withdrawing behind the curtains of remorse and shame, open the windows and let the light shine in. Stand openly before God and to confess our wrongdoing, and to allow God’s grace and mercy to bathe us in light.
When King David acknowledges his guilt and wrongdoing and experiences God’s forgiveness, then his mouth begins to flow forth with praise. He proclaims,
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah (Psalm 32:6-7).
And he ends the Psalm with,
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart (Psalm 32:10-11).
What a stark contrast from the man whose body had been wasting away, whose strength had “dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4). Acknowledging his sin, getting it all out there in the open, and asking for God’s forgiveness ended up being exponentially more freeing and life-giving and liberating than hiding his sin or squashing his guilty conscience, and David wanted everyone to know firsthand the grace and mercy and forgiveness that he had experienced.
Not Just for Individuals
Now, lest we think that confession and repentance applies only to us as individuals, I want to suggest that openly admitting mistakes is also a best practice for organizations, churches, businesses and institutions. Missteps covered up by organizations are usually uncovered anyway, often causing the institution to fall apart. On the other hand, openly admitting the failings of the organization can often lead to new life and new possibilities.
When Howard Schultz resigned from Starbucks in 2000, the coffee chain was experiencing steady growth. Eight years later, when Starbucks was reeling from a bad economy and stiff competition, Schultz resumed his role as Starbucks’ chief executive. He faced a challenging mission: to lead a turnaround. In an interview about his return in Harvard Business Review, Schultz commented that before the company could move forward, they had to deal with the past by honestly admitting their mistakes.
The decisions we had to make were very difficult, but first there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession—that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families…We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point. It’s like when you have a secret and get it out: The burden is off your shoulders.
This is what this Lenten season is all about. It’s about a turning point, about getting the burden off our shoulders, about asking for God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace in our lives. It’s about drawing back the curtains of our lives, and letting the light of Christ shine into our lives, to illuminate those hidden places in our lives where we may have allowed guilt or shame to take over or control us. It’s about allowing God to bring those things out into the open, so that we can receive God’s grace and forgiveness to cleanse us of our guilt, and God’s freedom to liberate us from our shame.
Like King David, like Howard Schultz and the Starbucks company, like those 300 men in that prayer meeting during the Great Awakening, let’s acknowledge our errors and mistakes. Let us not ignore the warning lights. Let us confess our sins, and let’s open ourselves up to God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. Then we can truly “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice…and shout for joy” (Psalm 32:11) Selah!