The Preaching of the Word

First Presbyterian Church

116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor
Ash Wednesday

February 10, 2016
“If We Confess Our Sins…”

 

Epistle Reading: I John 1: 5-10

Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 

Text: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”[1]          

 

The words of the Prayer of General Confession are old; they are classic. Century upon century, generation upon generation of English-speaking Christians have offered up to God their brokenness and shortcomings with these words. They have not been eroded by the tides of the passing years. The sentences stay sharp. The words continue to cut through layers of self-deception and false security. They slice open the veils we draw across our failures. They probe the places where we hurt and where we have hurt others.

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”


          Other traditional prayers may strike us as archaic – but these words are timeless. The day has not dawned to which they do not speak. They are appropriate to every age, every occasion, every person. The words are democratic, overcoming every distinction of class, race, gender and even religion. They express the human situation of every man and woman: saint and sinner, wise and foolish, great and small, rich and poor, young and old, married or divorced, widowed or never married, heterosexual or homosexual. The best of us and the worst of us are tied together by this prayer. If we could hear more than the words, if we could hear the inner reverberations stirred by this prayer, we might be moved to treat one anther with the gentleness and patience we all need so badly.

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

 

These words are ingeniously practical and undoubtedly fitting. Yet some people protest that Christianity teaches guilt and nurses inferiority feelings by such prayers of confession. They say Christians tame people into submission by creating a sense of guilt and sin. These accusations are pointed and certainly ours would be a sick religion if all we were doing were merely looking at ourselves and deciding we are miserable. Ash Wednesday ushers us into Lent, a season of repentance and repair and restoration. But Lent does not summon us simply to examine our lives; rather Lent calls upon us to examine our lives in the light of God and God’s hope for us!

“This is the message we have heard,”[2] says John and this is the message we “proclaim to you, that God is light and in God is no darkness at all.”[3] God is light, and in God’s light our own lives are illumined, and we see clearly, perhaps for the first time. “If we say we have fellowship with God,”[4] John goes on to explain, “while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”[5] To begin to know God is to know something also about ourselves. John Calvin began his Institutes with this theme: “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”[6]

For the prophet Isaiah an experience of God came to him in the sanctuary of God: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”[7] Isaiah heard the hosts of heaven singing God’s praise, but he could do nothing but exclaim, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”[8] When we come to know God even slightly we know also how much in us is unlike God. When we glimpse even for an instant what God hopes of us, what can we do but say something like:

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

 

We come to this service of worship on Ash Wednesday seeking words like these because we have been here before and spoken other words. When we were young we were brought to Sunday School and taught the words, “Jesus loves me! This I know.”[9] But if we knew, we forgot. At times we misplaced that vision of someone who loved us unconditionally.

We stood in the midst of the congregation and announced that we wanted to follow Jesus, to be his disciple, that our trust was in Christ. And now, to think back on that moment – the hopes, the promises – is that a cock crowing we hear?

We faced each other, hand in hand and with our hearts in our throats, said “before God and these witnesses” promising to love and cherish “in plenty and want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”[10]  And as long as we shall live, and as long as there are people willing to make daring promises like those, we shall also seek out words with which to ask forgiveness.

One day we came to worship with our love and hopes wrapped in a soft blanket and white gown and promised to love and protect this child, to teach her of God’s great love, to be an example to him of Christian grace. Is there a parent in this room who has stood in a darkened doorway to watch a sleeping child and not thought something like:

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

 

          The words are troubling. This is not the way we usually talk. This is not the way we usually think about ourselves. “We are only human,” we say, as if we were brushing lint off the sleeve of a suit; “I do the best I can,” smoothing the wrinkles in a skirt. But the words of the Prayer of General Confession remind us that by no means do we do the best we can.

The words are disturbing. So disturbing that many people avoid Ash Wednesday on their calendars. Some churches have omitted the corporate prayer of confession from their worship services. They say it’s negative, better to think positively. But how are we going to think well of ourselves until we have come to terms with the simple, honest fact that much of what we do and have done is negative – and we know it? How can we explore the possibilities of who we may yet become until we have looked at who we are? Much as we should like to avoid it,

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

 

John’s words also encourage us: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[11] To say, “We deceive ourselves,” may not sound all that momentous. But in the vocabulary of John’s community of faith, “deception” is serious. Deception is the opposite of truth. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”[12] says Jesus in John’s gospel. The truth frees, but deception enslaves. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”[13]

 But there is a way to truth: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[14] The way forward does not consist merely in turning our backs on what we have done and left undone but begins with a solemn accounting:

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

 

With these words we begin to take ourselves seriously. We stand before God as women and men. To confess our sins is to take responsibility for ourselves, refusing all those self-deceptive comforts that suggest we really aren’t responsible for what we do. We strip away the cozy illusion that we are only passive victims. Standing before God who is Truth we come to know the difference between saying, “mistakes were made,” and “I made a mistakes!”

In the garden of Eden the man and the woman hid themselves in their shame, and when God finally called them out for an accounting it was the man who said, “It wasn’t me, Lord; it was the woman whom you gave to be with me.”[15] Seeing the finger pointed at her, the woman was quick to reply, “It wasn’t me, Lord; the serpent tricked me.”[16] Here on Ash Wednesday, we come out of hiding to announce, “It was me, Lord; I have made mistakes!” – no evasions, no finger pointing, no shifting the blame. We declare,

 

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

 

Because of what they had done and because of what they had left undone, the man and the woman were cast out of the garden. They could not go back to make things different. They could not go back to the beginning to make repairs. They could only go forward into a world of hard choices and difficult decisions.

Remembering this story, the Hasidic rabbis of Eastern Europe told that God, seeing the brokenness of creation, and man and woman leaving the garden, bent down and whispered to them a secret. God did not share with them the secret of how to begin. The mystery of how life begins is God’s alone to know. God alone is the giver of life. God did not share the mystery of how to begin, but God whispered to the man and the woman the secret of how to begin again!

Now you won’t find that story in the early chapters of Genesis. Indeed, you won’t find that particular story anywhere in the Bible. And yet the whole Bible is animated by that secret. In John’s first letter, he declares: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[17] The good news tonight is hearing the mercy of God’s grace and to know we are freed to begin again!

Thanks be to the Triune God: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

[1] Book of Common Worship, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press (1993), p. 87

[2] I John 1:5a

[3] I John 1:5b

[4] I John 1: 6a

[5] I John 1:6b

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press   (1960), p. 37

[7] Isaiah 6:1b

[8] Isaiah 6:7b

[9] Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press (2013), no. 188

[10] Book of Common Worship, p. 845

[11] I John 1:8-9

[12] John 8:32

[13] I John 1:8

[14] I John 1:9

[15] Genesis 3:12

[16] Genesis 3:13b

[17] I John 1:9