The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/21/07
Text: Psalm 51:1-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

You are driving down highway 62 in the dead of winter and you see a patch of ice coming up.(1) You grip the wheel and think back to Driver's Ed and what Mr. Whatshisname taught you about curve negotiation and threshold braking. You hit the ice and go into a slight spin. Okay. Do you hit the brakes or not? Do you turn the wheel toward the skid or against it? Too late. You are into the guardrail and the front end of your car looks like overcooked rigatoni.

Maybe it was not your driving. Those new expensive snow tires failed to grip the road as they were supposed to. Maybe if that dang cell phone had not rung. And what about the PennDOT crews? How about some more sand or salt brine on the roads?

The insurance company is going to hang you out to dry. Right?

So when you go to your mailbox a few weeks later, you are expecting a letter from your friendly policy-writer, and when you open it you are expecting that there is going to be a hefty increase in your premium. Only there's not. The letter inexplicably says something like: "Gee, sorry you had an accident. Well, they do happen. Not to worry. We are keeping your premium the same. Just be more careful next time."

Say what? Good news? You bet.

That is exactly what some auto insurance companies are doing these days. It is called "accident forgiveness" and it is the hottest marketing tool in the industry. If you have a new policy or a clean driving record for an extended period before any "at-fault" accident (meaning that you hit someone or something and not vice versa), that fender bender probably will not cost you a big hit on your insurance bill. As far as they are concerned, it never least, this once.

Accidents do happen out there on the road and we do need insurance. It is the law. But it is a huge relief to get forgiveness when we probably do not deserve it. If a big impersonal insurance company can offer grace, imagine what kind of grace God offers when we have a moral crash.

The story of David and Bethsheba is instructive here.(2) When King David saw Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop one afternoon, the impending collision in an adulterous affair was no mere moral fender bender. His deception, attempted cover-up and de facto murder of Bathsheba's husband Uriah are evidence that David never even touched his ethical or spiritual brakes in this situation. His lust fogged up his moral windshield to the point that he swerved out of his lane and head-on into oncoming traffic. The crash was inevitable.

It is popular these days to see sin as merely an "accident" or a "mistake" that reflects our humanity and the fact the "nobody is perfect." Biblically speaking, though, sin is more often about choice, and David's story certainly reflects that. But sin is not merely a legal violation, like speeding or running a red light. The reason sin is so destructive is that it breaks our relationship with God, and broken relationships are not fixed by simply filling out the paperwork and paying the fine. If the relationship is to be repaired, we need a change of direction.

The superscription to Psalm 51 identifies its origin with David's prayer after the prophet Nathan confronts him with his sin. Nathan has told the king a simple and homely story: of a poor man, whose beloved pet lamb is stolen by a heartless yet powerful landowner who lives nearby. The king quickly sees the injustice of the situation. He demands to know where this miserable offender can be found, so he can render justice. It is only at this point that Nathan looks the king in the eye and dramatically declares, "You are the man!"

It is as though, in that instant, the prophet holds a mirror up to his king. David looks back at him, enraged for the briefest of moments, then he sees his own image, and the magnitude of what he has done dawns on him.

What happens next demonstrates why David - despite his tragic flaws and his terrible sins - is renowned as the greatest of Israel's kings. David repents; he changes direction. Then he goes out and writes a song: Psalm 51 - "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin."

There is no denial here; no kingly cover-up; no closed-door conclave of spin doctors to discuss, in anxious whispers, how to manage damage-control. Instead, David writes a song - a hymn for the public worship of his people. The lyrics make it clear how dark is his sin and how desperate he is to receive God's forgiveness: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow."

What a refreshing change this is from what we see so often these days! There is no attempt to redefine the meaning of the word "is." No effort to exercise "plausible deniability." Once King David sees himself in Nathan's mirror - once he realizes the depth of his sin - he casts all his fortunes on God's mercy, frankly and honestly admitting what he has done.(3)

We know that insurance companies have long memories when it comes to what WE have done. But this is the difference between the "good hands" people and the hand of God: the insurance company does look at your driving record. God does not. God is no divine claims adjuster who raises the cost of our sin with each incident, but instead will "Hide [God's] face from [our] sins." They are dumped in the circular file and deleted from the database. Yes, like David, actions have consequences and we will still have to deal with those. But God promises that we will not have to carry the guilt. "Accident" forgiveness. And that is good news indeed!

The beginning of Lent is the perfect time to look at the "driving record" of our lives. And it is a time to humbly remind ourselves that if God is our co-pilot, we have God in the wrong seat. Think about that as you come to the Table. Amen!

1. From an article of the same name in Homiletics, Feb. 2007, pp. 62-64

2. Read it in II Samuel 11-12

3. James, Evans, Stan Purdum, Carlos Wilton, Hear My Voice: Preaching the Lectionary Psalms, (Lima, OH : CSS Publishing, 2006), pp. 54-55

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