16 March 2011

Homily for Evening Prayer of Lent 1

This evening's homily, "Covered by Mercy," was the first in this year's series: "Cover Up: A Lenten Series on Confession and Absolution" (co-authored by Pr. Weedon and myself). Tonight we focused on Daniel's prayer of confession for the collective sins of his people, the nation of Israel, in Daniel 9:1-19. What does Daniel's prayer teach and exemplify for us regarding Confession and Absolution, especially corporately for the whole people of God? Read on:

God says: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” (Prov. 28:13) “Yes, yes,” we say. “Sounds good,” we think. But do we live it? After all, each of us would much rather cover up our sins and hope no one will notice. That way we can appear decent, look honorable, and even seem devout to other people, or at least that person in the mirror. We are like the young boy who took his grape juice into the living room. He knew he shouldn’t, especially on the nice furniture and white carpet. But then he spilled his juice on the white carpet. After sopping it up, he chose to cover it up—move the couch over just a few inches. Better than admitting he had done wrong!

Welcome to “Cover-Up: A Lenten Series on Confession & Absolution.” This Lent we will explore how we sin, how we try to cover up our sins, and how we do better and live longer if only we will uncover our sins, if only we will confess them so that God can cover them with His absolution. You see, if we cover up our sin, it will be exposed in the End. But if we expose our sin and our sins, God graciously covers them up, and in a way that can never be uncovered.

Tonight we begin with Daniel. The people of Israel had gone into exile. For 70 years they lived with the shame of disappointing and disobeying the God who had loved them and saved them. In centuries past, God had called Abraham, had rescued them from Egypt and sent Moses to lead them through the wilderness, had brought them into the Promised Land with General Joshua leading them, and had given them kings such as Saul, David, and Solomon, along with great peace, great prosperity, and great acclaim.

But they thumbed their collective nose at God. Through the centuries they decided they knew best. They decided that they could trust themselves, their prosperity, and their crowd-pleasing worship that appealed to the unbelieving peoples around them. They decided they did not need to listen to God’s prophets calling them to repentance and confession. They thought they could do no wrong. But God sent His own people into exile in Babylon. Imagine Christians trying to live, pray and worship under the watchful eye of a communist nation such as China or the old Soviet Union, and you get the idea.

Along comes Daniel, with his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Daniel and his friends showed their faithfulness to God. They ate their own God-given diet and showed themselves more fit than others in the king’s service. They worshiped the Triune God rather than the golden image of the king. And despite being thrown into a blazing fiery furnace, they were saved by One who “is like a son of the gods”—the Son of God Himself. Daniel interpreted dreams of kings and revealed God’s saving plan for all nations. And when the king’s advisors snuck through a law that said, “Pray only to the king; only he can help and preserve you,” Daniel remained faithful to the true God in his prayer life. He prayed to God and suffered the consequence of being thrown into a lion’s den. Daniel trusted and relied on God’s goodness and mercy; and God rescued him from hungry lions.

In all of this Daniel knew something that we must learn and live: you cannot cover up sin, even the sin of a whole nation. He was stuck in Babylon not because of his sins, but because of the sins of others—sins from times long gone and a land far, far away. Their sin was now his sin, just as his sin was surely their sin.

Dear friends, your sin is my sin, and my sin is your sin. We don’t sin merely as individuals. We sin as a people, as a nation, as the whole people of God. My sins affect you and your sins affect me. When I don’t fear, love, and trust in God above all things, it rubs off on you. When you don’t call upon God’s name, pray, praise, and give thanks, neither do I. When some of us don’t listen to God in His Word, hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it, the rest of us are also hampered in hearing and believing.

So Daniel prayed to the Lord God and confessed: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but… To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you.” Daniel does not try to cover the sins of his leaders or his people. He does not try to explain them away. He simply puts them out for all to see, and he joins himself to them. “Yes, Lord, we – we all – have sinned against You.” It’s the exact opposite of what Peter tried. Jesus said, “You all will fall away.” Peter contradicted Him with a false bravado: “Though they all fall away … I will never fall away.” Let none of us say, “Though they sin, Lord, I will never sin.” Let’s learn from Daniel to confess all together and for our corporate shame.

Daniel continues: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.”  We also sin against God and the messengers He sends. They tell us we’ve sinned, but we ignore it or rally against that unwelcome news. They show us specific charges and clear evidence, but we deny and obfuscate. We even obfuscate with forgiveness assumed: “Yeah, well, that doesn’t matter. I know God forgives me.”

Daniel keeps praying: “O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us.” Our Lord does turn His anger and wrath away from His city and His holy hill, but only because He first directed it at His holy Son on that holy cross, perched on that holy hill. Jesus gave His blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Not just forgiveness for individual sins, but also corporate forgiveness for corporate sins. And by making His own Son a byword among the nations, our gracious God frees you, His people, to be accepted once again by Him.

Daniel comes to the climax of his prayer for his whole people: “Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.”  Let’s pray the same! Let’s pray and confess not only for our individual selves, but also for our whole congregation, our whole synod, and the whole Church. After all, we don’t pray, we don’t confess, and we’re not forgiven “because of our righteousness, but because of [God’s] great mercy”—mercy in His Son who goes to the cross for us. When we uncover our sins, individually and corporately, God is quick to cover those sins with His blood-bought mercy.

So we pray, with Daniel and with the psalmist: “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” (Dan. 9:19) “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (Ps. 130:7)

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