Week 2: You restore my soul . . . you lead me in right paths for your name’s sake . . .
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Psalm 23; Romans 12:1-2, 9-18; John 10:4, 11-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We might do well to listen to David and re-think our view of sin and forgiveness.
We’re used to thinking of our sin and God’s forgiveness in legal terms. We do wrong, and deserve punishment. God, in mercy, forgives, and takes away our punishment. This legal transaction idea has ancient roots and is one of our first, instinctive thoughts when we think of sin.
But it’s not the dominant biblical view of sin and forgiveness. It’s there in the Bible, it’s just not primary. It also doesn’t translate into human relationships, and Jesus consistently referred to our relationships as ways to understand how God is in relationship with us. Jesus said, imagine God as a father. Think of how humans parent, and know God is far above that in love and wisdom and care.
But a legal view of sin and forgiveness makes no sense in our relationships. If I do something wrong to you and ask your forgiveness, I’m not doing it to avoid punishment. You can’t send me to jail, or to hell, or even force me to take a time-out. I ask forgiveness because I’ve damaged our relationship and I’d like it to be healed. I’d like us to start on a new path together, and my sin needs to be forgiven for that to happen. And that’s actually the prominent biblical way of understanding God’s forgiveness, and it’s certainly Jesus’ way.
And, a legal view of sin and forgiveness doesn’t account for God’s pre-existing, continuous love for humanity. The love the Bible says God has is foolish, breaks all rules, and bursts the seams of any container that tries to hold it back. God’s love as we see in the Bible doesn’t care about accounting and paying debt. God’s love for humanity and the whole creation is an unstoppable force of grace for all.
Psalm 23 gives us a truer way to talk about sin and forgiveness.
David sings that the true God restores our souls and leads us on right paths for the sake of God’s name. David may not call this confession and absolution, but that’s exactly what it is.
Forgiveness for David is having your soul restored. It’s having what is broken inside you healed. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” we sing today in his confessional Psalm 51. “You restore my soul,” we sing in Psalm 23. Forgiveness as God’s healing of our very inner heart is not only consistent with the biblical witness of God’s love, it’s also consistent with the biblical witness of God’s plan for all humanity.
God created us to be loving creatures who cared for the creation, who loved God with all our heart and strength, and who loved each other fully. If forgiveness is just avoiding punishment, love of God and neighbor won’t result. What we need is a healed, restored heart and soul.
And then we get set back on the right path, the path of life. The path that leads to green pastures and still waters. The path of abundance. “You lead me in right paths for your name’s sake,” David sang. That’s the goal of forgiveness: with hearts restored, we now follow Christ on new paths that lead to hope and healing and life, not despair and brokenness and death. Paths of a transformed heart, like Paul talks about: paths of love, kindness, hope, patience, generosity, and peacemaking with all.
David’s wisdom in this psalm also is to make us the sheep of a shepherd.
A shepherd doesn’t beat her sheep if they stray, or kill them because they went the wrong way. Obviously, a shepherd doesn’t want his sheep to go places where they can be harmed, or harm others. But a good shepherd heals the sheep when they get stuck in the thorns, or willfully get into a rocky place where they’re hurt, then sets them back on the path, and leads them to pasture and water and life. David says, “that’s what God does for us.”
And if the sheep really get into trouble, the shepherd might even risk his life. Jesus says that a good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. How different that is than thinking of our sin in crime and punishment terms! This is the only way of thinking of sin and forgiveness that makes sense of the cross and what the Bible really says God does there.
God’s goal is exactly that of a good shepherd: that you love God and love neighbor and find abundant life. Why would killing you or punishing you help with that? How could making you feel horrible with shame or terrified of judgment ever lead you to love God or neighbor? No, God wants to protect you, and when you stray, when you do wrong, heal you and set you back on a good path, and lead you to life.
And if you resist that love, fight it, God will show you at the cross just how far God is willing to go to love you back home.
The Holy and Triune God is your Good Shepherd, and longs for you to find abundant life.
That’s the hope to hold when you face your sin and brokenness. When you struggle with guilt and shame. You belong to the Good Shepherd who knows you and loves you. Who wants to restore your soul, take away your shame and guilt, and lead you on the paths of life.
And all this, David says, is for the sake of God’s name. You are joined to God’s name in baptism, and that means you belong to God. God’s got a stake in you. For the sake of God’s good name, God will never let you go.
And that’s a promise worth clinging to for the rest of your life.
In the name of Jesus. Amen