The example she set

Sermon Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint 11 September 2022: Trinity 13
Psalm 51. 1-11 & Luke 15.1-10
Preached at a time of national mourning following the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II

For many of us, on our minds and in our hearts this morning is the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and we continue to keep her family in our prayers as they grieve. We pray particularly for our King as in this time of mourning, he takes on the responsibilities of his office and duty.

Our late Queen was a person of deep personal faith, which she expressed on many public occasions. It inspired her leadership and life: a life of great devotion and commitment to the people she served. In this period of national mourning, there will be more specific times to remember, reflect and give thanks for her life.

To avoid saying what has been said or will be said, here, I would like to look at the Sunday readings, and specifically Psalm 51, as a reflection on our late Queen, on kingship, but at the same time as a reflection on how we model our own lives. Because one of the great truths of Christianity is, that when we celebrate a particular life well-lived, we do this in the knowledge that we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body. In the particular, we celebrate the universal.

We read in the introduction to Psalm 51 that it was written by King David. Almost half of the Psalms are attributed to David, and some of them, including this morning’s Psalm, refer to specific episodes in the king’s life. David is celebrated as one of the great Kings of Israel, both in the Jewish and Christian tradition. After Saul, he was the second king of Israel. He was the youngest son of Jesse, tasked with looking after the sheep. After his anointment by the prophet Samuel, he joined the court of King Saul to play the lyre. One of the most famous stories about David is his victory over Goliath, the Philistine – a well-loved Sunday School story.

However, his life was not just one of heroic acts and humble service, and this morning’s Psalm is testimony to that. The Psalm was written after the prophet Nathan had visited David, after the King had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Not only that, to conceal his act, David had Uriah killed in battle, so that he could take Bathsheba, now a widow, as his lawful wife.

We read that the child born to David and Bathsheba dies after seven days, despite David’s pleas to God. However, and we may be surprised by this, after the period of mourning, they have another son, Solomon, who will succeed David as King and become known for his wisdom.

Listening to and looking at this story, we might feel it is not quite right to remember David as one of the great kings of Israel. And some might use this as a reason to criticise religion as it seems to condone and justify these kinds of behaviour. However, looking at Psalm 51 might give us an insight in what is really happening here, and the key words here are repentance and forgiveness.

The Psalm opens with David’s cry to God: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions”. These words both convey a sense of the King’s need for forgiveness, as well as God’s mercy and power to heal. 

When we look around us, particularly when we look at those in authority, we might feel that there are too many who don’t see that need for forgiveness. Who, instead of lamenting their deeds, try to justify their decisions and actions. But what happens when we look at ourselves? What is our deepest prayer when we reflect on those things we have done wrong?

When we pray deeply and truthfully, I suspect that most of us will sense, just like David, a need for forgiveness, a desire to be made clean, to hear the joy and gladness that are hidden by our sin – by the things we have done wrong. 

Here, in this Psalm, we hear that David already realises that real forgiveness can only happen when we know and accept God’s love and mercy. We cannot look at ourselves and the things we have done, unless we look at ourselves through the loving eyes of God. We can only really know our sins, if we know God’s forgiveness.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we hear that Jesus takes that even a step further. The passage we hear this morning is directly followed by the parable of the Lost Son. In Jesus, forgiveness is a given: God gives, even before we ask: God is waiting for us, not to fall down on our knees, but to accept and to live in his love.

It is precisely that knowledge and understanding that makes David one of the great Kings of Israel. Not his heroic deeds define him, but a true knowledge of his dependence on God, and his prayer to live out God’s purpose for his life. In the eleventh verse of this Psalm, David pleads with God not to be cast away from His presence: ‘do not take your holy spirit from me’. I find those words incredibly moving: please God, do not give up on me entirely.

That prayer brings us back to today. Both our late Queen and our new King expressed their belief that it is God’s purpose for them to serve their people: it is not a choice, but a commission. The choice does not lie in whether or not to take up this office, but the choice lies in how to fulfil it. Precisely this is one of the most criticised aspects of any hereditary monarchy, but to me it manifests one of the most important truths of the Christian faith: namely, that we are chosen. Not only some of us, but all of us, we are chosen and have been given a purpose.

Despite our imperfections, our frailty and our limitations, each of us has been given a purpose, which is not ours to choose. Our choice lies in how we live that purpose, and one aspect of that is what we do when we know we’ve done wrong. Do we look away, or turn away? Or do we acknowledge and accept? Do we dare to pray and believe that God’s spirit will not be taken from us, even when we have fallen short and are guilty of what we have done? Do we dare to not only accept the consequences, but also God’s forgiveness, even when others cannot forgive us?

As in the coming week we remember our late Queen, we pray that we may do so with great gratitude for the example she set before us. Not because of her heroic acts, or her perfect life, but because she was faithful to her calling throughout her life. Because she showed us an example of true commitment to her God-given purpose, and we pray that we may have the wisdom and the courage to do the same. Amen.

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