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Confessions

A se

rmon by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.

Psalm 32:1-7; 1 John 1:5-9
Imagine that you keep a personal journal in which you write with absolute honesty about your life. You assume no one else will read this journal so you don’t hold back. You record thoughts, feelings, and actions that frankly would be very embarrassing if they ever saw the light of day. The good, the bad, and the ugly all spill out on the pages of your journal in graphic detail.

Then inexplicably your journal slips into the hands of an adversary who wants to expose you to the world and take you down. Before you even realize your journal is missing you sit down with a cup of coffee one morning to read the morning paper, only to see an exposé on your life lifted directly out of your journal splashed all over the front page of the newspaper. In a manner of hours your story is also posted on the
Internet for all the world to see and you feel utterly humiliated, as though you just used the entire world as your confessional.

For most of us this would be a nightmare come true, which is why we have a very hard time understanding why anyone would deliberately write a book of confessions and share it with the world. But that’s essentially what the Catholic Church father and Saint Augustine chose to do roughly 1700 years ago.

Augustine was born in North Africa, and lived from 354 to 430 A.D. Augustine’s father was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, a devout Catholic Christian who prayed for her wayward son most of her life. Finally, after 30+ years of reckless and riotous living, Augustine became a Christian just before his grateful mother died.

But the story didn’t end there. Augustine entered the priesthood, and because of his remarkable talents, was eventually named Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and served 34 years in that post until his death. By the time Augustine died, he had become an accomplished speaker and author, and many would say the premier religious leader of the western world, influencing generations of both Catholics and Protestants until the present day. More than most Protestants realize, their views of salvation, grace, sex, and original sin are derived directly or indirectly from Augustine.

Augustine is known for many accomplishments, but none more than his monumental, 13-volume autobiography entitled, Confessions. Also called The Confessions of St. Augustine, this book was the first of its kind in history—no one had ever written an autobiography period, much less one that plumbed the psychological and spiritual depths of one man’s life and thought the way Confessions did. For the
next 1,000 years, Confessions was the most read book in the world except the bible, and the most common manual of the spiritual life for Christians (all of whom, of course, were Catholic). Sadly, few Protestants are familiar with this book that has unique significance in Christian history.

It helps to understand that Augustine uses the word, “confession” in no less than three ways. Confession can mean admitting one’s sins, which Augustine does with gusto as he recounts his life in the first nine volumes of the book. Confession also refers to a statement of belief, and this sense of the word is included in his detailed account of how he arrived at his Christian beliefs and his knowledge of God, reflected more fully in the last four volumes of the book. Confession can also refer to an expression of praise, and Augustine offers constant praise to God throughout the book for mercifully directing his path and freeing him from his misery and error.

The book in a sense is one extended prayer of confession, based on the psalms of David. It begins with those famous words, “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised…you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

This is no platitude for Augustine, because he has tried to satisfy his restless heart in many ways other than God. Apparently, Augustine has quite a sexual appetite, and when he is 17 years old he moves in with a woman and lives with her out of wedlock for almost 14 years. Another of the famous quotes from  Confessions is Augustine’s adolescent prayer, “Give me chastity and continence, Lord, but not yet.” Though he would never marry, Augustine would share his bed with a number of women until he entered a life of chastity.

Augustine also confesses to theft, caving in to negative peer pressure, intellectual pride, and being misled by multiple pagan philosophies. But over time his sexual escapades, his success as an academic, and other worldly pursuits leave him so dissatisfied that he decides to explore the Christian faith once again. After
considerable struggle, he eventually gives his life to Christ, and consequently feels led to confess his life of sin and ultimate conversion to the world.

Perhaps no passage from Confessions captures our attention like that included in our bulletin today. It resonates in the soul of every person who has looked for love in all the wrong places, only to discover love at it’s best in God.

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in my breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

Now here’s another little-known fact about Augustine that fascinates me— his favorite psalm was Psalm 32. Tradition says that Augustine was so drawn to this psalm that he had it inscribed in the wall over his bed. And near the end of his life, Augustine added the other six so-called “penitential psalms” to the walls of his
bedroom, and he recited them over and over until he drew his last breath.

As much was we laud Augustine for his Confessions, we have to acknowledge that he didn’t invent the art form of public confession. Interestingly enough, Jesus did not use this form because he had no sin to confess. But the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, and King David in the Old Testament are another matter. They also go public with their confessions.

David, like Augustine, has plenty to confess. He’s engaged in sexual sin of his own, and on top of that plotted murder to cover up his sin. In Psalm 51, the most famous of all the penitential psalms, David confesses his sin before God and all the world. This wasn’t David’s first impulse, of course. David carefully hid and covered up his sin…until a prophet named Nathan exposed him. Once David could hide no
more, he confessed his sin before God, and got the surprise of his life—he was not humiliated, but happy as a lark.

Psalm 32 expresses the happiness David feels because he has confessed his sin before God.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

As long as David remained silent about his transgressions, he was neither happy, nor healthy.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
My strength was dried up as by heat of the summer.

David’s cover-up of his sin almost killed him.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
And I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Here is what the likes of David, Paul, and Augustine understood that we so often miss—we are most  vulnerable and miserable when we deny and cover our sin, and most happy and healthy when we confess our sin – honestly and specifically –before God, and when necessary, before others.

We hear this same truth echoed in the New Testament.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

It turns out confession is not an avenue to humiliation but a pathway to healing, a gift from God who wants us to be healthy and happy in our souls.

God’s wisdom says “confession is good, very good for the soul.” That’s why I am inviting you, here and now, not to just hear about it, but do it.