Psalm 51 is the classic passage in the Bible on repentance. If you want to know how repentance thinks, what repentance says, read Psalm 51. David had committed adultery and murder. For some time he concealed it. As you know, David wrote many of the psalms, and his psalms are so honest. But when David opened his heart to evil, he became sneaky. God eventually confronted him, and David broke. He started walking in the light again. It’s obvious here in Psalm 51. David even uses the word “evil” in verse 4 to describe himself. He didn’t use soft words. He didn’t say, “I slipped up.” He said, “I have done evil in the sight of God.” And that’s when God smiled on him again. Do you use the word “evil” to describe yourself? Don’t be above it. God loves evil people, and only evil people. When we hide our sins, God drags them out into the open. When we drag our sins out into the open, God hides them behind the cross.
I love Psalm 51, because I’m evil. So are you. All of us here this morning are nice, evil people. And we believe the gospel – that God loves us so much we can start being honest about what we really are. We’re staking everything on God’s goodness to the undeserving for the sake of Christ. We see God’s goodness in verse 1:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy [or, compassion] blot out my transgressions.
What reality do we find in God, when we get real with God? We find in him, and in him alone, mercy, steadfast love and abundant compassion toward people who deserve the opposite. This is Jesus. The people who hated Jesus were the moral stalwarts. They feared he might mess with their status quo. The people who loved Jesus were the broken people. They feared they had sinned too far for God ever to love them again. But in Jesus, they found God to be tender to the broken.
The whole psalm funnels down to verse 17: “The sacrifices pleasing to God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That’s one of the great verses in all the Bible. What is it saying? God isn’t impressed with show; what attracts the heart of God is need. The Bible says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). A repentant sinner is more beautiful in the sight of God than a sinless angel, because the sinner turning to Jesus is covered with his righteousness.
Immanuel is not here for us to look better than we really are but as a safe place where we can admit our need and find in God mercy, love and compassion for us when we deserve the opposite. That’s how we get going in a new life. The grace of God is what changes us. We see that throughout Psalm 51.
But there’s one thing about Psalm 51 that surprises me. Why doesn’t the psalm end with verse 17? Why does David add verses 18-19? Verse 17 is a perfect conclusion. If verses 18 and 19 weren’t here, I wouldn’t miss them. In fact, verses 18-19 seem to stick out so awkwardly that some scholars say they were not part of the original psalm. Some say David really did end the psalm with verse 17, and it was later editors and scribes who added verses 18-19 for their own reasons. I have little patience with that way of thinking. As far as I know, there is not a single ancient manuscript that leaves verses 18-19 out. We can’t rewrite the Bible so that it doesn’t surprise us. There is always an insight awaiting us in the parts of the Bible that seem problematic. And verses 18-19 have something to say to us today.
Why does Psalm 51 end this way? It doesn’t end with verse 17, because repentance breaks us but doesn’t paralyze us. Repentance does even more than get us back on track with God personally. Repentance builds up the kingdom of God. It is the broken, walking in the light of the gospel, through whom God builds up Zion. What was Zion? Zion was the city of God, the headquarters of God’s new kingdom on earth, the epicenter of revival and renewal and life and joy and peace through the gospel. Zion was ground zero for the mercy, steadfast love and abundant compassion of God toward sinners. So, when David ran from God, it wasn’t just David that suffered. Zion suffered too. Our sins are never merely personal. They have a wider impact, wider than we think. And when David repented, Zion came alive again too. What we today call “the cause of Christ” was renewed. That’s why verses 18-19 are here. It is through repentant people that God advances his kingdom.
If you’re a sinner, if you’ve let the Lord down but you’re facing that and being honest and coming clean about that, if you know you’ve disqualified yourself but you’re hurling yourself at the mercy, love and compassion of God for you, you can serve him. You are the only kind of person who can serve him. You’re not disqualified but qualified.
But if you’re above confession of sin, you’re in a different place. If all you want to think about is your strengths and your giftedness and all you have to offer, you’ll only cause problems by your spirit of self-assurance and entitlement and big-deal-ness and pushiness. But if you feel your sins, and you see your evil, and your heart is broken before the Lord, he will use you powerfully because you understand what everyone on the face of the earth needs to understand – that there is a Savior who receives sinners and gives them their lives back and gives them strength to spread his mercies to the end of the earth. And you know that it isn’t about you at all, but only about him.
Why am I saying all this? Because I want to tell you today about something very wonderful. Your elders and deacons have been working and thinking and praying about something, and the time has come to bring it to you and ask you for your prayers and your thoughts and your input, so that together we broken people can not only repent and not only live in verse 17 but also press into verses 18-19 and together advance the cause of Christ in our time and beyond.
Immanuel Church is basically simple. It’s about Jesus Community Mission, and nothing else. We don’t allow personal agendas. Jesus Community Mission is so obviously biblical that it’s sacred. We’re not trying to reinvent Christianity. We’re trying to recapture real Christianity. And can you imagine real Christianity without Jesus, without Jesus first? The Bible says, “. . . that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18). And can you imagine real Christianity without community? Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And can you imagine real Christianity without mission? Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Jesus Community Mission is all we’re about here at Immanuel Church, because that is real Christianity. There is no other.
What do we need, and what does everyone need today? We need Jesus. Here’s how we experience him together: gospel + safety + time. A lot of gospel + a lot of safety + a lot of time.
Gospel: good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the endless power of the Holy Spirit. Multiple exposures to the gospel. Constant immersion. Wave upon wave of grace and truth in Jesus, according to the Bible.
Safety: a non-accusing environment. No finger-pointing. Only respect and sympathy and understanding, so that sinners can come clean and unburden their souls.
Time: no pressure. But a lot of space for complicated people like us to rethink our lives at a deep level. It’s when we relax, trusting in God’s patience, that we actually get traction.
This is the kind of church where people can find Jesus – a gentle environment of gospel + safety + time. It’s the only way anyone can connect with the real Jesus. Who doesn’t need that?
What else does everyone need today? Community. And that means honesty. The Bible says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Just being around people, even wonderful people, is not community. It’s when we open up to one another the real state of our hearts that we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus flows with power. We’re not here to point out each other’s failings. We’re here to point out our own failings. That is what creates community. Who doesn’t need that?
We’re building Immanuel one step at a time. We started with Jesus and Community, and God has been with us. Your elders and deacons have felt for some time that we have under-defined Mission. What we are here to do? When a military platoon goes out on a mission, they don’t wander around. They have a stated objective. They define what they are going to do. And they do nothing but that. Your elders and deacons have defined the mission of Immanuel Church – in a broad sense, looking at it from 30,000 feet. We want to explain it today and rejoice over it and ask you to join us in rejoicing over this and helping us think it through.
For us at Immanuel, here is the Mission part of Jesus Community Mission: making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. Again, this is obviously biblical. Every church on the face of the earth should be doing this, though every church will articulate it and pursue it in their own way. But what else is there, for any church, but advancing the greater glory of Jesus? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus was transfigured before some of his disciples. His true glory shone through. He became radiant. Moses and Elijah appeared with him, but only Jesus was transfigured. And Moses and Elijah faded away, leaving Jesus only. The Father’s voice came out of heaven, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). He should not be ignored. Listen to him. Let him speak into your life about his mercy, love and compassion. Let him forgive you. Let him redefine you. Let him change you. Only he can. The real Jesus is in a class all by himself as God’s beloved Son. Only he can help broken sinners by his powerful grace. Only he deserves the reverent attention of every human being on the face of the earth.
But we live in a city and in a world that ignore him. Sometimes we ignore him. That’s why it’s the penitent only who can advance his cause. And that’s what we will do, by his grace and for his glory. We are not happy that the real Jesus is still ignorable in our city and far beyond. We don’t accept that. We’re making it our church mission, and I am asking you today to make it your life mission, to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond.
Every city has a corporate awareness, a shared awareness, a general sense of what’s going on. For example, here in Nashville it’s impossible to live in this city and be unaware of country music. It’s impossible to live in this city and be unaware of the Tennessee Titans. There are a few things in our city that have broken the threshold of non-ignorability. Everything else going on in Nashville is below that threshold. That includes things both good, bad and indifferent. Below the threshold are businesses and soccer leagues and neighborhood block parties and churches – and the real Jesus. There is a lot of Jesus-talk in Nashville, but how many people in Nashville this morning are experiencing freedom from their past through Jesus? How many people in our city feel forgiven by Jesus? How many people in our city are living for Jesus as the sacred center of their entire existence? How many people are budgeting their time and money for the advance of the gospel of Jesus? How many people feel safe in community to confess their sins and be prayed for in the name of Jesus? Nashville has a lot of Jesus-talk. But is it the real Jesus? If it were, Nashville would start feeling like a Sunday morning at Immanuel Church.
If you think that’s an unrealistic ideal, I’ve seen the Lord come down and change the subject in a whole city – not that everyone turned to him, but he couldn’t be ignored. There were just too many stories of redemption popping up all over L.A. when I was a young man. You’d drive to the beach, and he was there because several hundred Christians would be having a baptism service with their guitars and their exuberance and their stories. And you’d turn on the radio and he was there, because Johnny Rivers was singing “Speak his name” and the Doobie Brothers were singing “Jesus is just alright with me.” And you’d go to a concert or a movie and he was there, because the Jesus freaks were on the streets handing out copies of the Hollywood Free Paper, a hippie evangelistic newspaper. Jesus became non-ignorable in Los Angeles and in many other cities. Don’t tell me this is unrealistic. I saw him come down in power through his people.
But what is our part in that? What is out part in the display of his glory here in our place and time? The Lord isn’t going to repeat the past. He wants to do something new. He’s already begun here at Immanuel. We have Jesus. We have Community. We all sense that the Lord is at work in a new way. But what is our part in Mission? That’s where all of us come in. I want you to know that this sacred purpose – making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond – this is not the theme of just one Sunday morning. This is our mission from now on. I wish it were the mission of every church on the face of the earth. How can it not be? This is Christianity. I want you to know that I am giving my heart to this. Every elder and deacon feels that way. Everyone on staff feels that way. We are “all in.” But we need your help. Here’s how.
So many things need to be thought through and systems need to be built and new steps need to be taken. We’re gearing up for a new era of accomplishment, for the glory of Jesus. But what is that going to look like? We need your help to define that. So, later this month and into September, in our care groups, we’re going to think it through and pray it through together. Start praying about it now, dreaming about it, talking it over. Every one of us can be involved, because this is not for spiritual high-achievers; this is for broken sinners. God’s power comes down on weak people. So, you’re the one he wants to use. What are you going to do for Jesus that just can’t be ignored? What are we going to do together that can’t be ignored? That purpose is going to take us beyond routine church life. Routine church can be ignored. And it is our mission to change that, which we means we need to change first. The more repentance the world sees in us, the more repentance we’ll see in the world. So, get ready now to think our mission through and pray it through in our care groups very soon. And the elders and deacons will gather your ideas. We can’t promise that all ideas will be implemented. But we can promise that all ideas will be taken seriously. Then we elders and deacons are going to factor your input into our own thinking, which is still very much in process. And after we leaders have benefited from your wisdom, we will revise our own thinking, and come back to you, probably in October, with a more complete plan, that we hope will blow us all away. But we need everyone pressing into these two questions: One, what am I personally going to do to advance this mission? Two, what are we together as a church going to do?
I know this mission has the smile of God all over it. It is so not about us. It is so about Jesus. What else is there? Everything outside him is so disappointing. All that he is is so satisfying. Now, as the Bible says, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).