Kyrie Elaison

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 5, 2012

Psalm 51 Life Songs: Kyrie Elaison

The Stain
John Ortberg has one of the best sermon introductions I’ve ever seen or read. Here’s his story:

Some years ago we traded in my old Volkswagon Super Beetle for our first piece of new furniture: a mauve sofa. It was roughly the shade of Pepto-Bismol, but because it represented to us a substantial investment, we thought “mauve” sounded better.

The man at the furniture store warned us not to get it when he found out we had small children. “You don’t want a mauve sofa,” he advised. “Get something the color of dirt.” But we had the naïve optimism of young parenthood. “We know how to handle our children,” we said. “Give us the mauve sofa.”

From that moment on, we all knew clearly the number one rule in the house. Don’t sit on the mauve sofa. Don’t touch the mauve sofa. Don’t play around the mauve sofa. Don’t eat on, breathe on, look at, or think about the mauve sofa. Remember the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden? “On every other chair in the house you may freely sit, but upon this sofa, the mauve sofa, you may not sit, for in the day you sit thereupon, you shall surely die.”

Then came The Fall.

One day there appeared on the mauve sofa a stain. A red stain. A red jelly stain.

So my wife, who had chosen the mauve sofa and adored it, lined up our three children in front of it: Laura, age four, and Mallory, two and a half, and Johnny, six months.

“Do you see that, children?” she asked. “That’s a stain. A red stain. A red jelly stain. The man at the sofa store says it is not coming out. Not forever. Do you know how long forever is, children? That’s how long we’re going to stand here until one of you tells me who put the stain on the mauve sofa.”

Mallory was the first to break. With trembling lips and tear-filled eyes she said, “Laura did it.” Laura passionately denied it. Then there was silence, for the longest time. No one said a word. I knew the children wouldn’t, for they had never seen their mother so upset. I knew they wouldn’t, because they knew that if they did, they would spend eternity in the time-out chair.

I knew they would, because I was the one who put the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa, and I knew I wasn’t saying anything. (The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 127-128)

The truth is: we’ve all stained the sofa. We’ve all made mistakes, did something wrong, committed sin. The question is: what do we do with our guilt when that happens?

Crushed With Guilt Well
We are in the midst of a series looking at different Psalms from the Bible. I’m calling the series Life Songs, because the Psalms are poems that deal with real life issues. A couple weeks ago we looked at a Psalm that dealt with the desperation of facing enemies. In a couple more weeks we’ll look at a Psalm that deals with disappointment with God. This week, we’re going to look at a Psalm that deals with the despair of guilt.

The point is, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t expect these things to never happen to you. If you follow Christ, there is a good chance that you will face opposition, or feel disappointment, or suffer the guilt of knowing you’ve done wrong. The Psalms recognize that these things happen. What they model for us, is how to respond when they do.

So today, we look at Psalm 51. This is, in the words of John Piper, a Psalm about “how to be crushed with guilt well.” (A Broken and Contrite Heart God Will Not Despise, June 8, 2008) We read most of the Psalm in our prayer of confession, and Alecia sang it. Now I’d like to look at some key verses with you.

“The Lord Has Put Away Your Sin”
The first thing you notice about this Psalm is the historical setting. The superscription. Right off the bat, we’re told that David wrote this Psalm after being confronted by Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba. In fact, in the original Hebrew, there’s a bit of a play on words here. The same verb is used twice. Literally, it reads: “A Psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan went to him after he went to Bathsheba.”

The story is pretty familiar. David was on the roof of his palace when he spied a beautiful woman named Bathsheba. Her husband, Uriah, was one of David’s best soldiers and he was off, fighting in a war. So David summoned Bathsheba and slept with her.

When she became pregnant, David called Uriah back from the front in the hope that he would spend time with his wife and the timing of her delivery would not look too suspicious. But Uriah was too loyal a soldier to take the comforts of home while his comrades-in-arms were still on the battlefield. So, frustrated, David gave orders for Uriah to be deployed to the hottest section of fighting and then have everybody else fall back. Uriah died, David quickly married Bathsheba, and thought he had covered his tracks.

But, in one of the most understated sentences in the Bible, 2 Samuel 11 ends with these words: “The thing that David had done displeased the LORD.” (2 Samuel 11:27) So God sent the prophet Nathan to David with a story that elicited David’s outrage. Then Nathan said, “You are the man!” and asked, “Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes?”

David breaks, and confesses: “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Then Nathan says, astonishingly, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

This is a “Wait a minute, what just happened” moment in the Bible. What David has done is bad. Real bad. Abuse of power. Sexual harassment. Rape. Then, the cover-up. The dishonesty. The conspiracy to commit murder. The baby is going to die.

And yet, Nathan says, “The Lord has taken away your sin”? How does that work? How is that right? David has “despised the word of God” and the Lord is going to let it go? What kind of righteous judge is that? You don’t just pass over rape and murder and lying.

This would be outrageous if it weren’t for the New Testament. The apostle Paul, in Romans 3:25-26, explains how God can be a righteous judge while at the same time justifying murderers and rapists and liars. Here’s what it says:

25 God presented him [that is, Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— [that’s talking about the sins of the OT, like David’s sin] 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

So, basically, the way David could be forgiven is the same way you and I can be forgiven. God peered through the passageway of time and saw Christ’s death and He was able to count it as David’s death. God is not merely sweeping David’s sin under the rug, any more than He sweeps your sin or mine under the rug. Rather, they find their righteous punishment in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

The good news of the Bible is that in Christ any sin—even sins as heinous as rape and murder--can be forgiven.

So that’s the how of David’s forgiveness. The objective reality of Christ’s atoning death explains the basis of his salvation.

But there’s still the question of what David is to think and feel about his guilt. It would not be right for David to just expect God to forgive him. He doesn’t presume God’s forgiveness here. Rather, Psalm 51 shows us that David is broken-hearted over his sin.

Romans says that the key to being justified is to have faith in Jesus. The evidence of David’s faith—though he doesn’t know the name of Jesus yet—is found in the confession of Psalm 51. And so, I think David models well for us how we should feel about our own sin. I’ll put it like this: A Christian should be broken-hearted over sin. We know that in Christ we are forgiven, we know there is nothing we can do to earn that forgiveness, and yet we should never presume upon God’s forgiveness. Part of being a Christian is having your heart broken over your sin, and letting that broken-heartedness drive you again and again to the mercy of Christ.

That’s what Psalm 51 models for us. As I said, this Psalm shows us how to be crushed with guilt well. There are three things David models for us.

Lord, Have Mercy
First, cast yourself on His mercy. We must turn to God as the only hope for the remedy of our sin. Verse 1:

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

The first line, “have mercy on me, O God,” is a line we all need to know.

I pick the sermon titles well in advance of actually writing my sermons. I plot out a schedule, choose scriptures, get an idea of the main point, and then try to capture that idea in a catchy title. That way we can do a little advance advertising of upcoming messages. Sometimes, when I actually get to the week of the sermon, I realize that the title goes in a different direction than the message, and I’ll change the title from what’s been advertised.

Anyway, when I was putting the schedule together for our Psalm series, I looked at the first line of Psalm 51 and recognized a Greek phrase that the church has been using throughout its history: kyrie elaison. It means, “Lord, have mercy.”

Actually, what I thought of—and those of you who grew up on ‘80s pop music will be thinking of it right now—was a song by a band called Mr. Mister. Kyrie Elaison. So, when I picked the title, I remember thinking that maybe I could use that song as illustration or something.

But, then I got to working on the sermon this week, and I looked up the lyrics to that song. Here’s the chorus:

Kyrie Elaison down the road I must travel
Kyrie Elaison through the darkness of the night
Kyrie Elaison where I go and will you follow
Kyrie Elaison on a highway in the light.

It makes no sense. I have no idea what the point is. All I’ve done is get that song stuck in the heads of all the 35 through 45 year olds.

But that phrase, kyrie elaison, has been an important prayer of Christians from the beginning. Maybe you’ve been in a church service that has used the phrase, or had a prayer where the congregation was supposed to respond: “Lord, have mercy.” Sometimes it is sung: “Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy.”

It’s actually a shortened version of a short prayer used in the Eastern Orthodox Church called the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Many people in the Eastern Orthodox Church repeat this prayer over and over throughout their day. It’s a great prayer, because it reminds us that we are sinful, and that our only hope is the mercy of our Lord and Savior. It’s a reminder that we need to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

And that’s what David is doing in Psalm 51. He realizes that his only hope is God’s “unfailing love.” He needs God’s “great compassion.”

So he prays, in verse 2 and verse 7, for God to come and cleanse him.

2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

This is no self-help moral improvement project. David realizes that if he has any hope of being clean, God is going to have to do the scrubbing.

Or, again, verses 10-12:

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

David knows his only hope of rescue is God. Only God can take David’s hard, stony, sinful heart and replace it with a soft, living, pure heart. Only God can put a spirit of holiness within David. Only God can save.

And so, the first thing David models for us is helplessly casting ourselves on the mercy of God. Kyrie Elaison. Lord, have mercy. Needs to be our cry. We need to recognize that we will never cleanse ourselves of sin and its after-effects. We must cast ourselves on the mercy of God.

Against You Only
Then, second, David models for us the necessity of confessing the horror of your sin. We must agree with God about the seriousness of our sin. Verse 3:

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

David can’t get his sin off his mind. It’s always before him. Emblazoned on his consciousness. Like a tape that keeps looping. And the guilt hurts. According to verse 8, it’s like his bones are being crushed under the weight of his sin.

So, verse 4:

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.

David says that his sin is against God. He says: “Against you, you only, have I sinned.”

Now, that’s not to say that nobody else got hurt. Obviously, his sin hurt Bathsheba. And Uriah. And the poor little baby. And the entire nation of Israel. David’s sin against others was bad. Very bad. And I don’t think he’s trying to minimize that here.

But David’s “God-sensitive” heart realizes that the true horror of his sin is that it was against God. That he has attacked God. He has belittled God. He has despised the Word of the LORD.

We need to realize that when we sin, we’re not just hurting ourselves, not just hurting those around us—we are committing an act of treason against the Ruler of the Universe. Every sin—no matter what it is—is a shaking of our fists in defiance against God.

And so, David agrees with God that whatever judgment God chooses to impose would be righteous. There’s no self-justification. No defense. No escape. If God casts David into hell, that would be right. David would have no argument.

John Piper writes:

This is radical God-centered repentance. This is the way saved people think and feel. God would be just to damn me. And that I am still breathing is sheer mercy. And that I am forgiven is sheer blood-bought mercy. (Ibid)

Which leads to verse 5:

5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

David recognizes that he is sinful by nature. Not that the act of conception was somehow sinful. But, with every beat of his heart and every breath David has drawn, he has been a sinful person.

Again, this isn’t to make excuses. David is not using this as a way of saying that he couldn’t help it. Rather, he’s discovering something truly horrible about himself and about us. Namely: if God doesn’t intervene, our sin will only continue and get worse.

So, we must turn helplessly to the mercy of God as our only hope, recognizing the horror of our sin. We must learn to practice confession. We must specifically, concretely, and particularly name our sins. Without excuse. Without claiming mitigating circumstances. We must see our sin for the horror that it is.

Restore to Me
Then, third, David models a commitment to being changed. True repentance means a desire for things to be different. Verse 12:

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It means “a change of mind.” You might recognize a little of the English word metamorphosis there. That’s sort of the idea. Just like a caterpillar that goes into a cocoon and changes into a butterfly, David is praying that He too will be changed. He wants a change of mind, a new spirit, that will leave sin behind.

Theologians say that true repentance involves a two stage process. On the one hand, you have to turn away from your sin. See your sin for the evil that it is, confess it, and give it up. But that’s only half the process. Because in the act of turning from your sin, you have to turn to something. You have to turn towards Jesus, and towards a commitment to following and honoring Him.

Real repentance involves a 180 degree turn. Too often, we make a 360 degree turn. We confess our sin, we feel bad about it, but then we turn a complete circle and go right back to it. Instead, we need to make a half turn. Turn away from sin, and turn towards Jesus.

That’s what David is doing. Verse 13:

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you.

David is asking God to make an example out of him. He’s willing to become an evangelist. He wants his broken life to serve the healing of others. He will tell others about the mercy he has received. Verse 14 and 15:

14 Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

David will be a worshipper of God. He commits himself to singing God’s praises

Again, this isn’t David trying to fix himself. He knows that he can’t change himself. But he is truly repentant, and he is committed to letting God do a restoring work in his life.

And this model prayer of David is an example of how we should think and feel about our sin. We know that our sins our forgiven by Christ, but we should never presume on that forgiveness. Rather, Christians will be broken-hearted over sin. We will cast ourselves on God’s mercy. We will confess the horror of our sin. And we will commit ourselves to being changed.