Labor Day is the ultimate American holiday, isn’t it? We get Monday off – and who doesn’t hate Mondays? We get a long weekend, and who doesn’t love weekends? And unlike other holidays, we aren’t obligated to give the credit and honor to something or someone else – it’s not a celebration of those who have died in service to our country or a president’s birthday. In fact, that may be what we like best about this holiday. What does it celebrate? The American worker. We get to celebrate our favorite people in the world: us! Surely we have earned and deserved a long weekend and a Monday off of work. But even though it is Labor Day weekend, we are gathered in God’s House today not to celebrate something we have earned and deserve – but something we have not earned and do not deserve, and yet, something we need far more than a day off of work: the forgiveness of sins. Today we will see why we need it, how God grants it, and how we receive it.
The author of Psalm 130 was drowning in the depths of despair. He was wallowing in hopelessness and fully recognized that he was helpless to help himself. In contrast to many who seek to strike a bargain with God or ask only for the strength to help themselves out of trouble – all this author could ask was that God hear him: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. Why is he feeling this way? If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? Everyone knows that all is not right in this life – not only in the world out there but right in here: in our own hearts and minds. We may give it all sorts of different labels – despair, shame, discontentment, depression – but what we are really feeling is the guilt that is the result of our sins. Guilt is more than just a feeling. The Hebrew word translated “sins” literally means “deeds which incur guilt.” Guilt is a liability, an obligation. It is a debt that must be paid. And the debt that any and every sin incurs is death. (Romans 6:23) Because there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23), everyone feels this guilt. Because guilt is universal so are the attempts to find solutions to make the guilt go away. One common solution goes like this: it’s when you break the rules, break the law that you incur a debt and feel guilt – so, if you just get rid of the rules you can get rid of the source of your guilt, right?
Let’s use a modern example to test this theory. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws forbidding gay marriage are unconstitutional – giving gay couples throughout the country the civil right to marry. A segment of society had seemingly succeeded in getting God’s will declared unconstitutional. They hoped that by removing a law from the books the guilt would be removed from their hearts. Did it work? Numerous studies have shown  that LGBTQ individuals are more likely to report high levels of depression, more likely to have attempted suicide, and are more likely to use illegal drugs than the rest of the population. You might be able to convince the Supreme Court that God’s will is unconstitutional – but you can’t remove the guilt that sins against the 6th commandment incur. That’s just one example of the real, root problem: we know something is wrong but we misidentify the cause – and so we will never find the solution.
That’s why we need Psalms like this one to wake us up to the truth. This psalm has a long and prominent history in Christianity. Its nickname is “De Profundis” – a Latin phrase that means “out of the depths” (from verse 1). In contrast to the Oprah’s and Dr. Phil’s of the world – who argue that the problem is out there and the solution is within us; through His Word, God leads us to see that the problem isn’t out there and the solution isn’t in here; the problem is in here and the solution must lie outside of us. What the world needs today more than anything else is an accurate understanding of sin – that’s it’s not something that can be removed by Supreme Court decision or executive order or any number of good works. And it does appear that God is leading the world, as it faces the consequences of its own contradictory and self-destructive delusions, to think more seriously about it. If we really want to serve the world, we need to be ready with answers from God’s Word when the world comes crawling to us wondering why their solutions to guilt don’t work – so that we can then lead them to the one, truly effective cure.
But it’s not just the world that needs Psalms like this one. We, the Church, need it too. We need it to lead us to a deeper consciousness of our sin. We need to be jarred out of our easy-going complacency that takes forgiveness for granted, that treats absolution and Communion as something I can take a vacation from in the summer; that figures the Church ought to be doing something more productive than administering Baptism and Communion. We need to see ourselves as God sees us – not in comparison to others, not according to the measure of our nation’s laws – but measured against God’s demand to be perfect. (Matthew 5:48) We need to remember that we are saints in God’s eyes but we still sin daily; so that the guilt that we feel is real. God really is angry at us for our sins. He is serious about his threat to punish sinners in hell forever. Because only when we fully recognize how broken and helpless our condition is will we thirst and hunger for the cure.
What is that cure? Human ingenuity is great – and our ability as a race to do and invent all sorts of things to better and extend life is amazing. But all human skill and ingenuity have failed to provide a cure for sin and guilt. Some exert themselves to the breaking point trying to do enough good to make up for the evil they have done – but no amount of good can remove one ounce of bad. Others try to distract themselves from their guilt with busy, active lives or try to drown it in substances – but when the weekend is over, when morning comes, the guilt remains. Luther and his fellow monks starved themselves, beat themselves, slept on cold stone floors and prayed for days on end hoping to atone for their sins – and yet Luther could find no peace for his conscience.  The world has prescribed therapy sessions and therapy dogs, diet and exercise, stimulants and depressants and everything in between to remove guilt and make you feel better – but none of it works. Because there is only one cure for sin: forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? There was once a little boy who asked his mother to explain how God can forgive sins. She responded by asking him to bring her his etch-a-sketch that she knew he had been playing with the day before. Finding nothing on it, she asked her son what had happened to the writing. He explained that he had flicked the switch to wipe it clean. “But where is the writing?” she asked. “I don’t know,” replied the boy, “I wiped it out, it is gone.” Perhaps that’s all that can be said – as far as our real understanding goes – concerning forgiveness.  We confess to believe it, not understand it. It is a truth to be accepted because God says it, not because we can see it, feel it, or prove it. But of the fact that with [God] there is forgiveness, there can be no doubt. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. (Psalm 103:12) I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34) If you feel the weight and guilt of your sin, don’t turn to yourself, or your works; don’t look to therapy or prescriptions or substances; don’t compare yourself to others or lobby for the Supreme Court to declare God’s will unconstitutional. Look to the only one who has the cure for sin and guilt: our gracious God.
But the fact that God forgives still doesn’t answer the question: how? Unfortunately, many believe and teach today that God is kind of like a lazy old man who doesn’t really mean what he says; that he kind of just winks and nods and “poof” your sins are gone. This is a bloodless, Christless, crossless, false form of Christianity. Where this false gospel is proclaimed the cross is replaced with a movie screen and the altar and baptismal font (where forgiveness is objectively distributed) is replaced with a praise band (to make you feel good). But the Bible is clear, God does not just turn a blind eye to sin; he must punish it. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. (Isaiah 13:11) God’s demand for justice had to be satisfied – or else he would not be God. But because the God of justice is also the God of love (1 John 4:16), he found a way. God sent his only Son, Jesus, to take our place, to be our substitute, to pay our debt, to suffer the punishment we deserved with his own suffering and death. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) Jesus was the atoning sacrifice – the payment price – for our sins. God is a forgiving God, that is true – but he could only forgive us if someone else suffered the punishment we deserved. Therefore, in Christ and his cross, both God’s justice and his love are found. He got the justice we deserved. We get the love he deserved. That is how a holy and just God grants us forgiveness.
The final question is: how do we receive forgiveness? God loved the world (John 3:16), Jesus paid for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), God wants all the world to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and, as Paul said, all have been justified freely by his grace. (Romans 3:24) And yet Scripture is equally clear that not all people will receive the forgiveness Jesus won and therefore not all will be saved. (Mark 16:16) Now, you might expect that now is when we are told what we must do to achieve forgiveness. You would be wrong. The Apostles’ Creed is all about what God does for us – and that’s true even here. In order for us to receive forgiveness, the Holy Spirit must do three things for us and in us.
First, he must show us our need. The person who doesn’t know he is sick will never seek out a cure. We must be convicted by God’s Law so that we know what sin is and that according to it, we are sinners. It doesn’t do us any good to say “All people are sinners.” We must be brought by God to acknowledge “I am a sinner.” Once we are aware of our sin, God both invites and commands us to confess it. (1 John 1:9; James 5:16) As we’ve stated before, this is difficult for proud humans like us. But there’s no other way. King David tried to do it. He tried to swallow and stifle and pen up his sin in his heart – but it only made things worse. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me. (Psalm 32:3-4) Pride sealed David’s lips; but as long as he kept quiet he could find no peace, because there can be no forgiveness apart from confession of sin.  But that all changed when David confessed the truth: then I acknowledged my sin to you…I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)
We must know our sins and confess them – but that’s only half the story. The Holy Spirit must also lead us to believe that God is truly willing and able to forgive us. Faith, and faith alone, receives forgiveness. With Paul we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) We are justified – we receive the forgiveness Jesus won for us – by faith alone. But faith is not a good work that we do to merit forgiveness, it is merely a hand that grasps the forgiveness God gives. Faith is never a blind leap – faith always clings to something objective and concrete. So where can we find concrete, objective proof that we are forgiven? Not through prayer, mystically, or through our feelings but in Absolution, in Baptism, in Holy Communion. Thank God for giving us such sure and objective assurance that our sins are forgiven. You don’t have to feel it, see it, earn it or sense it – all you can do is hear it, receive it, and believe it. So don’t skip too quickly over this article next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed – instead, understand your desperate need for forgiveness, trust that God is willing to forgive you, and believe that Jesus has purchased your forgiveness with his blood. Amen.
 LW 27:13
 The Hebrew term for forgiveness in Psalm 130:4, salah, is used in Scripture only of God – never does this word refer to people forgiving each other. The very terminology seems to say that we cannot really understand God’s forgiveness of our sins.
 This is still a very common problem: people wanting forgiveness without a confession of sin. People want their lifestyle affirmed, their guilt taken away without admitting that what they are doing is sinful. And liberal churches give them the false assurance that they have it. This is a terrible abuse of the Gospel and offers nothing but a false security to sinners.