A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Jeremiah 19:1-11; Psalm 51

In the name of God, creating , redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

Last Sunday morning we read from the 18th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. We found there an image of God as a potter. God was seen as one who reworks, reforms, restores, when things are going wrong with God’s creation. We found ourselves wondering what we would like to have reworked on the potter’s wheel. If there was anything in our own life, in the life of our community, in the life of the world we would like to have God help us start again? If, when we next pray the prayer of confession, we might have the image of this potter in mind.

This evening’s reading from the 19th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah also makes use of the image of a potter but, this time, the situation is starker. This time we hear of a potter’s earthenware jug; this time the jug is to be broken for there is no hope for the jug. The prophet speaks:

 Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. (Jeremiah 19:10-11)

This jug can never be mended. This people, this city, who have betrayed God by worshipping other gods, can never be mended, either. What are we to make of this pronouncement? Can we relate to a story of God completely giving up on God’s people, threatening to break God’s people?

It is fortunate that we have the verses of this evening’s psalm, Psalm 51, to place alongside this fierce judgment of God upon God’s people. We heard our choir sing verses 10 to 19 of Psalm 51, the second movement of the psalm, if you like, but we will spend a little time reflecting on the whole psalm. The story is told that King David wrote the words of this psalm, Psalm 51, as he begged the forgiveness of God for a terrible sin. David coveted and took for himself Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and, in order to keep Bathsheba for himself, he arranged that Uriah be placed “in the forefront of the hardest fighting … so that he might be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). David broke the Ten Commandments, the law given by God to help the Israelite people live well with God and with one another. David committed a terrible sin. That is the context of Psalm 51. Terrible sin.

I am indebted to the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann for his insights on this psalm. The psalm is in two parts – “an extended confession of sin and an anticipation of new life grounded in diving forgiveness,”[1] Brueggemann writes. The psalm opens:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)

The psalmist speaks to a God whose character he knows. God is a God of mercy, of lovingkindness, of tender mercy, in fact. The context of this confession is the presence of this utterly reliable God. The psalmist is also deeply aware of his own character.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (v2) He prays.

The psalmist is a person of transgression, iniquity and sin.

Brueggeman writes that, as the psalm goes on, “The speaker is fully conscious of the self, but the speaker also knows that this self stands inescapably before God. It is life before God that creates an awareness of sin that eventually leads to hope for life beyond sin.”[2] Standing before God, we confess our sin, know it and speak it aloud, and only there is forgiveness found.

Behold, [the psalmist continues], thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. (v6)

God desires truth and wisdom. Knowing that before God one can speak the truth of our sin and our longing for forgiveness, is the wisdom that is hidden within us.

And then we move to the second part of the psalm, the part we heard our choir sing tonight.

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.


The psalmist speaks in hope almost commanding God to act: create, renew, cast not, take not, restore, uphold … The psalmist believes in a God who can act in the place of sin, who can bring healing through confession. The section begins with the word “create” and that word would take us back to the first chapter of the first book of Genesis.

Brueggemann writes:

“In employing the term create, [the psalmist] expresses his persuasion that nothing less than a miracle could effect his reformation, and emphatically declares that repentance is a gift of God …”[3]

The one who has sinned is to be given a new heart and a right spirit. And then, … what does this newly created life look like?

 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation (v12) … so there is a life of joy.

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee. (v13)

The psalmist promises God that he will teach others, lead others in the way of God, this God of mercy, of lovingkindness, of tender mercy. The psalmist promises God that he will invite others into a life lived where standing before God one might know and confess their sins and find there created a clean heart and a right spirit.

Finally, this new life is a life of praise.

And we hear in the fifteenth verse of Psalm 51, the words we sing at Evensong each Sunday night:

O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

Choral Evensong, you see, is patterned on this psalm – this psalm of confession of sin and an anticipation of new life grounded in divine forgiveness. Do you remember, Choral Evensong opens with the prayer of confession, this standing before God …

Dearly Beloved, does the officiant not say, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy

Words utterly in keeping with this evening’s psalm. And then, after the confession is said by the people and God’s assurance of forgiveness is spoken by the priest, that priest sings and the choir responds:

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

The opening structure of Choral Evensong is inspired by Psalm 51.

What shall we do then with the Old Testament reading that seems to point to God’s completely giving up on us at times …that writes of the breaking of God’s people like an earthenware jug might be broken when it is deemed beyond saving?

I wonder if we don’t relate to this image at times. When we despair of our own actions, perhaps, when we can see in the actions of world leaders no hope of redemption. When we simply cannot see a way out of a situation for ourselves or those we love or a place in the world that God has placed on our hearts.

Then we find ourselves gathered this Sunday night at Choral Evensong. A service patterned at least in part on Psalm 51. Where we are fully conscious of ourselves standing inescapably before God. Where, as Walter Brueggemann said, life before God that creates an awareness of sin, eventually leads to hope for life beyond sin. At Choral Evensong, we find ourselves standing with difficult readings of scripture ringing in our ears and the great struggles of our world troubling our hearts, before God who will shine a light on our sin and lead us to hope for fullness of life beyond. Life beyond, where, as our choir will do for us now, we shall sing God’s praise.

[1] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. Psalms p235.

[2] Brueggemann, p.236.

[3] Brueggemann, p237.