The World’s Greatest Sinner

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Psalm 51:1-10

Note: I forgot my manuscript when leaving for church on the 15th. There are likely significant differences between the sermon as it was preached and the sermon as it appears here. Thanks for reading or listening, and for visiting our website. ~Jeff

Raise your hand if you have ever seen the 1962 Timothy Carey movie “The World’s Greatest Sinner.” I’ll be stunned if there’s any hand besides mine raised. To be very kind, it’s not a good movie. It might be one of those movies that’s so bad it’s good, if you have a very low and very generous standard for good. The only reason the movie is particularly remembered today is because the soundtrack was done by a young man named Frank Zappa, who later became a rock star in his own right.

Besides being the star, Timothy Carey wrote, directed and produced the movie. I don’t want to be hard on Carey, because it’s a movie he made in bits and pieces over a period of years. Carey was working as an actor, and “The World’s Greatest Sinner” was a labor of love for him in between acting jobs and whenever he could arrange for the cast and a camera and production staff.

I’ll summarize the plot very briefly. Timothy Carey plays Clarence Hilliard, an insurance salesman. Hilliard gets fired from his job early in the movie. Hilliard’s an atheist, but after watching a rock concert that’s kind of early Elvis Presley style he gets an idea to begin preaching that humans can become immortal. He changes his name to God Hilliard, and turns himself into something of a rock-and-roll star.

As God Hilliard’s fame grows, he founds a church of sorts, funded mostly by his concerts and by conning elderly women out of their money. Later he starts a political party and seduces young women. Eventually Hilliard challenges God and asks God to demonstrate God’s power. (When you have two characters named God it can get a little confusing.) At the end of the movie God Hilliard is destroyed by an explosion or a flash of lightning or something, having lost his challenge with the true God. At least, I think that’s what happened. It’s hard to tell.

I thought of “The World’s Greatest Sinner” when I read Psalm 51 1-10. It’s a really important Psalm in the history of the church. I’m not saying there’s any part of the Bible that’s not important. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and isuseful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” All scripture is worthwhile. All scripture is important. 

This particular piece of scripture, Psalm 51, has gotten more attention over the years because of who the author is believed to be, what the background of the Psalm is, and how the Psalm itself is structured and what it says.

Who wrote Psalm 51? Traditionally the answer has been King David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. Could David himself have been the greatest sinner in the world? Maybe. It depends on who you ask I guess.

If I asked people at large who the greatest sinner in the world was throughout history, I’d probably get answers like Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao Zedong. It would probably depend on the ethnic background and age of who I asked. I know there are a lot of people who don’t have any use for a variety of our current political leaders but I can’t imagine anyone saying that any of them were the greatest sinner in the world, although I guess it’s possible.

Some people who know more history might name someone else. I looked up a list of the top 10 most murderous dictatorships in history. I like to think I know a little history, but some of these I was not aware of. Quickly, #10 is still ongoing. It’s the North Korean dictatorship starting from 1948 to now, #9 was the Ottoman Holocaust of 1913 to 1922, #8 was the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, #7 was Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar from 1829 to 1842 (that’s one I’d never heard of,) #6 was the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, #5 was the Japanese War Holocaust from 1895 to 1945, #4 was the Chinese Nationalist government, the government that Mao Zedong overthrew, from 1928 to 1946, and then #’s 3, 2, and 1 were the Nazis from 1939 to 1945, Stalin from 1922 to 1953, and Mao from 1946 to 1976.  As Stalin himself is alleged to have said, the death of one person is a tragedy and the death of thousands a statistic.

Just a side note that demonstrates how little many of us know about history. It’s amazing to me how bad it must have been in China. Two of the top four most murderous dictatorships in history were in China, back to back. I would never have listed the Chinese nationalists. It would never have occurred to me. Growing up I learned that they were the good guys. They were the ones fighting the Communists. 

Sorry for the digression. Once I started researching history’s greatest sinners I found it fascinating and horrifying all at once. Anyway, that’s a pretty good list. What if we confine our consideration to the Bible? Who’s the greatest sinner in the Bible? 

I still don’t think many people are going to name David. Maybe Judas, since he betrayed Christ. Maybe King Herod, who had all the males two and under in his kingdom killed in hopes of killing baby Jesus. There were many massacres in the Old Testament – maybe one of those people.

We don’t usually think of King David when we think of the Bible’s great sinners. We think of him as the greatest king of Israel. We think of him as the shepherd boy who became king. We may think of him as the guy who killed Goliath. We may think of the great friendship and love between David and Jonathan, or of how David played music to soothe King Saul and then Saul later turning against him and trying to kill him. We may even think of one of David’s sins – the sin that this Psalm has traditionally been considered to be confession and repentance for: David’s lusting after Bathsheba and arranging for her husband’s death so that he could have her.

It’s bad enough that David wanted Bathsheba when he saw her bathing, but that’s understandable. It’s how our bodies work sometimes. It’s worse, of course, that he immediately sent for her, slept with her, and impregnated her. It’s worse yet that in order to cover up for his sin, David orders an attack on an enemy by Uriah’s company, known as David’s mighty men, and then orders the rest of the mighty men to withdraw so that Uriah will be killed. And none of that includes anyone else who may have been wounded or killed besides Uriah in this phony attack, nor whatever damage and loss of life it might have caused among enemy troops or David’s own army later on because resources and time were wasted to set up Uriah.

Having said all of that, David was probably not the greatest sinner in the world either. We’ll come back to that. All of it does, though, help to explain why this Psalm has become so influential over the years. It’s written by King David. It’s written as a direct response to one of David’s most shameful acts. And it provides an outline for what confession and repentance look like.

This Psalm has been important for a long time. A Jewish midrash, or interpretation, from the 11th century uses Psalm 51 as an example of what happens to sinners who do and do not confess and repent. The Talmud cites verse 5, “My sin is always before me” to remind us to always be vigilant about repeating our sins, especially those for which we have confessed. Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria in the 300s. He recommended some of his disciples recite this psalm every night. The great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon said this Psalm was “The Sinner’s Guide” as David’s recognition of his sin, his confession, and his repentance were a model for others who have sinned who wish to return to God’s grace. The theologian Dr. James Boice said that both Thomas More and Lady Jane Gray recited this psalm at their executions. It’s an important Psalm historically and theologically.

I said I would come back to the question of whether David was the greatest sinner in the world. Even though I don’t think he is, there’s something in this Psalm that made me think of that movie when I first noticed it. That’s the first part of verse 4, where David says to God “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned…” Is that right? Didn’t David sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, whether or not they ever knew it? Didn’t he sin against the other men who might have been injured or died in the phony attack he ordered for Uriah? Is David lying to God as he makes the confession, and if so wouldn’t that put you up there on a list of the greatest sinners in the world? Or has David just forgotten about all the people he wounded, all the people he killed, all the people that he sinned against?

I don’t think David’s lying, and I don’t think he’s forgotten. I think David realizes something that we sometimes forget. David can’t apologize to Uriah. That’s impossible. We don’t know if he confessed to Bathsheba or not, although given everything that happened later in his life and given the existence of this Psalm and its probable use in David’s time I’m willing to assume that he did. 

What David is recognizing is that when we sin against each other, we are sinning against God. And we do that all the time. It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as peeping on someone else taking a bath, seducing them, and killing their spouse. We sin against other people all the time. People who are created in the image of God. People for whom Jesus died. People whose lives we are aware of and people in places far away whose names we cannot know. We sin against all of them, and when we do we sin against God.

The same is true with nature. I don’t have a romanticized view of nature. Animals exploit and torture and kill other animals. Plants kill other plants. I don’t know if plants have an awareness of that or not, but I know it happens. Even given that we misuse nature every day. We can’t help it. We can try to minimize our footprint, we can try to mitigate the damage, but we damage creation in some way just be waking up each morning, and driving on roads, or using air conditioning, or any one of a million other things. When we sin against God’s creation, we sin against God.                        

Who’s the greatest sinner in the world? I doubt that it was King David, or King Herod. I doubt that it was Judas. I doubt that it was Hitler or Stalin or Mao. If I have to pick, I guess I think it’s a tie. It’s a tie between Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and me. And you. And everyone else. 

And all of those sins, whether they’re against people or nature, all of those sins are sins against God. Sins that we need to confess. Sins of which we need to repent.

David did not live the rest of his life free from sin.  No one can. But his sin was ever before him. He learned from it, confessed it, and tried to turn away from it. He tried to do better. David may not have been the world’s greatest sinner, but he wrote one of the world’s greatest prayers about sin. And that’s pretty great on its own.  Amen.

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