Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51 is one of seven penitential psalms; and we can hear that the word penitential is related to the word penitentiary. The author of the Psalm indeed felt like he was locked up behind the bars of his guilt as we heard, “For I know my offenses, and my sin is ever before me.” Tradition says the author was none other than King David, a king who was selected by God to rule because God looks to the heart, and David was described as one who “was after God’s own heart.” Yet in spite of one’s faith and worship of the one true God, the power of sin is real and ever close by.

David became king after the failure and fall of King Saul. We read in 2 Samuel, the ninth chapter, that David wanted to, as he put it, show the kindness of God, to any of Saul’s descendents. He was especially kind to a grandson of Saul, a man named Mephibosheth. This man was crippled and David was true to his word and said he would provide for Mephibosheth—always have a place at the King’s table.

For kings of Israel, this was the way a King was to act, never to neglect to show the mercy of God for the unfortunate. But following this story of mercy, we read of David’s intrigue to commit murder. It all started when he saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing. Now you know temptation was near. Bathsheba’s husband was a soldier named Uriah, who happened to be away fighting in a war. He was a soldier in King David’s army. Hearing that her husband was away, King David sent for her. They did not sit down for an afternoon tea, but went to bed together. After some time, she sent word to David that she was pregnant.

So now comes the time of intrigue and plotting as David tried to cover up the scandal. You can read about this in the 11th chapter of Second Samuel. David ordered his general to send Uriah home on leave, but he refused to sleep with his wife Bathsheba since he felt for his comrades in a war zone who had no opportunity for pleasure or comfort. David even got Uriah drunk, but still he would not go to his house and be with his wife. An attempt to cover up scandal and sin never works, but only causes one to dig even deeper into evil. King David wrote a letter to his general and ordered that Uriah be put in the thick of every battle so it would be certain he would be killed.

Uriah was killed and David responded with a classic example of schadenfreude:or make-believe sadness but secretly glad for someone’s misfortune. After a respectable time of grief over Uriah’s death, David sent for Bathsheba and she became one of his wives, and she gave birth to a son.  

King David thought all was taken care of, but he had just knocked down almost all the 10 commandments like a bowling ball causing a strike. He committed adultery, stole, plotted murder, coveted another man’s wife, mistreated Bathsheba and treated her like property, and abused power as King, one who was to represent God. But all of this was extremely displeasing to God, and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront the King. Nathan compared David’s dirty deeds to a rich landowner stealing the one and only lamb a poor man had.

David knew he could not hide from God and said “Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so you are justified when you speak and right in your judgment.” He was well aware of his sin against God and neighbor. Psalm 51 used three different words for what we call ‘sin’: first there is ‘sin’ which literally meant “to miss the mark’; then there was “offenses” which means ‘rebellion’,  and then ‘wickedness’ meaning literally to be bent by guilt.

The Psalmist cried out, “Indeed I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” Let us not misunderstand; the faith of Israel would never say that one is born wicked.  By such a statement King David, or a Psalm writer using David’s name, made it clear there was no excuse for his actions. He or she was speaking about the power of sin, which was far greater than his will power. Just think of David’s example in the biblical story: he just finished showing the kindness of God to one who was handicapped, assuring him of support for the rest of his life. Then he abused his power as king, thinking he could have whatever he wanted, as if the Ten Commandments did not apply to him.

On this Ash Wednesday we confess that the prayer of Psalm 51 is about us. We can be helpful and kind, but also hurtful and condemning. We break the Ten Commandments  in many ways, not only by hurtful acts, but also by hurtful inaction. And we can rebel and say I don’t care about the commandments, I’ll do what I want. We can be busy with our own goals and not realize that they may not be the same as God’s goals for life. And the breaking of God’s commandments have consequences, and we may be bent out of shape by guilt, and this guilt can rob us of peace of mind.

The Psalm does not advise defense, excuses, or exceptions. The Psalm said God doesn’t want to hear them for what the Lord desires is truth deep within us, and wisdom about our lives.  All our attempts to cover up our sin, or treat is as normal, being human, are burned to ashes by the righteous judgment of God.  Lent calls us to a time of confession and renewal. The good news is, however, that sin, rebellion, guilt are burned away, but not you and me.

The good news of this Psalm of confession and honesty is our appeal for the mercy of God. Again, this mercy from God does not mean God will lightly dismiss sin in our lives. This is to be a cleansing compassion, to “wash away our wickedness, to blot out our offenses. With relief we pray those familiar words, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me, cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”

We hear wonderful words of invitation as we begin this season of Lent, a time of confession, renewal, and growth in faith: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a troubled and broken heart, O God, you will not despise.” Troubled by sin, broken by guilt, painfully aware of just how we resist honest confession and try to blame others, yet we are not despised or rejected by God. The sign of the cross assures how much we are loved. The ashes in the shape of a cross reveal the depth of God’s love, who sent to this world Jesus who ever seeks to find us and forgive us. And we find hope in the important words that begin Lent: Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.