The Ash Wednesday service at Bunker Hill was cancelled last week, we are having Ash Wednesday this week and shortening Lent by one week.
Ps. 51:1-2 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin!
How did it come about that David, King of Israel, would throw himself on the steadfast love and mercy of God? What happened that David needed three words: transgression, iniquity, and sin to describe his actions? Thus he needed three words to overcome his condition even before his birth: blot out, wash me, cleanse me.
The story begins innocently enough: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle.” But this spring the king is staying home. The one time slingshotting, swashbuckling, songwriting soldier is sitting this one out.
And then one afternoon, the old warrior is bored. He takes a stroll on his veranda. He notices a woman, a “very beautiful woman,” taking a dip in the pool next door.
The former man of action goes into action. After a few inquiries he discovers that her husband is away with the army. The king sends for Bathsheba. They have some of the king’s good wine. They make love. Then he sends her home, and that’s that.
A couple months later David receives a message. It’s two words in Hebrew, “harah anoki.” “I’m pregnant” signed, Bathsheba. Again the king acts. He brings her husband back from the front. “Go home and spent some time with your lovely wife,” he tells him. He slips the soldier a bottle of wine from the royal wine cellar. But Uriah doesn’t go home. He sleeps with the king’s servants on the lovely lawn.
The plot thickens and sickens. Uriah returns to the front with a sealed scroll containing orders for General Joab. It says, “Put Uriah in the heaviest fighting.” Soon word comes back that Uriah has been killed in action. The king reaches out to the broken-hearted war widow and marries her. Well, that’s really that. End of story. Not quite.
The author of 2nd Samuel writes a six-word message. “What David did displeased the Lord.” One day the prophet Nathan shows up at the royal palace. He tells the king of a rich man who had flocks and herds that covered the hillside pastures. Nevertheless, he stole his poor neighbor’s only lamb and slaughtered it for the main course to serve to a guest. The king is enraged. “What? Who is this guy. Tell me and we’ll nail him royally!”
“You’re the guy!” says Nathan. David is devastated. According to the heading for the Psalm 51, David penned this psalm in repentance. It’s the sort of psalm that fits such a situation. When there’s big trouble, you call in Psalm 51.
But what if there isn’t big trouble in my life? What if everything is going along swimmingly? What if I don’t feel like a poor miserable sinner? What if I don’t feel like dust and ashes on Ash Wednesday? I’ll maybe admit to being a sinner. I don’t get everything right. But “poor miserable?” Not so much. Yet; the church has for a long time included a part of this psalm in its weekly life, right after hearing the word of the Lord, before we proceed to the communion part of the service we sing, “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. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free spirit.”
In the bible “create” is always something only God can do. The result of God’s creating work is something entirely new, like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So who is it that needs to pray for a totally new heart, the seat of intelligence and decision making? Who needs a new spirit, one which is ever faithful not wavering in its conduct toward God and our neighbor? Who needs to ask that he not be thrown out of God’s presence? Who needs the company of the Holy Spirit? Who needs to have “the joy your salvation” restored? Who needs God to uphold and sustain them in faith and life?
Well, the prophet in our first lesson lists the people who should answer the trumpet call to assemble; to come to God with all their heart, with weeping and mourning. They are the elderly, children are to be brought by their parents, mothers should carry their nursing infants, newlyweds and the priests and ministers. Covers pretty much everyone gathered here tonight.
Well, you see, when we compare our faithfulness to God’s faithfulness, we, who have been with God from the day of our baptism, know just how wide the gap between ourselves and God is. And David uses the word sin, to “miss the target.” “My sin.” It’s my transgression, which means my rebellion, against God. It’s me who is bent out of shape from before the time my mother delivered me into this world. In the final analysis, no matter what our rebellion, how we may find our life misshapen or how we miss the target, it is a matter of, “Lord I’ve been out of step with you for a long time.”
Thus he prays, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit a broken and contrite heart, O God you will not despise.” Martin Luther writes, “God is not the kind of God who wants to frighten the frightened or break the broken even more, but one who loves the broken, the afflicted and humble, who expects and hears the sighs and voices of the wretched. I have learned, Luther continues, how difficult it is in this battle to say, ‘Lord help.’ The highest wisdom is that in time of despair we should most hope for mercy…”
Back in January we heard Jesus saying “God anointed me to proclaim good news…the year of the Lord’s favor.” Thankfully we live in the era of good news and the Lord’s favor. God is merciful to us poor sinners. His mercy is abundant, more abundant than all our secret rebellion, all the times we let our bent out of shape condition rule our actions, all the times the gap between ourselves and God seems too wide to be bridged. Jesus Christ crossed the gap between heaven and earth, the gap between ourselves and God, he straightened out our bentness, he scrubbed us clean of our sin stains, he wiped all the dirt in our lives. He welcomes us into his presence, though we are dust and to dust we shall return, he creates a new heart, gives us a new and faithful spirit. He invites us to come eat of his body which sustains us until he gives us a new body in the resurrection, a body like his. He offers us his blood which will remove the stain of sin until we join all the saints around the throne in heaven, made whiter than new fallen snow. Therefore, we are able to pray, Almighty and merciful Father, create in us pure hearts, and wash away all our sins in the blood of your dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.