In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.
We began our service this morning/evening by sharing together Psalm 51: A psalm of David when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. I am sure you at least know the basics of the back-story. David ruled over the United Kingdom of Israel. He had expanded the lands that Saul claimed as his predecessor, and his successes as a military leader were acclaimed far and wide.
As the King, he could have pretty much whatever he wanted. He lived in a palace. When the capital was in Hebron for seven and a half years, David had six sons from six different wives. They bore him more sons during the 23 years that he ruled from Jerusalem, and he also had concubines that bore his children. All of these women were legally and rightfully tied to David by marriage or otherwise by the laws of the day. But one day while walking on the roof of his palace, he spotted a woman named Bathsheba who was bathing nearby. She was beautiful, and David could not help but desire her. So he sent Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, off to war, and took her into his own bed. David's ego, evidently, was getting the better of him. It was good to be king, and he was taking advantage of his position. But alas, their little tryst had its consequences – Bathsheba became pregnant with David's child, and David was in a dilemma. Instead of coming clean with Uriah and with The Lord, he attempted to cover things up. He called Uriah home from the battle and allowed him some time to “reconnect” with his wife. If they shared a bed together, then the timing might be such that Uriah and everyone else would think that the child was not David's but Bathsheba's husband's. But Uriah was faithful to his calling as a leader of the army of Israel; Uriah knew the rules against having sexual relations while battles were raging on, so he did not lie with Bathsheba, and when David found out he once again had an opportunity to confess his sin before God and those that he had wronged. Instead this important figure in Israel's history – this man who had been so blessed, chosen and acclaimed by God – strove to cover things up with even more bloody measures. When Uriah returned to his unit, David instructed Joab, the leader of the army, to put Uriah where the fighting was most fierce. It was a certain death sentence, and indeed Uriah lost his life on the battlefield.
Now David had his chance – he consoled the new widow and, always the giving person, took her in as his new wife and claimed her child as his own…which it really was anyway. Nathan – a prophet of God, well respected by David as one who spoke forth God's Word truthfully – enters the scene. He tells David a parable about a rich man who had many flocks, and a poor man who had one little ewe lamb. In order to show hospitality to a stranger, the rich man did not take one of his many lambs to use in preparing a meal, but he took the one little ewe lamb from the poor man, leaving him nothing. This story made David very angry, and believing this to be a literal and true tale involving one of the subjects of his own kingdom, David proclaimed that the man deserves to die, but his punishment shall be to restore the lamb to the poor man fourfold because he had no pity.
Nathan's response to this proclamation is, “You are the man!” And he reminds him how his actions toward Bathsheba and Uriah were so egregious, especially in light of all that the Lord had done for him. To his credit, immediately David is sorry and penitent for his actions. He makes a simple but profound confession, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Even though it doesn't say so in 2 Samuel (where that whole saga is recorded), I picture a guilt-ridden David going into a private place by himself and picking up his lyre. He strums the strings a few times and begins to sing the words that will eventually be included in the songbook of the Temple as Psalm 51: Have mercy on me, God; blot out my offenses, wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sins.
In this story from David's life, we have a model for us in the midst of our own selfish desires and sinfulness. The greatness of King David is certainly seen in his ruling power and military conquests, but true greatness is witnessed in the words of this psalm. One who is great has done something terrible. After he thought he covered it up successfully, he discovers that his sin is known. Instead of denying or explaining, he throws himself upon the mercy of his God. In Psalm 51, David's true greatness is experienced because he realizes how he has taken advantage of God's favor in his life for his own benefit and pleasure. David's prayer for cleansing and pardon sets the tone for not only our Ash Wednesday worship service, but for the entire season of Lent. This is a time of turning – literally making a 180 degree turn not only in our thoughts but also in our lives – to return to the God who has blessed us so richly. That is the definition of repentance.
By beginning this Lenten season with the 51st Psalm, we are acknowledging what David came to acknowledge – that as great as we are as individuals, as a nation and as the human race, we need help. We cannot do it on our own. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, and we get ourselves into holes that we just cannot dig ourselves out of. The only one capable of providing such help for us is God. Psalm 51 is full of language that expresses that which we sinful human beings need from God: words like restore and rescue, wash, remove and create reflect a relationship with God based on the trust that while we truly need God's help everyday of our loves, God willingly and freely provides what we need.
Professor Rolf Jacobson from Luther Seminary in Minneapolis says that you cannot have full-blown mature Christian faith without coming to the realization that we need help from God in our lives. That is lived out by knowing how to both confess your sins to God and to stand there to hear and receive the words of forgiveness. God is always more ready to forgive than we are to either confess or to receive. In the practice of confession and absolution, God transforms us into people who are filled with gratitude and humility. This regular time of repentance is vital to our maturity as Christian people.
Jacobson goes on to say that in the same way, you cannot be a full blown, mature adult without being able to stand before friends or family members when you have screwed up in your life to say, “I have done wrong. I am sorry. Will you forgive me?” And then stand there and hear the words of absolution that also come from full blown, mature adults when they speak them. I believe that confessing to God is a crucial step in practicing to confess to our families and neighbors when we have warped the truth, missed the mark or otherwise caused grief or harm by our words or actions. And along the way, we are called to accompany each other, to examine where we are in need of forgiveness from those around us, and where we need to forgive them as well.
By beginning the Lenten season with Psalm 51, we are committing ourselves to a time when we mature in our faith. Most importantly, we focus on our need for God in our lives – a need that God most graciously fulfills through his mercy and love. Someone posted online this short message for today: “Dust – a painful reality; Cross – a hopeful sign.” As we journey through this Lent, may the painful reality of our need for God in our lives be met by the hopeful sign of the life-giving cross of Christ. Amen.