February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday


Text: Psalm 51:1-17



          Later in tonight’s service we will pray most of Psalm 51 as a Prayer of Confession. I find this psalm to be a challenging Scripture because it says some things that clash with things many people of our time think and believe. Listen in particular to verses 4 and 5: “I’ve sinned against you—you alone. I’ve committed evil in your sight. That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict, completely correct when you issue your judgment. Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin, from the moment my mother conceived me.”

          The first clash with what most people believe is found in the assertion, “I was born in guilt, in sin, from the moment my mother conceived me.” Most people see babies and young children as innocent creatures and have a hard time with the claim that such are sinners, simply because they are not old enough or developed enough to have developed a sense of right and wrong. While in our time it is often acknowledged that an infant or small child is basically self-centered, focused on getting what he or she wants, it is also generally held that at that stage of life this is developmentally to be expected, and that moving beyond self-centeredness is something that is learned. It is easy to forget that this part of the Bible is 2500-3000 years old, and back in those days developmental psychology as we know it did not exist. The ancients recognized that little ones are self-centered, but thought this was because of something perverse in them, not because such behavior was considered a normal phase of human development. However, both views recognize that moving away from self-centeredness toward being centered in God and others is something we learn.

The second way in which this text clashes with what people believe is the assertion that we are sinners. Many people, both in the church and outside of it, look upon themselves as being basically good. While most people will readily acknowledge they aren’t perfect, they still consider themselves basically good and their imperfections to be minor flaws or even charming little quirks. Meanwhile, the psalm looks upon sin as much more than minor imperfection. Our failure to live up to God’s intention for our lives is treated as a big deal, and deserving of God’s judgment.

          The Apostle Paul reminds us that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Sin is part of the human condition. None of us fully measures up to God’s intention for our lives. Sometimes we intend to do good to others but end up hurting them instead. Sometimes we hurt others, whether in retaliation for something they’ve done to us or just because we want to. Sometimes we find God’s ways too hard and take short cuts to avoid the difficulty, or ignore them altogether. And in a world that I believe most of us agree is a mess in a lot of ways, we are tempted to blame other people for the problems without considering ways in which we might be complicit in them.

          God desires truth in our inward being. Yet our lives are often a web of self-deception. We hesitate to look at ourselves honestly. We look for ways to justify how we live and what we do rather than face ourselves squarely, fearing what we might find there.

          Our psalm invites to consider that our sin is a bigger deal than we often think it is. But it also reminds us that God’s mercy is an even bigger deal than our sin. When we come to God with broken, contrite hearts, God cleanses us of our sin, gives us clean hearts, puts a new and right spirit in us. And even though we have sinned, God does not cast us out of his presence. God works in our lives to make us right with him.

          And so we begin Lent, that season of penitence when we prepare our hearts and lives to observe the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. May God help us to honesty examine our hearts and lives and turn to the Lord for forgiveness. May God grant us pure hearts and chastened lives that are wholly devoted to living in God’s ways. May we be open to the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives as we turn from our sin and turn to him.


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