Psalm 51:1-17 – A Prayer on Ash Wednesday

            Today on this Ash Wednesday the appropriate posture of the devout Christian is to pray.  Specifically, to confess our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures.  This might sound negative and a major downer.  Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at the worst allowing a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul.
            I believe there is no better way to confront the darkness within than with using the ancient prayer book of the Old Testament Psalms.  I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud, slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it.  Pray it over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today.  In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across this entire big world who today offer to God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.
51 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
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.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.
 
Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.
 
14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed. (Common English Bible)
 

 

Amen.

Lent

            Imagine you are out for a hike on a beautiful spring day and you come to a creek. You notice that someone has dumped trash into the stream—not a pretty sight. Judging by some of the empty soda cans, the trash has been there awhile. And there is an ugly film on top of the water. You can’t just leave the scene as you found it, because it would bother your conscience.
            So, you stoop down and begin gathering the trash.  It ends up taking several hours before you can begin to see a difference.  You’re amazed how much junk is there. You sit back, rest for a moment, and realize you’ll have to keep coming each day until the site is truly clean. But when you come back the next day, it’s as if you didn’t even do any work at all.  In fact, there’s more trash than the day before. It’s as if the garbage bred overnight. You think about the unlikelihood of someone coming to this very spot to dump their garbage just in the one measly day you were away.
             Then, you realize that something smells fishy—so to speak. So, you begin to follow the creek upstream.  Sure enough, there’s a nasty garbage dump that’s been there for years. It’s emptying into the passing creek. Your cleaning job was only a small opening to a world of filth. You could try and clean every day.  But if you really want your creek to be free of pollution, this means going directly to the source and dealing with the crud that’s there.
            Our hearts are the source from which our lives flow. Unfortunately, we spend great amounts of time, money, and energy—even in the church—doing trash removal “downstream.” But real transformation begins when we travel upstream to the source. Our real struggles and sins take place where no one sees: in the heart.
            Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent.  Ashes remind us that we live in a polluted world full of garbage; that it is fouling up our lives; and, that we must respond to the mess with a humble return to God.  Lent is a 40-day cleaning project on the inside of our hearts, instead of trying to keep up dealing with all the scum on the outside of our lives.
            Entrance to confronting the dump of garbage requires fasting, self-examination, prayer and repentance.  As the Lord God said through the ancient prophet Joel:
“It isn’t too late.
You can still return to me
with all your heart.
Start crying and mourning!
Go without eating.
Don’t rip your clothes
to show your sorrow.
Instead, turn back to me
with broken hearts.
I am merciful, kind, and caring.
I don’t easily lose my temper,
and I don’t like to punish.” (Joel 2:12-13, CEB)
 
            We find that at the end of the Lenten journey, Jesus is there.  He swallows all the massive tonnage of the world’s garbage on the cross.  It’s so rotten that it kills him, and there is only darkness.  Then, three days later, Christ is risen, having shaken off the filthy stench of death.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the prophet’s words, the merciful one who has taken care of the filthy source of garbage once and for all.
            May you find on this day and every day that the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and repentance put you in a place to receive Jesus. As you lean into the mess in throughout the next six weeks of Lent, may you discover the cleansing and healing agent, Jesus Christ, the Savior who scrubs the heart clean of toxic waste.

Remember

remember you are dust

Here’s a thought for your mind to consider: Remembering is a spiritual practice.

It doesn’t take any effort to forget.  But it does take an intentional plan to remember.  If you have a habit of losing your car keys, you make the effort to build some ritual in your life to not lose them.  Maybe they always live on the same hook just inside your back door or are always with you in your pocket.  That way you never have to “remember” where they are.

I look at my planner every day.  Every morning it’s a ritual.  Before doing any work, I access my planner and go over my schedule and my goals.  I will forget my best laid plans unless I review them each day.

Christians are about to enter the season of Lent.  Lent is a 40-day observance of journeying with Jesus to his cross.  It’s a time for believers to remember their baptisms, that is, to remember that they belong to God – to remember and to never forget that our primary identity is in Christ, known and loved by God as his people.

We even have an entire book of the Bible dedicated to remembering: Deuteronomy.  The book of Deuteronomy is a restating of the Law for a new generation of Israelities about to enter the Promised Land.  They were to remember why they existed as a nation, and to whom they belonged.  The Israelites needed to remember through restatement and ritual that God delivered them with power from the mighty Egyptians.  God is their trust – which means there is no need for a trust supplemental insurance policy with another deity in case he doesn’t come through for them.

dont-forget-to-remember

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 5:15, NIV)

Remember the long road on which the Lord your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2, CEB)

Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 8:18, CEB) 

“So all your life you will remember the time you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 16:3, NCV)

Remember a time long ago.
Think about all the past generations.
Ask your fathers to remind you,
and your leaders to tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7, GW)

We cannot expect the next generation to simply know God because we do.  If it’s so easy for you and me to forget about God in our workaday world, then how much more do we need to be intentional about passing on the words and ways of Jesus with routines and rituals which help us to remember?

On Ash Wednesday the minister applies the sign of the cross to the forehead of the penitent with the words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s not meant to be a downer, or a morbid display that we are going to die someday.  The ashes are to be a reminder that we only have one life to live on this earth, and it is to be lived knowing, trusting, and finding our truest identity in the Holy Trinity whom we serve – Father, Son, and Spirit – the God who has orchestrated salvation for his people.  Remember, and do not forget, your life belongs to God.  He cares for you, and you can trust in his goodness.

ash wed

“The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26, NKJV)

“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35, ESV)

“Then he broke it in pieces and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.’  For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-26, NLT)

“They only asked us to remember the poor, and that was something I had always been eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10, CEV)

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.” (2 Timothy 2:8, NRSV)

Remember, then, what you were taught and what you heard; obey it and turn from your sins.” (Revelation 3:3, GNT)

If you think about it, caring involves consistency.  Others know what to expect from us.  We continually show up with the grace and kindness given to us in Christ.  People don’t have to wonder what kind of mood we’re going to be in.  We’re there for them.  We have provided for them a history of consistent rituals they can remember – a history of patient assistance and quiet strength on their behalf.

We’ve been given one life to live.  It is to be a life dedicated to practicing remembrance. We’re to live in the remembrance that Christ has delivered us from brokenness to be an agent of healing in a world in need of remembering who they are.  There’s no need to invent new rituals for remembrance.  We just need to remember to show up and participate in the rituals the church has practiced for centuries.

Luke 19:41-44 – The Lament of Jesus

“As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, ‘If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.’” (CEB)
 
            There are Christians who believe in as much withdrawal from the world with its earthly political and cultural realm as is humanly possible this side of heaven.  There are yet others who believe in as much accommodation as possible to the world in it’s structures and society.  And, there are others who believe that the two, the world and the church, are simply two distinct realms which Christians simply move back and forth within, like taking one hat off and doffing another.
            Let’s leave that all aside for a moment and just observe the pathos of Jesus.  He came to the city of Jerusalem, a city which was both very religious and very worldly.  Jesus stood and looked affectionately and longingly at the city… and he wept.  This was not a quiet shedding of a tear.  No, the word “wept” means that Jesus openly cried aloud over the city.  Think of the kind of crying which takes place when a person is in the throes of grief.  These were great heaves of loud weeping.
            The reason Jesus was lamenting with so much feeling was that the city did not recognize they had a gracious visit from God.  The Lord looked at the city and saw all the future disaster which was coming.  He knew that it could be different, and he was emotionally undone by the city’s inability to see God right in front of their own face.
            Now let’s return to our view of the world and our involvement in it.  Taking some cues from our Lord Jesus, the first and foremost posture we are to take toward the worldly city is not separation, accommodation, or dual citizenship – it is, rather, to grieve and lament.
            The longing Jesus had in his heart was to see the city of Jerusalem annexed and incorporated into the kingdom of God.  The way of peace, of shalom on this earth, is to bring all things and all the world under the benevolent reign of God.  It is as if there are Twin Cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, who exist side-by-side but have different municipal structures.  The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God exist next to each other.  Jesus wanted to bring the earthly kingdom into the peaceful and gracious realm of God’s kingdom.  But the people would have nothing to do with it.  Both the religious and the secular persons of the city wanted their own municipal conceptions of how things should go – and they both rejected the Christ who could bring them all true harmony.
            We are about to enter the season of Lent.  It is a time set aside in the Christian Year for repentance and preparation to receive King Jesus as our rightful benevolent ruler.  Let us lament the world full of both religious and secular people who do not recognize the time of God’s visitation.  Let it be a time to journey with Jesus and follow him in his Passion for this world and all its inhabitants.

 

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Trinity whom I serve – the world and even sometimes the church is estranged from grace – they have not recognized your gracious coming and presence.  I lament such a state of things, and ask that you, blessed Spirit may draw all people to the Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray.  Amen.