Psalm 51:1-12 – Facing Our Darkness

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Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. (NRSV)

David experienced a lot of hard things. Through it all, he held fast to walking with God. Eventually, David became king. He used his power and authority to do exactly what God likes – showing grace and kindness to those in need. Except in the case of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He made one unwise decision, which led to a bad decision, and then to another and another – until the prophet Nathan came and called David on the carpet.

Whereas King David began his reign using his royal position to show kindness, he ended up acting like any other worldly king by giving orders and using his authority to get what he wanted. Just as David sent others to do his personal bidding, God finally sent Nathan for a divine intervention.

If we confess our sins, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we have done.

1 John 1:9, ERV

Nathan wisely helped David see his sin for what it really was. Irresponsibility, adultery, and murder are serious matters. The mental and spiritual gymnastics people make to justify their poor decisions always ends up devaluing what is right and making sin less heinous than it really is.

Good news can only be properly understood considering the bad news.

Without seeing our true predicament of being held in the vice grip of sin and unable to move, we will go on wondering why nothing ever goes like we want. A person who is lost, and doesn’t know it, is in the worst of situations. Calamity is just around the corner.

Like a restaurant owner who fails to see the health violations all around him, the business is about to be shut down with him scratching his head or blaming others for his misfortune. Only when the owner comes to recognize and agree with established health standards will there be a turn around and a renewed existence for the establishment.

We must agree and comply with God about how bad things really are without sugar coating any of it.

Only then can best practices be put into place which help everyone to be safe, healthy, and happy. To King David’s credit, he saw his terrible decisions and actions for what they were and faced them squarely with a repentant heart and a renovated life.

Thus, we have today’s psalm, crafted by David as a response to his own egregious wandering from how God wanted him to reign as king. David’s sin was mercifully outdone by God’s grace. The main event to the psalm is not David’s wrongs but God’s forgiveness. Prayer is the mechanism which accesses divine pardon to even the most awful of transgressions.

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 worst, allows a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

I believe one of the best ways to confront the darkness within is by using the ancient prayer book, the Old Testament Psalms. Sometimes when we pray apart from considering the psalms, our prayers go along the lines of something like, “Change my situation so I can praise you, God.” Rather, the psalms guide us toward a shift in direction by praying:

“Change me, God, because I am the problem.”

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 the world who today offer God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

What places in your life allow you the freedom to confess your sins?  What places seem to keep you from confession? How might a regular practice of repentance help you beyond this season of Lent?

May almighty God, who has promised forgiveness of sins to all who turn in faith, pardon you and set you free from all your sins, strengthen you for right living, and keep you in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daniel 9:15-25 – A Prayer of Confession, Part 2

“But now, my Lord, our God—you who brought your people out of Egypt with a strong hand, making a name for yourself even to this day: We have sinned and done the wrong thing.” My Lord, please! In line with your many righteous acts, please turn your raging anger from Jerusalem, which is your city, your own holy mountain. Because of our sins and the wrongdoing of our parents, both Jerusalem and your people have become a disgrace to all our neighbors.

“But now, our God, listen to your servant’s prayer and pleas for help. Shine your face on your ruined sanctuary, for your own sake, my Lord. Open your ears, my God, and listen! Open your eyes and look at our devastation. Look at the city called by your name! We pray our prayers for help to you, not because of any righteous acts of ours but because of your great compassion. My Lord, listen! My Lord, forgive! My Lord pay attention and act! Do not delay! My God do all this for your own sake because your city and your people are called by your name.

While I was still speaking, praying, and confessing my sin and the sins of my people Israel—while I was still praying my prayer for help to the Lord my God about my God’s holy mountain— while I was still speaking this prayer, the man Gabriel approached me at the time of the evening offering. This was the same Gabriel I had seen in my earlier vision. He was weary with exhaustion.

He explained as he spoke with me: “Daniel, here is why I have come: to give you insight and understanding. When you began making your requests, a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you because you are greatly treasured. So now understand this word and grasp the meaning of this vision! Seventy weeks are appointed for your people and for your holy city to complete the rebellion, to end sins, to cover over wrongdoing, to bring eternal righteousness, to seal up prophetic vision, and to anoint the most holy place.

“So, you must know and gain wisdom about this: There will be seven weeks from the moment the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until a leader is anointed. (CEB)

We learn to pray through praying the prayers of the Bible. One of the great wrestlers of prayer in Holy Scripture is Daniel. His prayer when disaster overtook the people of Jerusalem is apropos for us in our national disasters of egregious sin. Today I take the second part of Daniel’s prayer and use it as my own prayer (this is a continuation from yesterday’s prayer of confession).

Prayer is an act of subversion. It challenges the status quo. It looks evil in the face and gives it a name. Real change begins with the step of real prayer, and real prayer is modeled after the great prayers of Scripture. The season of Lent, with its focus on repentance and spiritual discipline, is the appropriate time to offer prayers of confession and express fealty to the God who deserves it.

Our Lord God, with your own mighty arm you brought our forefathers from religious harassment to a place of religious freedom. You graced us with liberation to become what we could not in other places. Through this you made yourself famous to this very day, but we have sinned terribly.

We turned around and did to others what they did to us.

We have been unequal in our treatment of all people. In our pride, we think we are better than others, even though we have been called to treat others better than ourselves.

We keep killing one another with words and then with guns, all the while justifying our behavior through inaction and spiritual gerrymandering. Meanwhile, our children and our neighbors keep dying. 

In the past you treated us with such undeserved kindness. We now beg you to stop being so terribly angry and hear our plea for your grace to awash us again. Although we have suffered public disgrace from our own stupidity, we throw ourselves upon your great mercy.

I am your servant, Lord God, and I beg you to answer my prayers and bring honor to yourself by having pity on our grieving families as well as the people who have forgotten you. Please show mercy to us, not because we deserve it, but because of your great kindness. Forgive us! Pay attention to us, even though we failed to give you the time of day. Hurry and do something, not only for us, but to bring honor to yourself through Jesus Christ our Savior in the might of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.

Daniel 9:1-14 – A Prayer of Confession, Part 1

Daniel the Prophet by Sefira Ross

In the first year of Darius’ rule—Darius, who was Ahasuerus’ son, a Median by birth and who ruled the Chaldean kingdom— I, Daniel, pondered the scrolls, specifically the number of years that it would take to complete Jerusalem’s desolation according to the Lord’s word to the prophet Jeremiah. It was seventy years. I then turned my face to my Lord God, asking for an answer with prayer and pleading, and with fasting, mourning clothes, and ashes. As I prayed to the Lord my God, I made this confession:

Please, my Lord—you are the great and awesome God, the one who keeps the covenant, and truly faithful to all who love him and keep his commands: We have sinned and done wrong. We have brought guilt on ourselves and rebelled, ignoring your commands and your laws. We have not listened to your servants, the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our leaders, our parents, and to all the land’s people. Righteousness belongs to you, my Lord! But we are ashamed this day—we, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, all Israel whether near or far, in whatever country where you have driven them because of their unfaithfulness when they broke faith with you. Lord, we are ashamed—we, our kings, our leaders, and our parents who sinned against you. Compassion and deep forgiveness belong to my Lord, our God, because we rebelled against him. We did not listen to the voice of the Lord our God by following the teachings he gave us through his servants, the prophets. All Israel broke your Instruction and turned away, ignoring your voice. Then the curse that was sworn long ago—the one written in the Instruction from Moses, God’s servant—swept over us because we sinned against God. God confirmed the words he spoke against us and against our rulers, bringing great trouble on us. What happened in Jerusalem has not happened anywhere else in the entire world! All this trouble came upon us, exactly as it was written in the Instruction of Moses, but we did not try to reconcile with the Lord our God by turning from our wrongdoing or by finding wisdom in your faithfulness. So, the Lord oversaw the great trouble and brought it on us, because the Lord our God has been right in every move he has made, but we have not listened to his voice. (CEB)

The world’s sins are legion. Our own sins are too many to count. They are a crushing load. Put all together, the heap of sin is piled all the way up to heaven. We all have sinned against God and one another in the things we have done, and those things we have left undone.

Devout believers are to remember they belong to God and enter this season of Lent with focused prayer, repentance, and fasting. I have always encouraged folks to adopt the prayers of the Bible and use them as their own.  I also often personalize the prayers for contemporary use. This is what I am doing today with Daniel’s prayer of confession.

Denial is not an option. Simply wishing things were different does not make it so. For the Christian, change begins with looking evil square in the face, calling it what it is, and confessing it. Daniel did just that because of his people’s indifference. I have taken the liberty to form Daniel’s prayer as the basis for my own. It is not the entire prayer of Daniel. The rest of the prayer comes with tomorrow’s reading. But for today, it is confession…

Please, my Lord—you are the great and awesome God, the one who keeps your promises and is truly faithful to all who love you and keep your commands. 

There is no good way to say this: We have sinned and done wrong. We have brought guilt on ourselves and rebelled, ignoring your commands and your laws to love you, and love our neighbors.

We have forsaken self-care and rest, tossing the notion of Sabbath aside as an antiquated observance.

We have dishonored our parents by turning aside from their instruction. They taught us better than we are living. And we have ignored our ancestors in the faith who kept your commands and followed your ways.

We kill one another with guns we have stockpiled like cans in a pantry, not to mention the murderous words we continually breathe on those we hate.

We have failed to keep fidelity with our spouses and treat them like second-hand items.

We steal land and resources, lie through our teeth, and cheat others with an envious eye which is neither satisfied nor content with the blessings right in front of our faces.

We have not listened to your Son, the Lord Jesus, or to your Holy Spirit speaking to us in your Holy Word. The people of this land have given you the stiff-arm through the allowance of systemic evil, structural racism, inattention to the poor and needy, and calling injustice justice. 

Righteousness belongs to you, Lord! But we lack seeing our own guilt. We, the people of this created world, have broken faith with you by insisting on our own way of doing things.

Our uncivil words and unloving behavior have drowned your voice to us. Our ears have become deaf to the teachings you gave us through your messengers.

We all have broken faith with you by not heeding your warnings to forsake hate and embrace love.

A curse has swept over us because we sinned against you, God, with impunity. Our children are at risk, even dead, yet we continue to bicker and fight amongst ourselves while destruction continues to abound through the hands of unstable people.

God, you have brought great trouble on us. This dangerous morass of immorality and injustice is our own doing, and yet we stubbornly remain independent and do not seek divine reconciliation by turning from our wrongdoing or by finding wisdom in the faithfulness of your loving character and compassion. 

Lord, you have been right in every move you have made in giving us a clear moral code with the Holy Spirit to help us, but we have neither heard nor heeded your voice of truth….

Nehemiah 9:9-15 – Memory and Confession

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. (NIV)

Memory is precious and valuable. Having once worked as a chaplain in a memory care unit, I can testify that Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic. The residents and patients for whom I interacted with were wonderful people. They just did not remember much – even their own names, sometimes. It is especially hard for family members. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends still remember – and, at times, not being remembered by this person they love is a deep sadness.

I wonder if this is the same kind of sadness which God felt. Having delivered his people from Egyptian bondage and sending them to the Promised Land, over the generations the people of God eventually forgot. With their memories far from them, the people lapsed into living as if they no longer knew who they were anymore.

To make a long biblical story short, God’s people were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon. Yet, God still remembered them even though many of them forgot him. God sent Ezra the teacher and Nehemiah the leader to remind the people and help make the memories stick.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching and leading of the people in a collective and prayerful confession of their sins. At the heart of it all was a failed memory of God’s deliverance. Unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia folks who do not choose their condition, and who experience memory issues through no fault of their own, God’s people allowed themselves to forget.

The people needed to come back to remembrance and recall the mighty acts of God on their behalf in history. Those memories were meant to serve the people well, to enable them to always live by faith and trust in a benevolent God’s all-seeing care.

The path to renewal always begins with awareness and memory.

So, then, that is why Jews remember the Sabbath and the Passover. That is why Christians memorialize the death of Jesus through Holy Communion. We are to always remember the redemptive events of God in bringing us from bondage to liberation.

We can only know where we are going if we are served with full cognitive abilities of memory and history. For the Christian, a failure to remember inevitably leads to a failure of faith. And an ignorance of history will only lead us to an exile of the soul, putting us at risk of listening to hucksters who claim knowledge, but who themselves suffer from major memory issues.

Memory and remembrance are beautiful things, that is, when we have wonderful things to remember. Even traumatic events need to be remembered – not for experiencing re-traumatization – but to unburden the spirit of its heavy weight, and to bring a loving God’s healing power to bear on those memories.

Confessional prayer helps us to do just that: Acknowledge the past, receive grace in the present, and have direction and hope for the future. God still desires to take us from cruel bondage and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Recollection brings awareness; and awareness allows us the power to make choices of faith, hope, and love.

Blessed heavenly Father, we come to you in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent from you into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted and never forsaken nor forgotten by you. Most righteous God, we remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus for the sin of the whole world. In the joy of his resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you as holy and living sacrifices. Amen.