Psalm 51:1-17 – Ash Wednesday

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!
Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.

Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday is an ancient holy day on the Church Calendar. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent—a time of penitence, discipline, and renewal.

We are reminded of our mortality, we confess our sins, and we experience forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection. The “imposition of ashes” is a central part of Ash Wednesday observances, whereby the penitent worshiper receives ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross.

In Holy Scripture, ashes serve both as a symbol of mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance. But neither sin nor death is the final word. So, we also have confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus, our Lord.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, the appropriate posture of the devout Christian is prayer. Specifically, prayers of confession of 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. 

It seems to me 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 and slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. 

Pray the ancient psalm 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.

Holy God, as the season now turns to Lent, we pray that you will guide us in the days ahead.  As we journey with Jesus, give us an abiding sense of your presence, an unguarded sense of ourselves, and an awareness of the needs of this world.

Loving God, as we are marked with the ashes of earth, we bring before you the frailty of our very human lives:  our fragile health; the uncertainty of our plans; the changing nature of our relationships. Grant us patience in suffering and healing from our ills. Give us, in equal measure, humility and hope in our pursuits. Bind us in love that is constant, yet able to change according to the needs and circumstances before us.

Just God, you call us to action; to bring freedom to the oppressed; to care for those in need; to lift the burdens of others. We ask you to increase our courage and our will to work for the peace you envision and desire. We pray for an end to warfare and conflict, accepting our call to be peacemakers. We pray for an end to hunger and homelessness, knowing we are called to share with others and show hospitality. We pray for an end to false righteousness, evil speech, and shallow faith in our lives, in the church, in our public life, and among all the nations.

Eternal God, we pray your kingdom will come in fullness; that what is perishable will be raised imperishable; that death itself will be swallowed up in victory; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Sin, Sinners, and God

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.
(New Revised Standard Version)

Sin. The word is rarely used anymore in places outside of churches. And when it is used within the church, sometimes it is grossly misrepresented, as if humanity’s identity is sin.

Although everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, our inherent personhood is not sinful. Every human is made in the image and likeness of God. Sin is like a permanent putrid abscess which never seems to go away.

Sin is everywhere – in our hearts, in our world, in our institutions, and in our families. It is on television, the internet, social media, and moves in and out of smartphones. Sin, apparently, is even in our desserts (oh, the decadence of chocolate!). If it takes one to know one, we are all experts on being sinners.

From a biblical vantage, sin is serious business. It is both the things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as the things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus.

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as both holy and loving. 

Sin, then, might be defined as anything present within a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether in actions or inactions, has at its root an attitude and activity of self-centeredness. It is a selfish bent of thinking, feeling, and acting. And, oh my, the consequences!

Sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

Sin lurks in the shadows of the heart, drips from the tongue of the wicked, and lingers in the actions of the selfish and proud. Sin is not something to trifle with, dabble in, or even manage. No, sin, at its core, is a rebellion against God, a stiff-arm to the Lord that claims we know better than God about how to run our lives. 

Sin will eventually break us.  It may initially look good and meet a quick emotional need, but in the end it is like a poisonous snake bite that will kill unless treated.

People are guilty of transgressing basic morality, as well as failing to be ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. 

Well, that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Actually, it’s total depravity. Being depraved people does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong.

1 John 1:9, GW

When we come to the realization that we are in dire straits, then it is high time we blurt out a prayer of confession along with David. The book of Psalms is the Christian’s prayer book, and there is no better prayer to pray when we come to the end of ourselves than the psalmist’s plea for mercy, based in the steadfast love of God.

The ironic paradox of all this is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. 

We can live above sin by being set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made. Sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8) which resulted in: our redemption (Galatians 5:13); satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); and reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore, the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin.  The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

A genuine prayer of confession asks for mercy based upon God’s character and ability to heal, rather than trusting in the attempted quality of our petition. In other words, neither the eloquence nor the sheer word structure itself is the proper basis for confession; utterances of a broken and contrite heart, submitted to God, trusting solely in his grace to transform, are the only kind of words appropriate for approaching God with our sin. 

Such prayers are not to be few and far between; they are to be a regular regimen, engaged on a daily basis. Just as we take pills each day for all that ails us, so we need to take in the mercy of God through prayers of confession that link us to the true healing power which brings spiritual health and life.

Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Amen.

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.

Psalm 51:1-12

            Sin is pervasive.  It is constantly present.  Sin lurks in the shadows of the heart, drips from the tongue of the wicked, and lingers in the actions of the selfish and proud.  Sin is not something to trifle with, dabble in, or even manage.  No, sin at its core is a rebellion against God, a stiff-arm to the Lord that claims we know better than he about how to run our lives.  Sin will eventually break us.  It may initially look good and meet a quick emotional need, but in the end it is like a poisonous snake bite that will kill unless treated.
 
            When we come to the realization that we are in dire straits, then it is high time we blurt out a prayer of confession along with David.  The book of Psalms is the Christian’s prayer book, and there is no better prayer to pray when we come to the end of ourselves than David’s in Psalm 51.  “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!”
 
            A genuine prayer of confession asks for mercy based upon God’s character and ability to heal, rather than trusting in the attempted quality of our petition.  In other words, neither the eloquence nor the sheer word structure itself is the proper basis for confession; utterances of a broken and contrite heart, submitted to God, trusting solely in his grace to transform are the only kind of words appropriate for approaching God with our sin.  Such prayers are not to be few and far between; they are to be a regular regimen, engaged on a daily basis.  Just as we take pills each day for all that ails us, so we need to take in the mercy of God through prayers of confession that link us to the only true healing power that will bring health and life.
            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 to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.  Amen.