“Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness. . . .”
[Collect for Ash Wednesday]
As the calendar turns to February 2010, with it comes the beginning of Lent. Once again, we will enter a holy season set apart for considering the guilt and condemnation that we incur for violating the Divine Law. The confrontational words of our Lord will be spoken to us. The record of our failures will be read and heard. We will wear ashes on our foreheads to visibly show our contrition over what we have done.
The theme of the Lent is seen in the traditional psalm for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51. Some of its verses should be familiar to us, as we have been singing them as the Offertory in our use of Divine Service, Setting Three during Epiphanytide. But as we enter the penitential season of Lent, there are other portions of the psalm to consider. In the preface of Psalm 51, we read that it was written by “David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This psalm was how King David confessed his sin of adultery and murder.
The opening verses explicitly show David’s contrition: “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 only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”(Ps 51:1-5)
David does not hide from his sin, neither does he conceal it. Instead, he openly confesses it, just as the Prophet Nathan openly condemned it. David’s admission of guilt is followed by his plea for divine mercy. He calls on the Lord God to forgive what he has done. The psalmist admits that the divine indictment against him was correct. The Lord God was right in His condemnation: David truly is a sinner. He even admits that he was born that way. He has no escape from his sinfulness that has been with him every day of his existence.
But as much as David openly admits his guilt, he also testifies about the thoroughness of the Lord God’s forgiveness: “Behold, You delight in truth in the inward being, and You teach me wisdom in the 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 broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”(Ps 51:6-10)
David needs to be inwardly cleansed, to have a purified soul. And that is what the Lord God provides. His righteousness is extended to the penitent sinner. He does not hide His face from the sinner, but does turn a blind eye to the forgiven sin. What the Lord God crushes in His wrath, He restores in His mercy. Instead of abandoning His redeemed people, the Lord God is present with them: the Holy Spirit dwells with the believer, restoring the joy of salvation.
The psalm concludes with David’s response to receiving divine mercy: “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise. For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. Do good to Zion in Your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will You delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.”(Ps 51:13-19)
David receives the Lord God’s mercy and tells other sinners about their ability to have it also. Worship is given to the One who delivers him from guilt. But this is not a pay off for what David received; rather, it is a thanksgiving for what has been done for him. The sacrifices are spiritual in nature, the effects of forgiveness in the sinner’s life. Nothing can ever truly repay the Lord God for His gift of salvation, and yet He still leads the forgiven into a new way of life.
Reciting the psalm—as we will on Ash Wednesday—David’s prayer becomes our own. And rightly so! For like David, we have incurred the same guilt by our sins. We openly confess that it is true. But like David, we have also received the same total, complete, and free forgiveness from the Lord God. He restores to us a righteousness that we could never attain. In response, we make known what the Lord God has done for us. In the joy that our salvation brings, we desire others to experience the same. We want them to be given Christ’s righteousness. That is what drives us to testify about our salvation to others who have yet to receive it.
Confession, forgiveness, and witness: that is the paradigm of the Christian life. The Divine Law condemns us because of our sin. But the Gospel of Christ pronounces our absolution. Restored by the Lord God, He opens our lips to worship His goodness and to proclaim it to others. That is a message of Lent. Hear it again and receive the divine gift of salvation freely offered for you, both now and always.
~Pastor Zimmerman T