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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ash Wednesday 2/18

Is Psalm 51 your psalm?  I’ve mentioned before that when I took the class with Walter Brueggemann on the Psalms a few years ago one of the questions he suggested asking regarding them is “Whose psalm is this?”  Now on Ps 51, if you looked in your Bible you would see that it says “A psalm of David, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba” or words to that effect, so you say, “Oh, it’s David’s psalm.”  That certainly seems  possible considering what David had done but the thinking is that the superscriptions you find on many of the psalms were added much later, that we don’t really know much about the origin of most of them.  So there are other possibilities regarding Psalm 51 and that is especially true on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday and Lent become more meaningful if each of us can hear this as our psalm, our prayer expressing the same need for forgiveness that David or whoever first used these words needed because it’s probably as good an expression of our condition of sin as is found anywhere in the Bible.

Sin here is not just a matter of having done something wrong, even if having done something wrong is what triggered the psalm.  The problem in Psalm 51 is that sin has become part of the psalmist’s identity, a flaw at the fiber of his being, a flaw of which he is profoundly aware. 

The sin of Psalm 51 isn’t only sin against another person; that would be bad enough.  But this is sin against God, sin which raises questions about the possibility of relationship with God, the possibility that God at some point will say, “Enough!” and cast the sinner from his presence and take away the power of the Holy Spirit.  There is recognition of guilt, deserved guilt, and the appropriateness of punishment.  On top of that there’s the recognition that only God can do anything to change the situation.  The psalmist wants change but knows he can’t do it; personal resources have been exhausted, the system of sacrifices and burnt offerings won’t help.  All that can be hoped for is the hesed, the steadfast love, the loving kindness of God.  Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness.

Is this your psalm?   Certainly a lot of it isn’t the kind of language we use today; for example, we don’t talk anymore about sacrifices and burnt offerings as ways to regain God’s favor; that is Old Testament talk that is pretty far removed from us.  But still it’s not the cultural distance and difference that is the biggest problem here. 

The biggest problem identified in this psalm has more to do with the concept of sin itself, the profound sense of sin as alienation from God along with the feeling of helplessness in the face of that sin.  These days we’d suggest counseling for someone who felt this bad so they could feel better about things and improve their self-esteem, to be encouraged that they are OK and know that they are able to address their problems.  These days some might even suggest that God is part of the problem, the source of unnecessary and unhealthy feelings of sin and guilt and they would probably be less likely to see God as part of the solution whereas the psalmist recognizes God as the only possible solution.

The profound sense of sin as alienation from God as found in this psalm is somewhat foreign to us.  For a lot of us, including church people, if we consider the concept of sin at all it has to do with actions, bad things we’ve done, rather than something wrong at the core of who we are.  Bad things we’ve done we might have some control over; by our own will we might be able to change; but we can’t do much about something wrong at the core of who we are. 

But then there are also those who don’t even want to consider sin as bad things they’ve done or who say, “Who are you or who is the church to set some ethical or religious criteria of sin? It’s only a sin if I think it’s a sin.”  Like George Costanza said in the old Seinfeld show when Jerry was trying to beat the lie detector, “Remember Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”   

This denial of sin though, is probably not the case for those gathered here tonight (unless you came for soup and then just felt obliged to stick around for the service).  I think for most people who come to church on Ash Wednesday, at some level Psalm 51 is your psalm, I hope not all the time, but at least that it’s your psalm in that you know where the psalmist is coming from because you’ve been there.  Something in your life has triggered the knowledge that there’s something wrong; you’ve identified the problem and the problem is you and you can’t fix it; you can only appeal to God’s mercy and steadfast love.

In many ways Ash Wednesday is about recognizing our inadequacy in the face of God and Psalm 51 describes that inadequacy pretty well.  Humanity appears as what it is and God appears as what God is and there is a gap between the two.  The confession that we will say in a few minutes describes this gap in general ways, but each of us could also fill in the generalities with the particulars of our own inadequacy.  In essence though what we describe in this confession is who we are as human beings and it’s not a pretty picture.  Like in Psalm 51, the pretending that we’re pretty good at, with which we can sometimes fool ourselves and others, is over and we honestly recognize that there is something wrong.

That could be a cause for despair; but Ash Wednesday isn’t about despair, it’s about honesty.   Both despair and honesty can create a sense of helplessness, but while despair might cause us to turn away from God,  honesty allows us to turn to God.  At the end of each section of the confession we use words similar to the words that began Psalm 51, “Have mercy on us, O God.”  There are many dimensions of God, many ways to think about God, but we trust that mercy and loving kindness are the defining characteristics of the God we turn to.  The honesty of our psalm and the honesty of our confession move us toward God and dependence on God’s mercy. 

Following that confession, for awhile we wear a cross of ashes as a visible sign of our honesty regarding sin.  To some, the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return,” might also sound like words of despair, words of futility.  But in the context of our confession, the cross of ashes, while a reminder of sin and of our distance from God, also remind us that God loves us as we are, God meets us where we are, so the ashes are also a sign of hope. 

The disciplines of this season are intended to draw us closer to God, but no matter how well we “do” Lent this year, whatever practice we undertake, the gap between us and God will still be there; but tonight, with ashes of honesty and hope on our foreheads we find God’s mercy and loving kindness in that gap.  With ashes on our foreheads we begin our annual Lenten journey to the cross of Jesus.  What we’ll find when we get there is that it’s there, in the cross, that God’s mercy and loving kindness are most fully revealed.  

Rev. Warren Geier                                    


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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