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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent - April 2, 2006

Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness…

That has been the refrain for us throughout this Lenten season and it seems appropriate that we return today to Psalm 51, the source of this verse.  We began Lent a month ago on AW by praying this psalm in its entirety.  The first verse, “Have mercy on me O God…” has been the congregational response for each of the Sunday and Wednesday psalms since then and we get Psalm 51 again today on what is sort of the last Sunday in Lent.  Next Sunday is still Lent but we begin Holy Week which marks a shift in the focus of our Lenten worship.

It’s good to come back to this psalm today as another reminder rather late in the season of Lent that part of what we do during this time is to journey inward and encounter all those things, at least some of those things that cause separation between us and God.  Taken seriously it’s a difficult journey because it takes us places we’d rather not go; past our illusions of control, past our illusions that we can manage everything by ourselves just by rearranging a few of the pieces. 

During Lent there is a call to repent, to return to the Lord, but even as we do that, even as we make an effort to turn and change and do better, an honest Lenten journey finally comes down to a prayer to God to have mercy; and it’s not Have mercy on me O God because I’m trying so hard and I am doing better and I can try even harder;  it’s Have mercy on me O God according to your loving kindness.  Our Lenten journey causes us to realize that our hope is not in ourselves, it is only in the loving kindness, the steadfast love of God.

Psalm 51 starts with this verse and for us it is probably more appropriate that we say this today, late in the season of Lent, than it was on AW at the beginning of this season of penitence.  You really can’t voice this plea honestly until you have had some time to consider who you are and that the trouble with you is that you’re you as Lucy told us last week.

Psalm 51 assumes that this process of repentant reflection has already taken place.  The tradition behind this psalm is that it was the prayer of King David as he dealt with his corrupt inner life.  The voice behind the psalm though is that of the prophet Nathan, who was employed by David to tell him the truth. (That’s a novel idea.  Imagine if politicians today hired a staff member to tell them the truth instead of just hiring yes men and women to tell them what they want to hear) 

David was living in denial of his grievous sin against Uriah, one of his best soldiers.  In his greed and in his lust, David had broken every major commandment with lying, murderous conspiracy, adultery and theft.  But David was in denial of all this, intoxicated by power I suppose, not recognizing the seriousness of what he had done, until Nathan, his hired truth teller, confronted David and made him look in the mirror.  If you’re familiar with this story though, you perhaps remember that Nathan was clever in how he did this.  It wasn’t a frontal assault on King David.  Nathan knew that approach tended to push most people further into denial.  Instead, Nathan told a story which asked David to sit in judgment on the actions of a character in that story.

The gist of the story is that a rich man stole a lamb from a poor man to feed a guest.  The lamb had been like a member of the poor man’s family like a beloved pet and the rich man could have fed his guest with countless other animals; yet he took this one lamb and thus devastated the poor man’s family.  David’s judgment on hearing this is that the rich man should be killed for being so heartless, leading to Nathan’s classic concluding line, “You’re the man!” 

This psalm, starting with “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness,” is said to be David’s prayer in recognition of his sin.  As powerful as he was, he realized that he didn’t have the power to save himself, to forgive himself for the grievous sin he committed.  By his own reckoning, he deserved to die.  In his sinful condition he was totally dependent on the grace and mercy of God.  refrain

We could all use a Nathan in our lives.  I suppose one way to think about Lent would be to think of it as a search for a story that would confront each of us with the seriousness of our own sin.  We’re pretty good at finding sin in others or in comparing sins and being thankful that we’re not as bad as lots of other people we can think of.  But note that Ps. 51 is first person, singular (I, me, my) as many of the psalms are.  “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.  Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.  Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.”

There’s no hiding here, no pretending that things are other than they are.  Like the line from Rock of Ages that we’ll sing after this, “Nothing in my hand I bring,” this is the prayer of an empty handed person.  The governing words here are “I know; I know my transgressions.”  The speaker of this psalm acknowledges that everything that is wrong in this relationship is on his side.  It’s admission that he’s wrong and God is totally in the right and that is a difficult admission for any of us.  We’d like to hedge a little bit or sometimes even blame God, in fact some of the psalms do that: but not this one.  This is recognition of sin which has violated not just other people, but which has violated God and God’s will, which is of course what all sin does.

The speaker of this psalm appears empty handed, trusting and hoping only in God’s mercy and steadfast love.  We’re pretty good at muddling along thinking that things aren’t that bad, that we can make it without God or maybe coming to God with our hands full of all those things we have to offer God to try to appease him or soften him up, show him how good we are.  But then comes that David like, eye opening Lenten moment when all our illusions of control and security come crashing down and we join the Greeks in today’s gospel lesson in saying not just that we wish to see Jesus, but we need to see Jesus trusting in his mercy and loving kindness because we have no place else to go. 

I’ve talked before about how in John’s gospel the conversations seldom go in straight lines; that Jesus often seems to be answering different questions than the ones that are asked.  Today’s lesson is like that.  These Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  There is no indication of what they want and we never find out; actually we don’t even know if they ever see Jesus.  We just get rather veiled statements from Jesus that make reference to the necessity of his death.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that these Greeks are looking for some manifestation of Jesus’ mercy and loving kindness.  Jesus had provided other kinds of signs along the way, but also the statement, “My hour has not yet come.”  But now he says the hour has come.  If they want to see his glory, his mercy and loving kindness, they have to see him on the cross, crucified.  Somehow, in ways that we can’t fully understand, his hour is connected to this event of the cross. 

That’s the truth St. Paul discovered.  That’s the truth Martin Luther called the theology of the cross.   On the cross we see Jesus; we see the depth of his love that does for us what we can’t do for ourselves when we recognize our sin and come to him empty handed.  Ritually we enact this every week as we gather beneath the cross, with hands outstretched and empty to receive a physical manifestation of Jesus, his mercy and loving kindness in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  We come empty handed; we leave having received what we need; “The body and blood of Christ; given and shed for you.”

That’s really where Ps. 51 leaves us.  We start in a plea for mercy, in recognition of the seriousness of our own sin.  We end though in hope, knowing the possibility for new life that we can’t coerce or earn from God, but which is freely given according to his loving kindness.


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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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
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not me
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one who
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