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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ash Wednesday 02/14/2018

My intent during Lent is to at least talk a little bit about the psalm appointed each week. Lent is supposed to be a time of honest reflection and there is an honesty about the psalms that makes them especially appropriate for such a time. They reflect a no punches pulled relationship with the divine, a relationship that ranges from praise and thanksgiving on one end to calls for vengeance on one’s enemies on the other. They reflect times when God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world, times when the world seems to be falling apart and…all the times in between. With that in mind, we start with Psalm 51, probably the best know of the penitential psalms, the psalm that is always part of the Ash Wednesday service.

For a long time we had the choir sing Psalm 51 to begin the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The last couple of years though, we’ve spoken it together because I think they are words we all need to say, not just hear, because if we, like the psalmist, say them honestly, we acknowledge that we are sinners, sinners in need of forgiveness that only God can give. You perhaps know that Psalm 51 is attributed to King David after having committed adultery with Bathsheba, a sin further complicated by the fact that David orchestrated things so that Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, a good and honest man, would be killed in battle.

Our first inclination then might be to say, “Well, at least my sin is not that bad,” but as we say the words of Psalm 51 we remember that sin is not a comparison game. On Ash Wednesday we’re all on our own, each of us alone with our sin, face to face with God. The only comparison being made is between the person we are and the person God would have us be and this is the God to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid. If you’re tempted to think, “at least my sin’s not that bad,” imagine…all desires known and no secrets hidden, even those secrets you’re pretty good at hiding from yourself; then see how you feel.

Such honesty and transparency would be a source of terror before an all powerful God and if you read between the lines, for David it was a source of terror because before he acknowledged the grievousness of what he had done, he first reminded God of who God was supposed to be with the words, “according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.” Mercy and steadfast love are the words most frequently used to describe the Lord’s commitment to the people and David or whoever this psalmist is, is not afraid to put these words out there, in fact he perhaps has to put them out there as a reminder to God and as a reminder to himself before he continues.

With steadfast love and abundant mercy on the table, the psalmist now dares to utter the words that are most often used to express separation from God, those words being sin, transgression and iniquity. “Wash me from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, for I know my transgression.” With this plea, you could say that there is a wager that God’s mercy and steadfast love will override sin, transgression and iniquity. Then, trusting in that override, the confession becomes even more honest. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.”

This is the real confession of Ash Wednesday. It’s not a laundry list of misdeeds, not that we don’t all have one. Prior to the imposition of ashes we’ll confess to such a list, generic as it may be. Whatever our own specifics happen to be, “against you, you alone, have I sinned,” is recognition that the first commandment to have no other Gods has been violated; the divine/human relationship is not what it’s supposed to be.

With confession having been made, confession that also includes recognition that a sentence of condemnation is deserved, the psalm then moves in an interesting direction, one that might be thought of as more Lutheran than it is Lenten. Traditionally Lent is connected to what we call the discipline of Lent which is self examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love. Those are all things we do in an effort to more fully be who we’re supposed to be as we try to repair our broken relationship.

That however, is not the approach of the psalmist. Instead, there is a list of imperatives directed to God. Create in me a clean heart; put a new and right spirit within me; do not cast me away; do not take your holy spirit from me; restore me to the joy of your salvation; sustain in me a willing spirit. Create, put, do not cast, do not take, restore, and then a couple of verses later, deliver me.

There’s nothing here about I’m going try harder to be good, nothing about fasting in sackcloth and ashes, nothing about the discipline of Lent. In this psalm it’s all on God. It’s a statement of hope for a renewed and restored relationship, a statement that recognizes that only God can do it; human effort, no matter how well intended it might be, will always come up short. The psalmist’s hope is in a God of steadfast love and abundant mercy. Especially with the use of the word create, in Hebrew a word for which only God is the subject, the psalmist acknowledges that things are so bad that a miracle on the order of the creation of the world is called for if this relationship is to be restored. It’s all on God; there is total dependence on God’s grace. A clean heart and right spirit are gifts of that grace.

If it’s all grace though, if this most penitential of all the psalms is ultimately about dependence on God’s grace, why bother with Lent and its disciplines? Ash Wednesday and Lent are about our relationship with God and specifically the recognition that the relationship is not all that it should be. While it’s true that the relationship is one sided in that it is dependent on God’s grace, any relationship still has two sides to it. For Lutherans steeped in Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith, perhaps our greatest temptation is the temptation of cheap grace, grace that is seen only as the infinite forgiveness of our sins. That is grace that demands nothing of us, no response, which is what makes it cheap grace. Lent however, is about a response.

In some ways the response is more for us than it is for God. It’s an effort on our part to try to come closer to being who God would have us be. It’s recognizing that in the incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our own humanity is given new possibilities. Engaging those possibilities starts with an honest effort to identity those things that keep our relationship with God from being what it could be. What are the things that wind up having more importance than our relationship with God? It’s different for all of us, but we’ve all got them. Then the question becomes, what can we do about it?

The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving but, perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that for most of us, apart from a Wednesday evening church service, Lent isn’t a whole lot different than any other time of the year. Maybe it’s Luther’s fault and we’ve become too confident in God’s grace.

Going back to the psalm though, maybe the psalmist can help us with the words, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” That’s something for us to do. Those are words about worship and one approach to Lent is to be more intentional about worship, not just being here but also truly being present and attentive, present to God’s presence, on Sunday and on Wednesday; come to Morning Prayer on Wednesday morning; that’s another opportunity. Carry that over into a daily devotional practice that also reminds you of God’s presence whether it’s through prayerful Bible reading, the daily lectionary is a good place to start, or making use of any other devotional material you may have at hand. The main thing is to intentionally spend time in God’s presence so that your relationship with God becomes more meaningful.

By grace we have been forgiven; it is all on God, a gift of God. Lent is a time to consider what our response ought to be.

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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