Ash Wednesday

Be merciful to me


The text for tonight’s message is based on Psalm 51.  dhuffUnder the heading of this psalm there is sub-heading.  “For the director of music.  A psalm of David.  When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba”.  Ouch!  That seems a bit blunt putting that kind of a heading on a song that was used in the temple for worship.  It says that David wrote the psalm and now every worshipper was reminded of his sin whenever they opened their hymnal scrolls to Psalm 51.  Can you imagine the worship leader saying to his congregation, “Let’s now sing the hymn that was inspired by the king’s confession to murder and adultery”?  In certain periods of history saying something like that would certainly have meant “off with his head”.

David had become the greatest king that the land of Judah and Israel had ever seen.  He had defeated the enemies both within and outside the land and brought wealth and prosperity.   

One day David caught sight of the beautiful Bathsheba from his palace roof, began an affair that led to a pregnancy, and to the death of Bathsheba’s husband.  The prophet, Nathan confronted David with his transgressions, telling a parable of two men, one rich and one poor.  The rich man, who had many lambs, took the poor man’s one lamb and slaughtered it to put on a feast for his friends.   David was furious, and then Nathan said to him, “You are the man!”  This revelation led to David’s act of repentance that is expressed in Psalm 51.  The psalm opens like this –

1 Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!
2 Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin!
3 I recognize my faults; I am always conscious of my sins.
4 I have sinned against you—only against you— and done what you consider evil.
So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me.
5 I have been evil from the day I was born;
from the time I was conceived, I have been sinful.

These words are not some casual throw away lines that David rattled off to ease his conscience – perhaps a prayer that he has prayed many times as a kind of ritual that has lost its significance.  Rather this prayer expresses deep anguish and repentance. He looks into his own heart and at his life and the way he has acted and he only sees evil. 

I use the word ‘evil’ deliberately because it gets across the idea of perverse wickedness and sinfulness that is so opposed to what God wants and expects of his creation.  We are not talking about mistakes or errors or slipups or blunders that can easily be dismissed with an excuse or explanation or something like, “I can’t help it” or “Oops!” as if that makes everything go away. 

David is talking about ‘transgressions’ here.  He has gone to places where he should not have gone.  He has stepped over the line coveting another man’s wife, being overcome with lust, plotting and carrying out a man’s murder to get her – this is evil at its worst and David knows it as he says to God, I have sinned against you—only against you— and done what you consider evil. So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me”.

He offers no excuse.  Not even his words, “I have been evil from the day I was born; from the time I was conceived, I have been sinful” are an excuse as if to say, “Look, God, I can’t help it because I was born this way”. He is simply saying that he is a sinner through and through even from moment when he was first given life and not even conscious of the world around him yet.  There is no part of him that is not a sinner and there has never been a time when he has not been a sinner.

It’s true that many of us would say that we haven’t done anything as wicked and horrible as David did but the prayer that David speaks here in Psalm 51 doesn’t pick out the ‘big sins’ to bring to God in repentance.  He is talking about all sin, all transgressions. Whether big or small in our eyes they are all sin in God eyes; they are acts of stepping over the line – transgressions – or trespassing into places we ought not go.  That’s why he even includes the sin he wasn’t even aware of when he was a new born child, even the sin that was part of him while still in his mother’s womb. 

Sin isn’t a matter of individual acts; it is a condition; it is broken relationship between God and us.  We may not even be conscious of the sin in our lives and yet it is still part of us.  It is part of our being.  We are all tainted with sin.  It is something that has been handed down to us from generation to generation from Adam and Eve.

This inbuilt desire to sin becomes clear when we say and do things that are so wrong, so far away from the way God wants us to speak and act. 

The apostle Paul doesn’t beat about the bush and calls a spade a spade when it comes to sin.  In Galatians (5:19-21 CEV) he writes, “People’s desires make them give in to immoral ways, filthy thoughts, and shameful deeds”.  He then goes on to describe how sin causes people to hate one another, to be hard to get along with, to be jealous, angry, selfish, argumentative, say harmful things, lie, and so on.  He concludes, “No one who does these things will share in the blessings of God’s Kingdom”.  Paul makes it quite clear that a sinner cannot stand in the presence of God and cannot expect to inherit eternal life.

In Psalm 51 David poured out his heart to God. He knew that sin had taken control of his life.  In this prayer he admits that his sins are always there and that he can’t fix them.  He can’t hide them.  He thought he could because no one noticed what he had done.  But even though no one else knew what had happened, God knew.  God could see into his heart and knew that David, the one who was supposed to be a model to the whole nation of what it meant to be one of God’s people, had committed some terrible things.

We might be led to think the same thing.  Because no-one else sees our sin it’s okay.  It’s hidden away and it doesn’t matter.  But nothing is hidden from God and it does matter to him because sin destroys the happy relationship that God intended for us to have with him and the world he created for us and the people he placed in our lives.  He wants us to be happy and for us to be happy he has to deal with the evil in our lives.

With such terrible guilt weighing him down and knowing how much he had let God down and being aware how angry God must be, how come David has the nerve to approach God in the way that he has?  Why is David so bold in his prayer after making so many disastrous choices?  We see the answer in the opening line of his prayer where he says,
Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!”

Caught up in sins of jealousy, lust, adultery and murder he had forgotten God but now he had come to his senses and realised anew what a powerful love God has for him and it is only in that love that he can even dare to come before God and own up to his sin.  Because of this love of God he can pray with confidence and without fear, Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me”.

David’s prayer expresses very well our need to be made clean, to be washed and be made whiter than snow.  David knew that even though God is a holy and righteous God and is opposed to sin of every kind, he also knew that God is merciful and his constant love for even the worse sinner never flickers, dims or is extinguished.  David’s confession of the evil in his life is actually a response to the grace of God.  When we confess our sin before God we do so confidently because we know how much God is committed to us and is faithful to us. 

When we see the bleeding, dying Jesus we see what the grace of God has done for us and to what extent God was prepared to go to make things right again between us and himself.  Through his dying in our place the guilt of our sin was removed; we have been made new and clean and fresh again – holy and spotless in the eyes of God.  David uses the words “wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” to illustrate the total removal of the stain of sin and the renewal of our lives with God.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation leading up to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. As we begin this journey we do so knowing that even though we are sinners “God is gracious”.  Without this knowledge we despair.  With this knowledge, we have the confidence to continue the journey, knowing that God’s steadfast love is ever present with us.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy.

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