An Ash Wednesday Sunday – February 21
A sermon based on Psalm 51
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 21, 2021*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Lent began last week on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Because of the pandemic we decided not to have an Ash Wednesday service this year. But we thought we’d cover it a bit today the first Sunday in Lent. Most of our liturgy and the lesson were all in last year’s Ash Wednesday service–and this sermon incorporates and discusses that lesson.
Ash Wednesday services that typically start Lent tend to include reflection on past failings and the hope for betterment, symbolized by ashes, communion and prayer. Due to Covid it is still too risky to have communion or the imposition of ashes. But we can certainly pray and talk about failings and hope for betterment. The failings at issue are sins, a word that refers to failing to make the shot at targets God aims us at. From time to time, we have all missed those targets, and Lent is about learning from those failures. In learning there is hope, hope that we can re-aim and have new chances to make the shots.
Lent is ultimately about second chances, transforming what we are at this moment into what we are called to be. In each moment we are called by God to aim for the very best we can be. A part of that is understanding that God forgives whatever sins, whatever mis-aimings we have done. We can move past them. Our lesson this morning, Psalm 51 is about just that. To try and keep the service shorter under the Covid protocols, I decided to read the lesson as part of the sermon and comment a little along the way.
As we’ll see Psalm 51 begins focused on sins, and ends focused on God. Lent is supposed to be like that. Find the sin, deal with it, clean it out and re-start our Spiritual life finding God. And if anyone thinks they’ve committed too big a sin to get cleaned up, they’re wrong. The spring cleaning of Lent is available to everyone for every sin.
Psalm 51 is typically ascribed to David the King. While scholars doubt David actually composed Psalm 51, he certainly could have used its words to reflect on his own life and sins and the grace God showed him. David’s sins are as bad as they can get, yet, God forgave David.
It was wise of the ancients to connect Psalm 51 to David. Rev. Dr. Clint McCaan, a leading scholar on the Psalms, puts it like this :
“To hear Psalm 51 as David’s prayer and testimony is to appreciate the radicality of divine grace. After all David had violated at least half of the ten Commandments– he coveted . . . his neighbor’s wife; he committed adultery with her; he lied about it; and when the lies did not work, he had Uriah killed. And yet despite the extent of his disobedience, and despite the fact that he had committed capital offenses, David was forgiven! So, whether David actually prayed Psalm 51 or not, we should have him and his experiences in mind as we [consider] Psalm 51. . .” 1
As we consider the words of Psalm 51 let’s think of our own failures to make the shot God’s aimed us at, our sins. And let’s do keep in mind King David’s far greater sins. And lets also think about the hope offered by God’s no strings attached forever love.
Psalm 51 begins with these hopeful words about that very love, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” That’s God’s abundant no strings attached forever love.
After seeking God’s love, the Psalm then offers this prayer that we can claim this morning as a Lenten prayer of Spiritual spring cleaning :
“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 alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore, teach me wisdom in my 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 crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
Hear how this prayer of Spiritual cleaning leads to transformation from a lesser existence, with the salvation that leads to the restoration of joy and a willing heart? That transformation leads to generous giving back to God. 2
Once cleansed the Psalmist prays:
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”
That broken spirit and heart reference are not about us being put in a sorrowful, or even broken, spirit as we might use the terms today. They’re about having a humble heart remorseful about past sins, ready to do things God’s way– to do our best to make the shots God’s got for us.
Simply put, it about having done our Spiritual spring cleaning and getting our hearts prepared for what God wants.
One of the best summaries of God’s desire for us and the targets God wants us to aim for are found in Micah 6:
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
This Lent may we choose to experience a Spiritual spring cleaning and begin anew our humble walk with God, a humble walk aimed as God aims us toward doing justice and loving kindness. May we aim for the targets God sets for us and make the shots. AMEN
* based in part on a sermon I first wrote in 2011
1. McCaan, Clint, Great Psalms of the Bible, 2010, page 72. The general nature of this sermon was inspired by the chapter on Psalm 51 in this wonderful book
2. Ibid at 75.
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