March 5, 2014 Ash Wednesday
Sin Set to Song
Daniel 9:3-19, Psalm 51, Joel 2:12-17, St. Matthew 6:16-21
So here begins Lent. No more pancakes, time for soup. Time to come clean.
If it’s a confession you must have, I have never considered writing a ditty about my sins, setting it to song and then putting it all down in a book so that generations long past my own could relive my sins endlessly.
That’s what King David did. We relived his sins again just now, in Psalm 51. It surfaces in our consciousness the catalogue of his sins in the matter of Bathsheba. David coveted another man’s wife, stole her, lay with her, murdered Uriah the Hittite lest he find out and lied about the entire sordid mess.
He shattered five of the 10 commandments in nothing flat. If sinning were an Olympic event, he would have hauled home the gold. But he has other talents as well. Gifted poet and musician that he is, he sets his sins to song.
Well, confession, they say, is good for the soul.
Martin Luther despised it. Or said he did. He beat himself up, literally –self-flagellation, it’s called – and confessed for hours on end. Later he wrote:
“Nevertheless, my conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt and said, ‘You have not done this correctly. You are not contrite enough. You omitted this in your confession.’
“Therefore the more I tried to heal my uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak, and troubled I continually made it.”
When he saw the light, as he might have put it, he railed against the Roman Catholic Church. Her penitential system existed to allow priests to control and manipulate their sheep. In “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” he applied to it terms like “tyranny” and “despotism” and “extortion.”
Yet . . . Luther never quit the practice of private confession. When one approaches it not as a recitation of a litany of sins but as the admission of a sin nature, he decided, confession becomes a source of great peace.
And the absolution that follows he called, “a cure without equal for distressed consciences.”
As we have seen, David agrees . . . but he goes public. He was not a private person but a king; his sin contaminated an entire nation. Might his contrition help to restore it?
Psalm 51 is way deep. Arthur Hildersam, a 17th-century English preacher, wrote an exposition of it that ran to 735 pages – but covered only the first seven verses. I’ll try to be briefer, but I think I must confess.
I have not hated my sin as I should. I have shrugged: I’m only human. The world around me – yea, even the church – seems not too much bothered. Why should I indict myself when others grant themselves a pardon?
But of course I know the answer: No matter what men say, sin separates me from God. No matter how I deny my sin, it accuses me. So perhaps my confession distilled is this: I have too little David in me. But here is Lent, 40 days to think again, a season to reconsider.
What may I learn from David’s spiritual genius? Not that he was whiter than snow – dear Lord, far from it. But that he would not wink at his sin, laugh it off as though spouting cocktail-party banter. Oh, he tried . . . my, but he did try.
But then comes Nathan the prophet with a tale about a rich man who owned many lambs and still wrested another from a poor man, who owned that one only. The king is outraged: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!”
How like a sinner . . . appalled at the guilt of another he has excused in himself.
“You are (that) man!” saith the prophet the Lord has sent.
The king dissolves into a puddle of contrition. The king falls to his knees and when he arises he is David the Great, the sovereignly contrite sinner.
Now he sees himself for who he is, no longer the spiritual giant of Psalm 40: “I delight to do your will, O my God, and your law is within my heart.”
A different tune this day: “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is continually before me.”
No little lapse, this sin, but the very veil that separates him from God. What turned him around? A word from God.
There he is, on his knees, naked and unashamed in the great shame of his sin. Mea culpa, mea culpa. He recoils in disgust at his transgression. No more pretense, no more kid’s stuff; he is King David the grown-up sinner.
O, Lord, please, grant me healing. I cannot heal myself. Only thou, O Lord, can make me whole again.
“Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” He asks for the leper’s cleansing, for he is a spiritual leper.
O, Lord, please, grant me pardon. I cannot absolve myself. Only thou, O Lord, can set me free again.
“Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” Sinfulness does not describe him, it defines him. He sees himself for who he is, and he is impotent against his own nature.
As are we all. We can play at pardoning ourselves all we like, but only the blood of the Lamb can take away our sins.
Without pardon, David has everything to lose. The Spirit of the Lord had come upon him, anointing him king and leading him into worship, man’s only correct way of knowing God.
David’s predecessor on the throne of Israel, King Saul, had displeased God, and the Spirit of God departed from him. Now this thing David has done displeases God as well.
Sin strangles worship. This is David’s terror, estrangement from God. “Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.”
Having estranged Bathsheba from her husband, having shattered the marriage covenant that bound them together, David trembles at the prospect that he has ruptured the covenant that binds him to God.
If the spirit of God will not now speak to his human spirit, he is forever an outcast, a spiritual leper eternally banished from the holy presence.
But note well that despite the vastness and the darkness of his sins, despite the dryness of his soul, never does he doubt God’s mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies blot out my transgressions.”
This is spiritual genius, this certainty that God never withholds His pardon when a repentant sinner petitions Him. How many tormented souls have thrown up their hands in despair, deluded by the devil into the fiction that they cannot be forgiven? Only to go on sinning, wandering deeper into their darkness?
But that assurance of pardon moves David to put his sin to song. He promises his Maker and his Lord:
“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.”
He teaches us today by this durable psalm, the 3,000-year-old outpouring of a contrite heart tutoring century after century of sinners in the blackness of our sins and the radiance of God’s mercy. Now, because of him, like him, we have a word from God. He shows us the way home.
And here begins Lent, 40 days to think again, a season to reconsider. Thanks be to God, and amen.