Sermon text: Psalm 51
Consumer culture has had massive success with the Church’s two major holidays—Christmas has Santa Claus and Easter has the Easter Bunny—but they haven’t quite figured out a way to sell Ash Wednesday. No, the church gets to keep this one all to ourselves. You won’t find Ash Wednesday storewide sales or Hallmark specials on television. We have a monopoly on sackcloth and ashes. It’s really tough to sell a holiday that highlights our sinfulness and mortality. But that is the truth we so starkly proclaim this day: we all sin; we all die.
If we’re honest with ourselves, sin really isn’t something we like to talk about these days. We may talk about how other people sin; that’s entertaining. We may confess our sins together in some vague manner; that’s painless. But the larger topic gets very little discussion. No one wants to be a sinner, to use that label, or to claim that title, even though it fits every single one of us.
Your more liberal Christians define sinfulness as an outdated notion that lowers our self-esteem and should be passed over for more pertinent topics. Your more conservative Christians define sin as immorality and as something that is completely avoidable if we just follow the commandments and live a good, clean life. But sin is something we can neither control nor ignore. We are in bondage to it. We cannot redeem ourselves. Sin is enmeshed into our daily lives. Sin draws us in on ourselves and we are caught in its web. Only God can free us.
The irony for this particular Ash Wednesday is that we really don’t need a reminder of our mortality or sinfulness this year. We are full up on death. We are saturated with our sinfulness and brokenness.
If a global pandemic doesn’t make you pause and consider your finitude, I don’t know what will. By the same token, if you aren’t concerned about the partisan nature of our country right now, how sinful and broken we’ve become on the whole, then I don’t know how to open your eyes. These two storylines have dominated our lives this past year and there is simply no way for us to extract ourselves. We can pretend it’s not a problem, turn off our screens, bury our heads in the sand, or justify our personal positions…but that hasn’t worked so well, and these two symbols of sin and death remain. We are entangled.
The great step of faith we take this day is acknowledging our dependence on God. We cannot save ourselves in the same way that we cannot individually end Covid-19 or unite our divided country. The first step is naming the problem, which is why we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
In Psalm 51 we hear a plea for forgiveness and renewal. Tradition tells us that these are the words of King David, confessing to God after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his extracurricular activities with Bathsheba, and after David had sent her husband Uriah to his death in the front lines of battle.
Even Israel’s most revered king, God’s chosen, is subject to the wages of sin. As he wrestles with his actions David turns to God for mercy and forgiveness, yearning for that which only God can give:
1Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For centuries David’s plea has become our own, for we realize that we are entangled in sin just as much as the king was entangled with Bathsheba. We ask for God’s character to overshadow our human frailty. We pray for God’s refreshment, for transformation, and for holy direction:
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
This day we are given a choice as we begin this season of Lent. We can either discount our faults and overlook the unpolished areas of our lives, or we can have courage to name our flaws and trust in God’s ability to forgive and renew us. We can join in David’s psalm of confession, or we can play the part of the ostrich and ignore what we can. The choice seems simple, especially when you consider that Psalm 51 focuses much more on the grace of God than it does on our human faults.
And so, while this holy day may not have the commercial and societal success of Christmas and Easter, it does carry the refreshingly stark good news that is hidden in our condition. Yes, we are dust. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we are unable to fix these things on our own. But we are not on our own, and throughout these forty days of Lent we will see the unfolding story of the cross of Jesus, of how God will defeat death and repair our brokenness, so that we may have abundant life.
It is through this gift of grace that we will open our mouths to declare God’s praise. For God has already breathed into dust the breath of life, and we trust that God’s breath will continue to bellow into us when we become dust once more. AMEN