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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/29

          “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness.”  It’s been the psalm refrain throughout this Lenten season, this first verse of Psalm 51.  It’s the psalm that started Lent back on Ash Wednesday.  In addition we’ve reflected on the loving kindness, the steadfast love, the hesed of God as the term has recurred in the psalms and the lessons during the last five weeks.  I can’t say that I was planning it when I said I was going to focus on the psalms during Lent, I didn’t really know where I was headed when I said that, but hesed has kind of become the theme of the season at least for me. 

Lent is a time to think about your relationship with God and hesed is a good word to add to your vocabulary as you think about that relationship and also as you think about the nature of God.  It is an old Hebrew word but it’s also a very Lutheran word as hesed is a word of grace. 

It was the word ancient Israel used to describe what it was about God that caused him to be inclined to love them and welcome them and forgive them despite their failure to always be who God wanted them to be.  They depended on God’s hesed to secure their relationship; they depended on the fact that this loving kindness was not just one characteristic of God but that it was at the core of God’s very being, central to God’s identity.  So they depended on this promise of God to be God to them despite their unworthiness just as we depend on God’s grace for forgiveness and salvation knowing of our unworthiness, knowing that if it’s up to us our relationship with God is always in danger.  So as Christians, we look to Jesus, whose death and resurrection we will remember and celebrate over the next few  weeks as he becomes for us the ultimate act of God’s hesed.

It is to that hesed that the psalmist appeals in Psalm 51.  If you read this psalm out of your Bible it would tell you that this is a psalm of David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba.  We don’t really know that.  It certainly could have been a psalm of David as he recognized his sin but what it becomes is a psalm for any of us at those times when the depth of our sin becomes painfully apparent to us.  We can be pretty good at living in denial of our sinfulness but every once in awhile it hits us so that we can’t even hide from ourselves anymore; Psalm 51 is a psalm for those times.

There are psalms that blame others, there are psalms that blame God but there is none of that in this one; it’s all on the one who prays the psalm, one who has fully acknowledged sin and guilt saying  “Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are justified when you speak and right in your judgment.”  Justified when you speak and right in your judgment; if deserve has anything to do with it the psalmist is in trouble because he knows that he deserves punishment.  His only hope is in the steadfast love, the loving kindness of God.  “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness.”

Psalm 51 is then essentially a series of petitions calling on God to act because of God’s hesed.  Have mercy on me; blot out my offenses; wash me; cleanse me; remove my sins; hide your face from my sins.  It’s a lot to ask for but the psalmist dares to do it because of the knowledge of God’s hesed.   

In the part of the psalm that we have today, this series of appeals to God ends with the familiar “Create in me a clean heart” refrain that we’ve been singing as the offertory during Lent.

The words “Create in me a clean heart” are familiar but I suppose we hear them differently than the people of Israel would have heard them 2500 years ago, even the way people might have heard them 50 years ago because we live at a time when you can quite literally get a clean heart.  For this congregation Steve Leverton  and Emilie Brown are the most recent examples of this but looking out there I know there are others who have had clogged arteries cleaned out, opened up or by-passed so that you do wind up with a clean heart.  These days it’s pretty routine and of course doctors can do even more than give you a clean heart, they can actually transplant a new heart into you, used I suppose, but new to you.  That’s the world we live in which isn’t the world of David or whoever originally prayed this psalm.

They would have had no concept of the physical kind of heart cleansing that is possible today but what they were thinking about and praying for was even more remarkable, even more life giving.  In the Bible the term “heart” is one that is hard to define exactly, but it refers to more than an organ in the body.  Instead “heart” represents the very center of one’s being and consciousness, that part of us that really makes us who we are.  It represents the totality of our inner nature so it includes a spiritual element, but it’s even more than that; it’s spiritual, it’s physical; it’s emotional. 

In this prayer though, when the psalmist asks for clean heart it’s a prayer to be free from anything and everything that alienates him from God, free from everything that blocks or hinders the relationship.  It’s a prayer for change that goes to the very center of one’s identity…and that raises the question of whether or not such change is even possible.  We know that doctors can clean a physical heart and make it like new, but can the inner nature and identity that the biblical term heart represents really be changed?

In a way, the psalmist answers that question for us and the answer is that no, we are not capable of such change.  In fact that is why the prayer is offered.  This is a prayer for those times when we become fully aware of our sinful nature and the fact that we can’t do anything about it.  When the psalmist prays “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” God alone is the subject of the verb create.  In Hebrew, only God can be the subject of the verb create.  So there is full acknowledgement here of dependence on God to change the nature of who we are.  We can’t do it, but God can.

This then gets to the heart, if you will, of our theology of justification by grace.  It was Luther’s sense of his own sinfulness and his inability to do anything about it that led him to understand that God had to be the actor in the story of redemption, that if it depended on our action we could only fail.  But God has acted!  By Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, and our being joined to that death and resurrection in baptism, our nature is changed and we are made right with God.  We are given the clean heart that the psalmist prayed for and from that clean heart we become capable of outward actions that are pleasing to God.

In a way, Lent every year represents our ongoing effort to accept our clean heart or in more Lutheran terminology, to respond to the clean heart that we’ve been given as a gift of grace.  To respond and act in God pleasing ways we have to know who we are in God’s eyes, that while we are still sinful and always will be, our heart has been cleansed.

There is a lot of theological discussion about how what Jesus has done for us effects this change in us, much theological discussion about how baptism joins us to Christ.  The bottom line is that we don’t have to understand the how.  Our role is to accept the gift in faith and to respond and through the church and our tradition we are given the means to strengthen our response.  As we become engaged in scripture, active in worship and prayer, as we share in the sacraments we are given the means to bring our outward actions more in line with the inner cleansing we have been given.  These spiritual practices mediated by the power of the Holy Spirit effect further God pleasing change in us, sustaining within us a bountiful and willing spirit that enables us to act.

The confession of Psalm 51 kind of brings us full circle during this Lenten season.  With our focus on the hesed, the loving kindness, the steadfast love of God throughout this time though, I hope you hear this psalm differently than you did on Ash Wednesday.  It is still a psalm of confession and recognition of sin.  Reassured by the knowledge of God’s hesed though, we can hear it now, we can pray it now as a psalm of hope and a psalm of the assurance of forgiveness.  We can pray it as a psalm of grace.     


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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