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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ash Wednesday 03/06/2019

The Psalms are sometimes called the Bible’s prayer book because…that’s what they are. They are poetic prayers that express an honest relationship with God including, as they do, prayers of praise and thanksgiving as well as prayers of complaint and lament, even despair along with all the other emotions in between. I think it’s too bad that for many people the only psalm they’re at all familiar with is the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” not that it’s not a good one that creates a very comforting image, but…that’s not always how you feel or what you need.

With any of the psalms, a good question to ask is, “Whose psalm is this?” not so much as an effort to specifically identify the author but more to try and determine in general terms what it was that prompted the psalmist to pray these words. “Whose psalm is this?” is a question that has been asked pretty much forever and even though in most cases it’s pretty much impossible to say for sure, the earliest editors of the psalms tried to answer the question and you see the answers in the notation that appears before many of them. They attributed many to a specific author, most frequently David or Solomon, and in some cases a particular situation has been identified.

Which brings us to Psalm 51, the psalm that always begins the Ash Wednesday liturgy. With Psalm 51 both an author and a situation are identified: “A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The story from 2 Samuel 12 of David committing adultery with Bathsheba and then orchestrating the death of her husband Uriah is given as the context of this psalm with David praying these words after the prophet Nathan makes him realize the gravity of what he’s done insofar as it includes coveting, stealing, adultery, false witness and murder; in other words, in one series of actions, David has violated five of the Ten Commandments.

We can’t say with any certainty that identifying this psalm with David following his transgression with Bathsheba is accurate, but what we can say with certainty is…that if David didn’t use these words, he should have! “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” That’s where David’s personal repentance should have begun and for us, that’s where our Lenten observance begins, with these words from Psalm 51.

It is an interesting psalm, full of words like transgression, sin, iniquity, guilt, evil and judgment, all words having to do with failure to be who God would have us be. Honesty concerning that failure is an important part of Lent, honesty in recognizing the truth of “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.”

As we say the words of this psalm, the first person singular pronouns are significant. While we do pray the psalm together, for each of us it is or should be personal: my sin is ever before me. Against you have I sinned. This isn’t about David and it isn’t about pointing fingers at anybody else. It’s also not about comparisons, the old, “I may be bad but I don’t think I’ve ever violated five commandments with one series of actions.”

For each of us, this is personal, first person singular personal, especially on Ash Wednesday. The gap between the divine “you” who has been sinned against and the “I” who has done the sinning, is enormous and in need of repair. It’s repair that requires the steadfast love and abundant mercy of the Lord because, as we say in the words of our weekly confession, “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Psalm 51 is an honest “look in the mirror” cry for help and so is Ash Wednesday.

There are a lot of words in this psalm connected with sin; the association of it with the David story further emphasizes the magnitude of the sin. What’s interesting though, is that the psalm leads with words of grace before sin is mentioned. Verse 1 starts with mercy, steadfast love and compassion. Those three words represent translations of the three Hebrew words most frequently used to define the essential character of God. You get the same three words in the Joel reading, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” the words we use as our Gospel acclamation during Lent. In other words, before the psalmist gets around to confession and repentance, there is this reminder of who God is. It’s a reminder to God, it’s a reminder to the psalmist, and it’s a reminder to us.

Recognition of sin does show up in verse 2 and it continues in the verses that follow and again, such recognition is appropriate for Ash Wednesday. As the psalm progresses though, the vocabulary of sin slides more into the background and the plea for forgiveness becomes more central. That plea culminates in the “Create in me a clean heart, O God” verses familiar to us as the Lenten offertory and it’s always worth noting that the Hebrew word translated as create can only have God for a subject, further recognition that sin is a problem that we can’t fix on our own; only God can do it. The psalmist however, can only make this plea for forgiveness out of faith in a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

It’s that kind of faith that makes the honesty of Lent possible. A wrathful, out to get you God would make Lenten honesty unbearable. Part of what we’re reminded of as we begin Lent is that with this God we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to pretend that we are someone or something different than what we are because we deal with a God of mercy, steadfast love and compassion who meets us in our brokenness.

Martin Luther called God’s meeting us in our brokenness the theology of the cross and what that theology does, is it leads us to grace, grace which is the defining characteristic of gospel good news. In Psalm 51, it’s God’s grace and willingness to forgive that creates new life for the psalmist, new life in which the sinner is changed and becomes a teacher, teaching sinners the way of God: “Let me teach your way to offenders, and sinners shall be restored to you.” One has to believe that the curriculum to be taught begins with the transformative power of God’s grace.

Reading this as a psalm of David, David becomes that teacher. In the words of Luther in his commentary on Psalm 51, “David truly teaches us what sin is, where it comes from, what damage it does—and how one may be freed from it.” That how has to do with the grace and forgiveness of a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Psalm 51 does lead us in to Ash Wednesday and the repentance of Lent but as always, grace is never too far below the surface.

Rev. Warren Geier


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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