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Ash Wednesday, 03/01/2017

Sermon on Psalter 51:, by Patrick Rooney

It was the biggest scandal of the day, one worthy of those overly dramatic headlines which blare out at us from the newspapers at the checkout counter. “King has affair with beautiful woman. Husband conveniently dies in battle ordered by the King.” It was a tawdry affair, one without justification except the satisfaction of certain lusts of the flesh. And it left the king with the stain of two sins upon his hands – first adultery and then murder, for he had indeed plotted the death of the woman’s husband in that battle. In any nation of that day, and especially under the laws that the king himself had promulgated, these were crimes punishable by death. Although the king was powerful in his own country, he answered to another king who was far more powerful and this king sent one of his ambassadors to confront the first king about his crimes. In talking to the king, the ambassador could see that he was getting nowhere, for the king simply refused to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing. So the ambassador tells the king a story about two men who lived in the same town; one was rich and the other was poor. The rich man had many cattle and sheep, while the poor man had only one lamb which he took care of and fed from his own hand. In time this lamb came to be part of the poor man’s household. One day a visitor came to visit the rich man’s house and since the rich man didn’t want to feed the visitor from his own larder, he took the poor man’s lamb, slaughtered it and fed it to his guest. Now when the king heard this story from the ambassador, he became very angry and swore that whoever stole in this manner would die. The ambassador simply told the king that he was this man. Mortified and recognizing what he had done, the king very simply responds, “I have sinned.”

This story of course is the story of King David and Bathsheba and of how it was that, following their affair, David made sure that Bathsheba’s husband was killed in battle. And the story goes on to tell us then how Nathan, the prophet of God, who speaks for the king who rules heaven and earth, comes to confront David with these sins? But in many ways it is not the story itself that is so remarkable, for such affairs are too common almost to count. Rather it is the confession of David who states simply “I have sinned against the Lord” and it is these words which then form the basis of David’s great prayer, a prayer come down to us as Psalm 51 which we read at the beginning of tonight’s service. As we begin our Lenten journey, a journey which calls for us to confront our own sinfulness and the need for God’s mercy, it is right and fitting to hear these words which David wrote as he confronted his own sinfulness and to understand our need for the mercy of God as well.

“Create in me a clean heart O God,” David cries and we join his prayer, “and renew a right spirit within me.” Ten years after leaving my Roman Catholic religious order, these words overwhelmed me. Having neglected God and the Church for some time, I came to attend a Lutheran church where the words from the Offertory prayer of the old Service Book and Hymnal struck me so forcefully. “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Struggling with my faith, with my relationship toward God, with my arrogance, pain and fear, these words became something for me to hold onto, words which confronted me and comforted me at the same time. In these words I came to see that God was calling me to repent and seek renewal in Him.

“I have sinned.” These simple words speak of the repentance necessary on the part of human beings throughout history when they come to the realization that they have broken their relationship with God and turned their backs on His commandments. And it is important for us to note that David says “I have sinned” not that I was made to do sin by that other person; or that I couldn’t help sinning because I was treated badly as a child; or that it was my environment or my culture that was to blame. All of these are excuses we hear today in our courts, in our families, in our culture where no one it seems wants to take responsibility for sinful actions. But David confesses his sin, his own sins, knowing that he had done wrong and that there was no one else to blame. Admitting his guilt, he turns to God in true repentance. “I have sinned.” Three words that speak volumes about how important it is to recognize that we are the ones responsible for our sins and that, like David, we are called to repentance by the King of all creation.

Having confessed, David is not content to simply ask for forgiveness for his sins of adultery and murder, as terrible as they were. The call to repentance from Nathan the prophet leads David to see his transgressions and then to cry out to God to be cleansed. From the opening words of the Psalm, David confesses the very sinfulness of his nature.

And David can make such confession because he trusts fully in the grace of God. “Have mercy…” are the opening words of this psalm prayer. “Have mercy” becomes the call which goes beyond any expression of failure or guilt for sins and looks instead toward the fullness of God’s grace for David knew full well that such confession itself is a response to God’s grace freely poured upon us.

Such confession comes to David as he hears the word of Nathan the prophet, for it these prophet’s word which bring David to the full realization of sinfulness, his hopelessness and even his condemnation before God. For the word of God has come to kill the old Adam in him, that ancient rebellion against God, and David can do no other than to fall upon the mercy of God. The mighty king of Israel comes to acknowledge an even mightier king, one who has control over his life, the lives of all humanity, indeed control over all creation. Falling before the face of this great King, David calls out for mercy. For he trusts that this one who is mighty and strong is also merciful and will show His face to this poor sinful king once again. In recognizing the gracious power of this king, David sees the depths of his sin against Him for if there is no Lordship of God, then that sin becomes just some minor act or failure on our part which does no harm to ourselves or others. To properly talk about sin in our world today is to acknowledge that there is one against whom we sin and having acknowledged such sin then to repent and confess.

God pours His unmerited mercy upon us, calling us to live new lives in Him. Knowing that Nathan’s words bring both condemnation and grace, David comes to the Lord begging for a new heart to be placed within him, a heart which will beat with the same grace, love and mercy that he has been shown by God. And this new heart will reach out in love to those around him so that David will now say “I will teach your ways to the wicked and sinners shall return to you.” Having been shown God’s mercy, David the sinner feels the call to share that good news with others so that they too might come to know and experience that same mercy from God. Living under the gracious mercy of God, David and all sinners can now cry out “Open my lips O Lord and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

Filled with such praise, this Psalm speaks to us in this Lenten season so that, like David, we come before God trusting in His gracious mercy. Filled with such praise in this Lenten season, the words of this Psalm are spoken on our lips and sounded in our cleansed hearts. Filled with such praise, this Psalm calls us to sing aloud for all to hear, so that the world will come to know the gracious mercy of our God. Filled with such praise, we with David and all the saints forever sing “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving-kindness.” Amen    

Rev. Patrick Rooney
Dillsburg, Pa 17019
E-Mail: pastorrooney@gmail.com