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LSB Ash Wednesday Sermon – Psalm 51:1-13

March 8, 2014

March 5, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me….” Those words came from King David’s mouth. Most of you may know that. But it’s good to be reminded of that fact. Those words of Psalm 51 were the result of the confrontation between the LORD’s righteous judgment and David’s sin. Why had David been confronted? Because of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, his arranging Uriah’s murder, and his fathering a child out of wedlock. You may recall how the LORD sent the prophet Nathan to point out David’s sin without pulling any punches. Nathan’s parable about a rich man taking a poor man’s only ewe lamb drove David to condemn sin, then Nathan points out that David is that man.

So what does David do? Does he state that this judgment was unjustified? Does he defend his actions, saying that they were not sinful at all, that they were holy as he has determined it? Does he declare that the LORD had no right to judge him? No. Those aren’t how David responds to the LORD’s confrontation. “You are the man,” says Nathan. And David says: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”

David’s response is a confession of sin. He confesses. He speaks the same way about himself that the LORD speaks about him. The LORD through His prophet had called David a sinner. And David says about himself, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.” David acknowledges his guilt and acknowledges that the LORD rightly confronted him about it. There has been a transgression of the LORD’s Law. And David has admitted it.

And this is what leads David to the LORD’s salvation. The LORD’s confrontation of David was meant to move his heart and mind. David needed to be shaken out of any thought that he had done well in the Bathsheba incident. There had been no good done. The LORD’s Law had been violated in many and various ways. But the LORD does not want to leave David there; He desires to forgive him who has gone astray. The breaking of the LORD’s Law is a serious matter; it needs to be answered with something just as serious: the LORD’s forgiveness.

So David asks for it: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” And the LORD’s answer is to grant David what he asked of Him. He looks on David mercifully, not staring at his sin forever. Absolution is given, blotting out the guilt. David’s heart and mind are made right again. The LORD takes David from the despair of facing everlasting condemnation to the joy that comes from being a recipient of salvation. 

What the LORD did for David on an individual level is the same act performed for Israel on a corporate level. That is why the LORD sent the prophet Joel with the command meant for all of Judah: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” All the LORD’s people are called back to Him. They are moved to have their own “David moment”: the acknowledgement of guilt and confession of wrongdoing, followed by the LORD’s declaration of righteousness and pronouncement of forgiveness.

The LORD’s character is revealed in the command given through the prophet. That character is drives the LORD to act not only for one individual or just one nation, but for the entire world. Jesus’ work is the great divine act done from the LORD’s gracious will: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus is how the LORD has had mercy on you and the entire world. This is how iniquity is truly cleansed. This is how transgressions are blotted out for eternity. This is the LORD’s gracious answer that stands for all time.

Reception of the LORD’s gracious answer is His will for you. So His confrontation of your sin does come. Failure is pointed out. Every time the LORD’s Law is mentioned, taught, spoken, preached, your fault is shown: “You have not loved Me with your whole heart. You have used My name frivolously. You have not always honored My holy things. You disregard those who carry My authority. You do not preserve the life that I provide. You abuse sexuality. You take things that aren’t yours. You slander and backbite and grouse about all your neighbors. Even when I grant you possessions, you are never content.” That is the LORD’s confrontation with your sin.

So what do you do about it? Do you state that this judgment is unjustified? Do you defend your actions, saying that they actually are perfect and holy? Do you declare that the LORD has no right to judge? That is not what has been said tonight! No, you have joined in David’s confessional prayer. You have acknowledged your guilt. You have said that the LORD is correct in His judgment against you. You have made confession of sin, saying the same thing about yourself as the LORD says.

But that confession did not stop there. You have spoken the truth about Jesus’ work. You have called for the aid that comes from His holy incarnation; His holy nativity; His baptism, fasting, and temptation; His agony and bloody sweat; His cross and passion; His precious death and burial; His glorious resurrection and ascension. You have also said the same thing about the LORD’s good and gracious will for you as He has said: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” 

That is why you make the statements to the LORD: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” So how does the LORD answer you? He says, “Yes, I will do so. Your souls are cleansed. My salvation is meant for you. I will not remember your sins. I am present here for you. My Spirit dwells in you. Do not despair, but rejoice at what I have done for your benefit.”

This is the “David moment” that you have again on this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of this penitential season. “The LORD says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Today is the favorable time for you. The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; He relents over disaster. He listens and answers your prayer. You have gone from being brought forth in iniquity to becoming the righteousness of God. The LORD gives His salvation to you. It is yours to keep. So you may be glad.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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