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March 8, 2000
An Ash Wednesday Meditation

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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The Only Cure For Guilt
A Reflection on Psalm 51

Perhaps more than at any other time in the Christian year, Ash Wednesday is a call to look inward.  This day calls us to a journey inward where we encounter and confront all that which causes separation between ourselves and God.

Ash Wednesday calls us to a personal and private journey in the sense that we look deep within at ourselves and not at others.  We compare ourselves to Jesus Christ, not to our friends, or neighbors or the thieves and scoundrels who are the real bad guys.

This day and this season of Lent is about a singular, focused question:

"How is it with you and the Lord?"

If there is only one thought you take away from our time together tonight, make it this question...

"How is it between you and me Lord?"

Rather than the traditional "give something up for Lent" practice, make this season a time to "take something on" for Lent.  During the days that lie ahead, take a few moments each day to consciously set aside all the outward noise and demands and quiet the inner chattering of your mind.   Then look yourself squarely in the soul and ask...

"How is it between you and me Lord?"

This is not an easy thing to do or a light commitment to make.  Taking a serious, personal, inventory of our souls is something most of us would rather not do.  Indeed there are significant barriers to the process.

  • We are too busy for our inner lives.

  • We are usually easy graders when it comes to our own lives and hard graders when it comes to the lives of others.

  • We are quick to justify ourselves and slow to excuse others.

  • We compare ourselves to those we consider beneath us instead of comparing ourselves to Jesus Christ and the glory of God.

  • And...  we are sometimes fearful of what we will see.

It will usually take some kind of outer voice or event to turn us to the inward journey.   It can be the words of a parent who cares, or a friends who dares tell us to take a look at ourselves.  Hopefully, for many of us it can be the gentle nudge of the Lenten season.

For King David of Israel, the voice behind Psalm 51, it was Nathan the prophet.  Like many of us, David was living in denial of his grievous sin against his top general Uriah.  In his greed and lust, David broke every major commandment with lying, murderous conspiracy, adultery and theft!

He does not confront the seriousness, nor the reality of what he has done until Nathan the prophet courageously comes to him  and holds a mirror up to the King's face.  Ingeniously, Nathan leads into the sin with a parable in which the King is looking at the situation as though someone else had committed the wrong.  A rich man steals a lamb from a poor man to feed a guest.  The lamb had been like a member of the poor family.  The rich man who could have anything he wanted and any lamb in the land, nevertheless, devastates the poor man by stealing his lamb.

King David is incensed and angrily blurts out, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." [2 Sam 12:5-6] Then Nathan delivers the crushing truth, "You are the man!"

Psalm 51 is the account of David's dealing with his corrupt inner life.  And a  special note here.  Countless people have expressed to me their inability to forgive David. One woman said to me, "I just can't forgive David and it burns me that God would forgive him so easily!"

Understandable.  However, it is important to realize that even though David is forgiven (as any one of us can be forgiven any sin if we honestly turn away from the sin and to God) -- David's life will never be the same.   Besides the death of his child, David will endure the pain and anguish of a family life that has forever been derailed by his own actions.


Although King David's culture and time are so far removed from us, there are significant and important clues about forgiveness of sin and restoration of our relationship with God in these verses.

  • We need to come face to face with our sin and separation from God. I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. [v.3]

  • No matter who we have hurt or harmed, or what we have done, all sin is finally sin against God.  David had sinned against his people, Uriah, and  Bathsheba - but it was sin against God.  "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight..." [v.4]

  • God alone can cleanse us from sin and give us spiritual healing / recovery.  "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions" [v1]

  • Forgiveness of sin brings about new life, new birth or new creation. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me." [v.10]

  • There is no authentic joy in our living until we are reconciled to God.   Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. [v.12]

  • When we have come to terms with our inner condition and have received healing and forgiveness from God, there are two responses by which we may measure the depth of our restoration.  [1]  We share the good news of forgiveness of sin and  [2]  We give witness to the love of God with our praise.  Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. [v.13]   O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. [v.15]

May God give each one of us the spiritual courage to look within ourselves, confront our sin and experience the joy of reconciliation.

And may you keep a Holy Lent.