Ash Wednesday—Year C—February 13, 2013
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and redeemer. Amen.
Every Ash Wednesday we read Psalm 51. Western Christians consider this psalm one of the seven penitential Psalms…meaning that “we pray for deliverance from ourselves,” for forgiveness of our sin and healing of our spiritual brokenness—instead of praying for victory over an enemy or for healing of a specific disease.
We pray that God would cleanse our sin, overlook out offenses, and wipe away our transgressions.
We pray knowing that we are warped, that every day we miss the mark, that we turn away and are therefore separated from God.
Psalm 51 was originally written in response to the prophet Nathan’s condemnation of King David after he impregnates Bathsheba and kills her husband in an attempt to cover up his indiscretion. If you know this story, you can see why David felt the need to pray this psalm of repentance.
But even if we have not gone as far as to commit adultery and murder, we too can pray this psalm. Even if our individual transgressions seem far less grand than those of David, they are still sins, they still work to separate us from God, and we are in need of turning around. We are in need of repentance, we need to turn around and face God once again.
For as Psalm 51 says, there is “truth deep within” each one of us. We each remain a beloved child of God—light, salt, a clean heart and right spirit capable of God’s work with the help of the Holy Spirit.
But I believe that repentance is not always the hardest part of re-establishing a right relationship with God. As a favorite preaching resource of mine put it: just as the ability to apologize honestly, then accept forgiveness whole heartily, and move on is central to healthy adult relationships, so it is just as important, if not more so true about our adult relationships with God. It can be somewhat easy to confess our sins to God, but it is not always so easy to trust in the assurance of God’s forgiveness.
Most Sundays, I stand up here and announce to you “the entire forgiveness of all your sins,” but how many times does it actually sink in? Do you hear God’s word with a lighter heart? Do you share God’s peace with no regrets plaguing your mind? Do you come forward in community to the table of God for the feast 100% sure that you are forgiven, loved, and a beloved child of God?
Sometimes for me, hearing the words “God forgives you” just seems too easy. It is almost as if I need judgement and renewal to be more painful or at least more work. It seems as if forgiveness would be easier to accept if I had completed some penance. But this urge is itself a sin, something that separates me from God. It is my inner control freak trying to be in charge; earning salvation would make it something more to be proud of and enjoy.
But that is not how the forgiveness of God works. The forgiveness of God is a completely free gift; we do nothing to earn it. God is the one and only provider. God forgives our sins, even the ones we forget to confess specifically and calls us to be changed people, to accept the forgiveness whole heartily—assured that God’s promise of forgiveness is for us. This is why it is so central to Christian faith to stand before God and confess your sins, but also stand there and hear the words of forgiveness and live into that forgiveness, not just continue to walk around with guilt.
And that is what we gather here to do today. We gather together to confess our sins, have ashes imposed on our foreheads of a sign of our repentance, and to hear God’s forgiveness.
The season of Lent is not set aside as a time for you to earn forgiveness, but as a time to live into that forgiveness as we hear of Jesus’ journey to the cross one more time—as we hear stories that show both the breadth and depth of human sin, but also the even wider breadth and more immense depth of God’s love for us as enacted on the cross and the empty tomb.
During Lent we are confronted over and over again with reminders of our brokenness, frailty, and mortality as humans. But we also have a chance to reflect on the meaning of our baptisms—which are the major sign of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. And so “what seems like an ending is really an invitation to make each day a new beginning, in which we are washed in God’s mercy and forgiveness.” Amen.