Psalm 51 has been the psalm for the first day of Lent, Ash
Wednesday, since the church’s beginnings. It is a prayer of
deep repentance, when we find ourselves able to do what Adam
and Eve would not. We ask not only for mercy, which we know
we already have, but also for a cleansing of the effects of our sins
in God’s eyes. We know we have been transgressors and sinners
since our very beginnings, but we ask God for clean hearts, for
new spirits, and for the joy of being restored to God. To receive
this, the psalmist tells us, we can forget our extravagant sacrifices
and showy worship practices. God desires only one thing: broken
and contrite hearts from which God will never turn away.
But how does this psalm speak to our hearts today? Few
of us perceive ourselves to be quite so full of the individual sin
described in Psalm 51 that we can’t bear it. Are we really so
guilty from the moment of our conception?
But remember that our primary identity is as members of
the human race—not individuals. We are all linked together,
after all, to make one human body. This means that wherever
children go hungry, wherever war rages, wherever genocides
and other atrocities occur, wherever the earth is polluted, and
the poor are oppressed, we accept responsibility for a collective
state of sin. We are responsible simply by virtue of our being
human from the day of our birth.
How do we bear this painful knowledge of our human
identity? Psalm 51 tells us to ask for forgiveness, God’s truth,
wisdom in our secret hearts, and the restoration of God’s joy for
which we were all created.
Loving God, may we acknowledge the extent of our sin so that we may ask for forgiveness and restoration. Amen.
The texts for Ash Wednesday are all ominous in nature, pointing forward to the redemptive power of God’s grace. Lent is a time when Christians reflect on their mortality and sin, as well as on the creative and re-creative power of God. The original parents of humanity could not resist the seduction of the serpent, but that narrative stands beside the story of Jesus’ lonely and painful resistance to the power of Satan. In Romans, the “one man’s obedience” by which “the many will be made righteous” is the quality that endures. The Joel passage is an alarm bell in the darkness of the night. Those who are caught in this terrible moment cannot hope to save themselves, for they are powerless to do anything on their own behalf. They are powerless to do anything, that is, except to repent and to open themselves to God’s intervening mercy.
• Read Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. What choices have you made that put you outside God’s intention for your life?
• Read Psalm 32. Are there unconfessed wrongdoings in your life that need God’s forgiveness? Will this Lent be a time when you can nd the freedom forgiveness brings?
• Read Romans 5:12-19. Have you experienced a relationship that has died? How has God renewed that time in your life?
• Read Matthew 4:1-11. What has tempted you to set faith aside and to trust only in yourself? How did that work out?
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