Slideshow image

Psalm 51:10-19

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God, my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bowls will be offered on your altar. 

I write this on the morning following our Ash Wednesday Lauds service. This is a service that takes place as the sun rises, marking the beginning of Lent together. Lent is the season of 40 days before Easter Sunday (excluding Sundays) that begins on Ash Wednesday. Since Lent is the journey to the cross, Ash Wednesday is the reminder of why that journey must take place. When our first parents rebelled against God in disobedience, God said to them in the garden, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19) We call today Ash Wednesday because sin and death go hand in hand. We enter the season of Lent mindful of death in the world because of sin; mindful of the spiritual death we all live out of because of the Fall; mindful of our own “deathliness” because of our own sinfulness.

Recognizing our own mortality and acknowledging our sin, we joined with job and repentance, who said, “I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

This is the spiritual journey represented behind the symbol of ashes applied to the foreheads or the hands of those who came this morning. It is important for us to recognize that the symbol does not equal the reality. And so, during the liturgy of the imposition we say something like, “No one should feel compelled or pressured to come forward, nor should you come forward as a way of displaying your own piety before others. This is a picture that you take with you today, a reminder of your sinfulness and mortality; a reminder of gods grace and forgiveness; a reminder that ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’” (Rom. 6:23)

As such, Ash Wednesday is a time of introspection, confession, and repentance. That is why the revised Common Lectionary also includes Psalm 51 as the reading for today. The context of the psalm is the prayer of confession from King David after he had been found out to have an adulterous affair and committed a murder to try and cover it up (cf. 2 Sam. 11). The prophet Nathan comes and accuses David; and David prays, “Have mercy on me, oh God, according to your unfailing love. According to your great compassion, block my transgressions.” (vs. 1) David knows he has been living out of the deathliness of his own heart, and so he prays, “Create me a pure heart, O God.” (vs. 10)

Having received the symbol of the ashes on my forehead this morning, and having placed it on the forehead of others, I'm particularly mindful of verse 16 and 17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” David knows the rituals of his faith. David knows the liturgical practices and the commands of God for Tabernacle and temple (Tent of Meeting) worship. There are many other psalms that indicate that David also knows that these things are important for the life of the believer (Ps. 27:4; 84:1-2; 63; 65; 96:8; etc). But the acts are only valuable insofar as they represent a deeper spiritual reality in the life of the practitioner. Sacrifices and burnt offerings - or the imposition of ashes - are functionally meaningless without a “Broken spirit and contrite heart.” 

A broken spirit is one humbled by the truth of God’s Word in the gospel about who I am and what I need for salvation. A contrite heart is a heart that sees the depths of our brokenness and sin; and yet also sees the magnitude of God’s mercy. If we know and focus only on the depths of our brokenness and sin, that will lead to self-loathing and eventually to apathy. If we always only focus on what we have received, that would lead us to be self-exalting or proud – especially as we tend to turn the gifts of God into something we believe we’ve earned or accomplished ourselves. Meditation on the one helps us balance the other. Holding up one side of the coin helps us measure and equally weigh the other side. In short, properly understanding my guilt helps me properly understand God's grace; having a better understanding of God's grace allows me to live my life in gratitude for all that he has done and given me.

Whether you received the impositions of ashes this morning or if you are doing something else like up chocolate for Lent, the sign of the thing is supposed to deepen our experience of the spiritual reality of the season. These simples and disciplines aren't sacramental – they aren’t a means of grace… but they are liturgical. And I believe that these types of liturgical sacrifices, offered to God, are something he delights in (cf. vs. 19).

 Lord Jesus, as we enter into the season of Lent help me be mindful of my brokenness and sin. Help me to journey towards the cross with the kind of confidence that comes from knowing that the cross isn't the end of the story, but we eagerly anticipate Easter Sunday. Hear my prayer even as I long before the new life in Christ Jesus revealed in me. In Jesus’ name, Amen!