13 March 2006


So I realized I haven't really updated anything lately. Things are good. No need to bitch too much here tonight.

My training for the Fargo Marathon continues to go smoothly. Last Friday I ran 8 miles on the treadmill in our basement. The real achievement was Saturday, when I went for a 3 mile jog with a visiting friend of ours who is soon to be training for an Ironman event. We had a nice little jog and she only mentioned our slow pace once when we got back to house and spouses. So a shakeout after my longest workout yet wasn't too terribly slow for an experienced marathoner. Wasn't really quick, either, but hey, little victories count in this game. (J, if you're reading this, please be kind and don't comment...)

I'll do some serious roadwork this weekend in Nebraska. I'm going home to help my family with my grandparents' estate auction, but I've got my first real long distance run scheduled on Friday morning - ten miles. The nice thing is that I'll be able to do it on gravel roads - much easier on the knees.

I finished Post Captain last night. I'm not sure what I think of the Jack Aubrey novels. The stories are enjoyable, but I spend so much time translating the dialects and period terminology that they can be frustrating. Now I'm reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a dying pastor's letter to his young son. Very interesting. Here's a quote I found painfully true:

"I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless in most cases. People want to respect the pastor and I'm not going to interfere with that. But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I ever learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp."

So you can see why I might find this book enjoyable. It's nice to know one is not alone, even if the character with whom one is identifying is fictional.

One reason I haven't read as much this year as years past has been the number of movies we've watched. Sometimes it's amazing - and sometimes it's depressing - to look at the list we've run through this year. We watched the Oscars and got a whole list of more movies to watch, but at least these look marginally redeeming. I'm really looking forward to "Good Night, And Good Luck." That movie has intrigued me this year more than any other, even more than "Brokeback Mountain."

So, that's pretty much my life right now - books, movies, and, of course, ministry. I'm continually amazed at how much I'm coming to love the people of our congregation; they are dear friends to me now, even when we disagree. Life is good here in Barrett.


"Thanksgiving" - A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!
2 Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose spirit there is no guile!

Those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday may remember the three-fold confession of Psalm 51. Here in Psalm 32 we have that same description of human sinfulness, with the addition of another element of sin. The first word for sin in Psalm 32 is transgression, a child's rebellion against her parents. The second word is sin, a target that has been missed. The third word is guilt, the twisted, deformed nature of a life infected by sin. All three of these were listed in Psalm 51 as a description of the utter sinfulness of the writer of that psalm of repentance.

Today we see another element of sin: guile. This is treachery, unreliability, "like a gun that backfires or cannot be depended on to function."[1] The combination of the four gives us a description of a thankful person: "someone who is not rebelling against God, whose life is on track, straightened out, and marked by honesty," according to one scholar.[2] We believe that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable human right – but is this the pursuit our nation's founding fathers intended? Too often we equate happiness with material possessions, a lack of suffering, a certain level of comfort: the psalmist today shows us that happiness that is truly worthy of thanks comes from personal transformation from a rebellious, twisted, broken life to a life of virtue and dependability. This is a description that might be hard for us to understand.

3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long.
4 For Your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

When I was young, I hated to sit through church services. The only thing I enjoyed was the singing: the rest was utter boredom. Being an active, rebellious child, I often displayed my boredom by fidgeting, talking loudly, and making a mess. But my father had ways of making me stay in my seat quietly. My father's hands were heavy. Dad could put his hand on my elbow or knee and find the nerves there in about 1.5 seconds. With one squeeze I generally sat right down and shut right up, because I knew that when that strong, brown, callused hand started moving in my direction, I was out of line and was going to be corrected. I never liked it, and sometimes I continued to rebel because I felt like I deserved to be entertained. But that hand was relentless: it was going to have what it wanted from me, even if it had to cause me pain.

Years later, of course, I understand. Dad wasn't sadistic or even mean: Dad wanted me to sit down and listen because in worship I would receive God's good news. Dad understood the meaning of the third commandment: "honor the Sabbath & keep it holy. We should fear and love God so that we do not despise worship and preaching, but gladly come to hear and obey God's word." Dad knew that the heavy hand he was putting on me was necessary for my own good.

God knows this, too. If God has to get into a wrestling match with you, like Jacob by the river on the edge of his brother Esau's land, then God will do it. God will grab that nerve in your elbow or your knee or your soul and squeeze hard if that's what it takes: God's not above fighting dirty to get your attention.

Abraham Lincoln once forgave a Civil War traitor because the man's mother requested it. But legend has it that Lincoln said, "all the same, I wish we could give him a little bit of hanging." Sometimes God uses a little bit of hanging to help us remember who it is that has given us all we have and what we are supposed to be doing with it. Sometimes God's word comes in a heavy-handed way, not because it is evil, but because it is necessary. And shouldn't we be thankful for a Creator willing to break His own rules because He is so determined to do good for us?

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.
6 I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." Then You forgave me the guilt of my sin.

God's word doesn't come heavy-handed because God wants it that way. My father used a heavy hand because he needed my attention: God uses a heavy hand to get our attention and to help us see where it is our sin is leading us. The twisted, off-the-mark, rebellious, treacherous things in our lives will kill us without God's heavy hand to get our attention. Some Sundays of my childhood I sat right down, shut right up and started listening, and that was all my father wanted. I never even had to apologize for my uncontrollable fidgeting – I just had to stop it, and my father was satisfied. Other times I needed further correction. I can remember my father asking me if I understood why he was angry with me, and I had to confess what it was that I had done. Again, this was all that was needed: our relationship was mended with the simple confession and forgiveness my father offered to me. Dad knew that if my rebellion continued, I would miss the things of great importance that were offered in that church in Nebraska every Sunday morning – and so Dad asked me to confess my sins in order that I might not miss such a great gift.

God asks the same of us. God asks us to remember what it was that separated our relationship so that we might guard against it in the future. God asks us to confess so that we might know exactly what kind of people God is forgiving. God is giving us more and more reasons to be thankful because our sins are great and our need for forgiveness grows with every passing day. And then God forgives. God offers us absolution, not because our confessions are accurate or worthy, but because God is a God of great and abundant love. Shouldn't we be thankful for a God who helps us to ask for the forgiveness we need, which is more than the forgiveness we want?

7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to You in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8 You are my hiding-place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with shouts of deliverance.
9 "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye.
10 Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you."

I imagine this might be a hard couple of verses for the survivors of Katrina to hear. When the water is rising in your house – when you're desperately looking for any kind of shelter at all, when the bodies are floating around your house and you haven't eaten in days, what kind of God could you believe in?

I can't tell you what Katrina survivors might think about God, but I can tell you what you can do now for yourselves. One of the great failures of the Katrina disaster was a failure to adequately prepare – and that is one of our great failures of faith, too. There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but the faith you find in a foxhole isn't the faith that God intends for us. The levees in New Orleans broke because the engineers hadn't built them strong enough: the levees of our faith break for the same reasons. The time to prepare for the floods in our lives is on the sunny days, when it there isn't a cloud in the sky, when we can build our faith and our lives in confident hope that the God who brings blessings will also watch over us when the storm clouds threaten.

The key in these few verses is the word therefore. It connects everything that comes before to everything that comes after. Because God's hand is sometimes heavy, we confess, receive forgiveness, and begin to understand that in our times of trouble the God who forgives is also a God who rescues. Because God wants to instruct us and teach us, we should listen and prepare for the storms that may rise in our lives. Because God has promised forgiveness, we should trust that no circumstance or failing can come between us and God's love for us.

Thankfulness can't rise from people who don't know where to look for it. A horse or a mule isn't thankful for the bit that causes pain, but a horse needs a bit to know where to go. The law is the bridle that holds us back from our sin, and the thankful soul is one that sees the world through the freedom of forgiven sin, through the removed restraint. The thankful person has no need of restraint because the thankful soul knows where danger lies and, more importantly, the way to life and peace through forgiveness and love. Shouldn't we be thankful that we have a Creator who teaches us to live life beyond bit and bridle into freedom and love? Shouldn't we be thankful that we have a Creator who wants to teach us on the sunny days to weather the storms that are coming?

11 Great are the tribulations of the wicked; but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12 Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

In the end, we who trust in God have nothing left but thankfulness. Through God's hands the power of conviction leads us to confession. Through God's hands forgiveness and mercy are given freely. Through God's hands we are sustained through the trials of life and even through the doorway of death. Through God's voice we learn to follow without a harness or restraint. None of this is from what we deserve, but from a loving God who continually creates in us what is needed for the world God desires. A wise man once said that "if the only prayer we ever learned were "Thank you," it would be enough."

Last week I played for you a song by Rich Mullins – I won't do that again this week, but I'd like to read you the lyrics to another of his songs, entitled "The Hatching of a Heart:"

Well the night was cold and my heart was hidden very safely in a shell
But I knew somehow I'd have to run that risk, have to open up myself
But You said "look at the stars on the face of the sky; they're the same ones Abraham saw.
Come under my wings I will make you shine, give you strength enough to love."

Oh, now I'm getting strong enough.
You helped me chip my way out and open myself up
And for the snow that comes with winter
For the growth that comes from pain
For the joke I can't remember
Though the laughter long remains
For the faith that brought to finish
All I doubted at the start
Lord, I give you praise for all that makes
For the hatching of a heart

Well my face was smooth and featureless, just like an egg
And if I was moved you would never guess it by the look upon my face
But You said, "Man looks without but I look within; I can see the love you hide.
It's a matter of doubt it's a symptom of sin. It's a problem of too much pride."
And I, now I'm opening up wide
Wet feathers pulled out from beneath me
And You're teaching me to fly
For the strength that comes with friendship
For the warmth that comes with hope
For the love time can't diminish
And for the time love takes to grow
For the moonlight on the water
And for the bright and morning star
Lord I give you praise for all that makes
For the hatching of a heart

We do not learn thanksgiving through receiving the good things we want: we learn thanksgiving by learning to look for the good we already have. When we understand that all of life is a gift from our loving God, that even our burdens and our sufferings and God's heavy-handed conviction are given so that we might grow and be transformed and be made new, we learn to give thanks in all that we say and do. When conviction, confession, forgiveness, endurance and finally wisdom are our way of life, we learn to give thanks in the way that God desires. Be thankful, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord. Amen.

[1] James Limburg, Psalms. (c) 2000, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. p. 104

[2] ibid.

05 March 2006

"Pilgrimage" - A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Like the farmer in the gospel of Luke, who saw his surplus crops and built huge bins for the excess he never lived to enjoy, we like to think that our own lives are a central thing, that the world revolves around us and always will. This psalm of pilgrimage helps us to remember that our lives are a pilgrimage, a sojourn, from birth to death. This psalm of pilgrimage reminds us that not only are we on a journey, but we have a steadfast companion on the journey – a keeper, if you will, who will not slumber or sleep and will guard every step we take with care. On this first Sunday in Lent, when we remember the journey our Lord took to the cross, this psalm of pilgrimage gives us strength for our own journeys along the way of the cross. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, You call us to follow You in this life. You ask that we take up our cross as the light burden for our journey. Show us again how You keep us, how You shelter us, how You watch our going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore. Amen.

1I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

This beautiful psalm was read at my grandmother’s funeral in January. She grew up in Stromsburg, Nebraska, which is a small town in the flattest parts of central Nebraska. When she married my grandfather and moved to his hometown of Wakefield, she said one of the things she appreciated most were the hills. Now, my beloved wife, who grew up in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, says we don’t know from hills where I come from, that what I call hills aren’t really hills because you can drive or walk right over them. I guess it’s a matter of perspective.

One of my favorite spots in all creation is the top of a hill just outside of Ashland, Nebraska. It’s called Inspiration Point, and it’s a worship site at Carol Joy Holling Camp, where I worked for five summers when I was in college. Inspiration Point is, as you might have guessed, the high point for miles around – you can see the Platte River bending to the northeast, you can see rolling hills for miles around (or, as Kristin likes to call them, rolling mounds), you can see most of the actual camp property, including Ranch Camp about a half mile to the northeast. If the weather is clear on the Fourth of July you can watch fireworks from Ashland, Fremont, Waverly, Gretna, and even Lincoln, over 20 miles away.

It’s not hard to see why the psalmist would look to the hills for help. In addition to being beautiful vantage points, hills are the strategic points in any country’s defense. The old city of Jerusalem sits on top of a hill overlooking the Hinnom and Kidron Valleys. Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther hid after he was branded a criminal for refusing to recant his writings, is at the top of a hill east of Eisenach, Germany that takes almost an hour to climb on foot, and leaves even healthy hikers out of breath at the top. When the psalmist writes about looking to the hills for help, the psalmist knows that if there is any strength to be had, it’s going to be found in the hills, where eyes can see for miles and quickly spot any danger that might be threatening.

Psalm 121 is part of a series of psalms that most scholars think were used on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. But Psalm 121 isn’t limited just to journeys to Jerusalem – it is an invitation to consider how the strength and keeping of the Lord goes with us on the journey of our lives. My grandmother remembered it as she left her home and family in Stromsburg on her journey with my grandfather after they were married. Legend has it that Dr. David Livingston recited Psalm 121 before he left England to do missionary work in Africa. Today we read Mark’s account of how Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, where He journeyed alone for 40 days and 40 nights. Wherever we find ourselves, we look to the hills for help, because we know that the maker of heaven and earth watches our journeys from the high ground and sends help in time of need. We pilgrims trust that the One who puts the hills in their place will also use them to watch our path and guide us in the way we should go.

3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

It wouldn’t do to have a watcher who sleeps, would it? After all, one of the worst crimes a guardian can commit is sleeping while on post. Protection in the deep hours of the night is no easy task. Just ask any of our county sheriffs what 3am Wednesday morning is like.

Psalm 121 was written for those who travel on foot, which was the most usual way of travel in ancient Israel. In fact, travel is one of the reasons that Israel has been contested land for so many centuries. Israel contains the 'coastal highway:' the only flat land between the Sinai peninsula to the south and modern day Turkey to the north. Since sailors didn't know about compasses and rarely traveled over open ocean, even the boats would follow the coastline, and many goods made the journey from Africa to Europe through Israel.

Of course, this meant that criminals were also following the same roads. In the story of the Good Samaritan, some interpreters suggest that the reason no one stopped to help the wounded man was their fear that it was a trap. Once they stepped off the road to help, bandits would seize the helpful traveler, steal his money and usually kill him. It was not unusual to see dead bodies along the side of the road between Galilee and Jerusalem. So for the pilgrim psalmist, God is the watcher who never sleeps and never lets your foot slip as you travel along the road.

God is the guardian whose first concern is our well-being. I'm reminded of Bing Crosby's description of General Waverly in White Christmas: “We ate, then he ate. We slept, then he slept.” When God provides protection, God will not slumber – though you may feel as though you were in danger, the God who watches over you is always aware of danger and will not let you fall.

5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

In Hebrew poetry the placement and order of characters often emphasizes the point of the text itself. We have an example of this in verse 5a of Psalm 121: "The Lord is your keeper." There are the same number of Hebrew letters before and after this verse, all indicating that this phrase is the central point of the entire psalm.

Notice that even though this is a psalm for travelers and pilgrims, the Lord is the active one at the center of this psalm. You can almost hear John Wayne reminding us of this: "The Lord is watching out for you, pilgrim – you’re on a journey, but the Lord is at the center of all the action." Some Jewish festivals required people to travel to Jerusalem for sacrifice and worship, and here in verse 5a we have a reminder that if the Lord requires a journey, the Lord will also keep those who undertake it. In fact, this central verse remains true when the journey is completed, as we'll see later on.

Just a minute ago we spoke of the dangers of travel in ancient Israel. Pilgrims had choices when it came to facing that danger. Travel by day was far safer, because bandits and thieves couldn't surprise you as easily. But traveling under the sun could be dangerous, also - sunstroke was a real concern for those who traveled by day. One might often see pilgrims seeking shelter under trees and in other shady spots during the worst heat of the day.

Pilgrims could, of course, avoid that danger entirely by traveling at night, but then the danger of bandits & thieves rises again. In addition, some believed that moonlight was something to be avoided because excessive exposure to the moon could lead to mental and behavioral disorders. The word lunatic comes from the Latin root luna, "moon": a lunatic is one who has been moonstruck.

The psalmist takes all of this into consideration and reminds God's pilgrims that whatever dangers may come by night or by day, the Lord our keeper will guard us and will not let us be tested beyond your ability to survive. There is still danger, yes – the sun and moon are part of God's creation and will not be held back from doing what they were created to do. But the Lord who keeps Israel will not let pilgrims be endangered beyond our ability to survive.

7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Here we see that the keeping of the Lord is something far greater than a simple trip or even a great journey. This is “an invitation to live fully in the present on the basis of a promise.”[1] Here in Psalm 121 we are given promises that extend beyond the immediate pilgrimage of today into the complete pilgrimage of our lives. From the days of Abraham to today, God called God's people into strange new adventures, sometimes without physically moving at all. God reminds us that though we live in this world, this world does not live in us, but in its Creator. The Lord our keeper is also the Lord our Creator, who gives times and seasons to each of us differently. Not one of us is a permanent resident here: we are pilgrims, sojourners in this world that God has created, and our time here will someday come to an end. But until that time, the Lord who created us and set us on our pilgrimage will also keep us along the way.

Rich Mullins wrote a song about his own sojourn that I'd like to play for you now. You'll find the lyrics in your bulletin.

Land of My Sojourn

By Rich Mullins & Beaker

From the album “A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band” © 1993 – Edward Grant, Inc.

And the coal trucks come a-runnin'
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin'
Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin'
For the land of the milk and the honey
And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss them
and I'll sing my song, and I'll sing my song
In the land of my sojourn

And the lady in the harbor
She still holds her torch out
To those huddled masses who are
Yearning for a freedom that still eludes them
The immigrant's children see their brightest dreams shattered
Here on the New Jersey shoreline in the
Greed and the glitter of those high-tech casinos
But some mendicants wander off into a cathedral
And they stoop in the silence
And there their prayers are still whispered
And I'll sing their song, and I'll sing their song
In the land of my sojourn

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here
So I'll call you my country
And I'll be lonely for my home
I wish that I could take you there with me

And down the brown brick spine of some dirty blind alley
All those drain pipes are drippin' out the last Sons Of Thunder
While off in the distance the smoke stacks
Were belching back this city's best answer
And the countryside was pocked
With all of those mail pouch posters
Thrown up on the rotting sideboards of
These rundown stables like the one that Christ was born in
When the old world started dying
And the new world started coming on
And I'll sing His song, and I'll sing His song
In the land of my sojourn

Deuteronomy 28.6 - 6Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
Psalm 125.2 - 2As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.
Psalm 131.3 - 3O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
Romans 8.38-39 - 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It's a cliché, of course, but it's true: life is a journey, not a destination. In God’s word we learn where to look for help along the way. The sojourn is not easy, nor is it simple: the way is hard to see and difficult to follow. But God has given us a journey with Him through this life into the next, and along the way God provides comfort, support, companionship and even defense for us, so long as we remember to look to the hills for his help. Regardless of whether we are just beginning our journey or near the end of it, we have a God who watches over us, who never slumbers or sleeps, who guards our very lives by giving His own on the cross. Lift your eyes to the hills, fellow pilgrims, and remember: your help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Amen.

[1] NIB IV p. 1182

01 March 2006

"Repentance" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Preaching Text: Psalm 51.1-17

Let us pray: O God, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise. Amen.

I was an incredibly clumsy, distracted, forgetful, and generally frustrating teenager. Some of you are finding that hard to believe. Those of you who know me better are thinking, "was?" I lost homework and lists of chores. I forgot errands I had agreed to run. My family knew that if I was looking directly into their eyes, there was about a 50% chance that I would do what they were asking. Without eye contact they would have had better luck asking the dog.

The phrase that came out of my mouth most frequently in those days was "I'm sorry." It was my talisman, the magic words that would guarantee sympathy, understanding and grace. "I'm sorry" was supposed to let me get the hog house cleaned when I wanted to do it, not when it needed to be done. "I'm sorry" was supposed to let me eat up all the candy bars I was supposed to sell for NHS and then beg off the money I owed the group. "I'm sorry" was the skeleton key to unlock the hearts of all those people who were just so demanding of me.

My father is an wise man sometimes. He doesn't say an awful lot, and sometimes what he says isn't really all that important, but in moments of genuine frustration his words carry a lot of weight. One afternoon when I had finally tested his patience to the limit with yet another litany of excuses and apologies, he looked at me and said, "You know, I wish you'd say 'I'm sorry' a lot less and act like you mean it a lot more."

In a fairy tale, of course, this would be the moment when all the weight of my many sins would have landed squarely on my shoulders. In a fairy tale, I would have vowed then and there to change my life forever, and I would have become as dependable as the Postal Service. In a fairy tale, I would have become a paragon of punctuality and maturity, steady and unmoving as the Rock of Gibraltar. But this is real life, not a fairy tale – and I'm still clumsy, distracted, forgetful, and generally frustrating. The only thing that has changed is my age.

I mention all of this as a means of getting at the idea of repentance, the first of our themes from the Psalms for this Lenten Season. There are a lot of ideas out there about repentance, some good and some bad. Our psalm tonight reminds us that repentance is, in the end, not a matter of our choosing – it is a matter of God's mercy, even though it may not feel like mercy when we begin to get repented.

The person who wrote this psalm was a person overwhelmed by a sense of his or her own sinfulness. Tradition tells us that David wrote this psalm in his agony after the Bathsheba affair. Just to refresh your memory, here's the story: David saw Bathsheba bathing and decided that even though she was married, he had to have her for himself. So they spent an afternoon between the sheets and Bathsheba became pregnant. Piling sin upon sin, David invited Bathsheba's husband Uriah back home from the battlefield, hoping that Uriah would go home, celebrate his brief leave with his wife, and thereby cover up their sin. But faithful Uriah refused to go to his home and his wife when his fellow soldiers went without on the battlefield. So David had Uriah killed on the battlefield. After Bathsheba had finished mourning the death of her husband, David took her as one of his wives.

Let me read to you from II Samuel what happened next:

…the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ 5Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’

Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.

Nathan was called by God to confront David in his sin and expose the affair for what it was. In the light of Nathan's confrontation, David's eyes were opened to see the darkness of his own sin and the depth to which he had fallen. It was no longer a matter of turning over a new leaf: David was dead in his sins. No amount of excuses, apologies or promises to do better could ever pay the debt that David owed to those he wronged. Before David could even begin to consider repentance, he needed God's loving care – he needed a whole new life.

There are three words for sin in Psalm 51. The word transgression is a word that also means rebellion; a deliberate step against the authority in one's life. The word iniquity is a word that also means twisted, or bent out of shape; what was once good and pure has been reshaped into something flawed, twisted, even deformed. Finally, the word sin is a word that is best translated as missing the mark; an archer who has not hit the target. The psalmist confesses complete sinfulness – a three-fold litany that has led to utter separation from God.

This is someone who is doing exactly what my dad wanted from me – someone saying "I'm sorry" and being absolutely truthful about it. Not "I'm sorry" with the hidden hope of forgiveness, but "I'm sorry" as a description: 'I am a sorry excuse for a human being.'

The British preacher Charles Spurgeon said that: 'after the Christian confesses sin, he offers no promise that he will of [his own ability] behave better.' Some, when they make confessions to God, say, "Lord, if you forgive me I will not sin again;" but God's penitents never say that. When they come before him they say, "Lord, once I promised, once I made resolves, but I dare not make them now, for they would be so soon broken…I can only say, if you will create in me a clean heart, I will be thankful for it, and will sing [your] praise for ever; but I cannot promise that I will live without sin, or work out a righteousness of my own. I dare not promise, my Father, that I will never go astray again…"

But the writer of Psalm 51 shows remarkable faith in God, because against that three-fold litany of transgression, iniquity and sin, the psalmist also has a three-fold litany of hope. "Blot out my transgressions," the psalmist says, asking God to wipe away rebellion like a parent wipes away our tears. "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity," the psalmist says, asking God to scour away this bent, twisted and deformed life. "Cleanse me from my sin," the psalmist says, asking God to make him as clean and white and pure as Jesus was on the mountain at His transfiguration. The psalmist knows that God's hesed, God's steadfast love, will bring mercy where no one could expect to receive it. The psalmist trusts that God's love for God's children overwhelms the disasters we call our lives.

We gather to be marked with ashes tonight because we know we are dead in our sins. We are dust, and to dust we will return. But as we are marked tonight with dust, we also remember what God in grace can do with dust: God can create life.

The psalmist prays, "Create in me a clean heart, O God." In the entire Old Testament, creation is ascribed to only one being: God the Creator. Only God creates. Only God takes the dust that is us and breathes into it ruah, the Holy Spirit that brings life. Only God can take what is sorry, twisted, off the mark and rebellious in our lives and wipe it off, wash it away and make us clean again. Only God can purge us, teach us, restore us and sustain us with the Holy Spirit. And even after all this, we cannot even praise God out of our own ability: only God can open our lips so that our mouths may declare God's praise.

Repentance is not the act of a determined, successful person looking for the best possible outcome. Repentance is not an instant in time when a person 'decides' that God's way is the right way. Repentance is not part of an equation or a formula for the balancing of the scales of justice, where three acts of repentance equal two lies and a covet. Repentance is a lifelong discipline, marked by an understanding that we are powerless to even proclaim the praise of God without God first creating new hearts within us. Luther once said that "when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." Repentance is turning away from our sins, from our temptations, even from our death, and turning toward God, believing that in Christ our turn toward God will not be made in vain. Repentance is a focus on the source of life, a focus on the One who breathed life into the dust that is us. "Repent," our Lord says, "and believe in the good news." You sorry children, covered in the ashes of your sins, will find your sins washed away from you by your God in the promise of Christ's righteousness and grace. Repent, then, and turn toward the One who breathes life into we who are dust. Amen.