13 February 2013

Sermon for Ash Wednesday - Saved In Ashes And Rent Hearts

The story that gives rise to Psalm 51 is terrible.  King David, the man after God’s own heart, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be the leader of God’s people, was standing on high and looking out over the city of Jerusalem when he saw a beautiful woman bathing and fell victim to his own desire and power.  He had the woman, Bathsheba, brought to his chambers, where he took her against her will and conceived a child with her.  When she told him she was pregnant, King David brought her husband Uriah home from the battlefield so that he might visit his wife, sleep with her, and thus hide the illegitimate pregnancy as one of his own.  But Uriah was faithful to King David and his fellow soldiers.  Uriah refused to leave King David’s house.  He slept on King David’s doorstep the first night, and stayed there the second night even after King David fed him wine and rich foods to get him drunk and fool him into going home.  In the end, King David sent Uriah back to the battlefield and ordered his commander, Joab, to put Uriah at the front of the army, attack their enemy and pull back quickly so that Uriah would be killed.  Joab followed King David’s orders, Uriah was killed, and King David took Bathsheba into his household as one of his wives soon after.

Here is how 2 Samuel 12 finishes the story:  “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord, so 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. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but 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. Now 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.’ Then 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; he 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; I 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. Why 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. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’ David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.’ Then Nathan went to his house.”

King David rejected everything God had given him for the one thing he could take for himself.  An innocent bore the consequences of King David’s sin.  It is out of this guilt, this remorse, this sorrow that King David picked up the harp and composed the lament that begins with these words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”

Tonight is Ash Wednesday, a peculiar “festival” of the church.  We engage in a rite of sorrow and repentance, but most of us come to this night without a particular sin in mind for which we should repent.  I’m willing to wager that so far today, all of you have managed to avoid committing adultery and arranging for the murder of a person who has been faithful to you.  However, I’m also willing to wager that in some way, you have rejected the gifts of God in your life.  Maybe you have committed adultery.  Maybe you’ve gossiped about your neighbor.  Maybe you’ve wished you had your neighbor’s house or car or children instead of your own.  Maybe you’ve fudged your job expense reports and taken what wasn’t yours to take.  Maybe you’ve avoided visiting your parents because watching them age makes you anxious and afraid of death.  Maybe you’ve ignored your children.  Maybe you’ve held a grudge against a friend.  Maybe you’ve neglected your faith and your walk with God.  I don’t live your life, and I don’t walk in your shoes, but I do know this:  every last one of you, in some way, shape or form, come this night knowing that somewhere in your life the accusing finger of the prophet calls you out:  “You are the man!”  “You are the woman!”  

This night is about the truth of that accusation, but it is also about the One who overcomes it.  This night is about the sin, and about the sinner, but it is also about the One who forgives sins and frees us to be remade new in him.  This night is about the lament of David, the broken-hearted psalmist - and his hope, in the end, that God might give him a new song to sing, a song of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
The imposition of ashes is an ancient practice. The ashes are placed on the penitent's forehead in the shape of a cross – a visible reminder of the cross traced on our brows at our baptisms. These ashes carry many meanings: they are a sign of mourning, a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for our sin and failings. They are a reminder of our human mortality, of the death that would be our final end were it not for Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. Additionally, ash is a central ingredient in the making of soap and a sign of purification by fire. Therefore, these ashes are also signs of cleansing and new life. These ashes mark the beginning of a Lenten journey of discipline, repentance, and renewal, and at the same time are the promise of God's forgiveness and cleansing and a glimpse of the sacrifice of the cross. To be marked with ash this day is a sign that we know our human mortality, we recognize our need for repentance, and we desire the renewal that only God can offer.” (Source Unknown)
Even now, even here as we gather to be marked by our sin, today is the day of salvation.  Even in the midst of our sin and sorrow, we are saved.  Even as the finger of the prophet marks us as the sinner, we belong to God.  Even as our hearts are rent by the full admission of our brokenness, we are made whole and clean in the loving embrace of God.  We are marked with who we are:  children baptized into the cross, mortal, destined for the dust and yet promised resurrection.  We are saved, reconciled to God, in ashes and rent hearts.  In our sin, we have nothing but death:  in God’s forgiveness, we possess life and everything that goes with it.  O Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise.  Amen.

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