2/10/2016 sermon “Repentance”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Psalm 51:10-11
Day: Ash Wednesday 2016


ck=leanheartA funny thing happened on my way to preaching tonight. Every time I tried to concentrate on the lessons appointed for today, my attention kept landing on two verses from Psalm 51—verses 10 and 11—which we won’t even get to in the service until after you receive ashes:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy spirit from me.

Do you know—sad to say—that at one time the church itself was badly split over whether God ever would remove his spirit from us? Luckily for us, we don’t need to know the answer to this question. No, we don’t need to know what God will do when we sin. That’s up to God, beyond our control, beyond our understanding. What we need to focus on is what we are to do when we realize we have made a mess of our lives.
Our job is to repent, and Psalm 51 is a model of how to appeal to God for forgiveness.

In fact, Psalm 51 is probably the best-know of the six “penitential psalms.” And this isn’t an anonymous liturgy from the early days of Judaism, as so many of the psalms are. Every major translation of this psalm identifies this psalm’s provenance: who it was written by, when, and why. The NRSV’s dedication says:

To the leader. A psalm of David,
when the prophet Nathan came to him,
after he [that is, David] had gone to Bathsheba.

I’ll bet you know the whole story of David and Bathsheba and Nathan. In case you don’t, or just for a refresher, here are the Cliff Notes: (You can read the entire mess in the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 18, if you’re so inclined.)

King David of Israel was a holy man, a great leader and warrior, anointed by God himself to lead God’s people. David loved God and God loved David. This wasn’t an atheist appealing to God for mercy in Psalm 51. This was an insider; a church-goer; and elder; he even wrote sacred music, played the lyre, led the choir; ran the Vestry.

But David had really gotten himself into God-trouble. He saw a beautiful woman, a married woman, and desired her. So he put aside his God-life and took the woman, and she became pregnant. David the church elder: adulterer.

But David didn’t repent then; NO! He tried to cover up his wrong-doing, much like we ourselves try to do. David called the woman’s husband, a soldier, home from the war zone, hoping that he could pass the child off as the husband’s. David the church elder: sneaky and unrepentant. But the husband refused to engage in sexual intimacy with his wife on moral grounds: since his men couldn’t be with THEIR wives, he wouldn’t lie with his.

David didn’t even give up the cover up then; NO! He sent the husband back to the front, to the thick of battle. And David’s plan worked; the husband was killed. David the church elder: murderer.

So David married the woman and the child was born. A happy ending, right? But things were not right. Things hidden don’t stay hidden. God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David. And here’s where we learn that David, despite all his sin, still had some God-spirit in him. An all-powerful king with no God-spirit would simply have had the prophet killed. An adulterous, unrepentant murderer with no God-spirit in him would have been indifferent to the prophet’s words. But David was greatly convicted of his sins, and began to beg God for forgiveness.

A mark of the God-spirit still within David was that he began to plead with God to forgive him, even before he understood the consequences would involve the death of the child. And David pleaded these words of Psalm 51, begging God to forgive him and spare his son.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy spirit from me.

God did forgive David, although there were consequences: the child did die. And David was heartbroken. But he got up and went and worshiped God.

What David’s sin-story teaches us is that even when we think we are immune from sin, we can fall into grievous errors. And no matter what bad things we do, we can always repent and return to the Lord. Psalm 51 offers a prayer we can use to turn our face again toward God.

What are the consequences of not returning to the Lord? Over and over the Bible teaches us that sin hardens our hearts. Which is to say we ourselves banish God’s spirit. God doesn’t so much remove his spirit from us but we can reject that spirit.

First John, chapter one, verse nine says that “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Often, though, we take forgiveness for granted. So “for granted” that we can neglect to confess. So “for granted” that we fail to perceive our sins or even to begin to deny that sin exists. These are Liberal failings; Conservative failings involve being so hyper-aware of sin that we begin to notice and take action against other people’s sins rather than our own. David shows us how to confess our sins, whether Liberal or Conservative or somewhere in between; listen when re read Psalm 51 together tonight.

We read this psalm each Ash Wednesday to remind us that Lent is a time for each of us to examine our hearts. Has our heart become harder this past year, or are we open to God’s direction in our lives? Lent is when we schedule a repentance check” Do I need to say I’ve erred, I’ve done wrong, I’m sorry, and I beg you to forgive me?

We do this not because we are scared of death, but because we know that God’s spirit is essential for life.


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