“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1)
Ash Wednesday. It is said in some traditions the ashes that are smudged on the forehead are from the burnt palms from the previous year. I like that continuity from year to year. Each Lent season we enter it with good intentions that when we are forgiven from our sins, we sill sin no more. But days and weeks pass, and sin creeps in, until Lent season is upon us again and we again need forgiveness.
“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Verses 2 – 3)
I also like the idea that the church body knows that it will inevitably sin, and retaining the memory of grace, hopes on it again. Jesus dying once for us was enough. But we need to repent and be forgiven again and again. This is one of the lessons that young believers learn. That the thrill of new belief gives way to the reality of trying to life a new life in an old world.
“Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Verses 4 – 5)
While it is true that the new believer most likely has turned away from a life not at all centered on God and Christ, human will alone is not enough to keep us sin free. Or, as we have been talking about in the past few days, free will allows us to make choices that are contrary to God’s leading and guidance.
“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” (Verses 6 – 9)
New Christian, or old hand at the Christian life, each of us needs to be re-oriented towards God and Christ. Ash Wednesday is one of those days when we examine our selves, see ourselves as we are, seek to make amends, and hope in the grace and mercy that is to come. And opening ourselves like that, we invite God and Christ is – for the first time or again.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Verses 10 – 13)
It is a yearly rhythm; self examination, confession, and the hope for forgiveness. We sometimes create a journey where we move from self-examination to confession, and then “feign” not knowing what we will do – whether grace and mercy will be ours. In this way we re-discover anew the grace and mercy that God intends.
“Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Verses 14 – 17)
But the using of palms from the year before belies that idea. In its stead we recognize that human will and human frailty have tripped us up . . . again. There are many spiritual disciplines and practices that are carried out during Lent. Throughout history the church has espoused differing ways to take on “burdens” during Lent to remind us of Christ’s travail. We go without something or do something extra to mark the 40 days that are Lent. And there is good and benefit in that.
But we must also remember that grace and mercy are not to be rewards for the burdens we endure or the challenges we take up. As it is so often said, you must believe . . . simply, believe. This is the good news for the new Christian, and good news for those of us who have seen many Lenten seasons.
May you, beloved reader, enter into the season of Lent looking for the hope that is already in place. Selah!