There are few verses in the book of Psalms that can rival the raw emotion and beauty of those in the 51st. Then again, there are few people who we are given such a clear view of what a fall from grace can look like. King David is the one who is supposed to have written Psalm 51. His story is a story of elevated highs, and the deepest of valleys. Out on his rooftop one night toward the beginning of his time on the throne, he spots the beautiful Bathsheba bathing nearby. He uses his power as King to exploit her for his own personal gain. It’s likely that he forced her to have sex with her, which at the least is abuse of power, and at the most rape. Not only this, but he tried to cover it up by getting her husband to sleep with her around the same time to show that it was a child from her marriage relationship. When Uriah didn’t comply, he went as far as murdering her husband. I don’t know about you, but it sounds a bit like a Netflix crime documentary, doesn’t it?
With this background, we have some help in understanding where these words of deep repentance come from. It’s interesting that in the circles I grew up in, the Bathsheba sex-story was sort of glossed over. It’s certainly not in any of the children’s Bible’s we have in our living room for our one year old daughter. At most, the details of the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was the center of the story, rather than the forced sexual encounter of David with Bathsheba. We have had a hard time acknowledging abuse of power, especially when it is men doing the abusing. Religious circles are no different.
And yet, we have Psalm 51. David did repent, and only after the prophet Nathan called him out. Here’s the deal: when I think of what David did, I want to be angry at him. I want to hurl the stones at him because what he did was utterly despicable. To be honest, it reminds me of the past of a prominent athlete that came starkly back into view the day he and 8 others tragically died in a helicopter crash. There was a huge piece of me that wanted to be mad at Kobe for his inappropriate behavior with a woman that at the least was an affair and at the most rape.
However, when push comes to shove, Ash Wednesday is a reminder that we’re all David, and we’re all Kobe. Sure we may not use the power we have over people exactly like they did, but what Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5:21-37 (and plenty of other places), is that we’re called to a radical transformation of the heart, and even in the heart, we’ve sinned even if we don’t necessarily act upon it. Boy, have I acted upon my sinful desires, and I believe you probably have to. This is what the theology of original sin is all about. And this is what Ash Wednesday is all about. Now, believe you me, I do believe in justice. What I’m not advocating is forgetting what people have done. David had some stiff consequences for what he did, including losing children because of it.
However, God’s grace, not sin, is the most important feature of the story of David and Bathsheba. God’s grace is the most important feature of Psalm 51. Isn’t it interesting, that Paul was converted into the greatest missionary of all time, even after his incredible persecution of the Christian people? Paul was one of those guys who falls into the ‘love to hate’ category. This is how the Kingdom of God works, though! The table always has space for the outcasts.
Before we get to any description of sin, David appeals to the loving and gracious character of God with the words mercy, steadfast love, and compassion. It’s after describing the God being sung to, that David mentions his sin. The words in our text show the burden of sin. They show that human fallibility is inevitable. In all of humanity, sin is pervasive. We’re born into it. It also has a communal sense to it where it affects us and others. That is so true in David’s story. He hurt Bathsheba in more ways than one, and David’s sin led to death for several people.
David then harkens back to stories of God’s working in the lives of God’s people through God’s relentless love. David uses words like blot out, wash, and cleanse. Descriptive words showing that sin is not the final word about humanity. The words the Psalmist uses show an utter dependence on God. The famous line of ‘create in me a clean heart’ in verse 10 uses the word create which is only used in the Old Testament as a reference to God’s creative activity, like in the creation story and in Isaiah in reference to the new thing God is doing. This clean heart and new spirit that David receives from God, flows from the unending mercy, love, and forgiveness of God. It points to the character of a God who never gives up on us. After David is given a new, transformed Spirit, we see that there is a communal aspect to transformation as well, not just the communal side effects of sin. David promises to share this experience with others who have sinned against God and their fellow humans. David plans to bear witness to the transforming work the Spirit has done in him. This shows that the story of God’s grace certainly is meant to be shared, and can be the last word for those willing to receive it.
Recent articles seem to show that even in his darkest moments, Kobe sought out confession, and help from the priests in his Catholic tradition. And on the morning he died, Kobe and his family celebrated mass together. Kobe’s story reminds me of David’s story. And both of their stories remind me of the destructive power of sin. But Psalm 51 reminds me that when I am tempted to judge people like Kobe, I have to remember that I have had moments of deep anguish before God where I’ve begged God to blot out my sin, to wash me clean, and to create a new heart within me.
The incredible news revealed in Psalm 51 has more to do with the nature of God than us and our sin. God is always willing to forgive us, and to create a new heart in us. God is always inviting us to live into covenant with God and to be like David in proclaiming the transformation God has brought to us. God’s grace is always waiting for us, even in the middle of our sin. So this Ash Wednesday, may we recognize the reality that we are all like David. We have all fallen into the trap of sinfulness before God. Perhaps we have used our power to exploit others as David did to exploit Bathsheba for personal gain. May we also understand that Ash Wednesday is once again a call to be reconciled to God, recognizing our own mortality and how Jesus conquered both our sinfulness and our mortality through his death and resurrection. Together, may we confess our sin, trust God to create a clean heart within us by the power of the Spirit, and bear witness to the transformative work of God in our lives. Thanks be to God!  J. Clinton McCann Jr. “Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:886.