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Psalm 51

In a world where grace is cheap, and repentance seems an unnecessary relic of the past, Psalm 51 is a stunning immersion in the icy waters of reality. Sin matters. And God must be dealt with. As the writer of the Book of Hebrews puts it: “ . . . all things are open and laid bare before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (4:13).

It is not by mere whim that this Psalm is assigned to Ash Wednesday. And a discerning pastor should never waste the opportunity given in this important service to call people to consider the very purpose and objective of repentance, both in act and in attitude.

Entry into the season of Lent, of lament, of increasing awareness of the looming cross in the life and ministry of Jesus, calls on the preacher to walk with her congregation with candor, with wisdom, with theological clarity, and with grace. How this Psalm is approached can be transformative, redemptive, and liberating, or it can be oppressive, needlessly pessimistic, and fettered in shame.

In the attribution of the Psalm this is said to be a Psalm of David, voiced in response to the challenge given him by the prophet Nathan after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. While the spirit and tone of the Psalm certainly imply a depth of anguish that compares with how David responded to the confrontation from Nathan, and the depth of his own guilt, the Psalm was more likely penned sometime during the exile, as an expression of the guilt experienced by those among the people of God who came to realize how deeply responsible they were for their own circumstances.

It is at this point that the preacher must exercise wisdom and theological restraint. If in the practice of pastoral care, the pastor is altogether too aware of failure of a variety of kinds at work in the lives of people in the church, the temptation could well be to bear down on the sense of guilt, the obvious manifestations of brokenness, and to the expressions of regret and shame read in this Psalm. But here is the place where pastoral care should begin:  the opening words of the Psalm are not words of condemnation. They are words of grace! The petitioner is not groveling in shame. It is not the guilt that has motived this exquisite plea. The prayer begins with hope! “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love . . .”

As the Psalm unfolds, there is anguish and pain flowing from the lips and from the heart of the petitioner. Deep conviction strikes when it has become obvious that the sin, whatever it may have been, whomever else may have been wounded and betrayed, was thrown into the face of God! God is the one betrayed, offended, disregarded and abandoned. And yet – mercy becomes the foundation for the appeal in prayer.

What the petitioner has come to realize is that repentance of this magnitude changes you. It transforms, rearranges, upends all previous sovereignties and assertions. You can never be the same once you have prayed this prayer at this depth, to this God of such “steadfast love” and “mercy.”

Oh, yes! Sin matters, but the God “with whom we have to do,” is fundamentally a God of mercy, of grace, of redemption, of reconciliation. So, whether or not ashes are imposed, repentance matters. And grace, costly, magnanimous, ever-reaching grace transforms. Let it be an Ash Wednesday where we lament, grieve, confess, repent. But let it also be an Ash Wednesday from which we go, never to be the same again.

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