All Saints Margaret Street | Ash Wednesday High Mass and Imposition of Ashes Wednesday 5 March 2014

Sermon for Ash Wednesday High Mass and Imposition of Ashes Wednesday 5 March 2014


“Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness: according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my offences.”

Psalm 51 is the most striking of those psalms which the Church traditionally calls Penitential: ones which are prominent in the Liturgy of Lent.

In the Bible it has a rather racy title or introduction which does not appear in liturgical psalters:

“A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after, he had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”

Nathan came to convict David of sin because of that adultery, the pregnancy which ensued, the king’s botched cover-up, and then his arrangement of Uriah’s murder. It’s the kind of story which would make the front pages of the tabloid newspapers.

The association of this psalm with that scandal may well be a later addition but it signals to those who read or sing it that it is about sin and forgiveness. And so the Church sings it on Ash Wednesday.

In fact, the psalm is more about God’s character than our sinfulness. The psalmist is able to make his prayer for forgiveness because of what he knows of the mercy and goodness of God. 

He then goes on to petition God, as we do in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, not just for forgiveness but for re-creation: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  

He trusts in the compassionate nature and intention of God so firmly that he is even able to anticipate that transformed existence. “Then shall I teach your ways to the wicked and sinners shall return to you.”

“Deliver me from my guilt, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness.”

In the story of David and Bathsheba, the decisive thing is not David’s sinfulness but God’s grace. That sin did have grave consequences; the first child born to Bathsheba dies (and David’s family nearly falls apart).

Yet, David’s sin is forgiven. He is allowed to live and remain king.

Just as God’s grace is the most outstanding feature of the story, so too Psalm 51 begins with focus on God.  Before the words of confession which dominate the opening verses, the psalmist appeals to God’s character. He uses three words that communicate God’s grace:

  • “mercy”
  • “steadfast love”
  • “compassion” 

All three also appear in the story of Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf in Exodus, so Psalm 51 can be read against that background too. It applies to communal, corporate sin, as well as to that of individuals.  Both stories are about the forgiveness of grievous sin. God’s character is what keeps relationship intact.  Both David and Israel are justified, made right with God, by God’s grace.  So it is with the psalmist who admits that God is “proved right” in God’s judgement, and later affirms that his “tongue will sing of your righteousness.”  He has been or will be set right by God’s grace.

After appealing to God’s character, the psalmist then turns to his own sinfulness. Israel’s vocabulary of sin pervades these first few verses. The basic word for sin is filled out by:

  •  The personal “guilt” of the sinner
  • “Transgressions” which suggest wilful rebellion
  • “Evil” – the injurious effects of sinful behaviour

The emphatic “Against you, you only, have I sinned” sounds odd to us. Is it suggesting that our sins have no consequences for others: all those Bathshebas and Uriahs and the children?  What the psalmist is really saying is, not that our sinful behaviour has no destructive consequence for others, but that sin has its origin in our failure to honour God.

“I have been wicked even from my birth, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

This verse has been used to speak of the unpopular doctrine of original sin. It does not mean that sin is transmitted biologically or that sexuality is by definition sinful: although Christians have sometimes suggested both.  What it does convey is the inevitability of human fallibility. In each human life, in our human situation, sin is pervasive. We are born into it, and we cannot escape it. While sin is a matter of individual decision, it has a corporate dimension that affects us, despite our best intentions and decisions. We ignore that truth at our peril.

But the link with the story of David and Bathsheba reminds us that the reality of God’s steadfast love is more fundamental than the reality of human sinfulness. 

“Behold, you desire truth deep within me and shall make me understand wisdom in the depths of my heart.”

The wisdom that the psalmist prays for is an openness to and a dependence on God.  While sin is inevitable and pervasive in the human situation, it is not the last word.

His faith in God’s transforming power is clear in language used in the Old Testament only of God’s activity: in creation and new creation: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”   To be forgiven is not just a wiping clean of the slate, a get out of jail free card. It means to be restored to conditions that make new life and growth possible.

Then because of that new life, his thoughts turn to others. Having been made new, he promises to share this experience with others.  “I shall teach your ways to the wicked, and sinners shall return to you.”  The chief among sinners will be the teacher of sinners.  The reconciled will bear the message of reconciliation.

But an inward transformation is not all or enough.  The clean heart and new spirit will be accompanied by the outward and audible proclamation.  God’s new thing must be proclaimed and praised:  “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”  And so we do every day at Morning and Evening Prayer.  And on Sundays in Lent, we will rise from our knees after confessing our sins, to sing: “O Lord, open thou our lips.  And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.”  And in this mass, we will offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  Psalm 50, had identified the proper sacrifice as “thanksgiving” – humble gratitude accompanied by faithful words and deeds.

And this is exactly what the forgiven, transformed psalmist offers to God.  What God desires is a “broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”   God desires the humble and contrite who are willing to offer their whole selves. If pride is the fundamental sin that leads to idolatry, then the transformed psalmist now shows a humility that leads to praise.  The psalmist’s offering to God is the whole self. He has much to proclaim, but it is not about the self but God.  His witness is pointed in the same direction as his opening appeal: to the character of God.

The final verses, which may be a later addition, give the intensely personal testimony a corporate dimension.  They remind us that sin is never simply a matter of individual decision; it is also a matter of corporate, institutionalised evil.  The justification of the individual sinner does not rule out the need for participation in the worship of the community.  It enables proper participation.  “Right sacrifices” will be offered by those who have first offered their whole selves to God. By the mercies of God, even the traditional rituals, the same old order of worship, will be transformed.

This psalm, this day, this season, this liturgy, call our attention to a perennial feature of the human situation: sin.

Israel’s story is a long list of mistakes.  So too the behaviour of the disciples in the gospels, the life  of the early Church revealed in the letters of Paul, the life of Paul himself, whose words in the epistle echo the psalm, the history of the Church throughout the centuries, its life now, our own lives, if we are honest enough to admit it.  Psalm 51 is not just about David or Israel or some anonymous ancient psalmist; it is about us.  It is about how we are as individuals, families, churches.

That is the bad news.  But the good news in Psalm 51 is even more prominent. It is not just about human nature, but about God’s nature.  The good news is that God is willing to forgive sinners and, better yet, is able to re-create people.  He is “of sin the double cure”, forgiving what is past and transforming the future.

Psalm 51 invites us to “be reconciled to God.”  As Paul knew, reconciliation happens as a result of God’s willingness to forgive. The result is a new creation, and the reconciled are entrusted with the message of reconciliation. 

Pope Francis has said: “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”