This sermon was preached on March 5 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My texts were Psalm 51 and Isaiah 58:1-12.
Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists.
Wipe away my wrongdoings…wash me completely clean of my guilt; purify me from my sin! Because I know my wrongdoings, my sin is always right in front of me. I’ve sinned against you – you alone. I’ve committed evil in your sight.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin…
Hide your face from my sins; wipe away all my guilty deeds!
That’s a lot of talk about sin.
Probably more than most of us, if we’re honest, are comfortable with.
Depending on how you were raised, and if you were raised up in a religious context, you may have different thoughts about sin. I grew up in a more Evangelical context, where it seemed that people had no difficulties talking about sin: their sins, your sins, anyone’s sins, really. It was simply a part of the vocabulary of that religious culture. You knew sin was something bad, something to avoid, and so much of Christian discipleship turned into simply avoiding sin, something Dallas Willard calls “the gospel of sin management.”
At some point, for me, it felt like, perhaps, there should be something more to following in the way of Jesus than just trying to tiptoe around the land mines of sin…never knowing when you were going to trip and set one off and end up shaming yourself, regretting that one mis-step.
And so I found myself reading and listening to and hanging out with folks who talked a little less about sin, and a little more about the radical and inclusive grace of Jesus; the kingdom of God, and how we might be able to partner with God to see God’s hopes and dreams realized in our world. That is the theological space that I still feel most comfortable in, but when I read these two texts for tonight, I knew that I was going to have to preach about sin. It was unavoidable.
Psalm 51 is one of those texts you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear at most Ash Wednesday services. This is a Psalm that was written by David at a pretty low point in his life. Well, that might be an understatement. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had just ordered her husband, Uriah, out to the front lines of battle, where he would be killed.
And it’s clear that he knows he’s messed up: he writes, “I know my wrongdoings, my sin is always right in front of me…hide your face from my sins.”
While our situations are vastly different from David’s, we’ve all probably experienced moments like this in our lives. Times of intense sorrow, or deep shame and regret, for the way we acted in a certain situation…the way we talked to someone we loved in a heated argument…the way we judged someone without knowing them. And so we can relate to this anguish that David is experiencing. And maybe you’ve had conversations with God similar to the one David has here in Psalm 51.
Psalm 51 contains the words of a penitent person, someone who understands the significance of their sin, and is asking, begging even, for God to cleanse them. For God to be the ever-compassionate God that God is. For God to give him a fresh start, an opportunity to start over. For God to forgive him, so that he might be able to praise God again, and teach others about the joy of God’s salvation.
And yet…as much as David seems to be penitent and is asking to be cleansed by God…another way to read this Psalm is to see that David doesn’t really get it.
One commentator relayed a story from seminary when one of his classmates was preaching on this Psalm – and she drew everyone’s attention to the ascription that precedes the Psalm, that small text under the title of the Psalm which tells us a little about the context of when we believe that Psalm was written. For Psalm 51, that text says: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him just after he had been with Bathsheba.”
And yet, in the Psalm, David says, “I’ve sinned against you God – you alone.”
He’s just committed adultery with Bathsheba…had her husband killed…and he still thinks that he’s only sinned against God? He still thinks that it’s just something between him and God? And no one else was going to be affected by his actions?
As I think back to the days when sin was constantly talked about and discussed and dwelt on, in my religious circles of friends, it tended to focus on individual sins, on the person committing the sin, and God, God alone. Perhaps it’s our Western Culture’s fascination and obsession with the individual self, or perhaps it’s just our own self-centeredness, but we, like David, can sometimes forget that our sins are more than just between us and God. Our sins are part of a larger, systemic, social sin – something that we see in our Isaiah reading today.
God is speaking, in this passage, to people who were claiming their devotion to God, and then treating their workers unfairly. They were fighting and arguing…and then going to fast and try to appear holy. They said they were following God, but their actions betrayed them – their actions showed how they were not only guilty of their own individual sins, but that they were also participating in the larger, systemic sin: the sin that was seen through the structures in place in that culture for oppressing and mistreating others.
Like David, they weren’t sinning against God, and God alone. It wasn’t just a personal thing between them and God. Their sin had taken on a new identity – had become something that was bigger than any one person.
So what would be the answer to all of this sin? Did God need each individual to repent and turn away from their ways? To become more fully committed to God?
When God tells them what God desires of them, it actually isn’t focused on personal piety and their individual devotion to God. It’s beyond that – it looks to the culture, to the world in which they live, to the structures in place in society. It’s about things bigger than any one person’s change of heart. It’s about releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated and actually breaking every yoke. It’s about sharing your bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless poor into your house. It’s about covering the naked when you see them…
…for that’s when your light will break out like the dawn.
A commitment to social justice and a desire to see the kingdom of God here, NOW, in our world, isn’t a new idea…it’s what God desires of God’s people. For if we open our hearts to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, our light will shine in the darkness, and our gloom will be like the noon.
And the Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places.
I love that promise.
The Lord will guide you continually…even in parched places.
As we begin this Season of Lent tonight with our Ash Wednesday Service, isn’t that what we’re doing? Aren’t we beginning a journey into parched places? And don’t we yearn for God’s companionship with us during the next 40 days?
Frederick Buechner, in his book “Listening to Your Life,” says this about Lent:
“After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into a wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question, what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another, what it means to be themselves.”
As we begin this journey into Lent, we truly are seeking what it means to be ourselves and what it means to be human. Certainly, we are reminded of our mortality, of the finite time we have been given to spend here on this earth. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.
But as we seek what it means to be ourselves, I think it also means we have to be honest about our sin. As I mentioned before, it’s not necessarily comfortable for us to think about our sin. We don’t like the idea that we are a broken people…a people who are in need of grace and love and wholeness. But as David says in Psalm 51: “A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God. You don’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.”
It is in admitting that we are broken, that we aren’t whole, that we are able to open ourselves up to the grace and love that is available through God in Christ. And in doing so, we are again reminded of the promise that the Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. God will rescue your bones, and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
But it’s not only about us, right? It’s also about this idea of the systemic sin in our world. It’s about the sins of self-centeredness, of greed, of oppression, of unequal rights, of modern-day slavery…of all the things that clearly are not aligned with God’s hopes and dreams for this world.
Lent is the time when we seek what it means to be ourselves, both individually, and as the Church. It’s the time to be honest with ourselves about our own sin…and the systemic sin we participate in, on a daily basis. Lent gives us that chance to be honest before God about those realities, to accept the grace and forgiveness that is waiting for us, and to imagine what an Easter people and an Easter world might look like.
So let us now begin our Lenten journeys…and let us remember that The Lord is there, guiding us continually, even in the parched places of our lives, the places where we know we are broken and crushed. For while we are reminded tonight of our mortality, of the dust that we came from, and the dust that we shall return to, we also have the hope of being like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry. And those aren’t just mirages off in the distance, but promises of what is yet to come when we open up our hearts to encountering God in new ways this season.