Text: Psalm 51

Looking back over the last five years, I realized that I’ve been unable to begin Lent here at All Saints on Ash Wednesday three times! In 2020 and 2023 I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, and in 2021 we had the “Snowpalypse” when services had to be cancelled. Last year when we were in the Holy Land, we began the pilgrimage on Ash Wednesday at Caesarea in the very Amphitheatre where St. Paul was likely tried before Festus and Felix as reported in the Book of Acts. On the world’s oldest stage that is still in active use, we chanted Psalm 51, received ashes, and heard from God’s Word.

Though other aspects of the Ash Wednesday liturgy have changed over the centuries, the inclusion of Psalm 51 has indeed been the norm in Anglican circles since at least the 17th century. In this psalm we find the prayer of repentance par excellence. Tonight we’ll begin our own local spiritual pilgrimage looking at the same psalm we used in the Holy Land to begin last year’s physical pilgrimage. You can find this in your Prayer Book on page 403.

Following the Prayer Book’s long-established pattern, I generally pray through the entire Psalter each month. This is indeed a practice I highly recommend. Yet, when praying the Psalms from the Prayer Book, we can miss a crucial aspect of many of them, something that our regular bibles include. That missing aspect in the Prayer Book is the title or subscription that are included in many psalms. We can think of these as something of a “Verse 0” that gives musical directions, liturgical directions, or historic context to many psalms. Traditionally, the titles, like other musical inserts such as selah, are not recited or chanted with the psalm. This is why they’re not included in the Prayer Book. But they are nevertheless instructive.

The title for Psalm 51 in the King James Bible reads like this: “To the chief Musician. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bath-sheba.” That is, this psalm was King David’s prayer of repentance when the Prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband, Uriah killed in battle. That is, this Psalm, the one we use to begin Lent, was originally an expression of repentance for a very big sin indeed. Because it is such a big sin, we can understand why David speaks in such superlative terms, both of God’s mercy, and his sin:

Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness; according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offenses.
Wash me throughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightiest be justified in thy saying and clear when thou shalt judge.
Behold I was sharpen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me.

As St. Augustine notes in his sermon on this psalm, David needed God’s great goodness because he had committed great sin. Indeed, while some can say that they sinned in ignorance, we see David’s sin was with full knowledge both of his sin and of God’s law. It was truly a mortal sin by any definition of the term. And though this may have been the greatest public sin of David’s life, he knew that he had also committed many sins that seemed smaller and secret. That’s why he asked for the multitude of God’s mercies. He needed more and more of God’s mercy because his offenses were many more than this one great sin. And thus we have these great expressions of repentance.

But what about the phrase, “Against thee only have I sinned”? Didn’t David also sin against Bathsheba and Uriah? Certainly. Indeed the public nature of David’s sin was such that the entire kingdom knew about it. The entire kingdom was brought to shame by David’s wickedness. Yet, as God alone is without sin, as God alone is perfectly just, as God alone is the King of the Universe, all sin is ultimately sin against God. To wrong your neighbor is to wrong the one in whose image your neighbor was created. Even as we should make amends with our neighbors, we must first and foremost make amends with God. Like David, we all were “shapen in wickedness,” not that our humanity is essentially evil, but rather that because of the fall we are all now tainted with original sin. We sin because we are sinners, just as we are sinners because we sin.

Ironically, as St. Augustine observed, some people look at these verses and figure that it’s okay to follow someone as great as David in a pattern of sin. After all, didn’t God forgive him? Can’t we then presume on God’s forgiveness? Such reasoning is the epitome of foolishness. The Bible is brutally honest about the failings and sins of the heroes of our faith. That doesn’t give us permission to follow them in the worst parts of their lives! No, we should see those times as object lessons so that we would not do the same! Rather, we should follow them in the great parts of their lives. We should see David not as someone whose sins should be emulated, but as someone whose repentance and faith is to be emulated. Indeed, it was because of his repentance and faith that David is called a man after God’s own heart.

This is what the season of Lent is about: it is an annual reminder of our need for repentance. It is an annual season for us to examine our lives and see where our sins have caused us to be distant from God, whether ur sins are big and public or seemingly smaller and secret. All of our sins need God’s mercy.

The next several verses describe God’s mercy to the penitent sinner. We won’t look at these verse-by-verse, but notice how they look forward to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life. The Holy Ghost speaks truth to our inward parts, makes us to understand wisdom in a supernatural, a secret, way. As signified by the waters of baptism, he washes us and makes us whiter than snow. He gives us joy and gladness, even in the direst of situations, so that the broken bones may rejoice. He turns his face from our sins and sees rather the righteousness of Christ. He gives us a clean heart and a right spirit. By the Spirit, God brings us into his presence, comforting and establishing us before him. He speaks through preaching and teaching of his Word so that sinners would be converted and saved from their sins. By the Blood of Christ, he takes away our bloodguit, and thus we sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. As we say every Morning or Evening Prayer, he opens our lips that our mouths shall show forth his praise.

And notice verses 15 and 16, the last two verses that are included in the Penitential Office:

For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee; but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.

Repentance is a heart matter, not one of external rites. In fact, it may surprise you that the Anglican practice was not to distribute ashes from about the time of the Reformation until the 20th century for this very reason. There was a fear that the ashes had become the focus rather than the heart. Ashes are not a sacrament, they are merely a symbol of our repentance. And without true repentance, they mean nothing. That’s why our Epistle tells us to rend our hearts and not our garments. That’s why Jesus tells us in our Gospel to not fast like the hypocrites who do so only to be seen. As important as our Lenten customs are, do not let them displace repentance from our hearts. Our spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, almsgiving, bible reading, or whatever else we do in Lent are tools the Church has given us to foster repentance. They are not ends of themselves. God does not need your fasting any more than he needed the bulls and rams of the Old Covenant. But God delights in your repentance, because it is by repentance that we are drawn closer to him. It is by repentance that we are reconciled to him.

Finally, I want to look at the last two verses of the Psalm, the verses that are not included in the Penitential Office:

O be favourable and gracious unto Sion; build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations; then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.

What an odd ending, especially when they follow verses about how God doesn’t desire sacrifices and burnt-offerings! Indeed, the revisers of our Prayer Book in 1928 throught they must’ve been a later insertion into David’s prayer by editors during the exile, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. That’s why they omitted them from the Penitential Office. Yet St. Augustine sees these verses as prophetically speaking about the Church and the New Covenant. That is, David prophetically looked forward to the true Zion, the New Jerusalem. And in the New Covenant we have an “oblation… once offered… a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”

That is, of course, the sacrifice of our Lord Himself on the altar of the Cross. This is a sacrifice for sin that can never be polluted by hypocrisy or the unworthiness of a priesthood made up of fallen men. This is a sacrifice that makes true repentance possible. This is a sacrifice that makes all Christians, all whose hearts have been washed by the Blood of the Lamb, into men and women after God’s own heart. By our union with David’s ultimate heir, we become lesser sons and daughters of David, who, like our spiritual ancestor, can be made right with the righteous God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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