You can download the text of this sermon as a Word document here
Lent is a really special season of the church year. We are entering a season of self-reflection; a season where we are called to close examination of our relationship with God, our own weakness and frailty and our utter lost-ness outside of the grace of God. Lent is a season to examine ourselves in the light of Christ.
And as we do so, we discover afresh that we are found wanting.
The very process of self-reflection is difficult enough. We all lead such busy and hectic lives; it is hard to find the time to stop and reflect. When we do, we may not always like what we see.
Perhaps we compare ourselves to others who seem so much more holy than us; compare ourselves to people who really seem to have it all together and we feel worse about ourselves for being so spiritually weak and so spiritually shallow. Or we might even compare ourselves to those who are worse in order to make ourselves feel better and we are quick to justify ourselves for the things we do wrong. I may be spiritually weak – but I’m not as weak as that person, so I don’t have too much to worry about…
But as we sit and attend to all those attitudes, we see that they are all driven by a deep-rooted fear: a fear of being uncovered, a fear of understanding ourselves as we truly are, a fear of ‘deep knowing’. We don’t want others to know who we really are. We are frightened that God knows us as we really are. We don’t even want to know ourselves as we really are because that may become a journey into deep self-loathing and even despair.
Psalm 51, which we have just heard read, is a reflection by King David – and it is a good example of the journey we are all on as we turn inward to the process of ‘deep knowing’.
David had been living in denial. He had refused to acknowledge the depth of his sin in having Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, killed. The seriousness of his behaviour had not dawned on him until Nathan the prophet came to him and confronted the King with the severity of his sin. You might remember the story from 2 Samuel 12 in which Nathan tells David a parable about a rich man who steals the lamb of a poor man to feed a guest. The rich man had huge flocks of his own but, in his selfishness, he took the only thing of any value to the poor man: his lamb. When Nathan told the story, David was so angry about the behaviour of the rich man. He said, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”Then Nathan confronts him with the terrible truth:“King David – you are the man!”
David is confronted with the reality of who he is and Psalm 51 is written by him out of that experience of pain, that experience of uncovering. It is the moment when he enters into ‘deep knowing’ and, out of that knowing, he speaks with God with a clarity of honesty that mirrors our own understanding of self.
As we reflect on his words in Psalm 51 so we can think about our own need for deep grace from God.
The first thing we note is our deep need for God, verse 1: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”There is nothing we can do to cleanse ourselves. We are incapable of doing anything to eradicate our sinful nature. We might try over and over again – and, for some of us, life is a habitual patternof working towards self-improvement;trying to overcome our destructive patterns of behaviour – but ultimately, all that effort is useless. Our reliance is totally on God, as David re-iterates in verse 10:“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”Only God can give us a pure heart. Only God can give us a steadfast spirit.
Secondly, the truth is that we can never know true happiness until we are restored into a right relationship with God, verse 3: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me”. No matter how we may try to ignore our sinful nature or blot it out through activity or indifference, in the silence of our inner being our sin is always before us. Quite simply, we can run – but we just can’t hide.
We know who we are – we know what we have done; we can’t turn back the clock and make it right…When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves as we are in that moment. But as we look more closely, we are confronted with the face of a person who is the sum total of our personal history for good and for bad: pleasure and pain etched in every line, a history of good choices and bad choices burnt deep into our eyes…We cannot escape our past failings any more than our past successes because, on one level, we are the sum total of all our decisions.
Thirdly, the reality is that sin against others – and sin against ourselves is ultimately sin against God. David had sinned against Uriah. He had sinned against his own people. He had sinned against Bathsheba. He had sinned against himself and yet, in verse 4, he was wise enough to say,“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” God is Lord and Sovereign of this creation. If we refuse to sit under his Lordship, we are sinning against him and we will face the consequence of judgement: that is Natural Law.
So Lent is a time for introspection and deep knowing. But that is not the same thing as saying that Lent is a time for negativity and a sense of helplessness. Lent is a time for honest reflection – it is not a time for collapsing under the burden of our own guilt, and this Psalm helps us to move deeper into that self-realisation. In Psalm 51, David combines a ‘deep knowing’ about his present condition with very real hope for the future…
When we come to terms with who we are – frail, broken children of dust – it is at that point that we are able to relax into the love of God. And then, when we relax into the love of God, we realise in a deeply experiential way the good news of the Gospel. As David says in verse 13, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.”
And finally, with David, we are brought to the place of praise and worship, verse 15: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” That is the inward journey that we go through at this season. As we embark on Lent today, as we are confronted by the depth of our sin. We begin at verse 1: “Have mercy on me, O God”. We are confident, though, that if we make this journey with earnestness and honesty and a willingness to submit to Christ, we will arrive at Easter morning with David in verse 19: “Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you”.
Our prayer tonight is that God will give each one of us the courage we need to look within ourselves and attend to what we see and develop a sense of ‘deep knowing’ so that we can be confronted by our weakness, sinfulness and frailty and eventually experience the joy of reconciliation with God.
That is the Holy Lent to which we are all called.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday:
The darkness asks us questions.
You are out there and we do not see.
You invite us into the night,
the stillness, the loneliness, the desert place.
We cannot see our shadow;
the cold damp of unknowing rises up from beneath our feet.
We tread cautiously, tentatively.
We are afraid,
afraid of ghosts
haunting us with spectres of guilt
We would like to run back,
reach the riverbank,
swim the Jordan,
sit in the sun by the sea,
mending our nets.
But you have brought us here
– with no bread.
When we look we can see only ourselves,
When we read,
it is invisible words which cannot be grasped,
thoughts we cannot clutch,
hope we cannot capture.
Yet the wild honey remains a taste in our mouth,
a memory for a new day.
Why have you brought us here?
What miracle will you perform for us?
The darkness sighs around us,
dense with your unseen presence,
close to our breathing,
close to our breathing.
O darkness, enlighten us,
embrace us with your invisible love.
Let us see your glory in the ashes.
Take us by the hand that we may trust the darkness.
Minister to us by your Spirit that we may not be afraid.
Jesus, keep the beasts away.