(Note: I preached this sermon at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, 2011)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Human love starts with the object,” Martin Luther wrote in an academic dispute in the year 1518. “The love of God does not find its object but rather creates it.”
The object of King David’s love was Bathsheba, the wife of another man. The wife, in fact, of his general. David has the man killed and then takes Bathsheba as his own wife, though he already has women enough.
The prophet Nathan comes to the King and tells him a story that provokes David to anger. Nathan reveals that it was all a parable, in which David had played the role of the villain. And the King, who had walked with God for so many years, must face that he has committed a great crime.
Tonight we recite the words of Psalm 51, a psalm traditionally attributed to David in his hour of utter despair over his sin. It is an abject prayer. “According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity… Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
His sin is so heinous that it reaches back all the way to his mother’s womb. It is as endless and overwhelming as the grave. He does not pray that his faults would be mended. He prays for them to be blotted out. He prays not that God would help him to do better next time, but that God would forget his transgressions altogether. He prays that God would not throw him away like a piece of refuse. He prays not for an improved heart, but for a new and clean heart to be created within him, and for a right spirit to be made new again in him.
When this poetic version of David looks at himself he does not see a fixer-upper. He sees a teardown. He begs God for a fresh start, another chance, a new creation. From this very abyss of need, he grasps something important about the God he has known since he was a boy: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
As one commentator points out, it is common for the Biblical prophets to call for ethical conduct as a sacrifice to God that is preferable to burnt offerings. But “here there is an arresting new emphasis on an inward condition of contrition. It is a person’s remorse over past actions, or perhaps simply his authentic grief over his desperate plight, that God accepts instead of sacrifice.”
It’s no small thing to stare your worst moment directly in the face. It’s amazing how one deed can reach backward and forward in a life and end up grabbing hold of everything. And to do this with honesty is to risk tumbling all the way to the bottom.
Thankfully–and this is something of a mystery–God accepts this fall to the bottom more readily than a gift offered with a clean conscience. God’s love, as Luther says, does not find its object but creates it. This “is clear because the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved,” Luther goes on, “not loved because they are attractive.”
This is true every day of the year, of course, and it is expressed in virtually everything we do as the church. But on today of all days, we stand together and embrace a visual reminder of a very intimate sort: a cross in ash on our heads to remind ourselves and each other that we are indeed dust, that our need for God is total. And we do all of this not to wallow, and not to impress God with our own expressions of worthlessness. We do it because God wishes always to flow forth in love, making sinners righteous, good, wise, and strong. Making sinners righteous, good, wise and strong. And not seeking out righteousness, or topping off our supply, or fixing us up around the margins, but making sinners righteous. Restoring to us the joy of God’s salvation, upholding us anew in a free and generous spirit. Amen.