The Truth of the Word – Sermon for Ash Wednesday

The Truth of the Word

Psalm 51:1-7

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

History has many great things to say about King David.  He was God’s chosen King over Israel, anointed by the Lord’s Prophet Samuel while he was still a boy.  He was pulled out of tending his father’s flock in the fields and told he would one day live in the palace to tend the Lord’s flock.  He slew the mighty Goliath, penned many of the Psalms, some of the most beautiful poetry ever composed, and led the nation of Israel to the height of its political dominance.  There are many accolades that history would have us lay at the feet of King David.  Yet for all that he accomplished, King David will forever be 2-slice-bannerremembered for his failures. While it is true that David was a great king, it is equally true that he was a miserable sinner.  King David, a man with tremendous wealth and comfort at his fingertips, stood on the roof of his palace and coveted another man’s wife.  He lusted after the flesh of Bathsheba.  He acted on that lust by arranging for her husband Uriah to be placed in the front lines of battle, secretly orchestrating his death.  He then took Bathsheba as his own.  Yes, King David sinned against many people.  He sinned against Uriah by coveting his wife and sending him to his death.  He sinned against Bathsheba by lusting after her flesh, objectifying her and treating her as nothing more than an outlet for his passion.  He further sinned against her by sending her husband to a bloody grave.  He sinned against the each and every person of Israel by dishonoring his vocation as their king, using his office to satisfy his own sinful desires rather than using his God-given authority to defend and protect his people as God intended.

So the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to speak God’s Word to King David.  Nathan told of a wealthy man who stole a lamb from poor man, slaughtered it, and served it at a banquet. The man could have taken one of his own lambs and served it, but he took the poor man’s only lamb instead.  King David was rightly outraged and spoke the Lord’s judgment upon such a man.  He said that such a man in his kingdom (which, as the Old Testament kingdom of Israel is basically the kingdom of God) should face judgment. Then Nathan, using David’s own words of condemnation, showed him his guilt.  David was pronounced guilty not merely by the word of the prophet, but by the judgment of the King. He was convicted by his own words.

Convicted in his sin, David wrote Psalm 51, which we chanted to begin the service.  It is a psalm filled with striking language of repentance, language which is scattered throughout our liturgy.  And yet nowhere in the psalm is there mention of any of the sins that so famously inspired David to write.  Nowhere in the psalm do we find David repenting of lust, adultery, murder, or abuse of power. David knew that his guilt did not rest on those public sins alone.  He knew that his guilt was deeper than just those actions.  David saw that he was convicted by the Word of the Lord, a word spoken from outside himself.  David was convicted in his sin not only by his actions, but much more by the declaration of the Lord’s Word.  David was absolutely guilty because of the terrible things he had done.  But more than just because of his actions, David was guilty because the word of the Lord declared him guilty. Consider someone who commits a crime. If a person stole something they may be morally guilty of theft, but they only get into real trouble with the law if they are tried and convicted in a court of the law. A guilty person might very well get away with a crime. Similarly, an innocent person might be wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.  Innocent or not, it is the declaration of the court that matters.  If the court declares a person guilty, that person is guilty in the eyes of the law and will be sentenced accordingly. If the court declares a person innocent, that person will be sent home.  It is not simply the presence of actual guilt that condemns a person. In many ways, the official pronouncement or declaration of guilt is far more devastating. So it was with David. Not only had David committed several sins, he had been sentenced for them. He had been declared guilty by the Word of God himself.

Thus, in spite of all he had done to Bathsheba and Uriah, David writes of repentance to the Lord who had declared him guilty: “Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight, / so that you may be justified in your words / and blameless in your judgment” [Psalm 51:4].  David acknowledged that his sins justified God’s word of 3813forgiven-400x254condemnation over him.  David saw that the presence any sinful thought, word, or deed in our lives gives evidence that God’s judgment is accurate, that his Word is true.  Just as a person who stole something does not actually face judgment until the court delivers its verdict, it is ultimately God’s word, spoken from outside ourselves, that truly condemns us.  We are guilty not simply because of our sinful actions, but much more because the Word of the Lord has convicted us in that sin.  God’s Word has called a spade a spade, condemned our sin for what it is, and pronounced his righteous judgment upon it, and upon us.  David recognized that his condemnation had come from outside himself.  He recognized that his sentence was spoken by the mouth of the Lord himself. His guilt was deeper than any particular sins involving Bathsheba or Uriah.  He was guilty because of the Lord’s Word of Law spoken by the Lord’s prophet.  And because the verdict of guilt had come from outside himself, David looked outside himself to see the Lord’s salvation.

Have mercy on me, O God, / according to your steadfast love; / according to your abundant mercy / blot out my transgressions” [Psalm 51:1].  In his plea for mercy David appealed to the Lord’s steadfast love.  If we trace the use of that Hebrew word through Scripture, we see that the Lord’s steadfast love is his mercy in action, mercy revealed in continued faithfulness to his people in spite of their constant failure.  Psalm 136 is a wonderful example of this. In that Psalm the refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever” is interwoven into a confession of the different ways God has blessed his people throughout their history.  From creation to the deliverance out of Egypt to the deliverance of Israel into the Promised Land to his continued support of life in this world by giving food to all flesh, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. It is to this steadfast love of God that David turns in time of need.  It is in God’s track record of deliverance that David finds his hope.  David pleads that the Lord would have mercy on him not because of his contrition or sorrow, nor because of anything else found inside David, but because of the certain and inexhaustible mercy of the Lord; mercy that is not simply an emotion God feels out in heaven somewhere, but mercy in action, mercy delivered to us.

Because the mercy of the Lord that David appealed to is always mercy delivered, David also appealed to the place that mercy was found in the daily life of an Israelite: in the work of the Priests. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, / and cleanse me from my sin! Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” [Psalm 51:2, 7].  The way that an Israelite in the time of David would be cleansed by the Lord is through the words spoken by the mouth of the Lord’s Priest.  Hyssop was a plant regularly used in the tabernacle to sprinkle cleansing water upon those who were unclean.  David is pleading that the Lord, who rightly pronounced him sinful by his holy word, would by that same word pronounce hyssophim washed and clean, and through the gift of the tabernacle make him clean.  David knew that when the Priest pronounced him clean, that word was as sure and certain as the convicting word spoken through the prophet Nathan.  David trusted the cleansing water sprinkled from hyssop as God instituted it. As his conviction had come from outside himself, David looked outside of himself to find his forgiveness.

So it is with us.  Let David be our guide not in sin, but in our response to it.  Like David, we have been convicted by the Lord’s word of Law, a word spoken from outside ourselves.  Like David, our salvation is also found outside ourselves.  Just as the Lord’s word is true when he says that we are all sinful, so also is his word true when he says that we are all forgiven by the death of his Son.  But like David, we do not find this forgiveness inside ourselves.  We look outside ourselves, to the forgiveness of sins won on the cross, and delivered by the hands of the Church.  Like David, we appeal to the Lord’s steadfast love, his mercy delivered to us.  Like David, we are given the Lord’s mercy through the hands of another.  If the Psalm were composed today, instead of reading “wash me” and “cleanse me,” it might read “absolve me,” calling to mind the words of the Pastor the way that David spoke of the words of the Priest.  Instead of reading “purge me with hyssop,” it might say “refresh me with your own body and blood in the bread and wine of your altar.”  What was true for David when he wrote this psalm is still true for us today: our forgiveness is found outside ourselves, in our Lord’s Means of Grace, in his Word and sacraments, the very things around which we gather today.

This Lenten season we will spend time meditating on several temptations that God’s Word-and-Sacramentpeople commonly face.  As we embark on this season of repentance and preparation for Easter, we are given to see that like King David, we live in the midst of temptation.  And like David, we are sinners who have been justly condemned by the word of God’s Law.  But as David was also righteous in spite of his sin, declared washed and clean by the Word of the Lord spoken by the Priest, so we too are pronounced righteous by the Word of absolution spoken by the Pastor and distributed through the Holy Sacraments, forgiveness from outside ourselves, a gift from our Lord delivered by the hands of another.

So follow David.  Rend your hearts and receive your forgiveness in humble repentance. Feast on the body and blood of your savior. Have your sin purged with the blood of Christ. Have your impure lips opened that your life may sing forth God’s praise.  Receive the gift of a new heart that lamenting your wretchedness you may receive from your Lord full pardon and forgiveness. Come experience the steadfast love of the Lord as he acts in mercy for you at this altar, for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.

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