Ash Wednesday sermon 2020 on Psalm 51

Updated: Apr 18


Psalm 130 and John 3: 16-17

Psalm 51 Walter Brueggemann has observed that the psalms move a worshipper from a point where life is stable and faith is taken for granted –through a time of profound disorientation/danger/loss – toward a new orientation, where faith must expand or be transformed to take account of God’s purposes in light of the difficulties that we have experienced. (Praying the Psalms and The Message of the Psalms) These psalms will change us. They may move us past the point of resistance. Jonathan Edwards, 18th century theologian, observed that many people want deliverance IN their sin, but not deliverance FROM their sin. The Psalms strip our defenses away. Let us hear the psalm with our own sins in mind.


1 Have mercy on me, O God,     according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,     and cleanse me from my sin.

There is humility in this prayer – self-righteousness is left at the door. This isn’t just a prayer about David – it’s about us, and it’s embarrassing. Attributed to David and preserved by a people who believed that kings and leaders lead us in confession. We all are riddled with sin. Rotten with sin. 3 words for sin. Transgressions=acts of rebellion or revolt against God’s law; Iniquity=distorting, bending rules; Sin= missing the mark, falling short. A sinner is one who hasn’t learned to live. At its heart, sin is refusing to love and be loved. Blot out= don’t remember our sin; forget it.


3 For I know my transgressions,     and my sin is ever before me.

Sin is real. Take responsibility for own sin. Problem is sin and wrongdoing. It separates us from God. Sin and guilt are our human condition. US – from what do we need cleansing?

4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,     and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence     and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty,     a sinner when my mother conceived me.

WE are not righteous – only God is. We delude ourselves if we don’t own up to our sin, or try to defend it or compare ourselves favorably to others. Also implies bowing to God together, praying together, living together in harmony. God is the only one without sin. Sin is inherently part of the human condition – and it is alienating, separating.


6 You desire truth in the inward being;     therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness;     let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins,     and blot out all my iniquities.

A plea for mercy. Purge= un-sin me; Blot out =ledger erased, file deleted; wash us=like clothes. Cleanse= remove impurities from precious metals ie. Refined gold. Cleansing renews us.

Because this isn’t just a prayer about us – it is also about God. About God’s nature as much as human nature – and God forgives. God restores. God’s forgiveness leads to reconciliation and being a part of a new creation. All three of the words used to talk about God’s mercy: mercy (hay’-naan), steadfast love (he-sed’) and motherly compassion (ra-ha-mim’) are all used in the story of Exodus 32-34 and the golden calf – another story where God’s forgiveness shows up for a sinful, broken people.


10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,     and put a new and right spirit (ruach)within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence,     and do not take your holy spirit (ruach) from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,     and sustain in me a willing spirit (ruach).

Clean heart=new heart which leads to worship and witness. Spirit=ruach. Same ruach that hovered over the waters at creation. Same ruach that was blown into the nostrils of the first people. God’s spirit put within us helps us find our way back to light and life. Forgiveness means being reconciled to God and sharing that message of God’s forgiving love with others.


13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,     and sinners will return to you.

Repentant sinners don’t just turn around and stand still – they turn around and move into a new future, teaching others what they have learned.

14 Deliver me from bloodshed (bloods -- plural or blood guilt), O God,     O God of my salvation,     and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,     and my mouth will declare your praise.

God’s “new thing” must be declared – the sinner is humble, contrite, crushed…but delighted in the goodness and forgiveness of God. Public witness is a natural result of God’s graciousness experienced by the forgiven sinner.

16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;     if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Sin has broken him. God’s mercy is another breaking. And as we sob, hearts breaking before God, God draws close to comfort us. We can’t fully praise until we have fully yielded and emptied ourselves. God is at work in the hearts of sinners – our hearts – breaking our hearts, and purging them so that we are restored to God and each other. This is the opportunity of Lent – to change ourselves inside so we can receive the ruach, breath of life, at Easter.


Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash




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