An Ash Wednesday reflection on Psalm 51:1-17 preached on March 5th, 2014.
It’s a strange thing we do on Ash Wednesday. There’s really nothing like it. Or if there is, we hardly ever have a chance to experience it.
I want you to take a look around. Go ahead, do it.
We all have come today to confess to one another something very poignant and truthful about ourselves—we wear these black smudges of ash on our foreheads as a sign that we also bear smudges inside of us.
If you thought anyone in this space was a flawless example of perfection. A model of “having-it-togetherness”, then look around you. We each bear the signs of our brokenness on the outside this evening—admitting to ourselves, to each other, and to God that we have too much followed the devices and desires of our own hearts. That we need to be cleansed, purified, and renewed.
Ash Wednesday is also a moment for us to remember that we all came from the same place and it is to this same place we will return. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We belong to God, but we also belong to the earth from which God has raised us up and to which God will lay us back down.
With these marks upon our foreheads, we say that we are people who are aware of our frailty and our impermanence—and because we are, we also confess our total reliance on the One who created us and re-creates us.
This Psalm from David is a reminder for us of not only who we belong to but also who we rely upon for re-created life. Part of living as beings who rise and fall like dust is remembering how important it is to stay in right relationship with the God who has formed us from that same dust.
These words from Psalm 51 are stark and raw. David sings this psalm after confessing that he has sinned by having an affair with Bathsheba. We all know the story. And even if we’ve never had to confess a sin so great as adultery, we see in the words of David’s confession a very basic and familiar need to turn to God for cleansing.
Confession is good for the soul.
In a church up north there was a pastor who stated to his congregation that he was going to provide an entire minute of silence after the prayer of confession. He said this extended period of silence was necessary because when he was given only 10 to 15 seconds of silence, he only made it to Tuesday.
Psalm 51 is a great way for us to learn about our need for extended confession. These words from David pour out of him. He seems overwhelmed by his own sin and he asks God to put him back together again, part by part—to re-create him. If God is good enough to forgive him and show him salvation, David will live his life in a new way, he says—seeking to be constantly shaped and reshaped by this redeeming God.
An interesting thing about ash. As dirty as it looks, if you mix ash with fat you get soap. Way back when, people would save the ashes from their fires and the grease droppings from their cooking and combine them to make soap.
Ashes remind us of how messy our lives are and how we are in need of purification, but what’s surprising is that the same stuff that dirties our foreheads tonight can be use to cleanse us—transformed into the very stuff that can purify us tomorrow.
In these next 40 days of Lent, may we be as repentant as David and just as willing to come to God to ask for mercy, to be cleansed, purified, and made whole.
This Lent, let us approach God anew and ask him to show us a better way to walk, live and move in the likeness and through the grace of our Savior and our Healer, Jesus Christ.