5 Lent B 2015
March 22, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If our psalm sounded really familiar to you this morning, it’s because we just used it on Ash Wednesday. We recited it together right after everyone received ashes on their foreheads. Psalm 51 makes a strong statement about how we know we need forgiveness. It’s perfect for Lent.
What is a psalm, anyway? It’s a prayerful lyric to a melody, actually. The psalms were well known to Jesus and we hear echoes of them in his teachings and especially in his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s the first verse from Psalm 22. The psalms were Jesus’ prayer-book.
Who wrote them? Well, probably many different people wrote them over time. But the longest-standing tradition has it that King David wrote a lot of them—and that would have been around 1000 BC.
We know that King David was a very complex man. He had a lot of good points—and he had a lot of flaws, too. We can read in the first book of Samuel about his affair with the beautiful Bathsheba, and then his attempt to conceal her pregnancy by setting up her soldier-husband to die in battle and then marrying her quickly. Now, some scholars actually think that the psalm we prayed today was written by David when he realized the depth of his sin in the aftermath of the Bathsheba affair. So David was most certainly an adulterer and a murderer.
What else? He was ruthless in battle. He was a lousy father. He was a consummate politician who mastered the fine art of using people for his own wants.
In short, he was a mess. And yet, / and yet. It will help us to know that in spite of his faults, both the Old and the New Testaments tell us that David was “a man after God’s own heart.” [1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22] That can give US a lot of hope.
You know, we live in a culture that doesn’t encourage us to open up about what’s going on inside of us, and so it may sound a little too honest, but the truth is that many of us walk around thinking that we are just not good enough to be loved deeply by God. Or to be loved at all by God.
It can help us when we think about David. If he was so loved by God, with all his reprehensible sin, well then, surely wealso are loved so deeply. Each of us must be a man or a woman—a girl or a boy—after God’s own heart.
So, let’s take a look at our psalm for a minute. The first 2 verses set the theme: this psalmist is begging God to clean him up from all his failings, all his sin. He says, Have mercy on me, O God . . . blot out my offenses. Wash me, cleanse me through and through.
Verses 3 through 7 are a confession. They also set forth the psalmist’s understanding of his own powerlessness.
The rest of the verses we have today form one petition, expressed in various ways: O God, clean me up. You are the only one who can, you hold the keys to life. He begs: Purge me; wash me; hide your face from my sins; create in me a clean heart; take not your holy Spirit from me; give me joy again, and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
[Just an aside: it’s significant that in verse 12 the word “holy” is lower case, and the word “Spirit” is capitalized. This was written far earlier than the later concept of the Holy Spirit whom we meet in the New Testament.]
And so once we take a long look at Psalm 51, we see how poignantly it relates to David’s life, and we also see its appropriateness for our season of penitence. It’s a great example of confession and supplication—the kind of prayer that asks God to listen and to respond to need.
We see Prayer again today in the reading from Hebrews. The author is speaking about Jesus praying to his Father, “with loud cries and tears,” and his Father heard and saved him through resurrection.
So—just what IS prayer, anyway? A good definition of prayer is that it’s conversation with God. Conversation includes both speaking and listening, doesn’t it? And so for the speaking side, it can include all kinds of things like asking forgiveness or healing, asking for others to be helped or healed, praising God, making confession, and of course giving thanks. Prayer also can include time spent with God when we aren’t working too hard to string thoughts together. Just hanging out in silence and giving in to whatever God has in store for us. Being ready to receive, // and receiving.
Today’s first reading reminds us that God ultimately calls his people into a new relationship in which he will forgive them, and not remember their sin. It’s a relationship in which people are able to KNOW the Lord. Now, “knowing” in the OT meant a lot more than intellectual knowing. It meant knowing through the body and knowing through the heart. It could only come from intimacy—from very close relationship. That’s the kind of relationship that each one of us is able to have with God. No matter how unworthy we think we are, no matter how much shame we may carry within ourselves: God wants us to know him fully, because God says we’re worthy. And we know God through spending time with God—through prayer.
Now, praying by its very nature is a kind of death. What do I mean by that? Well, when we pray we’re knocking our ego and our sense of control down a few notches. We’re acknowledging that God is greater than we are and we’re admitting that we don’t have the power to make a lot of things turn out how we wish they would. And that’s a very important spiritual step.
Jesus talks about how a grain of wheat must be buried in the earth—and that’s certainly a kind of death. But this burial is precisely what allows it to sprout new life. There simply can’t be new life without the death that must come first.
So think about your times of prayer as times of surrender and acknowledging your own smallness. Think about prayer times as times to get to know—to REALLY know—God deeply. Sometimes we feel close to God in prayer, and sometimes we don’t feel close at all. And that’s OK.
The truth is: relationships can’t grow unless the parties spend time together. So spend some time in prayer every day, whether it’s a long time in the morning or at bedtime; or a few minutes on your way to work and throughout the day. Cultivate your relationship with God. Plant the grains of wheat and trust into the harvest.