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February 26, 2020
2 Corinthians 5:20-21
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Please pray with me: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Amen.
These words from King David are the centerpiece of one of the most familiar prayers of confession in the entire Bible. David is considered to be the greatest of all of Israel’s kings, but he wasn’t perfect – not even close. And in this prayer, he knew that his life depended on God’s power to transform him and do something entirely new.
After committing adultery with Bathsheba, David wanted her all to himself. So he sent her husband to the front lines to be killed in battle and then “took her in” to take care of her. And then the prophet Nathan confronted David with what he’d done.
When David confessed, he not only admitted that his actions had directly harmed other people and his relationships with them, he also admitted that his actions had damaged his relationship with God.
But David knew enough about God to know that God had not abandoned him. That even before he actually spoke his confession, God had already created in him a clean heart and a willing spirit. But in the act of asking for forgiveness, David experienced the fullness of the gift of God’s mercy.
In the season of Lent, the words repent and repentance come up a lot because we focus on turning toward God and that’s what those words mean. As people of faith, when we repent, we turn toward God. We acknowledge that we have to turn because we’ve put our trust in something or someone other than God.
And sometimes admitting that is easier said than done. Whether we figure it out for ourselves, or whether someone calls us out, admitting we’re wrong is difficult. Even though we know we make mistakes every day, admitting them is never pleasant.
Because when we own up to what we’ve done, we have to face it. No matter how ugly, no matter how painful, we have to name it and ask for forgiveness. But it’s when we speak those words that we acknowledge our deep need for God’s mercy and love in our lives. And it changes us forever.
Because repenting, and receiving a clean heart, and living in newness of life are more than just one-time actions. They’re a series of behaviors that mark the way we live in response to God’s love for us.
That’s what happened with David. The change that God brought about in him didn’t only last for those few moments of confession. It changed the way he lived the rest of his life because he lived it facing toward God.
David took the newness of life that he received individually and used it to show all of God’s people how God was calling them to live as a community. Because part of confessing and hearing God’s words of forgiveness is committing to do one’s best to have a clean heart and to walk in that newness of life with others.
In the season of Lent, there’s a tendency to make our repentance and spiritual disciplines about only ourselves as individuals. And while that’s important, they go hand-in-hand with how we live as a community because they shape who we are in the community, and ultimately how the community responds and acts in the world.
And when an entire community lives facing toward God, lives are changed on a much broader scale. Because God’s desire isn’t for one-time, individual acts, but rather the building up of relationships that seek people’s well-being. And we know those relationships take time and work, because in the process of building any relationship we have to ask for forgiveness more than once. Right?
But what we learn in that process is that God’s grace and mercy abound. We receive it through people in the community that accompany us in our lives. The ones who not only encourage us during difficult times, but also the ones who care enough to speak the truth to us when we mess up. The ones who know our imperfections and help us navigate the road in front of us, encouraging us to take the necessary steps.
The community then becomes a place where God’s love and mercy are visible in everything it does. A place where people can heal and learn and grow. A place that acknowledges that life isn’t always easy, and that asking for forgiveness is an integral part of being in relationship with God.
Because it’s in asking that we learn to trust that God does create in us a clean heart and a willing spirit. And that allows us to experience the fullness of God’s mercy.
The cross of ashes we receive today reminds us that we are dust. That underneath the things we say and do, the labels we put on ourselves or each other and the damage they’ve caused, we are, every single one of us, made up of the same stuff as the rest of the earth.
The cross of ashes also reminds us of the commitment we made to God and to each other in our baptism, and of the commitment that God made to us. It’s a visible sign of who we are as God’s people. It’s a reminder that repenting and trusting that God does give us a clean heart are more than one-time actions. They’re actions that mark the way we live in response to God’s love for us, individually and as a community.
Because when we turn toward God, we turn toward grace and we acknowledge our deep need for God’s love and mercy in our lives. And we acknowledge, too, that before we ever say a word, God has already created in us a clean heart and a willing spirit. Amen.