A Day of Re-creation

Feb 26, 2020

Sermon 2-26-2020
Ash Wednesday
Psalm 51:1-17
Pastor Jean M. Hansen


Many of us are familiar with Psalm 51 because we spent years singing verses 10-12 as an offertory. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with your free Spirit.” We still sing it, just not as much, and we always hear it today, Ash Wednesday.

It’s an inspiring passage, especially for a day when we pause not just for reflection, but for self-reflection. It’s a day to consider if, like the Psalmist, we need a re-creation, a re-orientation. A re-orientation? That’s what is being requested with the plea, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” because the ancient Hebrews understood the heart as the seat of one’s volition, that is, the source of decision-making.

So, writes commentator Joel LeMon, the Psalmist, actually desires for his will to be re-oriented toward what God wills. And, only God can make this happen because the word create is a term that refers only to divine activity in the Old Testament. (1) “Re-Create me,” cries the Psalmist, “re-orient me to do what you desire! Turn me around and help me walk in your way!”

It’s interesting to note that in Psalm 51, the writer identifies himself as “the problem” and acknowledges that God is right for judging him.  This Psalm often is attributed to King David and is viewed as a cry of repentance following his committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for her husband’s death. He very well could have blamed her for displaying her beauty (in the confines of her own home) or God for making her so beautiful or making him so powerful that he could do whatever he pleased. But, there’s no hint of blaming anyone or anything else for his sin. The Psalm writer begs for re-orientation, re-creation; the first verse: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love,” could be translated literally as, “Grace me in your grace, O God!”

The Psalmist is relying on God’s desire to forgive. As commentator Scott Hoezee points out, “Grace is the oxygen of heaven – there is always far more of it than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace….” (2)

It’s ironic, though, that only when we acknowledge the seriousness of sin do we become aware of the magnitude of God’s grace. Or, think of it this way; only when we admit sin’s power to do harm and are aware of the judgment we deserve, can we be truly grateful for God’s grace. Quoting Pastor Hoezee, “Attempting to skirt our own sin, ducking this way and that to avoid the truth about ourselves is a never-ending process that brings no peace.” (3)

We need just a bit of the attitude of a woman with whom I spoke on the phone this week. I didn’t know her, she wasn’t even in this state, but she was well-aware of her sin, of the fact she had made choices which were not in line with God’s will and confessed that to me. The challenge was that she could not breathe in grace; she struggled to believe that God would forgive her. Finally, I told her that I had absolutely, positively, no doubt about her being a loved and forgiven child of God. We need both the strength to face up to our sin, but also the openness to receive God’s grace.

And, so, we come to Ash Wednesday, the one day in the year when we intentionally look sin, our sin, in the face. Do we take this day as seriously as the Psalmist does when he cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me?” There’s a trend in recent years, which I’ve resisted, for churches to offer “drive-by ashes” or “street-corner ashes” to those who are passing by and may not have the time or desire to attend a worship service. While I understand the reason for this, in terms of outreach, I wonder if this practice takes the significance of today seriously enough. When the ashes are conveyed “on the fly”, it seems as if the symbol of forgiveness is separated from the act of confession. Which I struggle to understand.

As commentator Mons Teig points out, “The service of Ash Wednesday looks at everything in our lives that threatens to turn our lives to dust.” (4) WOW! This is a time to acknowledge that which interferes with our relationships with God, with others, with the world in which we live, and destroys our peace.

Let’s remember that placing ashes on worshippers’ foreheads grew out of the ancient practice of covering oneself with ashes as a sign of sorrow and repentance. The ashes were a reminder of being mortal and of the body’s ultimate destiny.

But, Christians took that understanding and gave it a new twist. The ashes were put on the forehead in the shape of a cross as a reminder of the gift of forgiveness. We are still sinners who ultimately end up as dust, yet will live eternally, having been saved by grace through Jesus.

Today, then, we first come face to face with our sin, and second, we come face to face with Jesus, asking to be re-oriented toward being who and doing what God’s loving desire is for us.

Momentarily we will join in confession, and what we will say is significant. I’m going to pause after each response so that we can silently personalize what we have just confessed, considering how I have not loved my neighbor, or allowed apathy to infect my life, or failed to share my faith or been indifferent to injustice or rejected those who are different from me or damaged this planet on which we all live.

Today, like the Psalmist, we proclaim, “Create in me a clean heart, O God! Re-create me; re-orient me! Grace me with your grace.” And he does. AMEN


(1) Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17 by Joel LeMon, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) The Lectionary Psalms by Scott Hoezee, Psalm 51:1-17, www.cep.calvinseminary.edu
(3) Same as #2
(4) “Preaching on Ash Wednesday” by Mons Teig, January 21, 2008, www.workingpreacher.org