Video of Ash Wednesday Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 30:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If part of the purpose of Lent, and especially of Ash Wednesday, is for the Word of God to teach us to number our days, to realize how finite and limited our lives are, in order to gain wisdom; to be reminded that we do not live by bread alone, because the food of this world—even if it is manna from heaven—will never carry us past death; to be reminded that we live by sheer grace according to the will of God in Jesus Christ; to be reminded that we all will die, and that our sinful flesh remains until death—if all of that is included in the reminders of Lent, then it doesn’t feel at all to me that we are starting a new Lenten season. I don’t think we ever got out of the one we started last year. Even more, regardless of when the Church began to observe 40 days for Lent, the human race has never not been in the season of Lent; never not in the midst of sin and death, longing and hoping for resurrection.
Easter is a promise that we still must believe. None of us have yet seen resurrection, for ourselves or for anyone else. But we know the themes of Lent intimately: all flesh is grass; the grass withers and the flower fades. Death is inescapable, whether it comes to us by some kind of accident, by a virus or some other disease, or by the fact that our bodies simply wear out. We can’t know the day or the hour, nor should we preempt God’s will by our own. If nothing else, this past year we should have learned that life is fragile and temporary, and we have this time only to redeem these evil days.
So our long Lent goes on. And one of the things for which people have often used the time of Lent is to renew the practice of prayer. That is to say, though we often grow weary in this world, Lent has often been a time to renew and redouble our commitment to the sorts of things that we need in this weary world. Prayer is one of those necessary things, because when we pray as Christians, we pray according to God’s own words to us in Jesus. And if we hear those words and pray them back to God, we hold God to His promises—not because He wouldn’t otherwise do what He’s said, but the more we repeat back to God His promises, the more closely we are bound to the word of God, and the farther we are removed from all the lying words that the devil speaks in so many ways and under so many different disguises. The more we have the words of God in our ears and in our mouths, the more they sustain us, especially in our weakest moments.
There are, of course, many different kinds of prayer. We confess our sins, we give thanks to God, we intercede on behalf of any and all people in their needs, we confidently ask God for all things according to His will in Jesus Christ. And He promises to hear and to answer, because we belong to His Son. One form of prayer that we learn from the Psalms, as well as in obvious places like Lamentations, is lament. Lament is pouring out a complaint, but it’s not just complaining. We can complain to anyone, but Biblical lament is directed at God.
In other words, at our most helpless, at the times when we suffer or face affliction of various kinds, when we cannot understand why things for us and around us are the way they are, then the believer directs that prayer toward the God who has promised to hear us, even if we do not see how or when He will act. It is placing our complaint in the ears of the only one who can help. During these evenings in Lent, we’re going to hear some psalms of lament and learn from them how to pray in this way—how to bring our lament before our faithful God.
We start, as we do every Ash Wednesday, with Psalm 51. No doubt you know the context. David composed it after he had been confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan. He had taken Bathsheba to his bed as if she were his wife, rather than the wife of Uriah. He had exercised his divine authority as king in a blasphemous way, displeasing to the God who had made him king. He compounded his initial sin with murder and the hardening of his heart. And it is not until God sends Nathan that the double-edged sword of God’s word pierces David’s conscience and heart.
Now what? What does David do? When he has been confronted with his sin, and there is literally no way for him to go back and undo it, how can he fix it? When the full horror of what he has done finally breaks through, what can he say? What he does say is Psalm 51. It is a lament because David finds himself helpless in the face of his sin; “for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” He feels as if his bones have been broken by the force of God’s Law, and in his sin, if God did not intervene, he would have driven the Holy Spirit from himself.
He knows he has sinned against Bathsheba, but it is a sin against God because God put David on the throne of Israel, and David used that authority to take what was not his to take. He knows he has sinned against Uriah, but it is a sin against God, who gave Uriah life, and gave him Bathsheba for his wife. He knows he has sinned against Israel, but it is sin against God, who is Israel’s true King. Against You, You only have I sinned, and done what was displeasing in Your sight.
But David puts his lament in the only place it can be effectively heard. What can he undo at this point? He can’t restore Bathsheba’s and Uriah’s marriage. He can’t restore Uriah’s life. He can’t take back his instructions to Joab. He can’t undo the damage to his own soul. He can’t save even his own infant. Every other place to which David might turn his complaint would be a dead end. So he turns it toward the one who speaks through the same Nathan and says: Yahweh also has put away your sin; you shall not die. He turns his lament toward the one who will come from his own body, from the house and line of David, born in David’s own city of Bethlehem. Toward the only one who can take that lament as His own, who knows, even in death on the cross, that He has entrusted Himself to the God who raises the dead.
In the midst of this long Lent, pray with David and learn to lament your sin. But learn all the more from David’s greater Son, of His mercy and steadfast love. He has washed you with His own blood in the bath of baptism. He has cleansed you from your sin. Though your sin is against Him and His judgment is righteous, He will be justified not by condemning you in your guilt, but by having mercy. Confess your sins, not in fear, but in the confidence of His promise of abundant and full forgiveness. Hear joy and gladness! Your joy is in Christ, your salvation. And He will not take His Holy Spirit from you; instead, the Spirit of Jesus will drive you always to Him, so that you will find the full joy of the resurrection on the last day. Your lament, like David’s, belongs with the God who raises the dead. You belong to the God who raises the dead.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/17/21