according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
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.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:1-17
From January until mid-May, 7th graders gather here at Centenary each Wednesday evening for a very important step in their faith journey: confirmation. Throughout the confirmation season, they learn about what it means to be a Christian and a Methodist, why we worship the way we do, where our practices come from, and how our faith relates to other faiths. More importantly, they learn how to engage faith in their own lives: how to pray, read the Bible, share in the leadership of the church, and serve their neighbors.
When I was in confirmation, it was right around the year 2000. Not many people had cell phones; AOL Instant Messenger was a big deal; NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys were huge; and I owned a stack of W.W.J.D. bracelets in all different colors.
Since the members of our current confirmation class were not even a glimmer in their parents’ eye at the time, allow me to explain that last one: W.W.J.D. stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” Hip young Christians wore the woven bracelets as a reminder to act in a way that would show the love of Christ in all situations.
We could probably stand to ask the question “What Would Jesus Do?” a little more today. If asked honestly, it would change a great many things about the way we treat one another in our families, our friendships, our church, our nation, and the world.
But “What Would Jesus Do?” is not really what Lent is about. We talk a lot in church about imitating Christ, being like Jesus, and although this is a good thing, it’s not what we’re here to do tonight. Ash Wednesday is not about imitating Christ; it is about repenting (Jason Byassee). And repenting is about remembering that we are not God.
The observant confirmand might stop me here and say, wait just a minute—Lent is a 40-day season of fasting. Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days. Imitating Christ is exactly what Lent is about.
Fair point. The rhythms of fasting and prayer in Lent do come directly from Jesus’ own time spent in the wilderness. But let me tell you a story about St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was a deeply holy man, committed to a life of prayer and service to the poor. One time, Francis set out to fast for 40 days just as Jesus did—but he broke his fast on day 39.
Why? Francis decided that if he were to fast for 40 days, like Jesus did, he would be sending the message that he thought he was as good as Jesus. Francis shortened his fast by one day out of humility.
Lent is a season of humility and a season of repentance. Geoffrey Hoare says this about Lent: “…while penitence is, in part, remorse for wrongdoing, it is not first about confessing wrongdoing. Repentance is recognizing that we are not God. Wrongdoing is a consequence of our acting as though we were.”
Asking “What Would Jesus Do?” is all well and good. But Lent is not about that. Lent is not about doing what Jesus would do or accomplishing some great feat of spiritual strength and discipline. Lent is about repentance. Lent is about remembering that we are not God.
Psalm 51 makes this distinction abundantly clear. I took this psalm and looked at what words are used to describe the author—a human—and what words are used to describe God. Here’s what I found:
Words used to describe humans: Transgressions. Sin. Iniquity. Guilty. Broken.
Words used to describe God: Steadfast love. Abundant mercy. Wash. Cleanse. Justified. Blameless. Truth. Wisdom. Joy. Salvation. Deliverance.
Hear any differences there? The writer of Psalm 51 isn’t trying to imitate God. He is admitting that he is not God.
Because although imitating Christ is a good and beautiful thing most of the time, too much of that can go to our heads. St. Francis shortened his fast because he feared vanity would creep in if he saw himself as able to do what Jesus had done. And if we think of imitating God as a good thing, we must remember it is just one wrong step further to get to playing God. It is when we play God—when we act as though we were God—that we get into trouble.
If we turn on the news this week, we will be faced with example after example of people acting like they are God. The consequences range from the annoying—the arrogance of a know-it-all politician—to the abhorrent—the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS this past week. To quote the Milk Carton Kids, “It might look like God’s away with all the trouble these days.” And it is in this time of turmoil and uncertainty that we are called to repent.
Of course, we’ve gotten this far without talking about what it actually means to repent. We might think of repentance as being sorry, as feeling guilty, maybe even as feeling badly about ourselves. But repentance is found in verse 13 of Psalm 51: “sinners will return to you.”
That’s our key word—“return.” Not “be sorry,” not even “feel guilty”—“return.” The Hebrew word for repentance is shuv, which means “return,” and the Greek word is metanoia, which means a “turning.” We are called not to beat up on ourselves or to grovel before God bemoaning all the wrong we have done. We are called simply to turn, to return to God.
Turning involves 2 parts: turning away and turning toward. When we repent, we turn away from sin—from the consequences of our acting as though we were God. But that’s not all. When we repent, we turn toward God—because, if we’ve been acting like we were God, we’ve probably gotten pretty far away from the truth of God.
Repentance is a homecoming, and a homecoming is a journey. In the music video for our focus song “The Ash and Clay,” two old women get into a car together and go on a drive. Throughout the video, a camera attached to the hood of the car captures only the windshield and these two women’s faces as the car meanders down streets, around corners, and through neighborhoods. The women’s journey ends with the song as they get out of the car, but we never find out where they came from or where they were going. The point is that they were on their way.
Lent takes 40 days because repentance is not a one-time thing. Repentance and returning is a journey. Likewise, confirmation is not a one-time thing—the process is itself a journey, and really all of it is just the next step in the lifelong journey of faith. For John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, salvation itself was a journey, a lifelong process of sanctification, of being made holy day after day in the love of God and neighbor.
Repentance means turning away from what keeps us from God and turning toward the promise of new life in Christ. Repentance means setting out on a journey of self-examination and humility. Frederick Buechner said, “True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”
And the turning is not easy. The turning requires a break—a break from our vanity, from our wrongdoing, from our acting like we are God. Psalm 51 tells us it requires an inner break as well—a broken heart. This breaking is the beginning of a journey. Jan Richardson puts it this way in a poem for Ash Wednesday:
To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this be
a season for wandering
for trusting the breaking
for tracing the tear
that will return you
to the One who waits
who works within
to make your heart
This Lent, we fast from apathy. May our hearts be broken by our own wrongdoing and also by the pain of the world. May we ask not just what Jesus would do but who Jesus is to us. May we take the next step in this lifelong journey of repentance, restoration, and resurrection. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell