Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
This is our fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, that strange, difficult day in which we begin with the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and end with despair and fear after hearing the Passion narrative. Then it’s Holy Week, when we are reminded of Jesus’ last days on earth – the washing of his disciples’ feet, the Last Supper, his walk to Golgotha and his eventual death on the cross. There is a lot coming our way spiritually, theologically, emotionally. So sure, today let’s just pile on and listen to psalm 51 in which we are reminded of our sinfulness and wickedness, and of all the ways that we fall short of the glory of God. Sounds fun.
Psalm 51 is believed to have been written by King David after his affair with Bathsheba, and it follows the traditional pattern and tone of a penitential psalm. It begins with a petition – David appeals to God’s never-failing love and compassion to forgive him and wash him clean of his sin. He then confesses that he has been a sinner all his life, even from his mother’s womb. David acknowledges that God instilled in him an understanding of right and wrong and that still, he disobeyed. Towards the end of today’s portion of the psalm, David returns to petition: “restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” If God does this, David claims, then he will show repentance and forgiveness to other sinners and bring them into the fold of God.
I have heard friends, professors, and preachers say recently that we have been living in Lent for over a year. This whole pandemic has felt like a wilderness, with no end in sight. Even when we’re not living through a pandemic, Lent is a time of darkness. It begins on Ash Wednesday when ashes are imposed on our foreheads and we are reminded that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, a ritual – I’ll add – that includes hearing the chanting or recitation of this same psalm, 51. We traditionally give up an indulgence for this season of penitence, and maybe try to take on some spiritual
practice. We are emulating Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Lent can be a time of utter darkness. We are focused inwardly, on our own sinfulness and our mortality. This year is worse than ever before – after a full year of isolation and introspection, we are tired of this darkness. We are tired of living in our heads, of spending time alone or with a small group of family or friends. We are starving for more interaction, for a step out into the world we used to know. We are desperate for the light to pull us out of this Lenten, Covid darkness.
And yet, I believe this darkness is a necessary part of our journey towards the light, towards spiritual freedom, towards life with Christ. I believe the core of our sinfulness is pride and self-centeredness. We cannot love others when we do not truly see others. We cannot love our neighbor if we are so caught up with our own lives, our own successes and failures. We cannot see God working in our lives at every turn if, at every turn, we are focused on how we look, sound, how successful we are, and how much we have. Our original sin as people is thinking that we are the center of our world. If we operate from that vantage point, we can never see all the ways that God is working in our lives and leading us out of darkness and towards the light. The more that I make this life about me, the less I can make it about others and about God.
If we can look forward, just a bit, there is light on the horizon. That is the hope that Lent brings. We are not in the wilderness with no hope of return – we know what comes next in this story. Yes, there will be more darkness, but then there will be light. That is the promise God made to us through God’s well-beloved son. The psalm says, “cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again.” Through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, God promised that. God will not cast us away from God’s presence. Only we can do that. And we do. Again, that is what Lent reminds us of. We are constantly casting God away and turning from the joy of God’s saving help. And yet, even in that darkness, that pain, sin, anger, frustration, fear – even in all of that, there is light to be found.
The Gospel text today tells us: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It is the same with our life and dying to sin! When the psalmist David pleads to God to “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” this is what he is asking for. For God’s help to confess and die to self-centeredness and pride, and be reborn better. He is not only asking for forgiveness, but for renewal. Only if we completely die to ourselves and only with God’s help can we be made new and bear the fruit of new life. In his psalm, David is asking for God’s help looking forward, looking outside of himself, to see others and to see God. Only from there can progress and true repentance be made.
Resurrection is coming. It is coming on Easter in the form of the empty tomb, but it also comes to us whenever we fall into sin and respond by repenting and returning to the Lord. That is God’s gift to us: we always have another chance. God knows that we will never quite measure up, we will always make mistakes. But we do not have to live in that darkness. We do not have to live in the wilderness of Lent. Go there, remember that you are but dust, and that you are sinful, and then look to the light. That is where God is calling you.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog