[This is the text I prepared for this evening's Ash Wednesday worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. But it's not exactly what I preached.]
You know, sometimes we forget that the Word of God in the Bible arose from specific historical circumstances or specific encounters between God and real life human beings, like you and me.
Take, for example, Psalm 51, which we read responsively a short time ago. It was written by Israel’s King David, later in his reign, sometime after 1003 BC. And it arose from a specific situation.
Open a Bible to 2 Samuel 12. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his most loyal soldiers, Uriah. Bathsheba became pregnant. David tried to make it look as though Uriah was the father. But that didn't work. So, David made arrangements for Uriah to get isolated and exposed to enemy fire and killed in battle. The king God refers to as “a man after My own heart,” was guilty of adultery and murder!
In 2 Samuel, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David for his sins. Nathan does it by telling David the story of a poor man who owned a ewe lamb. This ewe lamb was so beloved that both the poor man and his family see the lamb as another one of the children. When a rich man down the road has visitors, he decides that as a good host, he has to throw a big dinner for them. But he doesn’t want to use any of his own flock for the main course. So, he steals the poor man’s ewe lamb and serves it up at dinner.
Look at David’s reaction in 2 Samuel 12:5-6. “So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
The king had spoken and rendered his verdict. But there was a question: Who was the man who had done this awful thing?
Nathan gives the answer in verse 7, telling King David: “You are the man!"
He goes on: "'Thus says the Lord God of Israel: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping [This, by the way, doesn’t mean that God had given David permission to take these women as his wives. It means that God had given David control over that which his predecessor, in that patriarchal society, had control.]...and [I] gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord to do evil in his sight? You have killed Uriah...you have taken his wife to be your wife...”’”
Through Nathan, God was telling David, “I gave you blessings you never could have earned or deserved. I did these things for you out of pure divine and fatherly love and mercy. But instead of gratitude, instead of trying to follow the way of life I revealed long ago in the Ten Commandments, you decided to go your own way. Why?”
You know, every time a Christian deliberately flouts the will of God, I’m sure God asks the same question: “I went to the cross for you, endured the beating, the punches, the spitting, the insults, the nails, the thorns plaited into a mocking crown, and a slow agonizing death...all for you. I took the punishment for sin you deserved. I rose from death to open eternity up to you. I did all these things to give you a new life freed from the power of sin and death. I set you free to become the person I made you to be. And I want to spend eternity showering blessings on you. So, why would you block Me from your life by deliberately doing anything that I have shown you is the way of death? Why?"
Having been confronted for his sins, David might have reacted in a number of ways.
As king, he could have simply ordered Nathan’s death. It wouldn't have been the first time David had ordered the murder of an innocent man, after all. But David didn’t do that.
Or, he might have made excuses, like the ones I've heard people make in counseling sessions through the years:
“My wife hasn’t been fulfilling my needs.”
Or, “You must understand, Nathan: Bathsheba and I really love each other.”
Or, “If I hadn’t ordered Uriah’s death, the poor old devil would have died of a broken heart anyway knowing that his wife loved me and not him.”
But David didn’t make excuses either.
Or, after hearing Nathan out, David might have set up a commission to discern, given the ways the world had changed and grown more complex since God gave the Ten Commandments, whether sin and murder might not be sins any more. “If our consciences are bound to a different idea,” David might have said, “it could be that now, when we know so much more than God did hundreds of years ago, adultery and murder are OK.”
But David didn’t lash out at Nathan, didn’t make excuses, or appoint a commission to cover the truth with lies.
Look at how David did react, in verse 13: “I have sinned against the Lord."
Here, David is exemplifying what the Bible--both the Old and the New Testament in their different languages--calls repentance.
In the Greek of the New Testament, the most common word for repent is metanoia. It means to have a change of mind.
The person who repents--or lives the lifestyle Martin Luther called, “daily repentance and renewal”--is saying, “I got off track. I was thinking my way. I was following my own sinful nature--the nature that David mentions in Psalm 51:5, when he confesses, ‘I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.’ But now, aware of the sins I’ve committed by following that way, I’m asking God to change my mind, to change the way I’ve been thinking. I’m asking God to help me think His way, not mine.”
This is what Paul is talking about in Philippians 2:5 when he exhorts followers of Jesus: “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus.”
God wants us to take on the mind of Jesus: a mind that doesn’t look out just for what I want in this moment, but that wants what God wants, even when what God wants isn’t pleasant for me.
To repent is to confess that when God and I disagree about anything, God is always right and I am always wrong.
After David said plainly, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan told David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
This all reminds me of what Paul says in Romans 6:23: “...the wages of sin is death [death is what we sinners deserve], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Only the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus can set us free from death--separation from God--and hell.
And that can only happen when we repent and trust in Christ, relying on Christ alone to give our lives meaning.
On this Ash Wednesday, as we remember that we are creatures of God formed from the dust and that we will return to dust again one day, we also remember this: If we will change our minds, turning to Christ and to the way of God, rather than to the ways we prefer, this dust will rise again.
We can live each day knowing that while God will never force Himself on us, if we will keep turning to Christ--living, as the New Testament puts it, "in Christ"--nothing will ever separate us from Him.
And we can trust the promise that Jesus made to the sister of His friend, Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me, will never die" (John 11:25).
Had David steeped himself in God’s Word, remained in fellowship with other believers, or been praying the day he first set eyes on Bathsheba--in other words, if he had allowed God to reign over his thoughts--the terrible chain of events that followed never would have taken place.
That’s one lesson we can learn from David’s experience: Life with God belongs to those who seek live life God's way and not our own.
But there’s another lesson, a lesson about God’s grace and goodness: If, when we have sinned, we can forgo our tendency to block out the truths of God we don’t like and instead, let God change our minds, acknowledge our sins, and trust in God to do the right thing--even when it means consequences we don’t like--our relationship with God can be restored.
Life with God belongs to all who repent for sin and trust in Christ. May repentance and renewal be our way of life not just on Ash Wednesday or during Lent, but every day we live on earth. Amen.