Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Samuel 12:1-14
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.
Psalm 51, which we read responsively a short time ago, was written by Israel’s King David, later in his reign, sometime after 1003 BC. And it arose from a specific situation.
Open one of the sanctuary Bibles to 2 Samuel 12, which you’ll find on page 215, please. 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” [1 Samuel 13:14] was guilty of adultery and murder and a cover-up!
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. “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and 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: "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.’”
Through Nathan, God was telling David, “I gave you blessings you never could have earned nor 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 wonder if 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. 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 different ideas, not bound by a relationship with God,” 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." That's it. 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. But now, aware of the sins I’ve committed, 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: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus...” God wants us to take on the mind of Jesus: a mind that wants what God wants, even when what God wants isn’t pleasant for us. Even when it means turning away from the things we most desperately want.
As I’ve said before, to repent is to confess that when God and I disagree about anything, God is always right and I am always wrong. This can be a bitter pill to swallow when it conflicts with the inborn cravings and impulses for sin with which we all are born.
After David said plainly, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan told David, “The Lord has taken away your sin...” This all reminds me of what Paul says in Romans 6:23: “...the wages of sin is death, 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 [Genesis 3:19], 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!
And we can live each day in the knowledge that when we live in daily repentance and trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior, nothing will ever separate us from God [Romans 8:31-39].
Had David steeped himself in God’s Word, remained in fellowship with other believers, or been praying instead of ogling on 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, then acknowledge our sins and trust in God to help us 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.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for tonight's Ash Wednesday worship.]