Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Psalm 51 + Small Catechism: What is confession?
Again this year we see no ashes painted on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. But we could use them as they have been used since Old Testament times, as a self-imposed mark of public humiliation, as an outward sign of inner repentance. We could use them as a mark of sin and death, that these bodies will return to the dust from which our human race was first taken. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We could use ashes as a confession of the sin that still plagues us every single day, and of our faith in the One who died for our sins – past, present and future. Ashes are a good outward symbol of confession, and confession is a God-pleasing activity.
But, ashes or no ashes, the fact is, you already wear the marks of death on your face, in every crease and wrinkle of your skin, in the glasses that help to correct your imperfect eyes, in the gray hair or the bald head, in all your frailties and infirmities, in your bent-over backs and your weak limbs. And though your dying bodies will return to the dust because of your sin, they will not remain in the dust, because you have now been washed clean of the stain of sin and of the permanency of death. To choose not to use ashes on this day is fine, as long as we wear them on the inside, as long as we believe, not only that we are sinners, but that God forgives us sinners and has washed us clean in the waters of Holy Baptism. We believe in God’s absolution, God’s gift of forgiveness.
That theme – God’s Gift of Forgiveness – will be our focus during this Lenten season as we pray together and ponder the Penitential Psalms.
Our Psalm tonight, Psalm 51, embraces both aspects of “Ash” Wednesday – Confession and Absolution. It is a Psalm of Confession – not just of sin, but of God’s goodness in forgiving sin, and those two aspects of confession have to be kept together in order for it to be Christian Confession. That’s summarized beautifully for us, not just in Psalm 51, but also in our Small Catechism:
What is confession?
Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
First, that we confess our sins.
You can’t miss King David’s confession in Psalm 51, can you? It permeates the Psalm, from beginning to end. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
What transgressions? What sin? Well, the title of the Psalm gives us a hint. WHEN NATHAN THE PROPHET WENT TO HIM, AFTER HE HAD GONE IN TO BATHSHEBA. Adultery, lies and deception, the murder, cover-up. Real transgressions. Real sins against real people.
Ah, but it goes deeper than that. When Nathan, the prophet, confronted David, this is what he said, “Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” And so David confesses in this Psalm, Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
You get that? For as horrible as David’s sins were against other people, his real sin, his major offense was idolatry, sin against God. His major offense – his only real offense – was that he made his desires his god. What David wanted – Bathsheba! – that would be his, no matter who got in his way, no matter who would suffer because of it, no matter what God had to say about it.
Ah, but it goes even deeper than that. It’s not just in these outward acts that David admits his sin. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. David’s confessing there what we call “original sin,” that inborn corruption of our very nature, that inherited twisted shape of our very self that God created to be turned outward in love toward him and our neighbor, but that is now thoroughly and permanently (in this life) twisted and turned inward, so that we are by nature self-centered, sinful and unclean. Actual sins are only symptoms of this inborn corruption.
Your sins, my sins – they may be different than David’s sins, but they aren’t fewer and they aren’t any better, any less offensive to God, any less deadly. The sin in which David’s mother conceived him is the same sin in which your mother conceived you. Your sins, my sins – they’re real transgressions, too, real sins against real people, and especially, real sins against God.
Now, David confesses all this to God, but he doesn’t do it just to get it off his chest. He doesn’t confess because he is being forced to confess. He doesn’t confess in order to coax God into feeling sorry for him, and he doesn’t confess in order to make a plea bargain with God or to offer God something in return for his forgiveness. David confesses because David knows this one thing: For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. David confessed his sin because David believed that God would be merciful, that God would not despise or hate or turn away from a broken and contrite heart. David confessed his sin because he believed in God’s gift of forgiveness.
Hear him give the reason for his pleas for mercy: Have mercy on me, O God, – why? because I deserve it? No, but according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. David seeks mercy, cleansing, washing, the blotting out of transgression, the forgiveness of sins – where? – in God’s own attributes, in who God has revealed himself to be. David seeks mercy from God because God is merciful. He seeks forgiveness because God is forgiving.
But God is not up in heaven forgiving sins secretly. God forgives sins through his humble servants. God authorized Nathan to go to David, to accuse David in God’s name, and to forgive David’s sin in God’s name. Before Nathan, David’s confession was very simple, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan’s absolution was equally simple, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” And there it was. David’s sin was taken away, absolved, forgiven.
That’s the second part of “Confession.” Confession consists of two parts. Second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
God does not call us to confession in order to humiliate us, but in order to absolve us. That’s where he does it.
And why he does it? For the sake of the merits of Christ Jesus who bore the sins of the world and earned God’s gift of forgiveness for us. Because he died for sin, sins are forgiven in the absolution. Because he rose from the dead, our death won’t last. Where Christ is, there is God’s favor, God’s life, God’s absolution.
See what a treasure he has given us in the absolution! This is where he takes us back to our baptism where he washed us clean and blotted out all our transgressions. This is where Christ himself comes to you through his called servant and deals with you throughout your Christian life. Through your pastor, Christ himself speaks and accuses you of sin, so that you may confess, and so that he may forgive you your sins.
This is the really humbling part of the office of the holy ministry. Because I, the pastor, am nobody special, and my words help no one. But God has chosen to speak through nobody’s. And you’re supposed to believe it. You’re supposed to hear God’s voice in my preaching. You’re supposed to hear God condemning your sin and you’re supposed to hear God announcing his forgiveness to you in my absolution.
That’s true in public, or corporate confession and absolution. It’s particularly true – it’s intended especially for private confession and absolution, and I encourage all of you to take advantage of that opportunity, to come to me as individuals, not for my benefit but for your benefit, to confess, in private, the individual sins that trouble you, and to hear your own name as I absolve you, by name, for your particular sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as the Lord Christ has commanded me to do.
The goal of repentance, the goal of confession – the goal of Ash Wednesday – is not death, but life, not sorrow in sin but joy in the forgiveness of sins. It’s through confession that God wants you to receive God’s gift of forgiveness, for the sake of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.