Rembrandt van Rijn 'Bathsheba at Her Bath' 1654 - Musée du Louvre, Paris
"Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice, With exultation springing, And with united heart and voice And holy rapture singing, Proclaim the wonders God has done, How His right arm the vict’ry won. What price our ransom cost Him!"
It may seem strange at the beginning of Lent to rejoice, with exultation springing. Now is the time for quiet, somber reflection on our sins, so we must save our Alleluias for Easter morning. However, in the midst of repentance and confessing sins to one another, we give thanks, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Ps. 51:15).
Repentance and confessing is not something we do before worship, that worship may finally begin. Repentance, sorrow, and deep contrition are not antecedents to worship, but ARE worship, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
King David submitted this psalm after being rebuked by Nathan over his sin. He had taken Bathsheba into his bed, the wife of the pious and faithful Uriah the Hittite. When she became pregnant, David, in order to cover up his sin planned a variety of schemes to live with his sin, ending with giving an order to kill Uriah on the field of battle. David thought he could live with his sin and to clean up the mess on his own. God in his mercy however, sends a servant Nathan to rebuke David, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” Nathan goes on to recount and expose David’s sin, bringing it into light, “For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun” (12:12).
David confesses, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan absolves, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” - forgiven for adultery, deceit, murder, and the multitude of secret sins. When we hear this absolution in the Christian congregation we hear the Passover verdict, that death has indeed passed over our households. The final judgment is spoken ahead of time, “I as a called and ordained servant announce to you…” In a confessing Christian congregation forgiveness ought never be presented as an offer, an option, or choice. The absolution happens – faith receives that word spoken. Something happens. The heavens open, God speaks and a reality happens – sinners are declared saints.
There is often a lot of talk about “having a relationship with God.” Everybody has a relationship with God. It is impossible not to. We are either living with our sins, hiding from his law, and dying in our sins, or we are dying to our sin – that is being forgiven and restored. We are either evading and spurning Christ’s gifts or we are receiving them. We either despise absolution, heard from a pastor as from God himself, or we rejoice in it. We are either under his wrath or under his mercy. David cannot opt out of one or the other. He cannot remain neutral. He cannot cover his sin. He cannot live apart from wrath or grace. And no one can evade God, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps. 139:7-8).
Like David, we make a giant error, when we think that we can evade our sin and evade God. Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was a sobering reminder of our mortality, our sin, and that final enemy Death. In God’s mercy he sends to us a Nathan in a pastor or Christian brother who says, “You have despised the word of the Lord…you have sinned against Him and have sinned against your neighbor…the penalty for sin is death.” Those ashes marked on our foreheads with that cross of Christ remind us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Repent. Christ calls us to repent of our scheming and our plotting. We are called to repent from our self-righteousness. We are called to repent for evading God and His holy word, “Where are you Adam?” To dust we shall we return. Yet, in our return to the dust we share in the life of Another.
“The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man,so also are those who are heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:47-48).
The focus of lent therefore is not that old man of the dust but upon that second Man, the new Adam – that new creation Jesus Christ. We repent. We change our gaze and orientation away from ourselves to ‘ourselves in Jesus Christ’ looking unto “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In death, ashes are raised by the Word of God, “Son of man, can these bones live?...O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 37:3-6).
"Jesus, grant that balm and healing
In your holy wounds I find,
Ev'ry hour that I am feeling
Pains of body and of mind.
Should some evil thought within
Tempt my treach'rous heart to sin,
Show the peril, and from sinning
Keep me from its first beginning"
(LSB 421 stanza 1)