1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.
14 Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The topic is sin, which is a downer. Sin, death, taxes, disaster – all topics that most people avoid, given the choice. It’s an understandable impulse.
But sin is woven throughout the fabric of Jewish and Christian thought. Sin is mentioned or discussed countless times in both testaments. Sin is understood as committed by individuals and groups, by persons and by whole nations.
Sin is disobedience to God, rebellion against God, rejection of God. Sin is to omit what God requires or to do what God forbids. Sin is a genuine wrongfulness, not simple foolishness or mistakes that are understandable and not very serious. Sin is a cruel master. Persons in their natural state are slaves to sin, said Paul.
In our modern day, religious speech has lost much of the power it once had. Formerly powerful religious ideas are thought by vast segments of society to be rather quaint. What our great-grandparents called sin we, as a society, tend to see as disorders or dysfunctions. Counselors’ offices are more popular than priests’ confessionals. Mental health professionals find behavioral increasingly in neural chemical imbalances, not sicknesses of the spirit. Even we pastors agree that people suffering from broken minds are fundamentally sick rather than sinful in their disorders, just as we know that measles or mumps are infectious diseases, not spiritual sicknesses.
Yet psychotherapeutic analyses of disorder, illness or dysfunction cannot explain the hard reality of human depravity that even a casual survey of history shows. Nor can it explain why mentally healthy people still commit the worst deeds both individually and corporately. Christopher Dorner was killed in California yesterday after murdering four people, wounding others and kidnaping still others. Was he mentally ill or simply criminal or was he just plain sinful? The question itself makes us uncomfortable. Behavior is neither morally neutral nor categorized so neatly.
For the past couple of centuries, western culture has embraced a notion of progress, an optimistic faith that not only will the physical conditions of human life improve, but so will human beings themselves. It has been and still is an article of faith that people who live longer, healthier lives in wealthier societies will be inherently better people. Yet over the last century more people were murdered in the name of a higher good than in the name of any other doctrine in history.
Yet we live lives that are pretty much beyond reproach – not many bank robbers here, I think. So we’re a little skeptical when the psalmist uses words like, ‘iniquity,’ transgressions,’ ‘born guilty.’
Well, no raindrop feels responsible for a flood. Each one of us can ignore how sin arises just from the fallen way we live together. Sin is the mob mentality of decent people. Sin is not solitary. We are bound together in sin which still claims us from times gone by.
Sin, at least as a concept, is the only way believers can make sense of the world when they contrast that world to their faith in God, the teachings of Christ and the divine vision for what human life should be. John Henry Newman said, “If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I [would] have the sort of feeling which comes upon me when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator.”
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “the utopian illusions . . . of modern culture are all derived” from a basic and profound misunderstanding of the nature of the human condition: we believe that because we desire goodness, we therefore are good. We seek peace in our relationships and mistakenly conclude that we must be inherently peaceful. We desire justice and erroneously conclude that we are fundamentally just. Yet none of our desires for the good are ever fully realized, and hardly ever are realized well.
To the contrary of this cultural confusion, the Psalmist is crystal clear about the truth: “My sin is always before me,” he writes, and I have “sinned and done what is evil. . . . Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
Sin is the grip the past still has on us that we can never fully shake off or fully repair. In turn, the legacy we leave our children is limited and faulty, even with the most honorable of motives and best efforts. That describes the basic sinfulness of our species, but sin is more than that.
The basic structures of limitation and inability of humanity are manifested in the way we live together. We all participate in corporate sin through the ways we organize our society, in our acquiescence and actual agreement with ongoing systems of injustice, oppression, falsehood, and in personal compromises, lack of will or rationalizations.
People lie, steal, murder and cheat on their spouses. And even if most people don’t do that, there is no one who has never treated another unjustly, who has followed only God’s will all the time, who has never looked at another person with lust, who has never thought in his or her heart that another is a fool. All of which, said Christ, condemn us before God.
The Bible doesn’t stop there, however. It teaches that not to revere the holiness of God is sin, indeed, grievous sin. “You shall have no other gods before me,” commands the Lord, but we do. We revere things over people, we preserve lifestyles at the expense of discipleship, we sacrifice our children on the altar of career success. “You shall not use my name in vain,” says God, but we do, all the time.
We are sinful in the way we are limited in our very existence, we sin in the deeds we do and thoughts we think, we are sinful in the way we dishonor God. This is the condition in which our parents conceived us, and into which we are born.
Marking our faces with ashes reminds us that we are in the grip of our past. The ashes symbolize that our sin is real. We are called to repent of our inclination to sin. The ashes I see on you make me realize I am dirty, right along with you. We are all dirty together. We should feel ashamed for committing sins, but much more should we be ashamed of being people who are liable to sin. The ashen past still holds us. The past didn't just happen, we made it happen and we live in its consequences today.
So we fast in Lent, we weep and mourn. Our sinful past lives with us still.
We cannot overcome these things on our own because they are built in to us. Hence God was born in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was born into our limitations and was killed by the best government and religion the world had ever seen. Jesus was different, though. Being one with God, he really was basically good. God raised Jesus up from death. God did it from his love for us, for you, for me. Christ is the bridge from our sin to forgiveness, from our limitations to God’s glory, from our death to resurrection.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul wrote, “and are justified freely by his grace through Christ Jesus. . . . If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’” from your sins (Rom 10:9).
Sin and death are not the last word. God can wash the ashes away. God’s grace is in this moment. There is grace in the scars of our broken places. If we are urged to be reconciled to God then in grace we can be reconciled to God. We are not trapped by the past. God gives us a new heart with a right spirit. From the ashes of the past we can become a reconciled people of God in grace and love.
Let us pray:
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out our transgressions. Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from our sin. For our sins are always before us.
Cleanse us, and we will be clean; wash us, and we will be whiter than snow. Let us hear joy and gladness; let us who are crushed rejoice. Create in us a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within us.
Do not cast us from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation and grant us a willing spirit, to sustain us. Save us, O God, the God who saves us, and we will sing of your righteousness. By the grace of your Son, our Savior Christ Jesus, we pray. And let our cry come unto you. Amen.