Leader: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness;
In your great compassion blot out my offenses.
People: Wash me through and through from my wickedness
And cleanse me from my sin.
Leader: For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
People: Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.
Leader: And so you are justified when you speak, and upright in your judgment.
People: Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth,
A sinner from my mother’s womb.
Have mercy on me. Have mercy on me, God, because I am a sinner. Have mercy on me, because I am not without faults. Have mercy on me, because there are things I have done that I’m not proud of; things I have said that I wish I had not; things I have thought that make me wonder where in the world they come from.
I don’t know why I do these things. I want to do what’s right; I want to be pleasing and honorable in your sight. So I go to church, I give back to the community. I pay my taxes, spend time with the family, teach Sunday school. I do all of these things because I want to.
But I know it’s more than what I do – it’s what’s in my heart that matters. I like to think that everything in there is pure and perfect. But I know differently. I know that envy lurks there, if I’m honest with myself. I know there’s hate in there – I don’t want to hate, but sometimes I just can’t help it. And I know pride is there as well, and that sometimes pride can be a bad thing – because it puts me first and you second. So it’s not just about what I do. Even though I try, the fact remains that I still fall short of who it is you want me to be.
And that’s frustrating, God, because I don’t know why I do the things I don’t want to do, nor do I know why I fail to do the things I should. I know you are the Almighty. I know you see me for exactly who I am. And that is a truly wonderful, amazing, and utterly terrifying thing.
Leader: For behold, you look for truth deep within me,
And will make me understand wisdom secretly.
People: Purge me from sin, and I shall be pure;
Wash me, and I shall be clean indeed,
Leader: Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
People: Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.
Leader: Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
People: Cast me not away from your presence
And take not your holy Spirit from me.
I remember something that happened a while back. It was one of the Sundays right before Christmas, and I was with the family in worship. Everything about the whole scene was beautiful – the sanctuary decorated to the hilt, all of us standing for a rousing rendition of “O Come all Ye Faithful,” the organ blaring at its finest and my voice doing what it could. It was one of those moments when all the dots seemed to connect and you feel like you can almost touch God with your hands.
And then, out of nowhere, I was suddenly filled with a sensation of emptiness. Maybe that’s not the word. A void, perhaps? Not sure about that, either. I can’t explain it, but whatever it was, it was totally out of place. I have no idea where it came from – I mean, I’m standing there in the midst of such wonder, such beauty. And yet there it was, staring me right in the face. And it ruined the moment, and my mind began to wander. I thought about needing to order the turkey for the Christmas day meal or I’d have to settle for one of those second-rate ones. I remembered the business deal closing waiting for me at the office on Monday morning and how we just had to get that contract. I thought about a conversation with my teenager about her struggles in school. All this stuff, flooding into my head, and rendering useless the holy experience I was surrounded by at the moment.
Why does stuff like this have to happen? I mean, can’t I just for one minute, for a single moment, relish undisturbed in the greatness of your presence? There are too many things in my life pulling me in different directions; I can’t keep up. There are too many hats I must wear; too many tasks at hand, too many things vying for my attention. And there are only so many ways you can slice the pie.
Create in me a clean heart, God. Create a clean heart so I can focus on what really matters. Create a clean heart so my intentions will be true. Create a clean heart; because there is no way, no way I can make it even remotely presentable on my own. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. More than anything, that’s what I need right now.
Leader: Give me the joy of your saving help again
And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
People: I shall teach your ways to the wicked,
And sinners shall return to you.
Leader: Deliver me from death, O God,
And my tongue shall sing of your righteousness.
People: Open my lips, O Lord,
And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Leader: Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,
But you take no delight in burnt offerings.
People: The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Will you love me, God? Can you love me? I mean, I know that’s what they’ve always told us. Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so. It’s a song we started singing almost as soon as we could talk. So from my earliest memories I’ve had it drilled into my head, so it’s as natural as breathing: God loves me.
But seriously – do you really love me? Or perhaps the question I’m really asking is, how? How in the world can you love someone like myself? Because really, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about me. I’m not a saint by any measure. I haven’t done anything terribly outstanding. There are so many other people – so many – who are far more deserving of the goodness you have to offer. With all the people in this great big wide world of ours, I just don’t see how you can love us – love me – intimately and completely.
And then I remember what the Psalmist said: The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit. Kind of makes me wonder why I would want to be troubled. And then I realize that that’s the whole point. We don’t have to go looking for trouble in this life. We don’t have to search for difficulties. They come to us by the dozens, day in and day out. Because that’s life. That’s simply the way things are. There is brokenness in this world. There is pain and suffering; there is “trouble.” And it is because of this that there is a need for you in the first place. It is because of sin and brokenness that Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s undying love, was necessary to begin with.
That’s how you love me – love me in a way I have never experienced before, and never will anywhere else. That’s what enables me to face my imperfections and my shortcomings – my sin – because I know that it doesn’t have the last word. You do. In fact, it is through facing my sin – which is the whole purpose of Ash Wednesday – that I prepare myself to experience first-hand that wonderful and ultimate expression of your redemptive love, 40 days from now. That is why it all happens the way it does.
So let me teach your ways. Let my tongue sing your righteousness and mouth proclaim your praise. Let me do all of this and more – not because I want to, but because you empower me to. Indeed, you have created a new and right spirit within me; and that spirit will live with me always. Let the sign of your cross forever remind me of that amazing and wonderful truth.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.