05 March, 2014

Homily for Ash Wednesday 2014

Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalm 51:1-2)
Every year the readings set for Ash Wednesday should cut through our daily living as a flash of lightning in a dark night. All of them recall the faithful to assess their lives in the light of God’s judgment and to make amend.
We all sin and these readings give us a chance to realise just how much we have strayed away from the proper path. Like the writer of Psalm 51, I am personally only too aware of my own faults and shortcomings…

At the beginning of this psalm there is a bit of “stage directions” that says, A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. This phrase is omitted by our lectionary; it’s a descripti
on, a note, to set the psalm in its proper context. It tells us why David speaks as he does, why he pours out his heart to the Lord.

So, how many of us do remember the story of David and Bathsheba? It is not often taught at Sunday school, as David does not really come across as the model King. In fact, this tale witnesses to David’s first falls as he turns away from God in order to pursue his own selfish interests.
Let me recap the events in a few lines. David is alone in his palace, possibly bored and wired. He spots a remarkably beautiful woman. Immediately, he decides to take her and have her. The woman is already married to David’s best officer, Uriah, but the king doesn’t seem to mind at all. He takes her and seduces her.
After the affair which produces a child, David has to cover up his deeds; he deceives Uriah many times with bigger and bigger lies until the man is about to discover the truth and David sends him off to the fight on front-line, making sure that Uriah gets killed by the enemy.
It is at this point the story that prophet Nathan comes to David, unmasking the plot; demanding

Today, our readings come to us as the prophet Nathan did for King David; regardless of our status, they unmask our silly little plots and they demand repentance.

But there is another point to the story of David and Bathsheba. Crucially, up to the point when the king seduces Bathsheba, David had never “taken” anything selfishly for himself, but the Lord had “given”, had provided, him everything out of his faithful love. So we see that as soon as David stops waiting on God disaster strikes. David stops waiting on God’s steadfast love and obeys his own selfish desires – regardless of who gets hurt.

Of course, we wouldn’t do anything like that. I wouldn’t behave as David did, would I? I wouldn’t get anyone killed out of my own selfishness. I wouldn’t have to wait for a prophet to warn me… I would be able to see my wrongdoing for myself. I, I, I…

The mantra of contemporary society is to follow our own impulses; not only privately but collectively too – regardless of who gets hurt. From depriving the poor of fair wages in order to wear cheap new clothes, to raping creation, to pursuing our own personal happiness to every cost, we all do it, and we all need repentance. And so, like King David, we have to make Psalm 51 our own prayer.

The great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer once said that sin is not just an action but rather a state of being, which numbs and blinds us until we repent and we turn to God once again.

May we keep a holy Lent assessing our lives in the light of God’s judgment and making amend.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

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