In many Christian denominations, Lent began on Ash Wednesday, which in 2017 fell on March 1, one week ago today. Those of us who grew up in Baptist or other non-liturgical churches probably only learned about Lent second-hand, and in a superficial way, through Catholic friends who showed up in school with black ashes on their foreheads and talked to each other about what they were “giving up for Lent.” We were just seeing the edges of what is one of the most intense and profound spiritual journeys for devout Catholics.
Lent lasts for about six weeks and culminates in Holy Week, Good Friday and the triumphant celebration of Easter Sunday. During this time, people who are part of liturgical churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran) are asked to use this time for serious self-examination, confession, repentance and acts of penance. Typical Lenten activities are prayer, confession of sins (including making restitution if others have been hurt), fasting (voluntary self-denial of some food, activity or other pleasure), spiritual disciplines (devotional readings, following the “Stations of the Cross,” etc.) and doing charitable acts (such as donating time or money to the poor, sick or needy).
Baptists and others in the more evangelical Protestant traditions have historically rejected the observation of Lent because they believed that these various activities can too easily be reduced to a series of “good works” that people hope will impress God and lead to forgiveness and their personal salvation. This would obscure the gospel truth that forgiveness and salvation come only be the grace of God through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. “By grace through faith,” wrote the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 2:8). Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, in taking his stand against the “works righteousness” he observed in the Catholic Church of his day, added one more word: “By grace through faith ALONE!” So Baptists took their stand against following the Lent tradition.
Today, some of us are realizing that our spiritual ancestors may have overreacted and that we have lost something special, in the experience of our Christian faith, by ignoring the insight and discipline of Lent. We do need to analyze ourselves critically. We do need to confess our sins, repent and try to make things right. We do need to learn to deny ourselves and to control our appetites, passions and indulgences. These few weeks leading up to Easter seem to be a good time to do this.
I’m suggesting that we use Psalm 51 as our text and our guide through this Lenten journey. The superscription of this psalm connects it with David’s confession of his sin of adultery, which caused so much pain and turmoil to his family and the Kingdom he ruled. But there are no details in the text that refer to this particular sin or to David himself. In fact, the wording of verses 4 and 5 points rather to a general confession of sin that can come from the heart and soul of any person on earth.
- Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
- Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
- For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
- Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
- Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
- You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
- Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
- Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
- Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
- Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
- Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
- Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
- Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
- Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
- O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
- For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
- The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
- Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
- Then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The line that really jumps out at me is verse 17. If I have a “broken spirit,” I feel despicable, and I expect to be despised, by people and by God. This verse tells me that when my spirit feels broken, by sin or by harsh life experiences, people may despise me, but God will not. In fact, in God’s eyes, my broken spirit is an “acceptable sacrifice.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine