“WHAT ARE WE SEEKING?”
March 6, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:10-12 (ESV)
At first it may seem to be a bit odd that these words, which we have come to know as an offertory--something that we sing to the Lord as we are about to bring before Him our offerings of thanks and praise--should come in the middle of what is arguably the best-known of the penitential psalms--prayers of repentance. But if we really take the time to think about it, it’s not so strange after all because, when you get right down to it, even the very best that we have to offer our God is something for which we need to ask His forgiveness. Neither we nor anything that we can offer is worthy of the One before whom we present our gifts and ourselves. And so our attitude toward God is at all times (even when we offer Him the firstfruits of our labors) an attitude of repentance. We ask Him, in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, to accept both us and our offerings not because of who we are but because of whose we are. In all things we plead the blood of Christ as the only reason why our God should pay attention to us or favor us or accept our gifts.
That attitude of repentance is something that goes a lot deeper than many people suppose. It’s not a mere “I’m sorry” as we go about our business and continue in the very sin for which we are supposedly so sorry. Nor is it simply an emotional thing: feeling badly (perhaps even to the point of tears) because of what we have done and continue to do to offend our God and our neighbor. Genuine repentance is all of this--and more. It is a hatred of our sin--not only of the fact that we got caught or that we deserve God’s punishment--but a genuine hatred of the sinful lives that we live--a fervent desire to turn our back on sin and live a new and different kind of life. That’s what the word repent literally means, you know: to change one’s mind--to turn around and head in the opposite direction. As we gather at the foot of Jesus’ cross on this first day of the Lenten season we meditate on these words from Psalm 51, paying particular attention to what it is that we are seeking when we ask forgiveness for our sins.
In the opening verse of the passage before us King David sings: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” In seeking “a clean heart” and “a right spirit” the psalmist is asking (and we with him) that the Holy Spirit would create and nurture in us a genuine desire to please the Lord in all things, not because we are obligated to (although we are) but because of our gratitude for what He has first done for us. As Christians we of course know that, of all the things that He has done for us, the most significant and valuable of all is winning for us the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of everlasting life through the perfect life and the innocent suffering and death of His incarnate Son. Knowing that God has accepted us as His dear children solely through His grace, in spite of our sin, we long to live lives that glorify Him by proclaiming to the whole world that His grace is not wasted on us--and all of this is in response to what we have received by His grace. With the apostle Paul we long to say: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
In the second verse of our text David says: “Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” In offering this petition, David and we are seeking fellowship with God. Such fellowship is possible only through the Son of God whose perfect life and innocent suffering and death have reconciled us to God--overcome the enmity between God and man established by our sin. Without the atonement for our sin accomplished by Christ, we sinners could not even survive in the presence of the Holy One. What’s more, if we choose to continue in sin we are in fact rejecting the grace and reconciliation through which we find ourselves in loving fellowship with our Creator and Judge. Because we value this fellowship with God, we implore Him to keep us close to Him through the mercies of Christ and not to reject us in this life or in the life to come. And since we are still in daily contention with our “old Adam”--our sinful nature--we seek the Lord’s help in fighting this “good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). We ask in particular that the Lord “take not [His] Holy Spirit from” us because it is the Holy Spirit who creates and sustains faith within us--the faith through which we receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ that brings us into fellowship with God.
In asking the Lord to “restore to [him] the joy of [the Lord’s] salvation, and [to] uphold [him] with a willing spirit," David seeks (as we do) a consistent attitude of repentance. The joy of salvation becomes real for us only through repentance because unless and until we grieve over our sin and its consequences we can have no real appreciation for the forgiveness and salvation that Christ has won for us and through His Spirit has given us as free gifts of His grace. The “willing spirit” that the psalmist asks for is the spirit of repentance, since only that kind of spirit is willing to hear the Lord’s Word of forgiveness. Some people think that Christians (and perhaps especially Lutherans) have too much of a spirit of repentance to begin with. They wonder why we spend so much time and exert so much effort meditating on our sin and unworthiness. They say it would be much better if we just forgot about all that and simply praised the Lord for His goodness. My answer to that is this: What is the Lord’s goodness? Is it not, first and foremost, the forgiveness of sins accomplished through the cross of Jesus? That being the case, how can we possibly appreciate His goodness enough to praise Him for it without first meditating on what our life and future would be like without that goodness of God? We don’t meditate on our sin and unworthiness and we don’t constantly repent of our sins because we like feeling miserable; we do it because we can best appreciate God’s grace to us in Christ--in fact, we can only receive God’s grace in Christ--through repentance. Unless we are truly repentant, we will never see the need for the forgiveness and salvation given to us in Christ.
Everything that the child of God seeks in this psalm--the desire to please God, fellowship with God, and a repentant attitude--is given to us freely and abundantly in the Gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ. In fact, these blessings can be ours in no other way. It is God Himself who not only reveals to us in His Law what pleases Him but also gives us the motivation and the strength to please Him in the Gospel of His Son. It is God Himself who overcame the hostility of our sin when "in Christ [He] was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is God Himself who both desires our repentance and brings us to repentance through His Word. As we begin this annual journey along the way of the cross, we do so with repentant yet joyful hearts, knowing that God Himself is at work in it all, bringing about the salvation of sinners through the sacrifice of the Sinless One who took our place under God’s judgment so that we might take His place as recipients of God’s favor.
May the One who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, making us kings and priests before His God and Father, lead you to a life of repentance and trust. May He also be glorified in the lives of you, His people. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.