preaching study: psalm 51 (ash wednesday), pt 2

In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the sermon, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
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I meant to get one more post in before preaching tonight, but alas, that was not to be. I preached from Psalm 51 this year. The first installment of this is here.

So, here’s a rough sketch of what I did.

Psalm 51 is identified as one of David’s psalms and is one of the few psalms that is explicitly connected to an event from a narrative passage, so a little more tied to an historical context.

It seems to me that we can see a four-fold movement in this psalm that is helpful to us as we endeavor to follow Jesus through these 40 days of Lent.

1. The psalmist starts out with God’s mercy (vv1-2). This is the first thing in the Christian faith. God is merciful. Our relationship with God, any faithfulness we offer him is ultimately because of his mercy at work in our lives. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about two men, the Pharisee and the tax collector who are praying. The pharisee is (obnoxiously) thankful that he’s not like others of less station and character than himself. After all (he adds), he fasts twice a week and gives a tithe. But the tax collector simply offers up in his guilt and shame, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Reading the text carefully, I don’t find that the pharisee is a hypocrite. He sounds like he actually does practice the faith with commitment and discipline, possibly even with passion. But he’s arrogant as all get-out, that’s his problem. He’s lost sight of the foundation of his relationship with God–God’s mercy. His faithfulness to the spiritual disciplines is wonderful, yes, absolutely. But that brand of lost perspective makes a huge difference. So, we begin where life in God begins. We engage God according to his mercy, his “unfailing love” and “great compassion.”

2. The psalmist comes to grips with his sin (vv3-6). He talks about it in several ways: personal transgressions (v3), connecting wrongs against others with wronging God (albeit with hyperbole, v4), and as his human condition as well as choices and actions (vv5-6). I think of the prodigal sitting in the mud across from the pig, about to say “please pass the slop” again when the light bulb comes on and he realizes that he’s got way better options. After coming to God on the basis of his mercy, we prayerfully come to grips with our sin.

3. The psalmist ambitiously seeks full restoration (vv7-12). I think this is a well-grounded and well-placed ambition, that we should not just be allowed to scrape by, but that we are cleansed fully, brought to a place of joy, given a pure heart–restored. This is seeking the fullness of God. My father is a woodworker. A few years ago he spotted a headboard in a backroom someplace. It had dust and gunk all over it, but he could tell that it was beautiful underneath. It took work to reveal that beauty, but it was there waiting for a patient craftsman with vision to know what he was looking at. That might be something like this experience of restoration of our souls. There is beauty because God’s creative design and the stamp of his image upon humankind has put it there. But sin has corrupted that image. When we are audacious enough to pray for full restoration, we are believing God’s story about us, that he has created us an exceptional work of art, and that though sin is distorting that work presently, we are able to be restored in the hands of this merciful God.

4. The psalmist offers a response of praise (vv13-19). All of God’s works praise him, just as the work of a craftsman praises him. The psalmist refers to praise in terms of witness (vv13-15) and worship–both personal (vv16-17) and corporate (vv18-19).

The prayer of the tax collector, says OT scholar James Mays, is the prayer of Psalm 51. It’s also the foundation for the great “breath prayer” of the Christian devotional tradition called the “Jesus Prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Perhaps that’s a good prayer practice for Lent–repeating the Jesus Prayer and recalling Psalm 51’s movement from mercy to sin to restoration to praise. Yes, we can be hypocritical, but quite often “good church folk” fall more into the camp of the pharisee from Jesus’ parable in Luke 18—faithful but arrogant, whether obnoxiously or carelessly so. Nothing like the Jesus Prayer and Psalm 51 for some perspective to keep us grounded in the true wisdom and grace of the Christian life.

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