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 your free Spirit.Psalm 51:10-12
This is such a beautiful prayer, isn’t it? And especially meaningful on Ash Wednesday, as we being our Lenten journey. But the beauty of this prayer from Psalm 51 makes it all the more remarkable that it only exists because of a tragic sin by the one who wrote it, King David. He wrote many psalms, of course, including Psalm 23, and so many others that have shaped our lives of faith. But the circumstance in which this particular psalm was written is a tragic one, and self-inflicted by King David himself. It was written right after the prophet Nathan confronts David concerning his famous sin with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. And Nathan’s rebuke of David opened his eyes to his sin. And in that dreadful state, he approached God in prayer, and recorded the words of this powerful psalm, including the words that I just read.
Now, obviously this psalm is a prayer of confession. And of the most powerful of the penitential psalms. But this psalm also offers us a path to joy. We can see that by looking at each of the three petitions in verses 10-12 in turn. They show us a path from a clean heart to divine presence to salvation joy.
First, is the prayer for a clean heart. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Our hearts are dirty, we acknowledge in this psalm. Like our foreheads will be. Dirty. Disfigured. If we trace the origins of our sins down to the roots, we end up in our hearts. That is where sin begins, and so that is where it must be addressed.
Create clean hearts in us is our prayer. Only God can do that. We can’t clean our hearts. We can repent in dust and ashes. We can show remorse. We can begin changing our minds, our actions, our habits, our lives. But not our hearts. We need God for that. And so we pray, with David and with all those who have prayed this psalm over the centuries: create in us clean hearts, O God.
And then, we pray: Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. David recognizes here that there is no worse punishment for sin than to be cast away from God’s presence. And so, as he repents of this sin, he begs God not to do this. But David knows, too, that our God is not one who willingly casts us away from God’s presence. In fact, David is also the one who wrote these moving words in Psalm 139:
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
We will never be cast away from God’s presence. But in Psalm 51, we pray this because we know that sin can cloud us from this belief. Sin can make us feel isolated and alone, full of shame and guilt, and without any hope that we are still in the presence of the Lord. It is as the mystic Meister Eckhart, once said: “God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.”
God is at home, but we can’t see it or believe it. We have gone for a walk, spiritually, away from the Lord, away from home. And so we pray: Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. And like the prodigal son in that great parable, we turn around and head home, and find God dancing for joy.
Which brings us to the third part of this prayer: Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit. Sin robs us of the joy of salvation. And so, after praying for forgiveness, and reminding ourselves of God’s faithful presence, we ask God to restore to us the joy of our salvation. From despair to joy. Through repentance and awareness.
Salvation joy is what God wants for us, for all of us. But it doesn’t come through celebration. It doesn’t happen at Mardi Gras. It doesn’t come by ignoring our sin. It comes by recognizing our sin. By repenting. By asking God to create clean hearts in us. And so, here we are. Beginning our season of Lent together by repenting in dust and ashes. And promising to tackle the sin that still clings to us, that is still getting our hearts dirty. Hoping and praying, that when all is said and done, that the joy of our salvation will be restored to us.
I suspect that you are here because this is what you believe. Because you know this is the path to salvation joy. Otherwise, why are you here? Why would you come to church for this somber festival, this counter-cultural festival? Why leave Mardi Gras to come for ashes? But, here you are. You are at church. You have received the ashes. You do recognize that you are a sinner. And you repent in dust and ashes, like so many before you.
You are here. We are here. To have ashes placed on our foreheads, and to repent of our sins.And to turn to the one who can create within us clean hearts. Because we long to be re-created.We long to be new creations in Christ.
And on a joyous Sunday in the middle of April, we will celebrate our new creations in Christ. But not before. The celebration will come. But first, you and I have work to do. And it begins with that wonderfully simple prayer of Psalm 51:
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 your free Spirit.
Yes, Lord. Yes. Amen