As we begin Lent, we read this message (warning?) from Joel: Sound the alarm. The day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness and gloom. (Read Joel 1:1-2:11).
Yet, even in the face of our deserved judgment, the Lord continues to beckon, "Return to me."
As Christians travel through Lent, let us heed Joel's reminder: Rend your hearts and not your clothing. What do we need to give up (or to take up) that is our way of fasting, weeping, and mourning?
In verse 13, we see the familiar doxology of God's mercy (Exodus 34:5-7).
Again, Joel says, "Sound the alarm," and adds:
Sanctify a fast.
Call a solemn assembly.
Gather the whole congregation including the old people and the very young.
In verse 17, he reminds us that our lives demonstrate what we really believe about God. There's an old cliche' that your life is a sermon that you are preaching everyday. What if it is true?
Psalm 51 is one of only seven penitential psalms. I'm wondering why only seven. How often do we need words to express our recognition that we need to be forgiven?
Here's the first seven verses:
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.
Interestingly enough for me, as I am reflecting on this psalm, I'm also doing the weekly laundry. Those clothes really were dirty, and they really did need cleaning. Soon, they will be presentable for wear once again. The metaphor fails though because the washing I am doing to the clothes will remove only the surface stains.
Although most of the other penitential psalms are communal prayers, this psalm is expressed as an individual cry, Have mercy on me, blot out my transgressions, wash me, and purify me.
And I can ask this of God because mercy is what God is like, because mercy befits God's faithfulness, because God is abundantly compassionate.
Sometimes, we need reminders that we are sinning. And, sometimes, we are so burdened by our sins that we need reminders that God is compassionate.
We can pray Psalm 51 when we recognize that we need forgiveness, that we want forgiveness:
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.