“The Arc of Repentance”


Some Thoughts as Lent Begins _________________________________________________

Psalm 51 is a standard part of the Ash Wednesday “script.”  We will use a version of it in our own Ash Wednesday service here at Northway. The editorial notes that preface this text in Scripture provide a specific context from the life of David for this penitential Psalm that the church traditionally prays on the threshold of Lent – “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

All of the sordid details of this story can be found in 2 Samuel 11 and 12.

Now, whenever I read stories like this one about the “falleness” of Biblical “heroes” I am reminded of the way that Francis Schaeffer actually made a case for the Bible’s inspiration from the way that it refuses to “clean up” the stories of its main characters like David.  In his sermon on “The Weakness of God’s Servants” (No Little People – IVP – 1974) Francis Schaeffer explained –

If someone asked us, “What is the Bible?” we would probably not begin our answer by saying, “The Bible is a realistic book.” Yet in the twentieth century this might be the best place to start – to stress the realism of the Bible in contrast to the romanticism which characterizes the twentieth –century concept of religion. (43)

Among religious writings the Bible is unique in its attitude to its great men. Even many Christian biographies puff up the men they describe.  But the Bible exhibits the whole man, so much so that it is almost embarrassing at times… Of course, usually we think about the strong points of the biblical characters… But let us not be embarrassed by the other side – the Bible’s candor (even about its greatest leaders), its portrayal of their weakness quite without embarrassment and without false show.   Paul wrote to the Romans, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). …This is the biblical picture even of its own “heroes.” (50)

davidDavid was a mess, and it wasn’t just his tryst with the neighbor’s wife that was memorialized by Psalm 51. Why there’s hardly an episode from the story of David’s life that the Bible tells us that hasn’t got some serious shadow to it.  I remember coming to the deathbed scene from David’s story in I Kings 2 the very first time that I ever read through the Bible and being ripped from the lofty heights of the spiritual nobility of his charge to his son Solomon (2:1-4) to being plunged to the depths of human depravity with David’s “Godfather-like” hit list that he left for Solomon to “handle” just the minute that he was gone (2:5-9). What do you do with that?  I know that I’ve never used it for a children’s sermon!

Both the Old Testament (I Samuel 13:14) and the New Testament (Acts 13:22) extols David as “a man after God’s own heart,” but I’ve got to tell you that this isn’t the first thing that occurs to me whenever I read David’s story in Scripture.  When I read the story of Job I can’t find his proverbial patience anywhere, and when I read the story of David his God-centered heart, quite frankly, eludes me.  Maybe it’s his “custody” of the Psalms that establishes this as David’s defining characteristic, at least this is how R.C. Sproul trties to make the case for it –

It’s in the Psalms that we see the heart of a penitent unveiled and in that I think we see most clearly the greatness of David the Great. If you read Psalm 51 and read it carefully and thoughtfully, that Psalm will reveal more than anything else in the history of David why David was called a man after God’s own heart. Because here it reveals the broken heart of a sinful man who sees his sin clearly.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, especially here at the beginning of Lent.

Before the frenzy of all those Lenten vows for self-improvement begins – a kind of baptized version of the tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions – let’s be clear about why the church does Lent in the first place. Calvin Miller’s warning always sounds in my ears and heart the week of Ash Wednesday – “We serve Christ while we worship Narcissus.” He knew that there is real danger in conceiving of Christianity as “the fastest way to personal gain.” We don’t fast because it will help us lose weight.  We don’t impose ashes because it will cleanse our complexions.   We don’t cultivate spiritual discipline because it will make us more efficient and effective at work.  Lent isn’t about making us better. Lent is about us coming to terms with what’s wrong with us.  And in this, David may be the perfect teacher.

Lots of popular preaching I hear these days consists of taking biblical characters like David and offering them to the faithful as moral examples. The standard three point sermon I hear says — “This is David.” — “Are you a David?” — “Be a David!”  C. FitzSimons Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, calls this the “Roger Bannister” approach to Christianity.

rogerOnce Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier in 1954, the very first human being to ever do so competitively, suddenly everybody everywhere seemed to be able to do it as well. And spiritually, morally, this “Roger Bannister” approach to Christianity says that all we really need to become better people is just a good example and a little bit of exhortation. So we pick a Biblical character like David, that man “after God’s own heart,” and we hold him up to the faithful as an example to emulate, and like a Zumba coach we start shouting – “Do more!” “Try Harder!” “Come on, you can do it!”  And in doing this, I think, we completely miss the point.  As Michael Horton points out – “In the biblical view, the biblical characters are not examples of their victory, but of God’s! The life of David is not a testimony to David’s faithfulness, surely, but to God’s.”

Go back and read again the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. This may be the perfect antidote to our Lenten tendency towards works righteousness and its schemes of self-salvation under the guise of “giving something up.”   The boast of the Pharisee about fasting and tithing (18:12) sounds for all the world to me like somebody who’s “observing a holy lent,” and who’s pretty pleased with himself for doing so!  But he’s not the “hero” in this story that Jesus told.  No, the one we’re told to pay attention to was the Publican, the one who stood far off, eyes downcast, beating his chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (18:13).  That’s “David-like.” That’s the Cliff Notes for Psalm 51.  And that’s why the Church tells us that we really need Lent… and Good Friday… and Easter Sunday.  Not because we’re such dynamic little bundles of potential and promise, but because we’re such big messes, jumbles of real contradiction and compromise.

In an essay that he wrote on Sanctification, J.W. Hendryx gave me a spiritual tool that I now use almost every week as I personally approach the Lord’s Table. This has the true wisdom of “a holy lent” all over it –

ChaliceHow many of us try to clean ourselves up before approaching the Lord’s Table, as if there were some degree or level of purity that we could reach that would make us acceptable to God? The command to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself should be sufficient to make you recognize your utter inability to do so. …What man could ever clean himself up enough to make himself acceptable to God? And if he could clean himself up to that degree, then what further need would he have of a Savior or the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper? He would be self-sufficient. The whole point of both the gospel and the Lord’s Supper for Christians is to continually recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and dependency on the grace and promises of Christ. [“Pietistic Versus Biblical Sanctification” – http://www.reformationtheology.com%5D.

And so Lent begins. These 40 days are often the most important 40 days of my spiritual life each year, but only when I disabuse myself of the illusion of the Pharisee’s boast and personally inhabit the Publican’s plea.  Something that helps me do this each year as Lent begins is Helen W. Mallon’s soul-wrenching essay “The Arc of Repentance” that you can find online at: http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm. Just like David before her, Helen is someone “after God’s own heart,” and who understands that this is not a boast of spiritual prowess but a painful confession of her absolute dependence on God’s grace.  And it’s the way that Lent has the potential for teaching us this each year that prepares us for what Christ did for us by dying on the cross and then getting up out of His grave three days later. DBS+



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