When we were growing up, we always used to go for walks on Sunday afternoons, after we got our dinner. Some days we would just go through the park; other days we ended up on a big circuit through the countryside, but there’s one day I will never forget. We were on the Jubilee Road, about a mile from home, when suddenly, my wee brother (aged about four or five) tripped and fell headlong into a big muddly puddle. He was plastered in muck from head to toe - from the front, he looked like a swamp monster. Absolutely filthy.
No matter how hard he tried to sort himself, wiping the mud off his face, it just didn’t work - because he was still dirty. He was only really spreading it around. Even dad’s hanky didn’t make much difference. He nearly would have needed to have been put in the washing machine along with his clothes. He started to cry. He didn’t want to be dirty. He needed to be clean - and he couldn’t do it himself.
Our reading this evening is a cry for cleansing, from the lips of King David. It’s the cry of someone who has realised their filthiness, who has recognised that they can’t sort themselves out. Just like a baby crying because they have a dirty nappy, so David cries out to be cleansed.
You see, David had been found out. In the title of the Psalm, we’re told that it is ‘A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.’ David, the king, hadn’t bothered going to war with his soldiers, and instead, back home, he spotted Bathsheba bathing, and sent for her. In doing so, he got her pregnant - but then had her husband (one of the soldiers who had been fighting for him) killed to cover up his unfaithfulness. As one commentator has said, David managed to break at least five of the commandments in one go - coveting, theft, adultery, murder, and bearing false witness.
He thought he had gotten away with it, though. No one knew anything about it, but God knew. So God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David, telling a parable to trap David into convicting himself with his own words. ‘You are the man.’
This psalm is the outpouring of David’s repentance, as he cries to God for cleansing. He recognises his need for God to do it in the very first verse: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.’ He needs mercy - for God to not give him what he deserves. He admits that God would be justified to sentence him; (4) that God would be right to pass judgement on him, because he has done evil (4).
It’s not that he’s covering up his sinfulness; not pretending that all is well; he’s not ignoring the stench of his sin - no, he lays it bare before the Lord. He says that ‘I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.’ (3) He mentions sins, and transgressions, and iniquity. David recognises that he is, in heart and soul, evil - a sinner from conception, born this way in rebellion against God.
Now as we read these words, I wonder what your reaction is? When you hear the word ‘sinner’, do you instantly think of yourself, or of some other person or group? Is it only those people over there (whoever they may be) who are the sinners? Or do you qualify as well? Is that who you are, too? Maybe when we come to church, we don’t show it - we can put on a show for an hour or so, stand and sit in the right places, smile and sing and be silent; we look the part, dressed in nice clothes. And yet, deep down, each of us are in the same situation. None of us are righteous. God desires ‘truth in the inward being’ (6), but we’re a jumble of lies and folly and idolatry. It’s David’s testimony - even David, the man after God’s heart; David the king, the leader of God’s people. David, the sinner.
Because of that, he can only cry out to God for cleansing. ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.’ (2) ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ (7) ‘Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.’ (9)
David has owned what he has done; now he cries out for God to do what only God can do - to provide cleansing, to bring forgiveness. It almost sounds too wonderful to be true - that we who are dirty can be made clean. And yet it is precisely what God does; what God has done, not just for David, but for countless numbers, everyone who turns to God in repentance and faith - as we know (even though David didn’t), through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, for our sake.
As we cry out to the Lord, we are assured of forgiveness and mercy, because of God’s promise. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15). So if you found yourself as a sinner earlier, then there is hope. You see, God doesn’t just confront us with our sin; convict us of our guilt and then leave us like that. No, he has provided the cure. He has sent the remedy - the redeemer, who takes away our sin and clothes us in his perfect, spotless righteousness. In the book Revelation, John sees that great crowd before the throne, and he is told that ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ (Rev 7:14)
The TV adverts are always full of the latest washing powder or the newest hoover which also washes the carpets. All the stains will be taken away. Yet no washing powder, however good, will make whites whiter than snow. Eventually over time whites become grey (please don’t look too closely at my surplice!). Yet the blood of the Lamb makes them whiter than fresh snow.
I suspect that most, if not all, have cried to the Lord; you’re already a Christian. So what about after we’ve been converted? We rejoice in the promise that as we confess our sins, God forgives them. There is no condemnation. And yet, David is very aware that he needs more than just the instant forgiveness - what we know as justification (which we see in 1-9). He also needs the ongoing power of God to change (what is known as sanctification). Look with me at verse 10: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ This is all about how David will continue to live in the future. He’s assured of forgiveness, but he also needs to go on with God, which again is an act of mercy on God’s part.
You see, if our hearts are sinful and wicked, then we need a new heart, a clean heart - a heart that desires God, that seeks to obey him by love. We’re given a heart transplant. We’re also given the Holy Spirit - David pleads that he now be taken away. (11) David asks to know the joy of salvation - the joy of sins forgiven, which leads to a willing spirit.
As he rejoices in sins forgiven, he will then be able to help other sinners, as he shares God’s way with them. But more than that, our ongoing experience of deliverance and salvation will pour out praise to our God, who has rescued us and cleansed us.
The Lord has provided all that we need for our salvation; for the change in identity from sinner to saved. It’s all found in the work of the Lord Jesus, his perfect sacrifice. We receive his mercy as we come humbly, with a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Will you come tonight?
This sermon was preached at the Ash Wednesday service in Aghavea Parish Church on 13th February 2013.