Ash Wednesday 2016 (February 10, 2016)
“Our ‘I Am’: I Am a Poor Miserable Sinner” (Psalm 51)
Our sermon series for Lent this year is entitled, “The I AMs of Jesus.” Throughout the Gospel of John, there are seven declarations where Jesus says “I AM.” For example, Jesus says “I am the door” … “I am the light of the world” … “I am the Good Shepherd” … and others. We’ll talk more about this next week when we hear our first message about one of Jesus “I AM” statements.
But before we go any farther, it’s appropriate for Ash Wednesday to go in a different direction. At the beginning of Lent, we need to start with a different “I am” declaration. One that starts with us. Before we can hear any of the I AM statements of Jesus, before hear them in faith and learn from them, we need to consider an “I Am” declaration of our own … one we all need to make …
“I am a poor miserable sinner.”
Those words are taken from the confession of sins in Setting Three of the Divine Service. There at the beginning of the service, we acknowledge our unworthiness to be in God’s presence and say: “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserved your temporal and eternal punishment.”
There was a time when what we now know as Setting Three was the only setting of the Divine Service we had in our hymnals. We said those words of confession more often than we do now. I can still say them by heart. I grew up in church saying these words practically every Sunday, except when we used Matins.
I also used to be confused when we got to the part that says “I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.” In my youthful naiveté, I thought that we were talking about someone else who was a sinner. “I am heartily sorry for THEM and sincerely repent of THEM!”
Back to “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” People are often confused by these words. More likely, they are offended by these words. “I am NOT a poor, miserable sinner!” they insist. “You Lutherans are awful! Why would you make someone say something like that! Church should be a place where you go to feel good, not be told how rotten you are!”
Here’s the thing. The Bible makes it clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And sin is not simply making mistakes or having simple shortcomings. It is rebellion against God. It is a hereditary condition, but one for which we cannot blame our fathers or mothers. David wrote Psalm 51 after he was confronted with his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his murderous plan to get her husband Uriah out of the way. “I was brought forth in iniquity” … wickedness … “and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Here he acknowledges his sinful condition that led to his sinful actions. But he refuses to pass the blame onto his parents. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” David says (Ps. 51:3). And then this: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4). Ultimately, no matter what we have done to hurt others, offend others, sin against others … in the end it is an offense and rebellion against God and his will and his ways.
And this may indeed make us miserable. “My sin is ever before me.” You can’t get it out of your head. It haunts you. It eats at you. It keeps you awake at night. It’s like Psalm 32, where David describes the results of unconfessed sin. He says, “when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long … day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:3-4). Sometimes sin results in more than psychological effects. Think of those who have become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Think of those whose families have been destroyed because of infidelity. Think of those who end up in jail or prison because of their sinful choices. Sin may at first be enjoyable, but in the end it makes us miserable … wretchedly unhappy.
But this is not what miserable means in the words of the confession. Here the word miserable is related to the Latin version of Psalm 51:1 … “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1). The Latin of Psalm 51:1 uses forms of the word miserari several times. It means “to pity.” The original Hebrew uses several different words here that mean “to show favor” or “to have compassion.” And why does God do this? Because of his “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy.” Here, the Hebrew words mean “grace, goodness, faithfulness,” and “love, sympathy, or compassion.” I’m not a big fan of the old King James Version because it has so many words that people just don’t understand anymore, but I do love its translation here: “according to the multitude of your tender mercies.” That’s such a wonderful description of God’s love for us sinners.
So, to admit you are miserable is not to admit you are a worm, not to consider yourself a despicable person. It’s simply to admit that because of your sinful condition, you are desperately in need of mercy, compassion, God’s grace. You may not feel very miserable. In fact, you may feel quite comfortable with your life at the moment. Nevertheless, believe what God’s Word says about you. Confess it. “I am a poor, miserable sinner.” Although you deserve his wrath, you desire his compassion.
“I, a poor, miserable sinner.” You are not a worm, but Jesus became a “worm” for you when he was crucified, cursed with the sin of the world, and suffered an agonizing death for you. In fact, Psalm 22:6 puts these words in the mouth of the Suffering Servant as he hung upon the cross: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (Ps. 22:6). We pray this psalm at the end of every Maundy Thursday service as the altar is stripped as a reminder how Jesus was stripped bare and given over into the hands of his executioners. We pray the words that Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
But remember … Jesus was no helpless victim. He was a willing participant. He could have put a stop to all of it in a split second. During his earthly ministry, he told the wind and the waves to “Be silent!” He told unclean spirits to “Be quiet!” At his arrest, he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send more than twelve legions of angels? … But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:53, 56). And in John 10, Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn. 10:18).
Forgiveness is not free. There is a price to be paid. There has to be justice. Jesus endured God’s justice over the sins of the world. He suffered God’s wrath so that you and I can have God’s favor, grace, mercy, pity, compassion. Jesus became poor and miserable for us so that you and I would have the riches of heaven and the tender mercies of God bestowed upon us.
Therefore, in our confession of sin to the Lord, we can admit to being a “poor, miserable sinner” – one in need of his mercy – and say, “I pray you of your boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”
And then, we hear those precious words of grace from the one called to be God’s mouthpiece of absolution for you, “I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And they ARE forgiven. YOU are forgiven. God no longer sees you as a poor, miserable sinner … but as a baptized, beloved, mercy-laden child of God.