Psalm 51 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2
King David had been called a man after God’s own heart. He had known God’s protection, God’s kindness, and God’s abundance. He was popular. He was powerful. He was prosperous. But he was not above the possibility of transgression. One day he awoke in the afternoon. As he walked out on the roof of his house, he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing in accordance with ritual purification regulations. David desired her, and instead of running from temptation, he inquired about the woman and had her brought to him. She became pregnant with David’s child, and to cover the transgression David conspired to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. After Uriah’s death David took her into his house to be his wife she bore him a son.
After the birth of the child, the Lord God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David about his sin. Nathan knew that if he simply confronted the king in a straightforward manner, the king would certainly have difficulty hearing the word of rebuke. It had been at least nine months since David’s offense. It is not hard to imagine that he had found plenty of ways to justify his sin. So, the prophet tells the king a story. It is a story about two men, one rich and one poor. The poor man’s only possession was a little lamb. He had bought it, raised it alongside his children, and treasured it as his own. A day came when the rich man needed to prepare a meal for a traveler. Instead of slaughtering one of his many animals for the meal, the rich man stole the lamb that belonged to the poor man, and prepared it for his guest.
When David heard this story, he was enraged and cried out to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” The words had hardly left the king’s lips when that long prophetic finger pointed at the king and Nathan declared, “You are the man!” David had been brought face to face with the reality of his transgression and the depth of his sinful heart.
Ash Wednesday is about coming face to face with the reality that we are sinners. We come into the world as sinners. We come before God as sinners. And like David, we desperately need his forgiveness. We need his mercy. We need his great and glorious grace. Ash Wednesday is about sorrow, sorrow over our deep sinfulness before God. But it is also about hope, hope that in Christ Jesus we may have forgiveness and be reconciled to our God and granted righteousness in his sight.
That is the hope presented in 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul says, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Central to the mission of the church is this ministry of reconciliation in which we all are called to a restored relationship to God.
Now if the Word of God declares that we stand in need of reconciliation, it necessarily implies some questions. Why do we need reconciliation? How are we to be reconciled to God? When should we desire this reconciliation take place? Paul has answers for each of these questions.
Why do we need reconciliation?
The answer to this question is simple. We need to be reconciled to God because we are sinners. Like David, we have transgressed his commands and broken his laws. This problem goes much further back than David, though. The problem goes all the way back to our first parents Adam and Eve. You see, God made a covenant with Adam. A covenant is an agreement between two parties administered by a sovereign king with attendant blessings and curses. In Genesis 2:16-17, God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he eats of this tree, God says, he will die. There is an agreement between two parties, God and Adam. It is administered by the sovereign God of creation. The curse is death. The implied blessing is obedience. In chapter 3, we are told that Adam did indeed disobey God and eat from the forbidden tree. He broke the covenant and the curse of the covenant came upon him. The problem does not stop there, though. You see, Adam represented all of humanity in the covenant. And, as a result, the curse of the covenant came upon every one of his descendants. We are his descendants. We are under the curse of sin and death because we are part of the human race represented by Adam in the covenant with God. We are born in a state of sinfulness and in a state of rebellion. This problem extends to every human being. The scriptures say that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We have all broken God’s law. And the consequence is death. Why do we need reconciliation? It is because we are in Adam and, as a result, we are sinners and deserve the wrath of the only holy and righteous God.
How are we to be reconciled to God?
Paul answers this question in verse 21. He says, “Fore our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The transaction described in this verse is commonly known as “the great exchange.” Christ, who knew no sin, who was perfect in every way, was made to be sin for us. This does not mean he became a sinner. It does mean that our sin was reckoned to him or credited to his account. He took our place on the cross. Our sin deserves the just wrath of the holy God. Christ took that wrath upon himself. He did this so that we could be granted the righteousness of God. In the same way that Christ did not sin in order to be sin for us, this righteousness is not composed of our righteous acts. Rather, it is a righteousness standing that is granted to us on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross where he took our sin upon his shoulders. He took our sins and gives us his righteousness. He died our death and with his resurrection gives us his life.
In doing this, he established a new covenant. We became sinners through our covenant relationship with Adam. If we are to be righteous, we need a new covenant and a new representative. Christ is giver of a new covenant and he represents all who respond to him with faith. This is why Paul says in him we become the righteousness of God. To say that we are in him is to say that he is our covenant representative and, as such, he gives us his righteous standing before God.
The announcement of this great work of God in Christ is the gospel. And the only response to the gospel is faith, full confidence in Christ and Christ alone for our righteous standing and our salvation. How are we to be reconciled with God? Only through the great exchange whereby Christ takes our sin and grants us his righteousness, which is received through faith in his name and his gospel.
When should we desire this reconciliation?
The only answer that scripture gives to this question is now! Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:3 that, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” This is a matter of life and death, eternal life and eternal death. So, the matter is an desperate one. You can hear the urgency in Paul’s writing. Now is the day of salvation.
We live in a world where we like to keep our options open. We like to see if any better offers will come along. We want the best deal and so we don’t want to commit to one thing too quickly. That is not the way to approach the issue of reconciliation with God. The time is now. Be reconciled to God. He is calling now. Come to him now.
David composed the 51st Psalm after Nathan the prophet confronted him about his sin. In it, he expressed his deep sorrow for his sin. He cried out to God for a clean heart, for a washing, for restored joy, and for reconciliation. The Psalm moves from sorrow to hope, from confession to salvation. That is what Ash Wednesday is all about.
We gather here and take these ashes upon our foreheads to acknowledge that we always come to God as sinners. We come in sorrow and with repentant hearts, for we have sinned greatly and we deserve God’s wrath. But we also come in hope, because Christ was made to be sin for us so that in him we could become the righteousness of God. Taking a smudge of ash on your head does not gain favor with the Almighty. It is, rather, a sign of living faith that sorrowfully acknowledges wrongdoing and humbly seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. Our hope is in Christ, in his death and resurrection. We come as a visible profession of faith and hope in his name and in his gospel, by which we are being saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.