Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Starting Over
“Create in me a clean heart of God, and renew a right spirit within me. Create in me a clean heart of God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord. Take not your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.”
I’m pretty sure that I’ve had you sing that song with me before, because it is really hard - maybe impossible - for me to read Psalm 51 without thinking of this song. I learned it as a camp song, which we sang frequently at Camp Aldersgate, particularly in my junior high years. It really spoke to me then. Those junior high years can be pretty emotionally fraught. Everything is heightened, as young teens deal with newly intense emotions and feelings that are hard to process. And one of the feelings I was often processing was guilt. I was trying hard to be a good follower of Jesus, but I felt like I was screwing up all the time. I got upset with myself if I let days or weeks go by when I didn’t read my bible faithfully. Struggling with body image, I got upset with myself if I screwed up on my never-ending diet. If I got into a fight with my mom or my siblings, I felt miserable afterwards. And so “Create in Me a Clean Heart” really spoke to me. A song of confession. Please God, help me start over. I think I was both very dramatic and very, painfully sincere.
But the deep desire to be able to start over isn’t just a junior high thing, is it? How many times have you had some aspect of your life you wanted to start over? How often have you longed for a fresh start? How often have you told yourself, “tomorrow, I’ll start again?” How many resolutions have you made for New Years Day, or the first of a month, or a Monday morning fresh start, or whatever works? It can be exhausting, draining, discouraging, can’t it, all this starting over? And yet, as we wrap up our series on Everyday Jesus Spirituality, we’re looking at how to practice a discipline of starting over. Is that something we really want to do? Learn how to start over again and again? Is there, perhaps, something we’re missing about starting over? A different way we can think about starting over?
Let’s take a look at our text, this reading from Psalm 51, to see if we can find a better understanding of starting over. The context of this psalm - the “why” of why it was written and why it shows up in our Biblest today is really important, helps us understand what the Psalm is all about. In most of your Bibles, you’ll probably find a note at the beginning of Psalm 51 that says something like this: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” There’s a complicated, messy, unpleasant story at the heart of this psalm.
David was a king of Israel. In fact, he’s remembered as the most beloved king in all of Israel’s history. Forever after, when the Israelites think about the “good old days,” they’re thinking about King David’s days. “Remember when David was king?” He’s the golden boy, the one they’re forever longing for. This is so true, in fact, that when Jesus comes along, the biblical authors take pains to show us that he’s descended from the house of David, and they have to clarify that Jesus is actually ruler over even beloved King David, that Jesus is the Messiah in a way David most certainly was not. David is the standard by which all other kings are compared.
And yet - David was no saint. In fact, he was a sinner just like we all are. In fact, David does some really terrible things. Once, when David was King, he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop, a common practice. He saw her and he wanted her for himself. And because he was the king, he could get her. When this story is told in in the book of 2 Samuel, we don’t ever hear from Bathsheba herself, because it seems it is really only what King David wants that matters, and what he wants is Bathsheba.
David is already married, but having many wives was legal and common. The trouble is - Bathsheba was already married too, to Uriah, a soldier. That doesn’t seem to matter at first - David isn’t interested in marriage, but in sex. He has sex with Bathsheba, and that’s that. But then they realize she is pregnant. So David makes things worse - he tries to cover up what’s happened. Uriah is off at war, fighting on behalf of David, his king. But David calls him home, hoping Uriah will have sex with Bathsheba, and the child can be passed of as Uriah’s. Uriah is a faithful soldier, though, and he won’t revel in the comforts of home while his fellow soldiers are out fighting. So David makes an even worse choice: since he can’t trick Uriah, he instead has him sent to the frontlines of battle, hoping Uriah will be killed in war. And he is. And when Uriah is dead, David simply makes Bathsheba one of his wives. Problem solved, right?
David seems ready to just move on with his life, content with how it has worked out. But David has a spiritual advisor, Nathan, who is a prophet to the king. That’s not an easy role - Nathan gets to tell a powerful ruler how they’ve screwed up, something David probably doesn’t want to hear. But Nathan uses another scenario, telling David about a hypothetical rich man who took property from a poor man that didn’t belong to him. David is outraged at the story, at the injustice, and wants the rich man to be punished - and finally Nathan reveals: “You, David, are the man.” David is the one who has acted unjustly. Finally, David is convicted of the magnitude of his sinfulness, of the way he has abused his role, of that fact that he orchestrated a death in order to have what he wanted. His child with Bathsheba dies, and David is filled with grief and repentance. Finally, he is broken and ready to turn to God for help.
This is the context of Psalm 51. David didn’t just mess up on his diet or fight with his siblings. He took a life. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” How David needs it! “Have mercy on me, O God!” the psalm begins. “Wash me thoroughly … my sin is ever before me.” “You desire truth in the inward being,” David realizes, and finally he is ready to be truthful with God. “Create in me a clean heart - don’t cast me away.” In the psalm, David promises to teach others about the ways of God too. “My tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance” God, he says. And he concludes that what God wants most from us is not the sacrifices and burnt-offerings that were the ritual of David’s day - not when they masked guilt and sin. No - what God wants from us is our broken and contrite hearts. Our honest brokenness is worth so much more to God than our prettied-up, covered-up sinfulness disguised as being right with God.
How do we start over? How do we start over when we’re so far off track? Most of us probably haven’t orchestrated the death of a subordinate so we can steal their spouse for ourselves. But our sins are real, our brokenness is real, and our need for a clean heart - it’s so real, so deep. How do we get there? How do we get clean hearts?
We make sure, in part, we have folks like Nathan in our lives. We don’t all have a prophet on our household staffs, but I hope we all have close friends we can turn to in crisis. It’s really hard to listen when someone tells us we’re doing wrong, and it’s really hard to lovingly tell someone who means a lot to us that they need to examine their actions. It’s not for casual friendships or acquaintances. One of the things that amazes me about my dearest friend is that she’s really open to me being honest with her, challenging her if I think she’s not seeing situations in her life - and her actions in them - very clearly. I admit that my tendency when situations are flipped is to get defensive. To be sure I’m right. But I try hard to listen when I have someone like Nathan in my life, who can tell me the truth when I’m not walking on God’s path. Who is a Nathan to you? And how can you be such a faithful and loving friend that you can be Nathan to someone else?
How do we get clean hearts? We ask for them! David asking for a clean heart from God is an act of repentance. He admits he has been wrong and that he needs God’s help. It takes him a while to get there, but eventually he does. Often, I think we are sure that we can do it on our own, do it ourselves. We tease when toddlers get to that awful phase of burgeoning independence, and everything is “I can do it myself” and it means that getting in and out of the car takes five hours because you have to let them slowly, with great struggle, climb into the seat on their own effort. But we don’t ever really grow out of that phase, do we? We are sure we can do it ourselves, and we are taught, as adults, that independence is good and needing help is bad and weak. Friends, we cannot clean our own hearts. We cannot take away our own guilt from our sinfulness and brokenness. We need God for that. We need God so much! We long for clean hearts - and we can have them. But we have to ask the one who creates our hearts to begin with for help, because transforming our lives is not something we can do on our own strength. We need God. We need strength in Christ. And we need our community of faith. We get clean hearts when we ask for them.
How do we get clean hearts? We realize that God gives clean hearts not new hearts. I think sometimes we want to just start over, start from scratch, and leave the past behind us. In one part of our Psalm, I realize I disagree with David. He says, “Against you, you alone [God], have I sinned.” That may be technically true - all of our sins are breaking our covenant with God. But David’s sin hurt more than just himself and his relationship with God. His sin certainly hurt Uriah. He hurt Bathsheba. He hurt his unborn child. He hurt his nation, because he abused his role as king and leader. He hurt his relationship with Nathan, such that Nathan had to concoct a fake story to get David to listen to him. When we turn away from God, it doesn’t just hurt us and God. It hurts the people around us too. And so while we might sometimes long for a new heart, what God gives us is a clean heart, because in the process of cleaning our hearts, we go through the process of repairing the harm that we’ve done. We have to make amends. Confident that God forgives us, we have to work on reconciliation with those around us who have been hurt by our actions. It’s hard work! But patiently, diligently working for reconciliation is the way that God cleans our hearts. We’re forgiven - absolutely, 100%, no matter how many times we’ve screwed up before. But being forgiven doesn’t mean our work is done. Our work is just beginning! We let God clean our hearts by committing to the work of mending, with God’s help, all the torn places in our lives.
This week, Lent begins, and we walk with Jesus the hard and sometimes lonely path to the cross. But we’re always Easter people, even in Lent, and we know that we are resurrection people, new life people. Peter Shurrman writes, “We can all get in a rut where we can’t [imagine] a new day with redeemed relationships, alternative vocation, and a fresh perspective on the future.” But, he says, “We are called to practice resurrection, to practice starting over - not from scratch, but like a fresh chapter or page in a story in which the plot arcs toward resolving conflict, healing fractured families and bodies, and mending a polluted creation. Faithful discipleship means turning from our disappointments toward prayerful hope and joyful service … Each new day is an opportunity to practice starting over - in a new place with a new practice, a new perspective, and new people. The reality of resurrection tells us not only is this possible; it’s the movement of God in the world and our gift and calling as Christians. Starting over is Christian hope in action.” (Shurrman, Peter, Reformed Worship 130, 13, emphasis mine.)
Let’s practice resurrection. Let’s put the hope of Christ in action, and start over, even again. Not from scratch - because forgiveness is ours, God’s love is ours, and God never has to do that over for us. But let’s start again, with God’s help, with each other’s help, with our brokenness offered to God. Create in us clean hearts, O God. Amen.