Several weeks ago, as we began the season of Lent, we heard Psalm 25 as a pattern for prayer. It served as one example of what it means to respond to this life with God. And good pattern though it is, it is just one example since there are 149 other Psalms, 149 other prayers ready to be offered. In fact, we heard a very different prayer the very next week. One that traded the reverence and diffidence of Psalm 25 for anger and accusation. But somewhat remarkably we confessed that the words of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was just as much an appropriate part of our God-speak as were the pious words of Psalm 25. Two weeks ago we heard a Psalm of praise for the God who is revealed both in creation and in the Law. This week we have a prayer of yet another variety; one of confession and a request for cleansing from sin.
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions." The Psalmist is quite literally asking God to "plaster over, to whitewash" his sin. The Psalmist is looking for forgiveness so thorough that all record of the wrong is erased; asking God to act out of God's mercy and faithfulness rather than according to what the Psalmist deserves. In fact, God is asked to "Hide your face from my sins" even as God is doing the blotting out. The image is something akin to someone painting over an image they find so abhorrent that they can't even look at what they are painting over; like a parent trying to avoid the smell of dirty diaper even as they clean up their child.
This Psalm reminds me of the few times my daughter ate too much too close to bedtime when she was younger. One time in particular I remember waking up to the sound of her crying and walking down the hall to her room wondering what was wrong but the moment I walked into her room, even in the darkness of night, any question about what was wrong immediately left me. The smell of vomit was undeniable and overwhelming; enough to force me to concentrate very hard on not making my own contribution to the problem. The introduction at the beginning of Psalm 51 says that the Psalm was written by David as a response to Nathan's uncovering of David's rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Perhaps when we read that story we should see God doing his best not to puke over what David has done.
The words of this Psalm show that David recognizes the repugnant nature of his sin. It is so foul that it threatens to drive God away. In spite of that the Psalmist also recognizes that it is only God who can clean him up. So he asks God not only to blot out the outward marks of his sin but also to "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." The Psalmist is in need of not only forgiveness but a cleansing so deep that it goes to the very core of his being.
The smell of Hannah's vomit was nearly enough to drive me away as well. But here was this little girl that I adore, who was sick and confused, and who only wanted her daddy to hold her and clean her up. So I did my best to hold my nose and my gag reflex and did what she couldn't do for herself. Obviously, this doesn't make me extraordinary. It only makes me her father.
Growing up, I often heard the idea that God the Father turned his back on his Son while he hung on the cross. The reasoning went that Jesus had taken upon himself the sin of the whole world and that God in all his holiness could not possibly look upon all that sin so he had to turn from his Son. Why else, it was said, would Jesus have uttered those words of Psalm 22 "My God, why have you forsaken me?". This strikes me as, at best, only getting half the story right. Yes, of course, God finds our sin repulsive, so much so that God wishes to avert both eyes and nostrils from its sight and smell. There is a very real sense in which sin threatens to drive God away from us.
But the other half of the story is that of the Father who, even while nearly gagging on the stench we have created, still reaches into our vomitaceous mess with his two hands of Son and Spirit in order to do for us what we can not do for ourselves; a Father whose love is greater than his gag reflex. Perhaps, when we think of Jesus on the cross, rather than the Father turning his back on the Son, we should imagine the Father holding close his beloved Son, even as he wreaks of the sin of the world. Perhaps this is the real glory of proclaiming that God is love; that even when the profane horror of crucifixion and the weight of all the world's sin threatened to break the bond of love between Father and Son that bond held fast. That even when sin itself entered the very life of the Triune God by Jesus taking it upon himself it did not dissolve the loving relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but instead that love swallowed up the sin of the world and overwhelmed it. Perhaps this, most of all times, was when Jesus knew his Father as his Abba.
Psalm 51 speaks out of the conviction that God is willing to hold his nose for us. Indeed, our Father is even willing to get some of our own filth and stench all over him if that is what it takes to hold us in his arms and clean us up. Because his love for us is greater than his repulsion at our sin. Because this kind of love is who God is. Because this is what it means for us to call him our Abba.