The Rev. Frank
Create in Me a Clean
Scott told Lincoln of Stanton’s refusal, and the President replied, “Then you probably ought not to go down the river. Mr. Stanton knows all about the necessities of the hour, he knows what rules are necessary, and rules are made to be enforced. It would be wrong of me to override his rules and decisions of this kind; it might work disaster to important movement. And then, you ought to remember that I have other duties to attend to—heaven knows, enough for one man—and I can give no thought to questions of this kind. Why do you come to appeal to my humanity? Don’t you know that we are in the midst of war? That suffering and death press upon all of us? That works of humanity and affection, which we would cheerfully perform in days of peace, are all trampled upon and outlawed by war? That there is no room left for them? There is but one duty now—to fight!…Every family in the land is crushed with sorrow; but they must not each come to me for help. I have all the burdens I can carry. Go to the War Department. Your business belongs there. If they cannot help you, then bear your burden, as we all must, until this war is over. Everything must yield to the paramount duty of finishing this war.”
Colonel Scott returned to his barrack, brooding. Early the next morning he heard a rap at the door. He opened it and there stood the President. He took Scott’s hands, held them, and broke out: “My dear Colonel, I was abrute last night. I have no excuse to offer. I was weary to the last extent, but I had no right to treat a man with rudeness who has offered his life for his country, much more a man in great affliction. I have had a regretful night, and come now to beg your forgiveness.” He said he had arranged with Stanton for Scott to go to his wife’s burial. In his own carriage the commander-in-chief took the colonel to the steamer wharf on the Potomac and wished him Godspeed.
Greatness comes not from perfection, but from the ability to admit that you are wrong and to change. All of us make mistakes. All of us take the wrong paths at times. Getting it wrong is what we humans do best. One writer had this to say on history, “Any good history book is mainly just a long list of mistakes, complete with names and dates. It’s very embarrassing.”
The Bible is no exception. In it we also find many embarrassing incidents, often involving the hero of the story. King David is a great example of this. David was a great man. The Bible describes him as a man after God’s own heart. David killed Goliath, united a divided Israel and made Jerusalem into a worthy capital. David is responsible for many of the Psalms found in the Bible, including Psalm 51, which we read today.
There is a superscription on many Psalms. It is a note in the text that tells you something about the Psalm you are going to read. Most of these are notes for the musicians as Psalms were songs written to be sung. For Psalm 51, the ancient words above the Psalm said, “For the Director of Music. A Psalm of David. When the Prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” This is one of those embarrassing moments in the life of a man we remember as great. As that story lies behind the Psalm, I think we need a quick refresher on what happened with Bathsheba.
David, as was the custom of the time, had many wives. But one day he looked out from the palace and saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, as was the custom. David lusted after her and being the king he got his way. Bathsheba became pregnant and David needed plan. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah a warrior in David’s elite force of the “Thirty.” When Bathsheba tells David the news, Uriah is out with the King’s army besieging the Ammonite capital of Rabbah. David needed Uriah home in bed with his wife and soon. So, the King sent for Uriah, told him to go home to be with his wife and sent over food from the royal household. But Uriah’s said he could not rest at home with his men out on the field of battle and so he slept at the King’s door with the other servants.
David did not intend to get caught. David like his secret sins kept secret thank you very much. If Uriah would not sleep with his wife, then David would change tactics. David sent Uriah back with a message for the commander, Joab. In the note, David told Joab to send Uriah into the thick of the battle and then have the other troops fall back. Uriah delivered the note. Joab followed his orders. Uriah died and David took Bathsheba as his wife. The King had broken at least two of the Ten Commandments, but he settled back into the palace intending to live happily ever after.
Then God sent the Prophet Nathan to David with a story.
1 So the LORD sent Nathan the prophet to tell David this story: "There were two men in a certain town. One was rich, and one was poor. 2 The rich man owned many sheep and cattle. 3 The poor man owned nothing but a little lamb he had worked hard to buy. He raised that little lamb, and it grew up with his children. It ate from the man's own plate and drank from his cup. He cuddled it in his arms like a baby daughter. 4 One day a guest arrived at the home of the rich man. But instead of killing a lamb from his own flocks for food, he took the poor man's lamb and killed it and served it to his guest."5 David was furious. “As surely as the LORD lives,” he vowed, “any man who would do such a thing deserves to die! 6 He must repay four lambs to the poor man for the one he stole and for having no pity.”7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are that man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7).
The Hebrew there in the last verse says literally, “David, You the man!” David who showed no pity for Uriah, condemned the man in the story to death only to find that he was that man. None of that made David a Great King. In fact, David was not great because of killing Goliath, uniting and expanding his kingdom, or even for writing the Psalms. David was great, because though it took being cornered by God, David was able to admit that we was wrong and to change, really change. In the process, David discovered God’s great mercy. For Psalm 51 and its background story of David and Bathsheba are not so much stories about David, but about God and how God is faithful to forgive our sins when we turn from the wrong we are doing and ask for forgiveness.
The story I began with is a true story of Lincoln. I think it does show how Lincoln’s greatness came out of a genuine humility. Yet, I began with the story of Lincoln and Colonel Scott for I think in that incident, Lincoln was acting so very like God. It was so like God to change the rules for sake of compassion. After all, everything Lincoln said was true. A war was on. Who could know what the needs of the next day would be. Colonel Scott’s men could be the key to the defense of Washington and without him they would not be able to hold the city if attacked. Everything Lincoln said was true, but it was law, rules. The next morning, Lincoln showed grace, an undeserved gift of love.
When we deserve condemnation and death, God holds out life. All we must do is repent. The word repent in either Hebrew the Old Testament was written in (in which the word is shuv) or the Greek of the New Testament (for which the word is metanoia) denotes a 180-degree turn away from the wrong we are doing and back toward God. If we turn from our sin and ask God to forgive us, then he will be faithful and merciful.
Lent is this season of preparation for Easter. It is a time to look at our lives and discover where we need to change. To assist you in this, I created booklets with a self-examination taken from St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. They are on the table in the entry hall. You may use this if you wish to assist you in a thorough examination of where you stand. This is not to be a time of beating yourself up, but a time to be honest with God and I commend that to you.
Now having set the stage so that we better know the background of Psalm 51, I want to experience the powerful words of the Psalm once more knowing that this was David’s response to Nathan’s stinging words, “David, You are that man.”
In closing, let us read in unison, Psalm 51, found in your bulletins.
Have mercy on me, O
God, according to your loving-kindness;
Wash me through and through from my wickedness
For I know my transgressions,
Against you only have I sinned
And so you are justified when you speak
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth,
For behold, you look for truth deep within me,
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;
Make me hear of joy and gladness,
Hide your face from my sins
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
Cast me not away from your presence
Give me the joy of your saving help again
I shall teach your ways to the wicked,
Deliver me from death, O God,
Open my lips, O Lord,
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice;
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
 This is quoted from Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: The War Years (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1939), pp. 513-514. I am indebted the Bishop Bennett J. Sims book, Servanthood for this story.
 From A. Whitney Brown’s The Big Picture (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991) p. 12. I am indebted to J. Clinton McCann Jr.’s commentary for the New Interpreter’s Bible for this, the characterization that follows and other assistance in a close reading of the text of this Psalm.