Psalm 51:1-6; Leviticus 13:47-14:18; Mark 4:30-41

Last evening’s Tenebrae service was without question among the finest to ever occur at Saint Matthew.  The only thing missing was Don Wagner singing “Were You There?” at the back of the sanctuary in complete darkness.

Today is Holy Saturday.  The day of waiting and reflection and vigil.  How wonderful it is that we know how the story turns out.  I can only imagine the agony, disappointment, and despair of the disciples as they attempted to accept what they thought was going to be the bleak new reality of living without their Rabbi–and hiding from the religious hierarchy.  They saw themselves as dupes of a failed movement that has come to naught.  “Follow me,” indeed!

Psalm 51:1-6  This is one of those rare psalms that describes its exact circumstances of when, for whom, and why: “a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.”  And it is perhaps the most famous confessional psalm of all.

David wastes no time in preludes, trying to explain or justify to God what he has done.  David knows that God knows the entire story.  But his shame and remorse are so great that he can seek only one thing: God’s grace and mercy.  But David also knows that despite his transgression God still loves him: “Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness, with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.” (1)

But what does it mean when David asks “wipe away my crimes” and then in the next verse, “Thoroughly wash my transgressions away and cleanse me from my offense?” (2)  David is seeking only one thing from God: forgiveness. As he makes clear in the next verse, he is not asking God to forget his crime by saying “wipe away” and “wash.”  Those are verbs of forgiveness but not of forgetting, as David makes immediately clear in the very next verse: “For my crimes I know, and my offense is before me always.”  And as we know, David must live with the consequences of this sin for the remainder of his life.

David also knows he is guilty and deserves harsh judgement: “You alone have I offended,  and what is evil in Your eyes I have done. So You are just when You sentence, You are right when You judge.” (4)  And he recognizes his place before God, a fallen human being: “Look, in transgression was I conceived, 7 and in offense my mother spawned me.” (5).

David has much to teach us: we must acknowledge we have sinned, not try to rationalize it away.  Only God can forgive our sins (and for us through the intervening power of Jesus Christ). We may be fallen human beings, but we are still individually responsible for our sinful actions.  David knows he is guilty and unlike so many today, he does not try to position himself as a victim of circumstances or the actions of others.  Something to bear in mind as our culture seems to be losing the concept of sin and with it, individual responsibility.

Leviticus 13:47-14:18  More good hygiene, this time regarding clothing.  Contaminated clothing needs to be sequestered.  Of course we could look at this section metaphorically.  If the garment  is laundered and the affliction remains, it shall be burned. (13:57).  But if the “affliction disappears [the garment] shall be laundered again and be clean.” (13:59).  Which is exactly what David is seeking in the psalm above: that the affliction of his sin be washed away by a loving God.  We are all afflicted garments.  But by confession, we can indeed be washed clean.

Chapter 14 returns to the person who “struck with skin blanch on the day he becomes clean.” (14:1) and the rather mysterious practice of two birds: one is killed and the living bird is dipped in “in the blood of the slaughtered bird over fresh water.” (14:7) Inasmuch as it is the day after Good Friday, it’s impossible to read these verses without thinking of Jesus’ shed blood and baptism. I don’t think “Washed in the blood of the lamb” is in the Lutheran Book of Worship, but the idea of sinners being washed in the salvific blood reads directly back to this seemingly obscure passage.

And the living bird is dipped in the blood over fresh water.  Is there a better image of how we, too, have been cleansed through the waters of baptism?

Mark 4:30-41  The parable of the mustard seed is less a parable than a simile.  Especially since Jesus says rather directly, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” (30) But Mark is at pains to explain that in public, Jesus spoke only in parables, but “he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (33).  Why just use the parables in public? Jesus has repeatedly said, “let those with ears hear.”  Based on no personal theological knowledge I can say only that Jesus’ message requires thought and introspection. My father always differentiated between Christianity and various cults by asserting that the cults required one to “leave your brains at the door.”  Jesus’ wants both our hearts and our minds.  I believe the good soil he describes in his first parable is that combination of heart and mind.  We must think through our faith–and keep on thinking it through. For me, that’s why faith also involves doubt. Even when I know truth in my heart, there can be doubt in my mind. And doubt requires study and reflection and seeking greater understanding through the scriptures and prayer.  Absent that dynamic tension, Christianity is a house built on emotional sand, a passing enthusiasm that the grows briefly and then withers and dies.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Mark places the story of Jesus calming the storm immediately after Jesus’ explanation of the use of parables.  This natural event is one of the greatest parables of all.  Like the disciples, our lives are buffeted by crises and storms.  We feel so often that the vicissitudes of life will swamp our little boats and we will drown. Jesus seems to be absent, asleep. Fear begins to trump faith. Peace comes from only one source: Jesus.

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