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Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. Headshot

Thoughts for Ash Wednesday: The Dirt on David

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David is one of my favorite characters in the Bible and a statue in Florence of him gives us perfect insight into the character of David, a man after God's own heart, who got dirtied by pride and sin. Only confession and repentance could clean him up and restore him to the greatness of the man who was a giant-killer.

This famous statue, arguably the most famous in the entire world was carved by Michelangelo, who spent three years carving the statue from a single block of marble, from 1501 to 1504, and the finished David was then placed in a public square, where he stood for 369 years. David's one and only bath occurred in 1873, when he was moved into his current home. This was a rather violent scrubbing, however, one that involved the use of a high concentration of hydrochloric acid to dissolve the grime -- not the kind of emollient you're likely to find at Bath & Body Works.

Because of its importance, the dirt on David approximately every twenty years gets a serious scrubbing the last being on David's 500 birthday in the year 2004. This cleaning should help us to appreciate the David that Michelangelo created almost 500 years ago, the statue of a pure and youthful David who bravely killed the mighty Goliath.

Which reminds us that when he first hears about David he was a clean kid that faced the giant of the Philistines. But then he got soiled, sullied and stained -- soiled by selfishness, sullied by sin and stained by passion and pride. He became as filthy as a pigeon-covered statue in a public square. Only confession and repentance could get rid of the dirt on David and restore him to the greatness of the man who had once been a giant-killer.

He started out as a model for Michelangelo: a model of youthful purity and strength. But over the course of his life, he went through a series of failures and restorations that turned him into a different kind of model: a model for God. He became a man after God's own heart.

But David's words and actions do not remain quite so clean and pure. It doesn't take long for the dirt to fall on the David of Bethlehem as it would later stain the David of Florence over five centuries.

After Saul's death, David becomes king over all Israel, and he comes to the peak of his royal powers. But as his victories over the Philistines and other external enemies accumulate, his personal life begins to crash and burn. In Psalm 51, David has an adulterous affair with a married woman that leads to a pregnancy. He arranges for the murder of her husband. Today, the man would be in prison for life with no possibility of parole. In Texas, he might be in the Huntsville Correctional Facility sitting on death row waiting for a lethal injection.

This behavior leads in turn to the judgment of God, and -- in what would seem to us a sort of bizarre justice -- the death of the child produced by this illicit union. David loses control of his family and watches as turmoil erupts among his children, with one son raping a daughter and another son committing murder to avenge her violation. David's son Absalom rebels and a civil war breaks out, a conflict that leads tragically to the defeat and death of Absalom -- sordid chapters that amount to a biblical version of the Jerry Springer show.

The good news is that David owned up to his misdeeds. Psalm 51 is a record of his impassioned plea for forgiveness.

So what can we say about all of this?

What to do? We ask as David asked for God to search our hearts (Psalm 139:23). Do we need to be spiritually probed with Q-Tips, bathed in acids and soaps in a rigorous, vigorous cleansing operation? Probably -- yes.

Then, are we willing to submit to the nature of this cleansing? David realizes this, even in the midst of his sinfulness, and his hunger for divine forgiveness is what makes him a man after God's own heart. "I have sinned greatly in what I have done," David confesses to God. "But now, O LORD, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant" (2 Samuel 24:10). David realizes that he can never cleanse himself completely on his own -- he needs the forgiveness of the Lord. Even as a mighty king, at the peak of his personal power, David is profoundly aware that he needs an even greater power to be at work in his life to remove the crushing burden of his guilt.

David trusts in God, even in his darkest hour. "Have mercy on me, O God," he pleads, after his affair with Bathsheba has been revealed, "according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (Psalm 51:1-2). For the David of Holy Scripture, cleansing is not going to come from specialized vacuum cleaners or instruments resembling Q-Tips. It is going to come only from the steadfast love and abundant mercy of God.

"For I know my transgressions," he admits, "and my sin is ever before me." There is no kingly cover-up being attempted here, no effort to pass the buck or spin the truth. "[I have] sinned, and done what is evil in your sight," confesses David, "so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment" (vv. 3-4). He is painfully aware that his moral dirt-removal has to begin with an honest confession of his sins.

The scrubbing continues with repentance -- with David's willingness to make a change for the better because of sorrow for his sins. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me," he pleads. "Then I will teach transgressors your ways," he promises, "and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance" (vv. 10, 13-14). David realizes that it is not simply trust in God that leads to forgiveness, nor even trust combined with confession. Repentance is also required -- repentance that includes a change of heart, a complete about-face and a desire to walk in the way of the Lord.

Thoughts for African Descent Persons of Faith

Since our African ancestors came to the shores of the Atlantic, they have been marked with the designation of being "less than human." Although there have been many studies that negate the Christianization of those who were enslaved, there are those who saw the ritual of baptism as an empowerment tool that shaped the universal idea of sin, notwithstanding the derogatory mark whites attributed to skin color using Genesis 4:15 "there was a mark that God put on Cain after he killed his brother Abel." In eighteenth-century America and Europe, whites commonly assumed that Cain's "mark" was black skin. As we now know, the mark/curse (whatever it was) was actually placed on one man rather than all of Canaan. With the corresponding curse that Cain received, the belief that the mark was black skin caused many to believe that all people of black skin were cursed. Many used the mark of Cain as an excuse for the slave trade and discrimination against people with black skin.

The stain for us as African Descent persons is not derived from our race but it is a universal attribute that all of humanity shares in the need of God scrubbing us with "hyssop"; this takes place with trust, confession and repentance. These are the tools that transformed a dirty David into a restored and completely cleansed child of God. God's cleansing was the restoring agent that brought this king to his earlier glory, to the condition he enjoyed as a giant-killer, pure and clean in body, mind and spirit.

The beginning of our Lenten journey is a unique one that marches us toward the cross and ultimately resurrection. Let us believe through faith that just as the dirt on David was removed, thanks to the love and mercy of God that a fallen humanity can also be scrubbed clean in the very same way.