Throughout the season of Lent we hear the invitation to repentance. At one point Jesus tells the story of the fig tree that does not bear fruit: it reminds us that God patiently waits for us to repent and to bear the fruit of righteousness. And we are all familiar with the parable of the prodigal son: just like the loving father in that story, God is always eager for us to turn around and come home. All that is required of us is the turning.
We can easily feel isolated during this time of social anxiety caused by all the unknowns associated with the spread of the new corona virus. We understand the need for “social distancing” and for remaining at home except for getting essentials like groceries and medications. But I wonder if we are also experiencing a haunting feeling of being separated from God. The remedy is found in our willingness to change, in our willingness to open our hearts to God, in our willingness to turn around and repent.
The God who made us and sustains us is eager for us to come home! God rejoices when we return, but God always honors our freedom. You see, God never coerces his creatures; God will not force us to come home. It is we who must do the turning in order to move out of the darkness of our sin and into the light of Christ. But the good news is that no matter how far you may have wandered, when you turn around, it is only a few short steps back home.
Leo Tolstoy has given us a classic example of repentance in his famous novella, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” published in 1886, shortly after his religious conversion. Ivan is dying a horrible death. The pain is unceasing, throughout both the day and the night. Not only is he suffering the agony of physical pain, but he also suffers the torment of a black despair that presses in on him from every side. Ivan feels as though he is inside a pitch black sack of some kind, and as the top of the sack is being closed he is struggling to get out—all the while knowing he will never succeed.
Occasionally during this experience, Ivan thinks about his life, and it occurs to him that it has not been what it ought to have been. But he dismisses these thoughts immediately and the pain goes on and on, and the darkness grows ever deeper—until he reaches the turning point. He begins to appreciate his wife’s continuing patience with him over the years, and her willingness to love him in spite of his insensitivity, and his cursing and ranting and raving.
He is deeply moved when his little boy comes into his room, kneels at his bedside, and kisses his hand, all without a word. Other things, simple things, begin to get through to him and bring him to his turning point. And he realizes that even on his death bed there are some things he can still do to make amends. And he does them. But the pain continues. Yes, the pain continues, but the darkness begins to fall away, bit by bit, and he comes out of that suffocating sack.
A short time later he dies; but he dies in peace, a whole person. When Ivan realized that what was missing from his life was a sincere desire to repent, it was like a blind man suddenly regaining his sight. In the story, when Ivan feels himself reaching the turning point of repentance, he cries out: “That’s what it is! That’s it!”
Wouldn’t it be exciting this day if we could feel the darkness falling away? Wouldn’t it be exciting if we could begin to see clearly? Wouldn’t it be exciting today if we could realize that God’s love for us is always present and that God is truly eager for us to return home? And all it takes is the turning! Repentance is the first step to reconciliation.
But in order to repent we need to identify what is separating us from God. We need to identify what is distorting our relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. What is making it impossible for God’s grace to move us into the light? It’s not enough to say, “Oh, yes, that’s what it is. I will repent of that act and it will end there.” No, we must be willing to work on the larger issues that are blocking out God’s grace, and then bring them to a point of resolution.
It may be that some act of reconciliation or restitution is necessary. It may be some unfinished business with our parents or our children, with our brothers or sisters, or with a spouse, partner or a friend. It may be that we are angry with God over the unexpected death of a loved one. It could be that life seems empty and we have lost our sense of joy. But whatever it is, we must resolve it if we genuinely want to come home to God.
Putting ourselves in the place of God, what we used to refer to as the sin of pride, is the root of all other sin. And that is the sin which Jesus most often condemns in the gospel. It is those who are proud because of their religiosity—those who think that they are free from sin—who encounter the hostility of Jesus. That is because Jesus knows how deeply the sin of pride cuts us off from the love of God.
In our reading this week from Saint John’s Gospel, the religious leaders are upset because Jesus restored the sight of a blind man. It triggered for them all sorts of questions. How could this healing possibly have happened to an undeserving beggar like this blind man? How could this Jesus perform such a miracle? He is a man who “cannot be from God” because he does not observe all the Sabbath laws. How could such a “sinner” perform a sign like this?
They even cross-examined the parents of the man born blind to see if they could uncover some trick and expose Jesus as a fraud. On and on they continued with their questions, believing that any miraculous manifestation of God’s grace had to conform to their own preconceived notions. But the man born blind would not be intimidated: “I do not know whether he is a sinner,” he said. “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
In his simplicity, this uneducated man proved infinitely wiser than those who presumed to be his teachers. The Pharisees spoke with the authority of religious laws; the man born blind spoke with the authority of first-hand religious experience. He sensed the futility of trying to put the event into some predefined category of experience. It was enough for him to know that, by the grace of God, an amazing thing had happened to him, an event that changed his whole life: “Though I was blind, now I see.”
Of course, this is not simply a story about a blind man’s healing, but rather a much larger story about the healing of humanity which comes to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sin—our wanting to do things our way—cuts us off from God. But God has sent Jesus to reconcile us to God and one another, to bring us back home again.
Even in this difficult time, especially in this difficult time, genuine repentance requires that we believe that God has better things in store for us than we have planned for ourselves. If we are honest about our lives and acknowledge our need for forgiveness, we may begin to be aware of the transformation that God is working in us, moving us from darkness to light, forming us into the image of Jesus, shaping our community of faith into the Body of Christ.
God waits for us to come to ourselves and return, so that we may continue in our baptismal journey, that life-long growth into the full stature of Christ. In repenting and asking for forgiveness, it is we who choose to participate in the process of redemption: it is we who chose to grow; it is we who choose to be transformed; it is we who accept both the promise and the responsibility of new life with God.
On this day I want to bear witness that God’s grace truly is amazing! I only know that when my life was going in the wrong direction, by God’s grace I was able to turn around. I only know that when I felt imprisoned, by God’s grace I was set free. I only know that when I sinned and separated myself from God, by God’s grace I was led to repentance. I only know that when I was lost, by God’s grace I was found. I only know that when I was blind, by God’s grace, now I see.