Broken and Contrite
I. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou shalt not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
Ivan Ilyich was an old man on his deathbed when he first reflected about life. He had been a polished and respectable man of his class. But then he became sick. He was dying, and that changed everything. Society didn’t have a place for his kind now. His colleagues forgot him. He was an embarrassment to his family, and spent his last remaining weeks tossing in agony. But then, on the last day, it all came together. A light switched on in his heart. Everything he’d chased after through his life was vain, but the suffering had changed him. He discovered meaning and peace. Though he couldn’t speak the words, he looked up at his wife and son with forgiveness and breathed his last.
What makes a life successful?
Leo Tolstoy writes this story about Ivan with the hope to answer that question, or at least inspire us to ask it. Ivan’s life fell apart. For all that the world knows he lost the game. His family and friends went on with their life as before. They were healthy, and didn’t see any reason to change. But Ivan, in becoming sick, discovered something. He found a new perspective, an insight, so small and still that the busy world never noticed.
God waits for us through our brokenness, our hunger, and our death.
II. Jesus Christ tells us a parable about a lost sheep.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices…Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Luke 15:1-10).
There’s something ironic in our Lord’s words. He calls the 99 sheep the ‘righteous’ who “need no repentance.” But elsewhere, Christ has said that no one is righteous and all need to repent. Clearly, He’s talking about those who, blinded by arrogance, consider themselves righteous. Now I don’t just mean the religious do-gooders. This is our temptation after all, us ‘church-goers,’ to feel superior and self-justified. But pride goes both ways. The man who sleeps in on Sunday and says, “at least I’m not like those hypocrites,” is just as prone to egoism. Christianity is not about morality. Christianity is about repentance.
So let’s consider the sheep that wandered off.
III. Jesus Christ uses the metaphor of a wandering sheep to describe a lost soul.
The common folk in the Middle East knew all too well what would happen to a lost sheep. Beyond the shepherd’s protection, a sheep could stumble into anything. Between wolves, lions, and bandits, his chances were slim. So, the scriptures describe the life outside of Christ as a world of disappointment, depression and despair.
People are increasingly shocked by the news these days. Reports of high school shootings, suicides, and terror attacks have become normal. Yet psychologists and college professors keep preaching the same doctrine that humanity is evolving, morality escalating, and, if we keep on keeping on, we will build a utopia. We aren’t putting two and two together. The further we stray from God the more we will find ourselves in the wilderness. Nothing works without God.
But all of us, in one way or another, spend our lives in the wilderness. We make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes have long-lasting consequences. We take wrong turns and end up hurt and exhausted. Or else, we’re simply doing our best in a confusing world. You cannot live this life without guilt and regrets. You cannot live in our world without getting dirty and stained.
This is why our Lord’s parable today is so beautiful. God loves you no matter how broken. He only cares that you come back home to Him.
IV. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
Many of us, like Ivan Ilyich, whether in our old age or at life crises, look back at our lives with some disappointment. Many remember hurts from years in the past and wonder how life might have gone differently. Others carry shame and embarrassment, maybe a dread that the past will catch up. Some of us, still, are simply struggling with the dumb mistakes we made last week or only yesterday. The past can be a frightening experience in the present.
But if we have faith in God we can know that, for those who love Him, all things work for the good. If we give our yesterday to God, He will use it for a brighter and holier tomorrow. If we entrust Jesus Christ with our sins and our hurts, He will turn them into the very rungs on the ladder by which we pull ourselves up.
Nothing that you have done, and nothing that has been done to you, is beyond God’s ability to make beauty from ashes.
V. Do you know what repentance means?
The Greek word is metanoia. Meta means ‘to turn around.’ Noia refers to the heart and soul. To repent is to turn one’s whole being from the path of death to the path of life. But sometimes we get so stuck that turning feels impossible. Remember the parable. The sheep didn’t go out looking for the shepherd. The shepherd went searching for the sheep. He needed only to hear a bleat or a bay. In the same way, God knocks at the door of the soul. We need only open up.
The unrepentant sheep doesn’t want the shepherd. He’s busy chomping on a little fresh grass and hopes the shepherd leaves him alone. Sometimes, it takes a wolf or a bandit to frighten the sheep so that it finally calls out to the shepherd. Sometimes, suffering is the only thing that wakes us up. Whatever it takes, if you call to God, He will hear you.
Repentance also comes from the Hebrew word nãham. Nãham means “to pant, sigh, or grieve.” What makes the wandering sheep repent? When he is hungry, thirsty, wounded, or frightened. Then his heart beats for help, he nahams, and the shepherd saves him.
This is the heart that God longs for. This is why God delights in a “broken and contrite heart.” He isn’t sadistic. He’s a gentleman. God will never force His love on us. He waits for us to long for Him.
VI. So, again, what does make life successful?
A successful life is one which, no matter who many twists it has, no matter how much pain and loss, leaves you with a heart yearning for God.
The journey in Ivan Ilych’s heart was invisible to the world. His friends and colleagues didn’t see it. Not even his wife and son could see it. But when he took his last breath all of heaven opened to his heart. Where do you see ashes in your life? That is exactly where you will find God. He takes the ashes and from those ashes makes beauty.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.