Saturday, March 21, 2015

Healing through Humble Repentance: Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20
Mark 9:17-30

         We often have more doubt than belief, more despair than hope.  Our worries and fears so easily increase, and then joy vanishes.  Our health, the problems of our loved ones, stress about a busy schedule, or challenges at home, at work, or with our friends—these often leave us at the end of our rope.
            If you feel that way today or ever have in your life, you can begin to sympathize with the father of the demon-possessed young man in today’s gospel reading.  Since childhood, his son had had life-threatening seizures and convulsions. With the broken heart of a parent who has little hope for his child’s healing, the man cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Christ’s disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but the Lord Himself healed him.  We can only imagine how grateful the man and his son were for this blessing.
            And imagine how embarrassed the disciples were.  The Lord had referred to them as part of a “faithless generation” and asked how long He would have to put with them.  He told them that demons like this “can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting,” spiritual exercises designed to strengthen our faith and to purify our souls.  Not only were the disciples unable to cast out the demon, they could not even understand the Savior’s prediction of His own death and resurrection.   At this point in the journey, they were not great models of faithfulness.
            In fact, the best example of faithfulness in this story is the unnamed father.  He wants help for his child, and he humbly tells the truth about himself.  His faith was imperfect; he had doubts; his hopes for his son’s healing had surely been crushed many times before.  He said to Christ, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us.”  In other words, he wasn’t entirely sure if the Lord could heal his son.  All that he could do was to cry out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” 
            And in doing so, he showed that he had the spiritual strength and clarity that the disciples lacked, for he knew the weakness of his faith.  Still, with every ounce of his being He called to the Lord for mercy.  He received it and the young man was set free.
            If we have taken Lent seriously at all this year, we will have become at least a bit like this honest father when our struggles with spiritual disciplines have shown us our weakness and corruption.  When we pray, we are distracted and often find excuses to do something else instead. When we set out to fast from food or something else to which we have become too attached, we become angry and frustrated.  If we succeed in fasting, we may be tempted to pride and judgment toward others.   Our good intentions to heal broken relationships and give generously to the needy often do not lead us to act on them.  When we wrestle with our self-centered desires just a bit, they become stronger and we feel weaker.   We do, think, and say things that aren’t holy at all, often without even thinking.   We put so much else before loving God and our neighbors.  The spiritual disciplines of Lent are good at breaking down our illusions of holiness, at giving us a clearer picture of our spiritual state.  If we are honest, we will not like what we see.   
           If that’s where you are today, rejoice and be glad, for Jesus Christ came to show mercy upon people like the father in our gospel lesson.   That man knew his weakness, he did not try to hide it, and he honestly threw himself on the mercy of the Lord.  He made no excuses; he did not justify himself; he did not wallow in self-pity. He did not hide his doubt and frustration before God.   He was not stifled by wounded pride, and did not obsess about his imperfections, worry about what someone else would think of him, or judge his neighbor. Instead, he simply acknowledged the truth about his wretched situation and called upon Christ with every ounce of his being for help with a problem that had broken his heart.
With whatever level of spiritual clarity we possess, with whatever amount of faith in our souls, with whatever doubts, fears, weaknesses, and sins that weigh us down, we should all follow his example of opening the deep wounds of our hearts and lives to the Lord for healing this Lent.  Jesus Christ heard this man’s prayer; He brought new life to his son.  And He will do the same for us, when we fall before Him in honest repentance, knowing that our only hope is in the great mercy that He has always shown to sinners like you and me with weak faith.

If we need a reminder of the importance of taking Confession this Lent, this gospel passage should help us.    Christ did not reject a father who was brutally honest about his imperfect faith, but instead responded to his confession with overwhelming grace, healing, and love.  He will do the same for each of us as we kneel before His icon with a humble plea for forgiveness, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Now is the time to stop suffering in isolation, to repent from the depths of our hearts, and to embrace the divine strength and healing for even our worst wounds.  There is no repentance without truthful acknowledgement of our weakness and pain.   And there is no better time to repent than during Great Lent as we prepare to follow our Savior to the agony of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb.  

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