Tuesday, April 08, 2008

“Journey to Healing”

Isaiah 57:14-19; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42[1]

Heinrich Harrer was a true celebrity in his day. He was young, handsome, and successful. But Heinrich was also an arrogant, conceited, and selfish young man—like many young men of his day, he joined the Nazi party in the late 1930’s. Ironically it was his pride that took him on the journey that ultimately saved his life. In 1939, he left behind a pregnant wife to join an expedition setting out to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the Himalayan Mountains in Kashmir. When their ascent was interrupted due to an injury, Harrer and his party returned to find that World War II had broken out, and they were in British-occupied India. They were immediately sent to an interment camp as “enemy aliens” and spent several years there.

In 1944, Harrer and his friend Peter Aufschnaiter escaped from the interment camp and made their way in fits and starts to the city of Lhasa in Tibet. There they befriended the people of the city. By this time they were changed men from the arrogant young Austrians who set out to conquer the ninth tallest mountain in the world. Lhasa was a rather primitive city in those days, and they set about putting their various skills to working helping people where ever they could. Heinrich even became a close friend and something of an advisor to the young Dalai Lama. As they later witnessed the invasion and “annexation” of Tibet by Chinese soldiers, Heinrich realized that he had been just like them at one time. But Heinrich Harrer had taken two journeys—one that consisted of thousands of miles, and crossed cultures and time zones. But the even greater journey he took was the one from arrogance to humility and from selfishness to compassion.[2] It’s a journey toward wholeness and healing that stands in front of us all.

The scriptures consistently speak of God as the one who both embodies perfect holiness and who also sets out to have mercy on the wayward.[3] For example, Isaiah speaks of God as “the high and lofty one” who “inhabits eternity” and whose essential character is holiness (Isaiah 57:15). But in virtually the same breath he also says that God is the one who dwells with the contrite and the lowly![4] And God dwells with the “poor in spirit” precisely to “revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.” According to Isaiah, God is the one who has seen all the ways of fallen humankind and nevertheless declares in no uncertain terms, “I will heal them” (Isaiah 57:18). Isaiah tells us about a God who is ready to heal. But unfortunately, Isaiah says, our sins get in the way (Isaiah 59:1-2).

In remarkable conformity with Isaiah, the Apostle Paul speaks about a God who offers peace, hope, and life to us all. Not because of anything we could possibly do to deserve it, but precisely in the context in which we are undeserving. In fact, Paul talks about a God who sent his Son to die for us precisely when we were helpless and even antagonistic. As Gene Peterson translates Romans 5:6 in The Message, “Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn't, and doesn't, wait for us to get ready.” Paul says that at just the right time, Christ died for the sinners and the ungodly—and in Paul’s mind that includes us all! He doesn’t talk this way to browbeat us for our fallen condition, but to bring us to the place where we can avail ourselves of the peace and hope and life that God offers us all. In part, Paul is trying to help us take the journey to healing and wholeness.

So how do we avail ourselves of the amazing grace that the Scriptures tell us God is offering us all through Jesus the Christ? I think the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well helps us at this point. If you read this story superficially, it could seem that Jesus was rather harsh her. After all, if she had five husbands it meant that five different men had divorced her, since women in ancient Israel did not have the right to divorce their husbands. So why would Jesus confront her about the condition of her life? I don’t think he did it to shame or humiliate her. I think he confronted her in order to enable her to understand that he offered her acceptance and forgiveness and healing right where she was. He held up her life to her in order to help her get started on the journey to wholeness and to new life.

Why is it that we have to come to the point where we can acknowledge our fallenness in order to avail ourselves of the grace that God offers us all so freely? Because we cannot simply sit back, do nothing, and expect God to just shower us with grace and mercy![5] That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”! Why must we admit our failings, our sin? Because the only way to start the journey toward healing is to recognize that we have a problem.[6] Why is it that we have to come to the place where we realize that we can’t save ourselves in order to put our faith in Jesus as our savior? Because repentance and faith go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other.[7]

The season of Lent is a time for us to come to terms with who we are—we are all fallen and in need of the wholeness and life that God offers us all through Jesus Christ. The season of Lent is a time for us to get past the pride that keeps us from acknowledging our sin, so that we can avail ourselves of God’s saving grace. It is a time to learn again the lesson of repentance and faith in the Savior so that we can begin the journey toward peace and hope and new life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/24/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet, for the first-hand account.

[3] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84; Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 130-31, 133-137.

[4] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, II.39.

[5] See Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:296-97, 301, 305, 339.

[6] See Paul Tillich, “Salvation” in The Eternal Now, 115, 117-18

[7] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 433: “Without repentance all the notes of the Christian faith are off-key or silent”; cf. also Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:345.

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