He is Doing Something New – Do Not Look Back
March 28, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Sunday of Lent
Reading I (Isaiah 43:16-21) Reading II (Philippians 3:8-14)
Gospel (St. John 8:1-11)
In the readings today, we hear the exact same thing from the prophet Isaiah as well as from Saint Paul. Both tell us to remember no longer what is in the past, but rather to look forward. When we put that into a context for ourselves, and especially with what Saint Paul is saying, that he has no righteousness of his own based on the law but rather the righteousness that he has is the righteousness that comes from God, we recognize that the point being made has to do with sin and the forgiveness of sin. So when the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, points out that God is doing something entirely new, that there are rivers in the desert and there are roads in the wasteland specifically there for His chosen people, we begin to understand the way that God is going to work, and indeed the way that He does work.
In the lives of each and every one of us, there have probably been some times when we have wandered around out in the desert, where we have given into the wasteland. Perhaps we have committed mortal sin, and we know what it is like wandering aimlessly because we cannot think clearly when we are in the state of mortal sin. We know what it is like to be away from God. We know what it is to be caught up in ourselves. And yet, God in His mercy and in His providence brings good even out of the most evil things that we can do. On the natural level, we cannot even begin to understand how that is going to work; but we do all know, as we look back in our own lives, that it is true. We can think, for instance, of some of the most painful and difficult things we have ever experienced, things that we certainly never would wish upon anyone else, and yet in our own lives we can see that God has used those things to bring about great good. Even with our own sins, God teaches us certain lessons with regard to those sins. Even beyond that, what He does is He will allow us to use the experience of our own foolishness in order to help others to stay out of it, or at least in order to help others to get out of it if they have fallen into the same pattern that we have.
But it is also clear that what God is planning on doing is to form a chosen people out in the desert, out in the wasteland, because it is only when one is out in the wasteland that one realizes that we must call on God. There is no way you are going to get out of the wasteland by yourself; there is only one hope, and that is the Lord. So when we place ourselves into the desert by our own choices, and when God in the spiritual life allows us to go out into the desert so He can purify us, it is precisely there in that place where we seem not to be able even to find God – initially, at least – that we find He is the closest, that we learn to rely solely on Him because we know that we cannot do anything on our own when we are out in the desert. And when we learn that lesson, which is absolutely critical for any kind of movement in the spiritual life, then we can come back from the desert having learned to trust God, having learned to rely on Him, having learned that His providence will indeed take care of everything for us. Then we can come back and do His work. We will not get caught up in the worldly ways. We will not get caught up in ourselves again once we have learned this lesson because God has demonstrated to us what is truly important.
Saint Paul says that he has learned to count all things as rubbish, that he has accepted the loss of everything for the surpassing worth of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. God allowed Saint Paul to go out into that desert, and He taught him, as Saint Paul himself tells us. Part of what Saint Paul learned is that all of the other things are useless. Just think, if you packed up everything you have in your house and you dragged it with you out into the middle of the desert, what are you going to do with it all? There are no plug sockets to put anything in! There is nothing out there to see or to hear. All of your fancy things, what are they going to do for you? Nothing. That is the lesson Saint Paul had learned, and it is a lesson that each one of us has to learn as well. While the things in and of themselves are not a problem, we become attached to them. We put far more importance upon them than what we ought, and consequently they get in the way. And so the Lord, in allowing us to go out into the desert, teaches us what is truly important and what is not.
In the desert, all that exists is you and God. When you are out in the desert, you realize that you have nothing to rely on yourself for. You are not going to be able to provide your own food. You are not going to be able to provide your own water. You must count on God for everything. And when you see that just as God provided for the people of Israel for forty years as they wandered through the desert that He will provide for you as well and He will take care of every true need that you have – not every want, but every need – that is when we learn that He is indeed trustworthy, that He will do exactly what He has promised to do, and that we can actually trust Him. It is that trust which is so critical because, as I said, when we come back from the desert having learned that lesson, we will live our lives in an entirely different way. This is exactly what Saint Paul realized. And when God is forming a new people, He is asking us to turn around. Not only simply to leave the worldly ways behind and to go out into the desert where we are alone with God, but He is asking us to change our lives entirely, to repent of our sinfulness, and to turn back to God.
This is precisely what we see in the statement of God: Do you not perceive that I am doing something new? Remember not the things of the past. All too often, we get caught up in the past. We get caught up in our own sins or the things that others have done to us, and we refuse to let go and accept the mercy of God. God is trying to form us. He is trying to change our hearts. The devil, of course, is going to be right there to tempt us, just as he was when Jesus was in the desert. He is going to tempt us to think, for instance, that our sins are not forgiven. And there are reasons why we think our sins are not forgiven: after all, we remember our sins; we are tempted to do the exact same sin over and over again; we recognize our own inclination toward the sin, and therefore we assume that it must not be gone. So we must be very clear: When we go to confession and we confess our sins and we receive absolution from the priest, the sin is gone. God removes it from your soul and it exists no longer. When He looks down upon you, He does not see that sin anymore because He has taken it from your soul.
But we need to be very clear in the distinction between sin and the effect of sin. When you sin, you hurt yourself; in fact, you hurt yourself badly. Therefore, you are badly weakened in the area in which you have sinned. And so even though the sin itself is gone, the effects remain. Just like if you were badly hurt in an accident of some sort, after whatever you did was healed, you would have to go to physical therapy to strengthen the bones and the muscles and to get everything working the way it is supposed to. The same is true with regard to sin. We hurt ourselves spiritually and we have to begin to work with the virtues to develop them and strengthen them because we have weakened ourselves terribly. And so we have to face what it is that we have done. We have to strengthen ourselves against our own weakness and our own temptations. The fact that some of the struggles are still there does not mean that the sin is not forgiven, but rather it just simply means that we have not been fully healed from the effect of the sin.
But Saint Paul again tells us that he no longer considers the things of the past, but rather he looks forward and he strives all the more for the goal, which is union with Jesus Christ. The only way we are going to be able to achieve that is, number one, to have our sins forgiven; and, number two, to be seeking a life of holiness, to be growing in that love for God in our union with Jesus. That is the only way that is going to take place. So when Saint Paul tells us that he has no righteousness of his own, it is because he realizes that, having his sins forgiven, he is clothed with the very righteousness of God. We have two possibilities. We are either in the state of mortal sin, in which we have cut ourselves off from God and we still wander in the wasteland. Or we are in the state of grace, in which case we are clothed with the very righteousness of God Himself.
It is not our own doing. The only thing we can take credit for is our sin; the rest is by God’s grace. And if God has given us the grace to realize that we need to confess our sins, then we need to praise Him for that. But to get to confession and confess our sins is not even something that we ourselves can take full credit for – that is by the mercy and the grace of God. The only thing we can say that we ourselves have done by our own ability is to sin. And we clothe ourselves with the unrighteousness of Satan himself when we do that. That is precisely what Our Lord wants us to throw off so that we can be clothed in the righteousness of God.
Now what is also critically important is when we look at the Gospel today and we see the woman who is not condemned – no one threw a stone at her, no one condemned her – Jesus looked at her and said, Neither do I condemn you, and then He said, Go and sin no more. That is precisely what He tells us as well: to stop sinning. If we are going to clothe ourselves in the righteousness of God, it implies that we have to change our lives. If He is doing something new, if He is forming a people, it is a people to do His Will. It is never the Will of God that we sin, so we need to stop sinning. We need to turn our lives around and we need to live according to the very righteousness of God Himself, but that implies that we need to stop looking backwards. Let go of the sinfulness. Let go of the things that people have done that hurt you. Forgive them as you have been forgiven by God, and put the sins behind you.
One of the things that sometimes happens with older people as they look forward to the impending reality of death is that they begin to look back and wonder if they have confessed all their sins. And the devil is right there to say, “Maybe you didn’t confess this one well enough. Maybe you forgot this one back 60 years ago. Maybe the priest didn’t fully understand. Maybe you missed a detail.” We start getting caught up in all of these little things, and the devil laughs as he stirs the mud and we get caught up in the chaos that follows. The same thing can happen if there is a sin that any one of us is particularly ashamed of and we keep looking back at it. The sin is gone. If you have confessed it, it is gone. Even if there is a question at this point – “Did I confess everything? Have I gotten it all?” – unless there is something that you know for a fact you have not confessed, leave it alone. Do not look back or you are going to give into the temptation of Satan and you are going to put yourself into a very chaotic mess as you begin questioning and doubting everything. If there is something that stands between you and God, look at God and He will show you what is in the way.
Look forward; do not look back any longer. Our goal is not to be in union with Satan by looking the wrong direction. Our goal is union with God, and we have to look forward if we want that union. What we have done in the past has been forgiven and it has been forgotten by God. We need to let go of it as well. So again, it is exactly what God is asking. He says, I am doing something new; do you not perceive it? He is doing something new in your soul. He does not want you looking back. He does not want you wallowing in the mire any longer. But rather, He is providing a way in the wilderness, in the wasteland. He is providing rivers of grace in the desert so that you can come forth and put the past in the past. You can look forward with great hope and anticipation, clothed in the very righteousness of God, recognizing what is truly important and what is not, and seizing the hope which is yours in Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.