By his investigations and meditations and calculations the great Polish mathematician Copernicus revolutionized the thought of mankind about the universe. His famous treatise The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies was printed just in time to be placed in his arms as he lay dying on his bed in May, 1543. Yet this man who had given to the race a new conception of the universe, before God saw himself not as an astronomer or a scholar but as a sinner.
Today on his grave at Frauenburg you can read the epitaph which he chose for himself: "I do not seek a kindness equal to that given to Paul; nor do I ask the grace granted to Peter; but that forgiveness which Thou didst give to the robber—that I earnestly pray."
Imagine Lazarus suddenly appearing in the hall where the five brothers of Dives, their hypocritical grief for him forgotten, sit arrayed in purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously, with some other beggar now at the gates, his sores licked by the same dogs. You can see their faces blanch at his sudden entrance into their midst. The glasses fall from their nerveless grasp, and are shattered on the pavement, as Lazarus says to them: "Your brother is in hell. He has sent me to warn you, and to tell you to repent." Such a visitation, such an apparition, you think, would break down the wall of any man's heart and bring prompt and full repentance. But He who knows the heart to its depths said No: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31).
On the stormy southwest coast of England there is a church whose towers are silent. No bells ring for the living or toll for the dead. There is a legend that a ship was once beating its way along that shore, having on board bells designed for this church of Bottreaux. A sailor lad, hearing the neighboring bells of Tintagel sounding over the sea, thanked God for the favor that would soon bring them safe to port.
But the godless skipper told him to thank the steersman, the good ship, and the ready sail. As if in answer to his blasphemy, the sea rose and the waves dashed the ship and its godless master on the rocks. Now they say that the bells which went down with that ship may be heard above the surge of the ocean as it breaks on the iron cliffs, pealing out the invitation of the Church, the invitation of God, the coming of death, and after death the judgment.
When the prodigal son finally struck bottom, finally found himself among the swine, and even envied them their diet of corn husks, what would it have profited him to soliloquize thus: "Swine, as ye are now, so I was once; but long ago, aeons upon aeons ago, I passed through the swine stage. Now I have arrived at manhood. Yet I trace my origin back to you and to the beasts from whom you descended. All that is in me—of mind, of thought, of purpose, of hope, despair, and remorse—came ultimately from you, and through you from other beasts before you. In your dull brain are the rudiments of my own brain; in your hideous form are the outlines of my own form and body; and in your dull, stupid, brutish gaze I see as in a mirror all the elements of my own personality."
Would that have helped the prodigal? Would that have lifted him out of the mire—to have reflected on his kinship with the beast, how far he had ascended from them, and how far he had come back to them? No. The thing that brought the stab of poignant pain and shame to the prodigal's heart was the thought of how far he had wandered. When he remembered his father's love, his father's hopes for him, and contrasted his rags and filth and shame with what his life had been in his father's house, then it was that he came to himself, to his true, divine, immortal self, and said: "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants" (Luke 15:18-19).
The wise and sensible thing for a man to do is to repent. In the opening chapter of Robinson Crusoe Defoe relates how, in spite of the protest of his father and the tears and entreaties of his godly mother, he ran away from his home at York and went to sea. On his first voyage he was wrecked off Yarmouth and barely escaped with his life. He now saw the folly and the evil of the course he had taken, but was afraid and ashamed to go back to his home, lest some of his old companions should make sport of him. So, writes Defoe, men are not ashamed to sin, but are ashamed to repent; not ashamed to do that of which they ought to be ashamed, but ashamed to do that which is their only hope and rescue.
In The Silence of Dean Maitland the author tells how the dean fell into sin, and then committed one sin after another to cover up his first sin;—and, worst of all, permitted an innocent man to be punished and imprisoned in his stead. All kinds of temporal adversities broke over him. He lost his wife and children, his home became a wilderness, yet he would not repent. He said, "I cannot, I will not, I dare not, I must not repent." But at length the man who had spent a great part of his life in prison for the other's crime wrote him a letter telling him of his forgiveness. It was that letter that broke his heart and brought him to repentance. "God called to me," he said, "through many years, by many judgments; but I repented not until I was forgiven."
If you have read Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, you will remember how the sailing vessel whose company have abandoned the disfigured child on the shores of England is overtaken by a storm on its way across the Channel to France, and is about to sink in the treacherous waters off the Channel Islands.
As the doomed company gather on the deck, the doctor calls to them, "On your knees! Repentance is the bark that never sinks. You have lost your compass? You are wrong! You still have prayer."
The waters have now risen to the decks, and at the words "Let us pray" they kneel in the darkness and repeat, each in his own tongue—the doctor in Latin, the Provencal in French, the Irishwoman in Gaelic—the petitions of our Lord's Prayer. By the time they reach the last petition the ship sinks, and the remorseless waves cover them, until the sea gives up its dead and the grave hers.
Yes, prayer is the highest resource of the soul. Do not fail to draw on that great resource now.
The records of wars sometimes tell of officers who lost their rank and were dropped from the rolls of the regiment in disgrace, but afterward by heroic conduct won back their lost rank. There is always in the soul that possibility of reclaiming and regaining the honors and the righteousness it has lost.
No matter how deep into the far country the son has wandered, there is always a path that leads back to the Father's house. There is a robe kept in readiness for you, O wandering son! There is a ring that will never be put on any finger but yours, O wandering daughter! There is a welcome for you, O hardened sinner! Christ receiveth sinners! He likes to go out and meet them on the way back. He delights in remaking them and redeeming them.
Let cynics smile, let believers argue, this is the glory of Christianity—that it is able to save unto the uttermost all who come unto God by Jesus Christ. "Though ye have lain among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold." (Ps. 68:13).