FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – B – March 11, 2018

A reading from the second Book of Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 2:4-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 3:14-21

Dear Reader,

Why is it only hindsight that is 20-20?  Does it have to be at the end and with final gasps that one comes to see in a different light?  Deathbed insights point to final grace; but why can’t this happen earlier more often?

There is much for us to consider as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Lent.  Is the season flying by for you?  Some may think of these forty days as being interminable.  When you think about the formation and transformation happening in the community we call Church, no wonder it takes time.  We are being molded and sculpted.  We are marble being chiseled into something new.  God will do it if we let God do it.

It took the fall of Jerusalem and the exile for the Israelites to come to their senses.  Before that, from our first reading, Israel had fallen pretty much into disrepute.  All those laws we heard about last week as signs of their covenanted relationship with God were being ignored.  It would be difficult to tell the difference between the pagan and the Jew.  The worship of idols and eating food sacrificed to idols, immoral practices, these evil deeds were done not only by the common people, but also by their princes, the leaders of Judah.  Over time, they failed to notice their weakened condition and how vulnerable they had become to outside forces.

They cried out to God in the midst of the rubble of their city.  They shook their fists at the heavens as they were led off in slavery.  If in the depths of their despair they listened, they could have heard God say: “I tried to warn you.  Remember the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah?  They spoke for me to alert you to what was happening and to call you back, but you ignored them.  Constantly I reached out to you and told you of my love for you and my desire to be your God and for you to be my people.”  This was a people whose strength came from their fidelity to God and God’s ways and whose weakness followed on their corrupt ways.

Do not stop listening because the tale of woes seems unbearable.  The beauty of the reading is God’s faithfulness to the promise evidencing a love that is eternal and unconditional.  I will bring you back and restore you.  Jeremiah prophesied that.  No one could have dreamed how the prophecy would be fulfilled.  God inspired Cyrus, the Persian king, their captor, to have a change of heart.  He released the people and allowed them to return to Judea, to their holy city and there to rebuild the Temple.  Isaiah called Cyrus God’s anointed one, a messiah.  Did Cyrus even know God’s name?

Please be careful how you hear this reading.  Do not fall into the cycle of sin-punishment, of God sending the wrath of the Babylonians on Israel because of their sins.  One thing should be clear here.  That is not how God acts.  Paul underscores this as he writes to the Church in Ephesus.  God acts even before we get around to repenting.  I say we because I hope we can recognize ourselves and our inclinations in Israel’s story, and recognize our potential for grace and change in the stories of the early Christian communities.  God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love God had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.  This remarkable passage, written early in the Christian era, tells us that it is all God’s doing.  It is all grace poured out on us, whether we are aware of it or not, through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We did not earn it.  We did not merit it.  God loved in the beginning and wants only our love in return – love that is evidenced by our loving others the way we are loved.  No specifics here.  Each life is unique, and so is each response.

The clear evidence for this mystery is manifest in our Litany of the Saints.  Read the lives of some of the saints.  You will soon notice that no two are alike; no two stories are the same.  How can that be since there is only one way to be a saint, and that is via imitation of Christ?  Each saint imitated Christ to heroic degrees.  No two saints are alike.  That means you and I can imitate Christ in our unique ways and fulfill the promise in our times of those who will love others so that they, too, can experience God’s love and come to know Christ.  The possibilities for imitation will never be exhausted.  Amazing.

Love changes everything.  What inspires horror and dread can become signs of love and grace.  Despair can yield to hope.  Look at the two symbols put before us in the Gospel.  Moses fashioned a serpent of bronze, mounted it on a pole, and all those bitten by the venomous reptile that looked on the image were healed.  Now the seraph serpent is a universally recognized symbol of the medical profession.  Isn’t that amazing?  If not, it is only because we are used to it and so it cannot shock.

The same is true of our most treasured icon.  The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  The cross in Jesus’ time inspired horror in all who beheld it.  The Jews were used to seeing the condemned writhing on crosses, lining the roadways, crying out in agony.  The death was slow in coming and the pain excruciating.  How then came we to hang crosses around our necks, top the church spire with the cross, make sure that each liturgical procession outside of the Easter Season be led by the uplifted cross?  How did the cross become a symbol of hope?  Because the Son of Man was lifted up twice – once in crucifixion, and once in resurrection.  The resurrection transformed the meaning of the Cross forever.  Our hope is in the Cross.

So the theme repeats.  God wills the salvation of all people.  Hear that.  God does not want to condemn.  Jesus comes into the world to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness.  The proclamation far exceeds the sinner’s awareness of sin, much less contrition.  Here is an interesting exercise.  Go through the Scriptures and see how often God’s forgiveness precedes even the sorrow for sin.  Repentance comes in response to the recognition of God’s love.  It is possible to turn one’s back on, or to be deaf to God’s call.  But all who recognize that love and change their lives embrace the light that is Christ and rejoice at God’s action in their lives.

Is there anyone you think of that is beyond that pale?  Be careful how you answer that question.  Remember, the Gospel says that everyone who believes in Christ will not perish but will have eternal life.  Everyone.

Augustine is the great saint of repentance.  But so are Ignatius of Loyola and Camillus and Magdalene and the Samaritan Woman.  If you read carefully, so are all the saints; so are all who recognize that lack of proportion between who and what they are and how great is the love in Christ that empowers them.  All those who live the truth come to the light, so that their works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Now do you see why the central action of our worship is Thanksgiving?  The word Eucharist means thanksgiving.  We constantly give thanks to God as we renew Christ’s dying and rising in bread and wine, as we share the meal, and, having been transformed by what we do; and, having been transformed by what we do, we give thanks as we are sent out to be Christ in the world, loving, until he comes again in glory.

We remember.  We celebrate.  We believe.  Continue on this journey that is Lent.  You will never be the same, if you do, not if you let God have God’s way with you.  In these divisive days of hate mongering, there are many who stand on the brink of despair.  Your love, shining in the darkness, reminding the downtrodden of their dignity and worth, reminding them of God’s love for them, will rekindle hope and point the way to healing peace.

Believe it.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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