This coming Sunday, March 15th, 2015, is the Fourth Sunday in Lent (it is a bit crazy that we’re already there, but we are). You can see the readings on the USCCB website here. The readings for this Sunday are:
First Reading: 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 137: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Second Reading: Ephesians 2: 4-10
Verse Before the Gospel: John 3:16
Gospel: John 3:14-21
Starting this week’s readings in Chronicles, we hear of the people of the Lord falling into “all the abominations of the nations” to the point that God allows the people to fall to their enemies and many of them to be carried away into the Kingdom of the Babylonians. This period of time, known as the Babylonian Exile, is one the most famous and certainly the most trying times in the history of the Jewish people. For seventy years, the Jewish people would be kept from their land as prisoners, and sojourners in a foreign land, held as slaves and captives of a foreign king. The Responsorial Psalm picks up during this time of exile as the Psalmist writes of the experiencing of weeping in the land of Babylon, dreaming of their home in Zion, and singing Psalms of praise and hope in God, promising never to forget the Lord even in a foreign land.
In the letter to the Ephesians which we read for the Second Reading, St. Paul declares that we were given life precisely while we were “dead in our transgressions,” saved by the “gift of God.” This then carries quite nicely into the Gospel, one of the most famous passages of the Gospel and of literature in the history of the world, where St. John declares that God sent His only Son into the world “so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” In a way that St. Paul echoed later in his letter to the Ephesians, St. John explained that this was not to condemn the world, but to save the world, even though many people would continue to choose and prefer darkness over the light.
As with each and every Sunday, and in a special way all of the Sundays in Lent, this group of Scripture passages is simply loaded with meaning. As is evidenced by the Jews in the time of the Babylonian exile, it is clear that God has created mankind for a specific purpose, and yet man repeatedly forgets that purpose. The Jewish people, living in a land which was surrounded by people who worshipped many gods and were prone to offering many various kinds of sacrifices to those gods, often found themselves tempted to worship gods other than Yahweh, the Living God who they knew to be the One True God. In order to allow them to remember Him, we hear, God allows this exile to take place, and when they return from the exile the Jewish people have a renewed sense of identity, an identity found only in the Living God, the God of Abraham.
We hear in the Gospel the very thing that the Jewish people were living out: that man often and repeatedly chooses darkness, even when light has been given to him. For the Jewish people in the Old Testament, this light was the testimony of the prophets, calling them over and over to repentance. For the Jewish people alive in the time of Christ, this was of course the testimony of the Son, Jesus Christ, who came to bring light into the world. Even with His presence, human beings continue to choose darkness, although now those who reject evil things have a chance at life through the Son of Man who is lifted up.
St. Paul explains to us exactly what this looks like in his teaching to the Ephesians when he teaches so clearly that we are brought to life in Christ because God has “raised us up with him.” Jesus explained to Nicodemus that each person who believes in Him needs to see the “Son of Man be lifted up” just as “Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” in order to be saved. If we remember in Numbers 21, Moses lifted up this serpent to show the saving power of the God of Israel, for by this serpent which was lifted up all of the people were saved from imminent death by serpents. In the same way, the people of the time of Jesus, the people of Ephesus to whom Paul is writing, and each of us today are facing imminent death due to sin and our transgressions, and yet God has sent His only Son into the world and now we are free and have a chance at life because the Son of Man has been lifted up.
In Ephesians and in the Gospel of John which we hear this week, the concept of the works that we do is repeated. These works, in the Gospel of John, represent for us whether or not we have come to the light. In St. Paul’s letter, similarly, these works are evidence that we are God’s handiwork and are alive in those things God has prepared for us in advance. These works are not the thing that saves us, as is clear in both of these readings, but rather they are part and parcel to living in the light and having new life in the Son of Man who has been raised up.
And so this Lent these readings allow each of us to examine the manner in which we have allowed the light of Christ to penetrate our very lives. God sent His only beloved Son in the world to give us the path to eternal life and to show us the way to live in the light of that new life, and that all happens in the great celebration we are preparing for at the end of these Forty Days. We are God’s handiwork, and the good works which He has prepared for us are evidence of the extent to which we have allowed the Son of Man to lift us up, to let His light shine, and therefore for us to be a light to all the nations. May we encounter in a new way this Lenten season that God has not left in darkness but has given us a new, bright, and incredible light, reminding us that He is the God who deserves our worship and wants to have a relationship with us. Our good works flow from a relationship with God, and those good works give testimony to the fact the Son of Man who was lifted up is alive and shining His light through us.