2Chr 36:14-17, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jo 3:14-21
Today, we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Lent, known in Church language as “Laetare Sunday” (from the Latin word ‘Rejoice’) or rejoicing Sunday. In fact, the opening word of today’s mass is “Rejoice!” This 4th Sunday marks the midpoint of our Lenten observance. It is almost as if we need a little joy in the midst of this penitential season of preparation for Easter. Why does the church invite us in the middle of the penitential season of lent to rejoice? Because “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.” The readings tell us about God’s abundant and unmerited love. While we do strive to do ‘good works’, we are told that any good we do comes from the power of God. All is God’s gracious gift, not a matter our own goodness or strength, and that gift is our source of joy.
- AN UNFAITHFUL PEOPLE REJOICE IN GOD’S LOVE
In the first reading, coming from the 2 Chronicles 36, we hear of the disobedience of the people of Israel. This leads to the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the people. Their exile is seen like a punishment for wrongdoing. In spite of their faithlessness, God continues to act lovingly and mercifully to their favour. Through the unexpected action of Cyrus, the Persian and pagan king who had conquered the people Israel, God inspired the released the Jews from captivity and allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. This is a great cause for joy!
- OUR UNMERITED SALVATION IS A CAUSE OF OUR JOY
In the second reading, from Ephesians 2:4-10, St. Paul gives us a rich summary of the Christian faith that he had spent his life preaching. The text speaks again about our human failings and God’s mercy. “God, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ. It is the gift of God.” For this reason, all Christians are urged to ‘rejoice’ in God’s free gift of love, salvation and healing, and to give up the pride of thinking we have done anything to ‘earn’ it. It comes to us through Christ Jesus, whose sacrifice and triumph we will celebrate at the end of Lent in the liturgy of Easter Triduum. Strangely, it is often hard to accept such free love, because self-centeredness and pride spur people to want to take the credit themselves. Yet we are called to believe with as much love and loving action that everything comes from God through Christ Jesus.
- GOD LOVES US INFINITELY
Today’s gospel text (John 3:14-21) is the first of the long ‘discourses’ in John’s Gospel. These sections show Jesus speaking, usually of himself and his mission, often based on an encounter or question from others. Nicodemus is mentioned at the beginning to let us know that this section came as a response to his questions. Nicodemus was a ‘ruler’ or member of the Jewish Council who came secretly to Jesus at night, knowing that the rest of the council opposed Jesus. Often, in John’s narratives, night is a symbol for not knowing Christ; and it leads to the symbols of light and darkness used by Jesus. In this gospel text, the infinite nature of God’s love is highlighted in the following topics:
- a) ‘Being lifted up’
John uses the wording ‘BEING LIFTED UP’ to speak of Jesus being crucified as well as ascending to the Father. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). There are two other places in John’s Gospel (Jn 8:28 and Jn 12:32) where Jesus uses that same expression of “being lifted up”. It suggests that it was an important image for him. Jesus uses the story of Moses and the serpent during the desert wanderings as a symbol of God’s healing and salvation. This should not be seen as a kind of idol worship, as was condemned in the days of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4). However, as explained by the Jewish Rabbis of old, it is not the serpent that gave life. Instead, so long as Moses lifted the serpent, those infected by snake poison believed in Him who had commanded Moses to lift it up. It was God who healed them (Wis 16:7). Even so Jesus must be lifted; and when people turn their thoughts on him, AND BELIEVE, they too will find eternal life. This is a cause of great joy for every believer.
- b) Believing in Jesus
What does looking at Jesus mean? Can someone who keeps committing sin be saved just by looking at the crucifix? Certainly not! To look at Jesus raised up means, as the gospel tells us, to believe in Him. Belief in Jesus has three elements: a) Belief that God is our loving Father b) Believing that Jesus is the Son of God and therefore tells us the truth about God and life, c) Showing an unwavering and unquestioning obedience to Jesus. In actual fact, it means accepting in faith the message that Jesus addresses to every one of us from the cross. It is not by repeating with our mouth the words of the CREED that we show belief, but by conforming our life to the life of Christ by using it up in the service of our brothers and sisters just as Jesus did on the cross.
- c) God loves us in and through His Son
The words following this – “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16), emphasize God’s utter graciousness in dealing with people (and perhaps the whole of creation is meant by ‘WORLD’). This is a favorite text for many Christians and Christian churches. The text tells us certain great things:
- i) The initiative in all salvation lies with God.
- ii) God is love itself. The driving force of his being is love.
iii) It tells us the WIDTH, the vastness, of the love of God. It was the world that God so loved. It was not “A NATION” or some “GOOD PEOPLE”. He loved the unlovable and the unlovely too. His love has no limit.
- d) God’s judgment
Jesus as God’s Son did not come into the world for condemnation but those who refuse to accept God’s offer of love and forgiveness condemn themselves to the loss of that salvation. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned” (Jn 3:17-18). Many people imagine that on the Judgment Day God will gather us all in front of his court, and examine our conducts one-by-one, and dish our punishments. John presents “God’s Judgment Day” in a totally different way. It is more easily understandable. There is no “Final Judgment”. Instead he tells us that judgment takes place NOW. In this light, Jesus says elsewhere in John’s gospel that God will never judge men and women (cf. Jn 12:46-47). He wants every person to be saved. (THIS IS A GREAT CAUSE FOR JOY ALSO!) God does not pronounce judgment: each one of us does that pronouncement as we take our stand in from of Christ. Salvation, eternal life, comes to those who have the courage to give up their life as Christ did. If, on the contrary, one refuses to give up one’s life and opts for selfishness, pleasure, self-interest and immediate satisfactions, one condemns oneself to death, that one destroys one’s life.
- THE MEASURE OF GOD’S LOVE FOR US
In conclusion, let us go to the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 3:18) where he suggests that we think of the “breadth and the length and the height and the depth” of God’s love for us. One ancient commentator sees the cross as the symbol of this love of God. The upper arm of the cross points up; the lower arm points down, and the crossing arms point out to the widest horizons, embracing all without discrimination.
- a) God’s love for us is BROAD. It extends to every human being, to pagans, sinners, even to his enemies. “God does not have favourites, but everybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). God wants everyone to share in his goodness. As said earlier, God loves WORLD, not just some nation or some ‘good people’. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely too. He loves the lonely who have no one to love them. As St. Augustine puts it: “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.”
- b) God’s love for us is LONG. God is always on the side of his people. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Before the world began God loved you (Jer. 1:5). He knew us before we were born. The love of God stretches from eternity to eternity.
- c) God’s love for us is HIGH. It reaches from the throne of the Almighty in the highest heaven. The height of his love is shown in his gifts to us. What could be more sublime than sharing the very life of God through the Sacraments? What love could be higher than giving his own all-good, all-holy Son to us in Holy Communion?
- d) God’s love is DEEP. He humbled himself from highest heaven to the lowly stable at Bethlehem, to the slums and jungles, to the least of human beings, to the shame of a cross, to the depth of a tomb. In its depth, God’s love descended even to experience death. “Greater love has no one that this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
Once we realize as all the saints did, that nobody is outside the love of God; no place is without its reach; that God searches and hunts for us to the ends of the earth, then we will try to return that love. We would try to “grow in love” as we ask in Eucharistic Prayer Two: “Remember Lord, your church spread throughout the world and bring her to the fullness of charity…”
Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we should rejoice, let us open our hearts and listen to God. He only wants to tell us that he loves us and invites us to live a life of commitment to him, and of love for our brothers and sisters.