FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT (Laetare)
March 11, 2018 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
2 Chronicles 36:14-16;19-23 Psalm 137:1-6
Ephesians 2:4-10 John 3:14-21
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
The news this year has featured many rescue stories. First responders, and even ordinary citizens, have heroically saved many lives — human, canine and feline — from fires and floods. My wife, Sharon, and I are no strangers to rescue. Our relationship began when we rescued one another from loneliness when our lives as separate individuals were not going very well in 1993, Sharon in Texas, and I in California.
On March the twentieth, Sharon and I will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our mutual rescue. That’s the day when Sharon arrived in California with her two dog-daughters, Buffy and Dolly, two sweet little girls who have passed on, but who will always have a soft place in my heart.
The soft places of our hearts are places of comfort and happiness which cause us to rejoice in being alive. It is to that soft place we long to be when we are rescued from unpleasant situations. The Latin word “Laetare” is the Latin word for “rejoice” that began the traditional introit for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, called “Laetare Sunday”. We wear rose vestments today to show that we are in relationship with a God so merciful that He gives us a break from the otherwise somber season of Lent.
This Sunday, we celebrate the happiness of being rescued by Jesus.
Because God’s mercy is infinite, God is our ultimate rescuer. The infiniteness of God’s mercy is well stated in our second reading, where God is described as “rich in mercy” with “immeasurable riches of grace.” We have a pretty good idea of what mercy is, but what is grace? It is the unmerited favor of God. Grace is God’s love for us. It is our sharing in the divine life of God. God’s grace is a manifestation of God’s power and presence, and it is God’s power and presence that rescues humanity. To experience it, all we need do is respond, “Yes.”
Both the First Reading and Gospel today illustrate what God’s grace is by how it rescues us.
The Israelites had a pretty rocky relationship with God after King Solomon died. The Kingdom was divided, north and south. The ten tribes of the northern Kingdom perished at the hands of the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom where Jerusalem and its Temple was located was destroyed and its inhabitants deported to Babylon where they were exiled about seventy years. They needed to be rescued.
God used King Cyrus to rescue the Israelites. Cyrus was a Persian monarch who conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Israelites to return home to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and restore the relationship between the Israelites and God. Not only does God use grace to rescue us, God also uses it to restore God’s relationship with humanity.
That’s where Jesus becomes part of the picture. Fast forward about 475 years, and God acted through Jesus to rescue all of us from sin and death, not just the Jews.
The Jews were skeptical of Jesus. Nicodemus was part of the Jewish establishment and was scared of what his fellow Jews might do if he was openly being in the presence of Jesus. So he visited Jesus at night under cover of darkness. Whatever happened that night changed Nicodemus. Jesus’ miracles, his profound teaching, and righteous life convinced Nicodemus that Jesus was sent from God. He may well have been convinced Jesus knew the secret to eternal life. When Jesus went on trial before the Sanhedrin, it was Nicodemus who implored his fellow Jews to give Jesus a fair trial, and it was Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who saw to it that the Body of Jesus received a decent burial.
In his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus spoke in a way Nicodemus would understand. Jesus foretold His resurrection by analogizing to the scene in the Book of Numbers where Moses holds up a snake on a pole. God told Moses to put a brass snake on the pole and to tell the Israelites that anyone who is bitten by a snake and looks at the pole will be healed. Now, we all know that, if we evaluate the situation from a scientific viewpoint, looking at a pole will not cure a poisonous snake bite. But that’s the point. God was teaching the people something about grace. The healing power of God is a manifestation of God’s grace. When God heals us, God rescues us.
Rescue is the very essence of that very popular Bible verse, John 3:16, that’s quoted in so many places. I’ve seen that on bumper stickers, billboards, and even on baseball scoreboards. It reads as follows: “For 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.” What is salvation? It is eternal life. It is not a conditional reward in the afterlife. Rather, it is God’s rescue of humanity from death in the here and now, done freely by the energies God out of God’s loving and forgiving essence.
Yet many people really don’t understand what John 3:16 means. The common understanding of it, at least among our evangelical sisters and brothers, is that one must be a Christian to inherit eternal life. Everyone else? Forget it!
Here’s where they get it wrong. The passage at issue says “God loved the world”. Not part of it, all of the world. That includes everyone, not just Christians. That means Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, even atheists. Jesus was the true light that coming into the world enlightens all of us.Because God loves all of us, God sent Jesus to rescue allof us. Forget the Calvinist nonsense that only the so-called “elect” will be saved. We’re not an exclusive club. We’re not a “chosen people.” What this verse does notsay is that those who have not yet experienced Jesus, or don’t accept Jesus, will not have eternal and will perish. Nor does this verse say that one must subscribe to a set of dogmas or doctrines or belong any particular institutional church, as a condition of salvation. Simply put, salvation is not conditional.
Salvation comes solelythrough God’s grace. We cannot earn grace by what we do, or don’t do, on our own. Grace comes through faith, which is the hope of things we want to see happen, but yet unseen. When we believe in Jesus, we are placing our faith in Jesus. What is faith? Faith is notintellectual assent to the existence of something, or to a doctrine. Faith is complete trust in God, complete confidence in God, and complete reliance on God. Faith is an act of trust and self-abandonment in which people no longer rely on their own strengths, but surrender to the power and guiding word of God.
Grace is the means of our rescue. God did not create grace, but grace is part of the essence of who God is. When we receive God’s grace, we share in God’s uncreated existence. Jesus is the quintessential manifestation of grace. His purpose was to reconcile us to God and unite us with God. The grace of God flows through Jesus in his saving acts to rescue us, namely the Resurrection, which we will celebrate in about three weeks. Among the songs we will be singing at Easter is the Paschal Troparion, whose words go like this:
“Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs,
It is through the Resurrection of Jesus that we will not perish, but experience eternal life as stated in John 3:16. The Resurrection is God’s ultimate rescue of humanity. In rising from the dead, Jesus conquered evil and made eternal life possible. The eternal life to which John 3:16 refers is life with God, free from the prison of the world. As Saint Irenaeus tells us, “The Son of God became man that we might become like God…It is becoming by grace what God is by nature.” The rescue of humanity God had in mind when God sent Jesus was full communion between God and humanity. Through communion with God, God disburses the fullness of life to us. Receiving that fullness of life is an essential component of God’s rescue of humanity. We saw a foretaste, a small glimpse of that, in the first reading, where the Israelites were rescued by God’s power and returned to Jerusalem where they ultimately resumed their relationship with God, such as it was, in Temple worship.
The return of the exiles from Babylon to Judah was more than just a renewal of that relationship. As recounted in the first reading, the Israelites had sinned against God in many ways. Yet God forgave them. The very fact God made possible their return to Jerusalem demonstrated that forgiveness is part of God’s rescue plan for all of us. God may not forget, but God always forgives. The forgiveness which is part of the divine essence of God was shown through to us when, from the cross, Jesus prayed for His Heavenly Father to forgive those who crucified Him, a poignant reminder that if we expect forgiveness from others, we must be able to forgive, too, as we recite in the Our Father every Sunday at Mass and hear Jesus tell us the same message repeatedly in parables and the Sermon on the Mount.
However, the rescue of humanity remained uncompleted until Jesus arrived. By means of the human and divine natures united in the person of Jesus, it became possible for humanity to experience a close fellowship with God. By getting to know the essence of God in the person of Jesus, humanity comes to know and experience what it means to be fully human.
God intended that in Jesus humanity will find adoption as His children and achieve immortality, becoming His daughters and sons, and residing with Him forever. God does this, not by emptying out our human nature, but by filling with divine life. Jesus came to make that happen.
Full salvation is finally belonging and connecting to God. Our word for that is “heaven.” The love with which God so loved the world is the dynamic principle for world salvation. Our God is a God motivated by love so great that he has gifted the world with His own Son, not to condemn, but to save.
To return the love to God that God shows us requires surrender to God, in total fidelity and trust in God’s love, to allow God’s grace to flow into us, which we will better experience if we get our egos out of the way and live in the consciousness of our souls. In a contemporary secular culture the prizes self-esteem, that is very difficult for all of us, including me, and much easier said than done.
The best answer I can give you is to remember that God loves you unconditionally. That’s exactly the grace to which the writer of the second reading is referring. Grace is mercy instead of judgment, loving-kindness instead of wrath. Grace is the positive activity of God our Creator toward us, who, instead of giving us what we deserve, kindly gives us what we do not deserve and could never earn. Thus, in total surrender to God, we have nothing to lose. God’s grace is free to us. One cannot buy God or control God in any manner. That is why we are saved not by what we do or do not do, but only by our faith is God and God’s grace given to us unconditionally. It’s great to be an honest person, go to church, and give to the poor, but that doesn’t score points with God. Nothing does. Those good and meritorious things are the consequence, not the cause, of God’s grace working within us.
God’s grace is all we need to be truly happy, but you would not know that from the popular culture, where happiness is equated with more and more material things and the use of various substances to alter the way one feels. All the material things, social drugs and other cheap thrills in the world cannot bring you the happiness that comes from saying “yes” to the grace God freely offers us. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the most famous person to ever say “yes”, had none of that stuff.
As this season of Lent continues, remember that in God’s eyes, you are a special person. You are uniquely you, a beloved child of God. Respond to God’s grace freely offered to you through gratitude for whatever gifts God has given you. Use those gifts to be open to the immeasurable grace God has offered and will continue to offer you throughout your life. Look for the image of God in other people. Even if you might dislike someone or dislike their behavior, don’t let God fall out of the equation. Even your worst enemy was created in God’s image. You lose nothing by participating in the unconditional love God offers us, and you have everything to gain. Unlike human relationships which sometimes dissolve, God will never be estranged from us. God won’t let that happen. That is reason enough for total trust in God’s goodness.
After Sharon and I rescued each other twenty-five years ago this coming Tuesday, we grew more and more in love with each other with each passing day. That’s how it is with God, too. When we allow ourselves to be in relationship with God, our love for God grows every day. Just as we are there for one another, God will always be there for all of us, come what may. AMEN.