2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan ruler from Babylon, desecrated the Temple of God in Jerusalem, in 587 B.C, and led Israelites out to exile in Babylon. The Temple, where God dwelt alongside the copy of the Ten Commandments in the Tabernacle (1 Kings 8), was destroyed. The shame of this catastrophe was so great that Ezekiel depicts the departure of God from his Temple (Ezekiel 10) prior to the destruction of the Temple. This is to say that it was the Temple that was destroyed not God. On the other extreme of the spectrum, Cyrus, a pagan ruler of Babylon, sent Israelites back from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem (539 B.C.), and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem: one ruler destroyed, another ruler rebuilt the same Temple – what is going on here?
There is a reason for calling this fourth Sunday of Lent “Rejoicing Sunday” – Laetare Sunday! For those who think that evil has overrun the earth, and perhaps predict the end of humanity and its civilization, there is good news for those dooms-day prophets – salvation is on its way! Our God is a proactive God, especially when dooms-day prophets think that the end has come, God offers salvation. Only God can decide when the end shall be, no human being or human organization can decide that. In fact, Bob Marley, years back, has this to say “I have no fear for atomic energy, cause none of them’ah can-ah stop-ah the time”! Human guns, missiles, bombs, sins, etc. cannot dislodge the plans of God for his people.
Yes, we are sinners, and there is an upsurge in human orchestration of sin and evil, yet God always comes up with other plans for the future of humanity. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Despite the ugliness of sin and the wages of sin, today, we celebrate hope for a future full of blessings and goodness. We celebrate a future date in which our burden of sins will be wiped away and iniquities atoned for. In fact, it is this future day that we celebrate today; it is this day that brings smiles to our faces; we rejoice because we can count on God’s promises because he has never failed in the past, and will never fail in the future: our God is merciful, always proactive about human salvation! Yes, God always finds a Cyrus to save his people from the carnage of a Nebuchadnezzar!
Indeed, we rejoice because everything is grace, that is, free and unmerited gift: our lives, jobs, children, spouses, above all, forgiveness of sins. The greatest grace-event is the gift of Jesus Christ to the world.
We rejoice that when none among his children of Israel was good enough to plead and work for the salvation of Israel, God raised foreigners and non-Jews to bring about the liberation and salvation of his people Israel. A look at the genealogy of Jesus Christ shows a line up of thieves, prostitutes, adulterers and pagans among the ancestors of Jesus Christ. We see a God who goes out of his way to work for the salvation of his undeserving children, despite their sins. Even today, we see ourselves as undeserving of salvation as Israel of old was, yet we have a God who comes to die for us in Jesus Christ. It is this proactiveness of God that gives us the audacity to hope for salvation and to rejoice in the assurance of salvation – Laetare Sunday.
Indeed, we rejoice because everything is grace, that is, free and unmerited gift: our lives, jobs, children, spouses, above all, forgiveness of sins. The greatest grace-event is the gift of Jesus Christ to the world. Hear what our gospel today says of Christ – “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” How angry you and I are when someone crosses us, and how readily we are to condemn them or ask for “a pound of flesh” in the words of Shylock in the _Merchant of Venice._ Here is God, a proactive God, who takes flesh in order to take care of your sins and mine. It is a “pound of flesh” from Jesus that brings salvation to the world and forgiveness of sins to you and me.
Our joy may appear to be cut short by this statement of the gospel: “And this is the verdict [of condemnation], that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil”. No way, our joy is still intact! The reason being that, even in the “darkness” of evil, God is present working out strategies for human salvation as he did for sinful Israel. God hasn’t stopped being proactive about human salvation, especially yours and mine. After all, the text says “their works [deeds] were evil,” which means that this value judgment was passed on the generation before the death of Jesus not on ours. Remember that our gospel reading puts salvation in the future, when it says “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”! We are the post death and resurrection generation, we bask in the euphoria of God’s clemency and inexhaustible mercy. In the Old Testament, it was those bitten by the serpent but looked upon the bronze serpent who were saved. As for us, our sins became our inoculation for salvation, because our gaze is fixed on the pierced one – our crucified Christ (John 19:37).
Our joy – Laetare Sunday – comes with a certain hope that doesn’t deceive us (Rome 5:5).
As a matter of fact, our second reading confirms the fact that we are a special generation. Hear what it says, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ . . . and seated us with him in the heavens, . . .” How unfathomable God’s deeds are! He not only saved us, he grants us a place already in heaven with Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our second reading says this, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast”. Just like that, in spite of our sins, God saved us!
Our joy – Laetare Sunday – comes with a certain hope that doesn’t deceive us (Rome 5:5). After all, I may be a sinner today, but the grace of God will lead me to repentance. All I do today, is to invest in my tomorrow of repentance and grace. I refuse to be cowered down by my sins; I refuse to be defined by my failures; I dust myself up every second, minute, hour, day, week, month and year, because, like Paul, “I forget what is in the past, I race for the finishing line, for the prize of heaven for which God has called you and me” (Philippians 3:13-14). Only the past can be sinful, the present and the future are opportunities towards sainthood and possibilities for heavenly reward. This is the meaning of the statement, “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God;” honesty is admittance of my sinfulness, so that the light of God may enlighten my darkness, and I may obtain the free salvation of God in Christ.
Remember the origin of sin – a tree and its fruit. Now, salvation comes from the wood of a tree and he who hangs on it. John reports Jesus as saying “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Those in hiding like Adam and Eve because of their sins; those shying away from the light because their iniquities stare them in the face; these are those that the elevation of Jesus on the Cross draws to salvation and freedom. Yes, one serpent’s bite brought death, another serpent’s bite brought life; one serpent’s deceit sent Adam and Eve naked out of earthly Paradise; the sacrifice of a half-naked Christ on the cross takes humanity to the glory of heavenly paradise! What more? When Adam and Eve were sent packing, stark naked (meaning sterile) from the garden of Eden, God himself sewed their first garment for them, to cover their nudity. What a God, what a people! Let us rejoice, because salvation is God’s gift to all!
Let us conclude with the story of St. Peter’s mother-in-law. Peter was taking a walk around Hell and noticed that his mother-in-law was in Hell, so he went to complain to Jesus how shocking it was for him, that having been given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, his mother-in-law should be sent to Hell. Consequently, Jesus gave him a very long rope to use it to pull out his mother-in-law from Hell. When Peter lowered the rope down into Hell for his mother-in-law to take hold of it and be pulled out of Hell, other inmates of Hell too got hold of the same rope. Instead of hastening her way up the rope out of Hell, St. Peter’s mother-in-law was kicking others to let go of the rope because it was meant for her alone. While she was busy quarreling and fighting, fire caught and burnt the rope. Up until today, St. Peter’s mother-in-law is still in Hell.
As we rejoice in the gift of salvation – Laetare Sunday – let us NOT be obstacles to the salvation of others because we may lose our own opportunities for salvation in the process; the story of St. Peter’s mother-in-law is an example.
Assignment for the Week
Could you reach out to those who have offended you today to sue for peace and reconciliation because of Christ?
By Fr. Ayodele Ayeni, a Spiritan