4th Sunday of Lent
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believed in him may not die but have Eternal Life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. John 3
One of the purposes of the Lenten discipline of the church is to help us understand and live in the light of two great truths; (1) the depth of evil involved in human sin and now present in the world; (2) the even greater depth of God’s love which brings about the redemption of the world. Lenten discipline goes further and helps us to shed the obstacles to the Christian life and increase the grace by which we are enabled to live it ever more perfectly. But we should not miss the way in which this holy season helps us to understand the truth about this world, about our sinfulness and about our need for the graces that flow from the redemption.
When we focus our hearts and minds on the Cross with faith, we see the incomprehensible love of God who has delivered his only Son over to this cruel fate to save this sinful world from its richly deserved fate of self-destruction. Perhaps the most deadly consequence of sin is a the blindness caused in the heart of the sinner and a deadly insensitivity to the evil of sin itself. How else can we explain the awful tendency of even God’s chosen people to fall back into sin, into an infidelity piled on infidelity that marks the history of the original chosen people.
Today’s first reading even accuses God’s chosen people of practicing the abominations of the nations, which included human sacrifice at one point , perhaps the nadir of their history until the rejection of God’s chosen One. The children of holy Abraham even desecrated God’s temple in Jerusalem, as we read last Sunday, and for all these abominations God allowed the holy temple to be destroyed, and He allowed his people to be handed over to their enemies in the Babylonian exile. This was evidently the only way that God could cure them of their blindness to the evil of their ways, that is, by subjecting them to the crucible of suffering for seventy years in Babylon. And yet this very punishment, because it is meant as a remedy, shows the stupendous love of God for them in spite of their infidelities and evils, God wanted only to restore their dignity and to restore them to their homeland where they could live under his protection and love.
But this blindness to the evil of sin, which leads to repeated infidelities and imitating the abominations of the nations is certainly not limited to the first chosen people. Indeed, the history of God’s new chosen people, the New Israel established by Christ as His Church, has also been scarred by the same tendency to sin and unfaithfulness, even though the Church has always also had her core of saints whose fidelity to God has been the greatest fruit of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the history of sin did not end with the old covenant, only the history of helplessness before this plague on the human race, for God so loved the world, says John, that He gave us His son to deliver us from our own self-destruction by the grace of his Cross. This was God’s ultimate remedy and the ultimate measure of his love for us sinners.
The Cross of Jesus is the only truly effective way we have to discover the true evil of sin, to become sensitive to and horrified by the real evil of our sins. When he study the Cross of Jesus, we must learn this truth; if sin cost this much to be overcome – it’s remedy being at the cost of the death of God’s only-begotten Son – then what a truly horrific thing sin, any sin, must be. When Jesus is lifted up between heaven and earth on the cross, then will men be able to see the horror of their sins, the true measure of its evil is what it has done to God’s Son. And with that perspective, they will have the hope of repenting this evil by opening themselves to His astounding forgiveness and grace, symbolized by the embracing openness of his arms on the Cross. Conversion is necessary, and genuine conversion begins always at the foot of the Cross and consists of a confession of our sin that caused His death. Only with such an objective recognition of the evil of my sins, and a true repentance, can I hope in the mercy of God that flows in the blood of Christ.
So, the recognition of the evil of sin is the first lesson of the Cross, but the greater lesson is the truth that “God so loved the world...” In spit of everything, in spite of the countless betrayals of his love and infidelities to His love, the sins beyond imagining of the human race, still going on till the end of time, God so love the world, that he gave his only Son, not to condemn, but to save the world.
Such love is so far beyond our capacity to understand, much more beyond our understanding than is the evil itself of sin. Where do we find anything like such love in this world? How few times can any one of us be betrayed, have someone we love be unfaithful to us, before we can no longer find forgiveness or love in our hearts? Yet a whole universe of sin has not caused God to stop loving the world he created, and has not kept him from delivering his own Son into the hands of sinners to save this sinful and often unrepentant world. How can we understand such love, if not by clinging with heart and soul to the Cross on which this love was nailed for our salvation. His arms were wide open, his side was opened by a spear, because he loved us all to the end.
Finally, the Cross teaches us that the world, in all its sinfulness, does not get finally condemned simply for its sins, since the price has been paid to redeem the whole world, by God’s only Son. The final condemnation of the world results from its general refusal to believe in God’s Son, that is, in God’s love which has sent the Son to redeem the world, thus the refusal to repent. This was the first sin, and this is the ultimate sin of the world, the refusal to believe in God’s love which so love by which the world was so loved that God sent His only Son to redeem it’s sins: “Whoever believes in Him avoids condemnation; but whoever does not believe is already condemned.”
So too, individual sinners will be condemned not simply on account of their sins, for from all these they have truly been redeemed by Jesus, if only they put their faith in Him and begin anew to walk in His light. The judgement upon them will be that they refused to believe in Him, in their need of Him, in their need to repent; in short they refused to walk in His light. For if they believed in Jesus they would no longer walk in the darkness of their sins, but they would do everything they could to lead new lives in the light of Jesus’ teaching and by the power of His grace.
In contrast to the incomprehensible love of God who has given his only son for us sinners, is the hardness of the unrepentant sinner who does not even come near the light of Christ “for fear his deeds will be exposed.” Why is the sinner afraid that his deeds will be exposed, by coming into the light, unless in his own hardness of heart he refuses to believe in God’s love, God’s will to redeem him from his sins. This fear which results from a failure to believe in God’s love appeared in the very first human sin in the garden, when our first parents failed to believe in God’s love, and refused to trust that his commandment was for their well being, rather than God’s. The same attitude of disbelief leads to hardness of heart and fear in every age, and keeps the unrepentant from walking in God’s light, lest his sin be exposed to that light.
At the root of this unrepentant attitude, then, is the absence of faith, the unrepentant man is afraid that the way of God will mean unhappiness for him, whereas the way of sin at least offers him some temporary gratification, some temporary pleasure or happiness. The unrepentant fails to believe in God’s love, that only God’s love that can make man truly happy in the end, in a permanent way. The man who is hard of heart fears repentance and conversion because he fears that it will bring him unhappiness. That is the great lie of the Father of Lies, to make man distrust God’s love, to make him disbelieve that God’s love is man’s happiness and that this divine love went to such lengths to do so – to the point of sacrificing His only beloved Son Jesus in order to redeem every man from his own self-destruction by sin.
Lent is meant to focus our attention once again on these great mysteries of our salvation: the evil and self-destructiveness of our sins, and the incomprehensible love of God for us, his sinful children. The Cross stands at the heart of creation to remind us of this truth that God has so loved the world and to draw our hearts and minds to that love which knows no limits in its mercy. As St. Paul says in today’s second reading.
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
Yes, says Paul, “we are truly his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus,” indeed recreated “to lead the life of good deeds which God prepared for us in advance.” May we take these words to heart this Lent, and know more deeply than ever the mercy and love of God in our lives, and the joy of the new life he has given us in Jesus Christ.