Sunday, March 22, 2009

God So Loved The World!

We don’t often hear readings from the Books of Chronicles. They are a collection of historical accounts dealing not only with the events recorded in the Five Books of Moses, but especially with the history after those times, in particular, the captivity in Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the topic of today’s First Reading.

The Scripture reveals to us that Israel had grown slack in their worship according to the Law of Moses, and they had begun to engage in the cults of their neighbors. These practices not only alienated them from the one true God, but it made them a target for the powerful nation on their northern border to attack them, destroy the Temple, raze the city of Jerusalem to rubble, and carry off the people to captivity in Babylon – the nation whose capital sits between the Tigris and the Euphrates (we know it now as Baghdad).

But the history of the Middle East in those times is not all that different from current events. The nation to the north, the Persian Empire, (in their native language, Farsi, it is called Iran) noticed that the Babylonians were getting lax in the defense of their territory, and they carried out an invasion. Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia was inspired to claim that all of the kingdoms of the earth had been granted to him by God. And he ruled that all of the peoples taken captive by Babylon should be returned to their own land, where they would be free to worship whatever God or gods they chose. He even promised to rebuild the Temple of the God of Abraham in Jerusalem, and sent his own architects, engineers and a great deal of money to accomplish that task, which would take half a century.


Today’s Second Reading, a passage from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, does need much commentary; rather, it should be read slowly, meditatively, and even translated into our own words, so that we can at least begin to understand God’s message:

God is rich in mercy. Even when we are dead because of our sins, he brings us to life again in Christ; because of the great love God has for us, we are saved by grace.

God has even promised to raise us up with Jesus, and to give us a place with Christ in heaven. He has done this to show us the overwhelming bounty of his grace and his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

We have no right to boast about being God’s chosen people, because it is not our good deeds that save us, but God’s grace. Even when we fail to do good deeds, because of our weakness and self-centeredness, he “creates us anew” by his grace, won for us not by our own merits – we have none! – but by the merits of His only begotten Son.

This brings us to today’s Gospel, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus at night, recognizing that Jesus had come from God, and he asked what he must do to be saved.

Jesus told him he must be born again, of water and the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was puzzled, and wondered what Jesus meant. Jesus answered him by recalling an event in the desert of Sinai, when Moses raised up a serpent and everyone who looked upon the serpent was healed.

He said that the Son of Man (that is, himself) must be lifted up, so that anyone who believes in him will have eternal life. Nicodemus seems confused by these words of Jesus. He has come secretly, in the dark of night, to hear Jesus teach; but instead of wisdom, all he gets is an invitation to believe in what he has not yet seen. For Jesus, it is wisdom; for Nicodemus, it is bewilderment. He is not yet ready to understand. We will have to wait a few more weeks for the rest of that story.

Today’s Gospel Reading, typically of John’s gospel, is not a parable, not a story, but a theological display. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, not merely to save the world from sin (I trust He will pardon me for that word “merely”) but to offer the people of the world to share eternal life, so that we might live forever. God doesn’t only want to save us from the darkness of sin, but to teach us to share the saving light of revelation. Not only are we saved from not knowing who we are, the children of light and of God, but we are saved for the purpose of sharing that light with others, and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth.

The gospel ends with one of John’s favorite themes: the conflict between darkness and light. Jesus is the Light of the World, a theme we will explore more fully in the Easter Vigil. He enlightens all those who see him and believe in him, but he also calls all of us to do those works which bring the light of God’s goodness and mercy to those who, without our presence, might remain in the darkness.

This little light of mine, I'm going to let let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine;
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!

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