‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ He repeats what he said just moments earlier. He came so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. But note too the verbs that he uses. LOVED and GAVE… He gave his only Son. Jesus was given. Jesus is God’s gift to us. Jesus is God’s sacrifice for us. Jesus is the manifestation of God’s love for the world. Jesus is the key to eternal life for us. As he says in the next line: ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
15 Mar 2015
"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" - Fourth Sunday of Lent
Homily for Fourth Sunday of Lent
Rev Martin Browne OSB
I remember once seeing a preacher talking to a group of young people about the love of God and asking if they knew how much God loves us. He used his hands. He started out with them very close together, and asked ‘Is it this much?’ He asked the question several times, spreading his hands and arms farther apart each time – ‘This much?’ ‘This much?’ And so on, until his arms were fully extended. Then, with his arms outstretched like the Lord Jesus on the Cross, he announced with a flourish that ‘God loves us THIS much!’
It was a melodramatic and slightly corny way of making his point, but what a beautiful point it was! God loves us so much that he stands ready to embrace us – to draw us to himself and into communion with him. God loves us so much that he spread out his arms on the Cross. The God made manifest in Christ Jesus loves his people so deeply that he wants to wrap those arms around them, and enfold them in the eternal divine life which his death and resurrection opens up for us. Yes indeed, God truly does love us ‘THIS much’…
Jesus also used a startling image in his conversation with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel – a most startling image indeed: a metal snake on top of a pole in the desert. We read in the Book of Numbers that the Israelites began to grumble about God to Moses as they wandered in the desert during their long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They were punished for this blasphemy by a plague of venomous snakes. But they repented and so God told Moses: ‘“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.’
They would look at the serpent of bronze and live… What a transformation: That which had been the cause of their punishment and suffering, became instead, through the gracious will of God, their healing and their life. O happy fault…
Jesus refers to this moment when he tells Nicodemus: ‘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.’
There is a beautiful play on words in the phrase about the Son of Man being ‘lifted up’. The original Greek word can refer to being physically lifted up, in the way Jesus was physically hoisted up on the Cross. But it can also mean ‘lifted up’ in the sense of being exalted, or glorified. And there is no conflict between the two meanings, because both proclaim the Christian belief about Jesus. Rejected, mocked and condemned, he was lifted up on a Cross to die a shameful death, but that moment was simultaneously the moment of his exaltation, for he was lifted up for everyone to see – to look upon and to live. (‘For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’…)
The comparison with the serpent on the pole in the desert only goes so far. The healing which the repentant snake-bitten blasphemers received was physical health in this life only. What Jesus promised Nicodemus was infinitely greater: if we look upon him and believe in him, we will have ETERNAL life. Not a tedious unending existence like hamsters on wheels, but the blessed state of perfect happiness, embraced and enfolded in the life of the Blessed Trinity. Not just ‘pie in the sky when you die’ either. For the eternal life of which Jesus speaks starts in this life.
And then Jesus gives us what might be called the original ‘mission statement’. It is the most translated verse in the entire Bible. If you ever get one of those small pocket New Testaments from the Gideons International or find a copy of the Bible in your bedside locker in a hotel, you’ll find it printed in the front of the book in dozens and dozens of languages:
So yes, the melodramatic preacher was right. God really does love us ‘THIS much’… But this wonderful offer of eternal life isn’t fulfilled automatically. He wants to save us. True. He doesn’t want to condemn us. True. He says as much. But we have to respond to him – in faith and love. And how we choose is our moment of Judgment.
Maybe this is why the Church places this reading before us during Lent. Because Lent is the time par excellence for renewing our commitment, for purifying our lives, for re-connecting with what is means to be a Christian, baptised into the death and resurrection of the eternal Son of God. It is an opportunity to choose well…. To respond to the invitation to eternal life which Jesus came to share with us. It is an invitation to recognise that the light has come into the world, and to avoid being numbered among those who prefer the darkness to the light.
Choosing well opens up the most beautiful possibilities to us. As we read at Mass on Christmas morning: ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. … But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. ’
As the days of Lent roll on and we move closer to Holy Week, it is good for us to reflect more deeply on the Cross of Christ: ‘The Cross is the guardian of the whole earth. The Cross is the beauty of the Church. The Cross is the strength of rulers. The Cross is the support of the faithful. The Cross is the glory of angels and the wounder of demons.’
And is good too to reflect on the Christ of the Cross: The One who was lifted up by the hands of soldiers, and exalted by the right hand of his Father. The One who came to open eternal life to us. The One who came that we might be saved. The One who gives himself to us completely in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and who welcomes us home to the household of the Trinity in the sacrament of Penance.
May the remaining days of Lent be an opportunity to renew our faith and our commitment to the True Light who has come into the world. That at the Easter Vigil we may worthily and wholeheartedly celebrate that ‘truly blessed night when things of heaven are wed to those of earth’, as we celebrate the triumph of Christ: ‘The one Morning Star who never sets … who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity and lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.’