Fourth Sunday in Lent – Year B
March 14, 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
II Chronicles 36:13-15;19-23 | Psalm 37:1-6
Ephesians 2:4-10  | John 3:14-21

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

In the early nineteen-nineties, I was divorced against my will, and as a result, I was devastated, financially and emotionally. It was truly my nine-eleven moment. Imagine being a sky-scraper and having an airplane slam into you. That’s how I felt.

I cried for days and prayed to God for a rescue. My prayers went something like this.

“God, I really need a big favor from you. I’ve served at your altar and sung in the choirs of your churches for many years, usually for no pay. I’ve composed music to glorify you.  And I have prayed and studied the scriptures every day. God, I’ve tried my darnedest to be devoted to you since I was a child. But God, right now I am poor and really depressed. God, I need the help that only you can give me. God, I need your mercy.” Notice that I didn’t tell God what to do. I left that up to God.

God responded a little over two years later. Always remember, God responds on God’s timetable, not ours.  In October nineteen-ninety-two, I met Deacon Sharon telephonically when she was selling long-distance service for Sprint to businesses.  We met in person on January fourteenth, nineteen-ninety-three. She moved into my home in Anaheim on March twentieth of the same year, and on December twenty-fourth, nineteen-ninety-four, we became engaged. We married on April twentieth, nineteen-ninety-six, so this year we will celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I’m really looking forward to celebrating God’s rescuing me.

With Sharon’s help, I finished law school, practiced law for twenty years, was ordained a Deacon and then a Priest, and together, we started Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. And here I am today. Without Deacon Sharon, I could not have done all that.

Just like in today’s first reading where King Cyrus rescued the Jewish people, Deacon Sharon rescued me. All of us need to be rescued from something from time to time. That’s what salvation is. Salvation is rescue. As we hear time and time again in church, God sent Jesus to rescue humanity. Jesus is our Savior.  Jesu es nuestro Salvador! Pero Diacona Sharon es mi Salvadora!

Today’s Gospel contains John three-sixteen, the most quoted of all scriptural verses:

“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.”

That verse is so often quoted out of context to mean that Jesus came to save only Christians. But look at the first few words of that famous quotation: “God so loved the world. “The world” means everyone. In today’s world, it includes not only Christians, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, and not only religious people but agnostics and atheists as well.

Today’s First reading illustrates the universality of God’s jurisdiction.  By acting through Cyrus to end the Exile, God demonstrated he can issue a command in a foreign land and to a non-Israelite to deliver Israel through the agency of a non-Israelite. In a similar way, God’s gift of Jesus was not just to the Israelites, but to all humanity.

I cannot emphasize enough that in sending Jesus, God did not say, “God so loved Christians.”  As you have heard me and Deacon Sharon preach many times, Jesus was not a Christian, but an observant Jew. One cannot truly understand Jesus unless one understands the Jewish environment in which he lived.

The very earliest followers of Jesus never called themselves Christians.  The  original term for them was followers of “The Way.” The word, “Christianity” does not appear in the Bible at all. In fact, the word “Christian” appears only three times in the entire Bible.

The first time “Christian” appears in the Bible is in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Acts. It originated not from the followers themselves but from the residents of Antioch. Followers of The Way came to Antioch and broke down the dividing barriers and upsetting existing social categories. The Way radically redefined “community” so much so, that a new word was needed to identify them. So the locals called them “Christians.” After that, the word “Christian” appears only twice more in the New Testament, once more in Acts and again in First Peter.

The context of today’s Gospel is the visit by Nicodemus to Jesus. Nicodemus was a prominent member of the Jewish community who wanted to learn more about Jesus. He came to Jesus at night.  Why? Middle-Eastern society at that time operated on what’s called an honor-shame paradigm. Unlike Western societies where actions are evaluated as objectively “right” or “wrong”, in an honor-shame society, your actions are judged by whether what you do brings honor or shame upon you from the family, tribe or nation of which you are a member. So, Nicodemus was afraid that if he met with Jesus openly during the day, the community of which he was a leader would shame him, that is, hold him in such low esteem that he would be cut off from participation in it.  Nicodemus, therefore, hid his encounter with Jesus to maintain his social status, which was important to him. However, Nicodemus was so taken with Jesus that after the Crucifixion, Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, saw to it that Jesus received a decent burial.

Why did that happen? How did that happen?  What was it that Jesus said or did that sold himself to Nicodemus?

The answer is light. In talking to Nicodemus, Jesus contrasted light and darkness in the spiritual sense. Jesus told him that people who do evil things prefer darkness to conceal their foul deeds, but that those who do good do not fear doing so by the light of day. What did Jesus mean by that?

Light is an almost universal symbol of God, goodness, and supernatural illumination. You may recall that at the beginning of the first creation account in Genesis from what’s known as the “Priestly Source”, God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Light was the first thing God created.  Human culture has used light to dispel darkness and bring about an increased sense of security and utility to times when natural sunlight is unavailable.

Like the author of John, the Old Testament utilizes light as a metaphor for life. Light is associated with God’s word and God’s presence.   In the book of Isaiah, light’s symbolism is expanded to represent the entirety of God’s covenant and the restoration of God’s people with justice and righteousness. In the process of returning to God after the Babylonian Exile, Israel becomes a covenant to all people in the same way sight is restored to the blind.

Like all the other New Testament writers, the author of John’s Gospel was Jewish, so he would have been familiar with the concept of light as used in the Torah and the Prophets. Light and darkness are a trademark theme of Johannine literature. The author of John contrasts light and darkness presents you with a binary choice. You can either choose to live in light of life or die in the shadow of darkness.

John’s Gospel uses light to demonstrate the process of coming to believe in Jesus. On one end of the spectrum is darkness. The story of the man born blind in Chapter nine equates darkness with physical blindness. The other end of the spectrum represents light as full faith and trust in Jesus as when Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus in the full “light” of Easter morning.

In the case of Nicodemus, the process of accepting Jesus occurred over a spectrum of time. Canonical Scripture does not tell us whether Nicodemus wholeheartedly accepted Jesus, but something changed Nicodemus.

Jesus changes all of us, whether or not we accept that Jesus was God’s Son, whether or not we accept that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah of the Old Testament, and whether or not we accept his existence at all. The reason that occurs is God’s love for the world. Look again at the operative verb in that most famous scripture quotation: “God so loved the world.”

God bestowed Jesus on humanity out of pure love. Because God loved the world so much, God gave the world Jesus, and the true message of Jesus is the message of love. A theology based on Jesus holds that God’s love is the dynamic principle for world salvation.

As I have preached over and over again, the only two commandments that count are to love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Even though our atheist and agnostic sisters and brothers may have trouble grasping a love for God, they can figure out, without acknowledging God’s existence, that treating other people as they expect to be treated is a defining feature of nearly every ethical system in human history.

Love is the ticket to eternal life, whether or not you call yourself a Christian. In loving one’s neighbor as oneself, many people follow Jesus and reap the benefits of following Jesus without recognizing that they are doing so. Indeed, to this day, Jesus has had, has, and will have, many secret followers, just as Nicodemus was.

In twenty-seventeen, the Barna Group, a decades-old, reputable, and objective religious polling firm, surveyed five hundred ninety-nine Jews born from 1984 to 1999. The survey presented a contradictory portrait of Jewish millennials: They described themselves as religious, and practice Jewish ritual, but are unaffiliated. These young adults rejected rigid definitions of what it means to be Jewish, but — more than any other generation — they still consider their Jewish identity to be very important to them.

The most surprising statistics from this survey, however, found that twenty-one percent of Jewish millennials accept that Jesus was “God in human form who lived among people in the First Century.” Twenty-eight percent accept that although Jesus was not divine, he was an important Rabbi. And most surprising of all, forty-two percent of the respondents celebrate Christmas! What this says is like in the earliest years of The Way, Judaism and Jesus are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Many people like Nicodemus are still among us, thoroughly Jewish, thoroughly of some other religious background, or no background at all, yet they yearn for Jesus.

Like Nicodemus, we can come to Jesus out of our darkness, that is, our blindness to the suffering world.

We can be Cyrus to people living in the exile of homelessness.

We can be Cyrus to people living in hunger

We can be Cyrus to people living in infirmity.

We can also be Jesus by showing mercy to all of those in the exile of not only financial but spiritual poverty. What is spiritual poverty? It is a life devoid of mercy.

What is mercy? “Mercy” means that strict justice is set aside in favor of compassion. It means you set aside the rules of life in favor of simple human kindness. A life devoid of mercy is a life devoid of God.

As Pope Francis tells us, “the name of God is mercy.” To expect others to show mercy, we must take the initiative by showing mercy ourselves. Again…we are to treat other people like we expect to be treated. When we show mercy to other people we present to them what God looks like.

Today’s Second Reading reinforces vividly the nature of God. It explicitly tells us, “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.” Mercy makes God what God is. God has been and will always be merciful.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus telling Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Like any good persuader, Jesus was trying to convince Nicodemus to follow Jesus by building on the familiarity of Nicodemus with the Jewish tradition by identifying himself with Moses.

As you may recall from the Book of Numbers, Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to heal those afflicted by a plague of snakes. So too, will Jesus be lifted up to save humanity for more than just snakes. Healing people for snake bites was the forerunner of the broad healing of humanity that comes from the mercy Jesus exudes in his suffering and death.

Nicodemus, as a leader of the Jewish people, certainly would have recognized the mercy that is God, who, in the Book of Exodus, came down in a cloud and appeared to Moses and said, “I am the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity.”

Our Second Reading describes God as rich in mercy, but God’s mercy to humanity does not come from how we interact with God or with others. God’s mercy simply exists, regardless of what we do or say. God’s mercy, that is, God’s grace, meaning God’s love for us, is an eternal truth that stands by itself on its own strength.

God is mercy in and of himself. The rabbis of the Talmud concluded that Moses recognized thirteen ways of God’s mercy. They are:

–God is merciful to us before we sin, knowing that dormant evil lurks within us.

–God is merciful when a sinner has gone astray.

–The name of God denotes power as ruler over nature and humankind, indicating that God’s mercy sometimes surpasses even the degree indicated by God’s name.

— God is filled with loving sympathy for human frailty and therefore does not put people into situations of extreme temptation.

— God shows mercy even to those who do not deserve it by consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed.

–God is slow to anger, giving the sinner ample time to reflect, improve, and repent.

–God is abundant in kindness, particularly toward those who lack personal merits, providing more gifts and blessings than they deserve; if one’s personal behavior is evenly balanced between virtue and sin, God tips the scales of justice toward the good.

–God never reneges on His word to reward those who serve Him.

–God remembers the deeds of the righteous for the benefit of their less virtuous generations of offspring.

–God forgives intentional sin resulting from an evil disposition, as long as the sinner shows remorse.

–God allows even those who commit a sin with the malicious intent of rebelling against and angering Him by giving them the opportunity to repent, that is, to change their ways.

–God forgives a sin committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy.

–When people repent, that is, they change their ways, God always forgives.

Yes, God out of mercy forgives us because God is rich in mercy. God loves us greatly.

God has brought us to life, raised us up, and seated us with Jesus in glory.

God’s mercy is not something we earned. It is what God has done for us out of love.

Today’s Gospel tells us that our God is one of mercy, not condemnation.  Our God is motivated by a love so great that he has gifted the world with his own Son, not to condemn but to save. Yet many Christians I know are more judgmental than Jesus himself, particularly in their emphasis on blaming victims for their predicament instead of recognizing the predicament exists and showing mercy to ameliorate it.

Here’s an example. Someone misbehaves at work, or sometimes even away from work, and is fired from their job as a result, causing them to be unable to pay their living expenses, exposing them to hunger and homelessness.  The blame-the-victim mentality looks at who is “at fault” and expects those at fault to suffer and to solve their own problems. That approach is devoid of the mercy that is God. God does not think like people do.

For God, the significant factor is that the person is suffering and deserves mercy by virtue of their suffering, not the withholding of mercy to make them feel the consequences of whatever they did. The proper response for the people of God to those in distress is to show mercy by relieving their distress, not condemn their suffering. Why they suffer does not matter. The significant fact is that they are suffering and by that suffering merit God’s mercy and ours. Jesus came to raise us up, not put us down.

God’s mercy appears in many ways.

As shown in today’s first reading, those exiled return home to once again embrace what they tenderly cherish. Joy replaces sadness.

God’s mercy gives sinners another chance, even if secular law does not. We yearn for the day when the countries of the world will replace vengeful justice with restorative justice.

God’s mercy offers the opportunity of new life in Christ, even if sometimes God’s incomparable mercy is hidden from us and we suffer in silence.

God’s mercy raised the eyes of the people in the wilderness to the snake on the pole so they might be healed.

God’s mercy raised the Jewish nation from exile so it might be restored.

And God’s mercy raised Jesus from the dead so he might be Savior to us all, to be raised up with him to live in truth and become the visible sign of God’s mercy in the world.

To be saved is to experience God’s mercy. God acts through people to do his work of mercy.  Jesus and Cyrus showed us how that happened. And in meeting Sharon, I personally experienced God’s mercy. I invite you to think of how God has shown you mercy through someone in your life. And allow yourself to a vessel of God’s mercy in your relationships with others.

God’s mercy shown to us in Jesus has made us a new people, free from the restraints of the past.

Joined with Jesus, we become God’s handiwork.

Through Jesus, we have become creations that bear the seal of God the great Creator.

Through Jesus, we have taken on a sacramental existence as the outward and visible signs of the mercy of God which is part of all of us.

When we show mercy towards others in how we live, we will experience within us the new life that is Jesus.  AMEN.