Moving through the lenten season so far, we experience from the readings a variety of events and occasions for growing in relationship with God. We hear the call to repentance, instructions on how to prepare our hearts, God’s covenant with us, being driven with Jesus into the wilderness, being tested with Abraham and consoled in the hope of Christ’s transfiguration. We endure the trials and God’s faithfulness in the wilderness, receive the life-giving commands from God, and celebrate with the Samaritan woman the water of baptism in Christ at the heart of our lives. The readings for this fourth Sunday in Lent invite us to experience our “God, who is rich in mercy . . .” that we might celebrate and live as “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10).
The first reading from the second book of Chronicles might read like a tale from the family tree or a time in our own church tradition. The leaders of faith, of the people, and the people themselves are on a downward spiral of turning away from God and any good done in God’s name. Still, the reading says, “The Lord, the God of their ancestors, persistently sent his messengers to them, because he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.” The people not only reject God’s compassion, God’s messengers, but mock them, despise his (God’s) words, and scoff at the prophets. How to turn the children around? God’s purifying force comes to set them on the path of good and righteousness again. Everything they have, including the temple of God, is taken from them, and they are moved into exile to serve a foreign king for 70 years. When the term is completed that fulfils the Word of God through the prophet Jeremiah, they are released by King Cyrus of Persia, and given charge to build a new temple in Jerusalem to restore their relationship with God. God’s covenant and promise of fidelity is unconditionally assured.
Psalm 137 tells the story of the heartache and misery endured by the People of God in exile. They suffer in much the same way they had inflicted the messengers of God. They endure cruel taunts for songs of their homeland. There is the sense that they are mocked and scoffed at for missing their beloved homeland; symbol and gift of their Beloved God. They trustingly persevere preferring their hands to wither or their tongues to cling to the roof of their mouth than to forget Jerusalem, their home; symbol of their covenant relationship with God.
In view of this journey from turning away and being returned to God through his compassion, the second reading from Ephesians reminds us of God’s rich mercy “out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses. The real nugget of this passage is in reminding us that it is all God’s doing. Whatever journey of grace we have been on, it is God who “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . so that no one may boast.” We have nothing to claim for our own except God’s gift of self, compassion and mercy to each and every one of us.
In John’s Gospel we hear the end of a lengthier conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. An earlier part of this reading in John’s Gospel tells how Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night. As a leader of the Pharisees, he begins the conversation speaking on their behalf, as one with them, “Rabbi, we know . . .” (Jn 3:2, ff). Jesus, seeing into the rather patronizing intention of his heart and the goodness of his heart, tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or born anew).” Nicodemus, slightly stung, debates the point, and seems to slowly surrender as the debate goes on. Jesus concludes firmly, testifying to his union with the Father and the Spirit, saying, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. . . . No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn 3:11).
That is where our Gospel for this fourth Sunday of Lent takes up the rest of the conversation and Jesus refers to his continuity with the tradition of the ancestors, and his parallel course with it. Like the serpent in the desert, he will be lifted up in humiliation “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:15). He assures Nicodemus of God’s love for the world and how God does not condemn the world. Judgment comes from the choices people make for themselves, not from God.
Given that Nicodemus came in the night, Jesus’ final words in the conversation are very telling. They make clear he knows and sees with a compassionate heart into the heart of the Pharisees, the heart of anyone, saying, “. . . the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (Jn 3:20). At the end of John’s Gospel Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea, “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds,” to assist in Jesus’ burial. It seems clear enough that the Jesus he encountered is the God of unconditional love he witnesses on the cross. We are invited with Nicodemus to renew our belief in this loving and merciful God and to bring ourselves completely into the light of his presence.
Leduc is director for Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.