Choose the abundant life God offers

  • March 16, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) March 22 (2 Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-23; Psalm 137; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21)

When the terrible and unspeakable happens people want to know why. Often there is a twist to the “why”: who is to blame? Why the Holocaust? Why 9/11? Why the tsunami or earthquake? Questioning and reflecting on negative experiences gives rise to many interpretations. They can range from a conclusion that there is no God to a conviction that the victims “had it coming.”
The author of 2 Chronicles belonged to a theological school of thought that reinterpreted Israel’s history in light of its recent experience of Jerusalem’s destruction and the deportation to Babylon. Seen through this lens, Israel’s history appeared as a succession of infidelities and flirtations with pagan idols and religious practices. Idolatry was viewed with an overwhelming sense of horror and disgust by these historical revisionists. Seen from their perspective, the attack and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was not accident or chance but the hand of God. The ensuing 50-year exile in Babylon was a sort of penance or expiation of the debt that the people owed God.

Even the conqueror of the Babylonians — Cyrus the king of Persia — was portrayed as an instrument of God. God is the unseen hand behind the political events on the world stage. Kings, emperors, generals and ordinary people all have their parts to play in the drama. Does this interpretation hold water? We could just as easily say that Israel was caught up in the power politics of the superpowers of their day and made some bad choices. We can and should question the idea that God deals out death and destruction as punishment for moral and spiritual lapses. But it is legitimate to ask in the face of negative experiences if a tepid or decaying spirituality encouraged poor choices or clouded perception and judgment. And if pain and struggle lead to self-knowledge, conversion of heart and recommitment to spiritual ideals so much the better.

Ephesians gives us a deeper insight into the true nature of God. Rather than the dispenser of pain and punishment, God works unceasingly for our salvation and well-being. “Grace” is another way of saying “love” — and that is another way of saying “God.” Our salvation is not something we earn, but something in which we have a co-operative role. But it is more than salvation that God offers us: exhalation to the heavens and a sharing of God’s riches. The graciousness of God should be the model for human behaviour.

God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son for our salvation. What does the most famous and moving verse in the New Testament have to do with serpents being hung up on poles? In Numbers 21 the Israelites are journeying through the wilderness when they begin to grumble and complain against God. In retaliation “God” sends fiery and lethal serpents to afflict them and many die. God refuses the entreaties of Moses to banish the serpents, but He provides the antidote: when someone is bitten they can gaze on the bronze image of the snake on a pole and be healed.

The author of John’s Gospel portrays Jesus in a similar fashion. We do not escape the struggle of this world or personal pain. But “looking” at Jesus (having faith) frees us from the effects of the deadly venom within us. This venom is death itself — with all of its associated fear and the sense of separation and alienation from God. Jesus offers us direct experience and knowledge of God and the ability to live in God even in this life. This gift can be rejected — as the passage points out, many do so because they run from God’s love the same way many people run from human love. The love of God strips us of all pretense and illusion, allowing us to see ourselves as we really are. Small wonder that many prefer to remain in their psychological and spiritual comfort zones.

But Jesus has not come to condemn anyone. We condemn ourselves by the response we give to the call of God’s love. We can choose to remain isolated, afraid and empty — and that is probably an accurate description of what we call hell. Or we can choose the abundant life that God offers us.