"After the reign of King David — a high point in Israel’s history — everything is downhill."

God is mercy and love

  • March 6, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) March 18 (2 Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-23; Psalm 137; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21)

All written histories are interpretations of events rather than “cold, hard facts.” Historians have a lens through which they view the world and events. They usually seek to demonstrate their own ideas through the arrangement, selection and interpretation of events. For example, I and II Chronicles are theological reinterpretations of Israel’s history after the painful 70-year exile in Babylon and the return of the people to Jerusalem.

It’s a painful and dreary story: after the reign of King David — a high point in Israel’s history — everything is downhill. A long succession of rotten kings (with a couple of exceptions) followed David, who all outdid one another in “doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” The kingdom of Judah came to a catastrophic end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BC and the deportation to Babylon. All of this was viewed by the author as divine punishment for corruption, idolatry and infidelity.

Human beings make choices and God, after much forbearance, directs the result. The disaster, however, was seen as temporary: after a period of purification and suffering God was once again ready to move the nation forward. It is interesting that a new understanding of God makes its appearance here: God is also the hidden guiding hand behind political events in other nations. After King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians, God stirred up Cyrus’s spirit to issue an edict of return. The Jewish people could go home and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Isaiah 45:1 even claims that Cyrus is God’s messiah!

God can and does order world events to suit divine purposes. This is a fresh and expanded understanding of God and of the gentile nations. Whether the Chronicler’s interpretation of history was entirely correct is debatable. We can, however, draw a couple of insights for our own day. We can never be certain that God works in predictable ways or locations. We can avoid making swift and dogmatic assertions about contemporary events, their causes and who the villains and heroes are. Things are not always as they seem.

The author of Ephesians is certain of one thing — and he is right: God is rich in mercy and love. He tells a story of great grace — God granting us what we did not, and really cannot, ever earn. God’s only motivation is mercy and love. The way we sign on is by faith. Faith is not just a shortcut or free pass, it includes surrender to God, the humbling acceptance of mercy and the willingness to grow and change. A sign that we have truly accepted and responded to this grace is the eagerness to love and serve others.

One of the most well-known verses of the New Testament expresses this mercy and love in an unforgettable phrase: God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son. Again, this was intended to grant eternal life to all who believe. God is not about punishment and judgment — we do that quite well ourselves. The metaphor drawn from Numbers 21:8-9 describes healing. The bronze serpent raised on a pole provided an antidote for destructive negative energy. This is a foreshadowing of Jesus being “lifted up” — a reference to the cross — and the way in which He heals us of our fundamental sickness of sin and death.

Why do some people cringe and run from the light? Why do some refuse to accept goodness? John has a rather simplistic answer — they are basically evil and do not want their darkness revealed. We cannot automatically ascribe evil intentions or bad will to those who do not believe — human beings are far more complicated than that. There can be many reasons for turning away from the light but fear and shame are near the top of the list and compassion for these people should be at the top of ours. Those who reject the light in any of the many forms that it comes to us cut themselves off from love and are trapped in a hell of their own making. They are in need of compassion and mercy — both ours and God’s. God never gives up on us and works unceasingly for our well-being and salvation.