2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23
March 29-30, 2003, Fourth Sunday of Lent, Cycle B
Thanks to televised sports, the Gospel passage we just heard is one of the few passages we know the chapter and verse for. ďGod so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.Ē
Did you ever stop to think why that verse is the one that is held up behind home plate or in the end zone? It is because, in the one sentence, John has captured the essence of the Gospel, the good news we Christians supposedly are to announce to the world. God loves the world and sent his only Son to save it, not condemn it!
For a religion that can sum itself up in such a clear concise statement, Christianity has certainly generated an amazing number of theologies and dogmas, often conflicting with each other. Why do you suppose that is?
I think it goes back to the age-old question that every major religion that posits a loving God has to wrestle with. How do you reconcile the concept of an all-powerful, all loving, all good God with the obvious presence of evil and pain and suffering, and yes, even death in our lives. †
I wish I had the definitive answer; but I donít. But I do think that todayís readings allow us to discard several false ways of answering this question.
At one extreme there people who think that God is a stern God who directly punishes those who fail to keep his commandments. At another extreme are people that think that all we have to do is say that we believe in Jesus and we are saved. Todayís readings give us a view of both extremes. The first reading describes the destruction, exile, and eventual return of Israel. In the years leading up to the destruction many of the people of Israel fell into the second extreme. They thought that being one of Godís chosen people, and having the temple, Godís dwelling on earth in their midst, was all that was needed to save them. They disregarded the rest of the covenant, ignoring the Sabbath, failing to take care of the widow, the orphan and the alien, cheating and lying. Then being Godís chosen did not protect them, they swung over to the first extreme, thinking that this death and destruction was punishment sent on them by God.
You would think that Christians, faced with the reality of the suffering and death of Christ, would hardly support a belief that pain and suffering and even death were a direct punishment by God for sin. But we still hear Christians voicing that belief even today. So many Christians went overboard the other way to the point where many people think that to be a Christian you must seek out pain and suffering to imitate Christ. No wonder there are so many people who think it is crazy to be a Christian, including many Christians.
So what do our readings today tell us about these extremes? One of the first things we need to do is listen to what Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians. All salvation is a gift from God. We cannot earn it by doing; that means by doing good or by seeking out suffering and pain to somehow earn our way into heaven. And we cannot lose Godís love by doing bad things. †We are made by God, in Godís own image, for the good works that God has prepared in advance. Not for pain, not for evil, not for suffering, and not even for death. All of those things are the result of humans failing to act as humans made in the image of God.
It is interesting to me that after 9/11 so many people wondered, ďHow can God let this happen?Ē But no matter which side of the pro-war/anti-war debate people come down on today, no one is wringing their hands blaming God for this war. It is clear that this pain and suffering and death is the result of human decisions.
The second important point to understand from our readings is when Jesus talks about believing in him, he is not talking about a head belief, an acknowledgement of certain truths or dogmas. It is belief that is expressed in action, in how we live.
So it all starts with Godís love. God is all loving. Never does evil come directly from God; it always comes as a result of humans acting against love. We donít earn Godís love by acting good, and certainly we donít earn Godís love or even approval by seeking out pain and suffering. We start our response by first believing that God is love, and that Godís love is incarnate in Jesus. In response to that love expressed in our own creation and Godís revelation in Jesus, we are to act out of love. And we are to act- not just be passive. We are made for good works, for being active in Godís plan for salvation. So we are always and everywhere to struggle against pain and suffering and evil. But we do so in the full knowledge that we cannot escape pain and suffering and evil in this world.
In Jesus Christ we see revealed that Godís love follows us even in the midst of pain and suffering and even death. There is a recurring theme in the Hebrew Scriptures of God as a mother eagle, hovering over her young, ever ready to bear them up lest they suffer pain or death, ever ready to user her powerful wings to ensure that they grow into strong, adult eagles. And so even in the darkest situation or pain and suffering and evil: that of man murdering God, of Jesus descending into hell, even there, God is with us, hovering over to lift us up and turn the worst situation into good. So even in that ultimate evil we all face, our death, we believe that God can shine through us and bring light and healing to creation.
This is the verdict: light has come into the world. From the very beginning this light has shone in the world and beckoned the world to God. This light has become flesh and continues to be enfleshed in our lives. We need to live our lives, even in the midst of suffering or pain or even death in a way that God's truth shines through us, pushing back the darkness, and leading this world ever so surely back to the God who loves it.