Everybody loves to quote John 3:16. 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. It is a very comforting passage when taken out of context. When we read it in context, though, this passage ought to inspire the fear of God in us. Fear of God is a virtue. We spend a lot of time trying to talk around it and say it means something else, but it is vitally important we recognize that God is the absolute ruler of this universe, and what he says is what happens. Our opinions do not matter, only the truth as given to us by God. The truth in today’s Gospel is a warning to all of us.
Jesus said to 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.” We have to start by remembering why Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert. The people of Israel had committed the sin of idolatry. They worshiped a golden calf. They began partaking of the same horrendous rituals of the clans and tribes around them. We see these same actions condemned in the first reading today: In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people // added infidelity to infidelity, // practicing all the abominations of the nations // and polluting the LORD’s temple // which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The word abomination means that these actions are not the simple worship of false gods. When worship becomes an abomination it usually includes rituals acts of wanton lust done in a perverse mockery of temple liturgy. They would have included human sacrifice, and worse. I will spare you the details. (In the podcast “A Land of Giants”, they get into a lot of the strange & nerdy details.)
The children of Israel, both those in Moses’ day and those in the first reading today, were punished by God. When you partake in abominable actions, there are consequences. God had sent his messengers, his prophets, and the people did not listen. When the people of Israel hardened their hearts and refused to repent, the LORD’s anger against his people blazed up beyond remedy. The instigators of these atrocities lost their lives, and those who were saved were the ones who repented of their wickedness. This action by God may seem drastic, but we must consider this: these abominable actions were making a mockery of God at a minimum and were potentially outright demon worship. Allowing such acts to continue would destroy Israel. God had swore to protect his people. Occasionally the only way to do this is purification from false prophets and false religion: to remove the bad influences through somewhat drastic means.
Christ said that the Son of Man [must] be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God the Father desires us to look upon his only begotten Son, nailed to the Cross. He wants us to believe in him. He wants us to repent of our sin so that we might have eternal life. He wants us to flee from the condemnation which our sin has rightly earned us, for the Gospel continues: And this is the verdict, // that the light came into the world, // but people preferred darkness to light, // because their works were evil. // For everyone who does wicked things hates the light // and does not come toward the light, // so that his works might not be exposed.
John 3:16, when we read it in context, paints a vastly different story for us: God the Father sent his Son to us out of love to save us from ourselves and present the gift of eternal life, and we—humanity—rejected him. We deserved death for this rejection, but God’s love overpowers even this rejection. St. Paul teaches us that 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. Christ invited us to join him in his Resurrection, and he gave us the means to do it. When we are baptized, we die to this sinful world and are reborn in the Resurrection of Christ. This is why Baptism is so critically important: in Baptism we die to the darkness and become children of the light, we begin to live in the truth.
[W]hoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
As children of the light, we are called to allow God to burn brightly within us. We are called to show the light given to us to those who still live in the darkness who have never encountered the Good News of redemption given to us by Christ. We are called to show the light given to us to those who have extinguished the light that once burned in them.
There are many things we must do to show our light to those around us, but we must begin by purifying ourselves. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the way that we do this. Each is essential, all of them must actually be done in both our bodies and our souls. We must actually pray. We must actually give some sort of alms. We must actually fast from food. Many of us struggle with physical fasting, and I know there are some medical situations which make it impossible, but for the vast majority of us, fasting from food—actual physical fasting—is essential. St. Basil the Great wrote that, “if all were to take fasting as the counselor for their actions, nothing would prevent a profound peace from spreading throughout the entire world.”1He later continues that “abstinence from food is insufficient for praiseworthy fasting. […] True fasting is being a stranger to vice, controlling the tongue, abstaining from anger, distancing oneself from lust, evil speech, lying, perjury.”2Even those who cannot physically fast must strive to fast from these other things.
Today is Laetare Sunday, a day of rejoicing in the midst of Lent. We rejoice today because our Lenten works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have allowed us to grow closer to God. As we enter this final time of preparation to celebrate the victory of Christ over death, let us be ever more intentional about turning toward the light.
March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalms 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
- St. Basil the Great, On Fasting and Feasts, trans. By Susan R. Holman and Mark DelCogliano, (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), p. 77.
- St. Basil the Great, On Fasting and Feasts, trans. By Susan R. Holman and Mark DelCogliano, (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), p. 80.