Breaking Open the Word

March 14, 2021

 

4th Sunday of Lent

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Introduction

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Today’s Gospel continues the story of Nicodemus, “a Pharisee [and] … a ruler of the Jews,” who acknowledges Jesus as “a teacher who has come from God” (3:2). Yet, when Jesus tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he does not understand, because he “came to Jesus at night.” After commenting on Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, Jesus said, “If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” (3:12-13) It is this last comment about “the one who has come down from heaven” that leads directly into our Gospel reading for today. This passage links three major themes: (1) The Son of Man being lifted up (3:14-15); (2) The Son of God giving eternal life to those who believe in him (3:16-18); and (3) The light that has come into the world judging those who do not believe in the Son (3:19-21). So, when Nicodemus fails to grasp what this new birth involves, Jesus provides a description and interpretation of what the heavenly revelation offers by drawing together these three majorthemes that will be revealed throughout the rest of the Gospel. 

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Gospel Explained

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We begin our Gospel story by reading, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3:14). Jesus will repeat this later in this Gospel: “‘And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself’” (12:32). In both the Old Testament story and our Gospel reading, people were in danger of death because of their sins, and God provided the agent of their salvation: the bronze serpent in the Moses’ story; and the Son of Man in today’s Gospel. In both stories, the agent of salvation is lifted up, and the people are saved by looking at (believing in) God’s sign of healing. When the Israelites looked at the bronze serpent “lifted up”, they were restored to health and physical life. When we look upon Jesus, who is “lifted up” and believe in him, we are born from above and granted eternal life. 

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Today’s Theme:

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John 3:16 is one of the best known and most often quoted verses in the New Testament: “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.” We became used to seeing “John 3:16” during televised sporting events in the 1970s and 1980s, and still see it today on road signs and the occasional billboard. We tend to disregard what goes before and what follows after this verse, because John 3:16 is such a positive and reassuring message of God’s love and our salvation.

 

However, the problem is that “John 3:16” has been read out of context for years. Listen to what comes after 3:16: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (3:17-18). So, in reality “John 3:16” leads to a sharp division between those who are saved through belief “in the name of the only Son of God,” and those who are not saved because they do not believe. 

 

The world that the evangelist refers to is the same world that came into being through the Word of God. We read in Chapter 1, verses 3 and 10-11: “but the world did not know him … [and] his own people did not accept him” (cf. 1:3, 10-11). John the Baptist hailed Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). In Chapter 6 and 7 we read that even though Jesus is “the living bread that came down from heaven … for the life of the world,” the world hated him because he testified “that its works are evil” (cf. 6:51; 7:7). Jesus tells us directly that he “came into this world for judgment,” and as a result of his words and deeds, the Pharisees wanted to kill him because “the whole world has gone after him” (9:39; 12:19).

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Theme in Our Life

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Moses suffered because of the human tendency to complain about the present and to recall only a rosy picture of the past. The Israelites complained, saying “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?" (Num 21:5). However, when the people understood that an attack by seraph serpents was a punishment for their complaints, Moses interceded for them and, at God's command, “made a bronze seraph mounted on a pole and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered” (cf. Num 21:8-9). In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Church, Bishops carry a staff with two mounted serpents, for it is the sign of our salvation.

 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ saving work reveals a dark side of earthly life. If it is necessary for God to send His Son to save the world, the world must be lost. Yet, the Son’s work is only efficacious if the world believes in him (3:18). Just as we had a clear statement that he came to save the world, we have an even clearer statement of the problem: “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil” (3:16, 19). The people who do wicked things “hate the light” so that their “works might not be exposed” (3:20).

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Preparing for Sunday

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On the last day, the separation between people will be made on the basis of whether they came to the light or not (3:20). The light does not condemn because its sole purpose is to save (3:17). Rather, it is people who separate themselves by refusing to live in the truth and to come to the light, so that their works “may be clearly seen as done in God” (cf. 3:20-21). We are not talking about a few sinful acts done in secret, but rather the fact that all human deeds must “be clearly seen as done in God." 

 

The images conjured up by such language in John’s Gospel are sinister, but real. They remind us of the dangers of dark streets, illicit transactions accomplished at night, and people in dark clothing to making themselves invisible at night, so they can do evil deeds. These are the people referred to in the Book of Job as, “rebels against the light … When there is no light the murderer rises, to kill the poor and needy; in the night he acts like a thief. The eye of the adulterer watches for the twilight; he says, ‘No eye will see me.’ He puts a mask over his face; in the dark he breaks into houses” (cf. Job 24:13-17). This sinister night is the darkness of sin and death.

 

St. John of the Cross, a Doctor of the Church, wrote, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” On the last day, will we be part of the group that lived our lives in the light of Christ, or will we be one of those who rebelled against the light? Now is the time to decide for light and against the darkness within our own selves. Lent is about conversion; turning toward the light. There is still time!

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