Fourth Sunday of Lent



Fourth Sunday of Lent

First Reading: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Response: Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10; Gospel: John 3:14-21

The first reading is from 2 Chronicles. What are the Chronicles? Currently not part of most people’s vocabulary, though the Old Testament gives us two of them. A chronicle is a narrative of historical events. In the Bible, however, historical is not always identifiable with what is today called history. There is history in the historical books of the Old Testament, but the primary thrust is theology or patriotic exaltation. Exaltation of persons or nations. In our older English Bibles, the name of the Books of Chronicles is an anglicized word from their name in the Greek Old Testament, Paralipomenon, which means leftover or passed by. So we have the two books of Leftovers. In this case, leftovers (revisions) from the Books of Kings. It is not uncommon to see revisions, or leftovers, of earlier books by later books in both Old and New Testaments. The oracles of one prophet may be revised by a later prophet. Example: Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” revised by the prophet Joel four centuries later, “Beat your plowshares into swords.” The date of composition of Chronicles is sometime between 500-400 B.C.

Our first reading of today is part of a review of the last years of the Judean monarchy, early 6th century B.C. The authors had previously written of the failure of the last four kings. It was not just the failure of kings that caused the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, the kingdom, but the failure of everyone. A depressing picture: “In those days all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity (idolatry) to infidelity, doing all the abominations of the heathens, polluting the Lord’s temple . . . in Jerusalem.” They broke the treaties (covenants) God had made with them. Out of compassion for the people and his own temple God had sent warning prophets.

They were ridiculed, ignored, even killed. God’s anger could no longer be restrained. The army of Babylon came and destroyed everything. People and two kings were in exile. But there was hope. The Persians, under King Cyrus, conquered Babylon. Exiles returned. The temple was rebuilt. A connection with today’s gospel may be seen in a reference to those who reject God’s love and bring on condemnation like that of the Israelite rejection of the prophetic warnings.

Psalm 137 recalls and laments the exile in Babylon. The opening words set the tone of mourning. “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem). On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.” Their captors asked them to be joyful, to sing the songs of Zion. They answer, “How can we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land.” A possible homiletic use of the psalm verses: an appeal to those separated from God or family to return home. The modern operetta “Godspell” includes these verses of Psalm 137 sung to a haunting melody.

The second reading is from the Letter to the Ephesians. It connects with the first reading in the hope of transition from death to life. Twice, the author notes, “by grace you have been saved . . . not from works.” The best known passage from Paul on being “saved by grace” is found in Romans 3:28. When Martin Luther translated this passage into German, he added “allein,” (alone), “saved by grace alone.” Critics reminded him that Paul did not say that. Luther’s reply, “He should have!” The New Testament Letter of James 2:4 refutes Luther, “You see that one is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Luther called the Letter of James “ein recht strohern Epistel,” “a Letter of Straw.”

The gospel reading is a sequel to a dialogue John constructed between Jesus and Nicodemus. The reading has a strange beginning. It refers to an incident in the life of Moses and the ancient Israelites (13th century B.C.). “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 will have eternal life.” The story is found in the Book of Numbers 21:5-9, part of the wandering experience after the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites were grumbling against Moses. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die here in this wilderness? There is neither bread nor water here. We are sick of this unsatisfying food (manna, quail).” The Lord had been good to them, so he lost patience and sent fiery serpents among them.

Many died from the bites or stings of these creatures. This brought an attitude adjustment. They turn to Moses for relief. The Lord instructed Moses to cast a bronze serpent and lift it high on a pole. The afflicted who looked up at the serpent on the pole were cured. Connecting an Old Testament episode with the New Testament is called a trajectory, as a shell or bullet has a trajectory from source to landing. Another comparison: skipping a stone across a pond. It hits the water at various points and lands on the other side.

What is John teaching here? The bridge between John’s comparison of the serpent on the pole with the lifting up of Jesus on the cross is found in Wisdom 16:5-12. The author of Wisdom gives new meaning (part of the projectory) to that ancient story. For him the bronze serpent was a symbol of the Torah, that is, God’s revelation through Moses. The author writes, “Whoever turned to it,” (the Torah), was saved not by what he looked at but by you, the Universal Savior.” In the first chapter of John’s gospel the author proclaims Jesus as God’s Torah (Word, revelation). He calls Jesus the “Word of God,” and says of him, “The Torah was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Here is John’s catechesis. Jesus, who is God’s perfect Torah or Word is “lifted up” on the cross, like the bronze serpent which Wisdom calls a symbol of the Torah, was lifted up on a pole. Those who looked up at the serpent on the pole were saved by God, the Universal Savior. Now those who look at Jesus lifted up on the cross, will be saved by Jesus, whom the Gospel of John 4:42 calls “the Savior of the world.”