Fourth Sunday of Lent
In this first reading, the author is writing about the defeat of the Hebrews at the hands of the Babylonians. Jerusalem was destroyed, those who survived were deported to Babylon as slaves, and, the final degradation, Solomon’s temple was burned.
As the historian writes about this terrible defeat, it is done so in a way that foreshadows Christ’s sense of inevitability about his own death. In the mind of the author, it was not the power of Babylon that brought down Israel, but Israel’s own sinfulness. So too with Christ. The Son of Man must be lifted up, because he chose to become human, to take on himself all of the human condition, including the effects of its sinfulness. And sin destroys human beings. Always, inevitably, inescapably.
Each time that we act selfishly, we become less capable of acting charitably. Each time that we turn inward, to our own concerns, we become less capable of turning out, to the world, to other people, to God. By eating away at the values upon which human life must be built, sin cripples us, so limits our ability to love that sooner or later we become incapable of living in God’s world. Rather, we move into world that we ourselves have created, a world utterly cut off from grace, from love, and from joy, a world marked by frustration, by a deep sense of failure, and finally by an eternal self-hatred. That, simply enough, is hell.
But if the effects of sin are inevitable for those who choose that, so too are the saving effects of grace for those who choose that. John pictures Christ as promising Nicodemus that it is the design of the Father that God’s people be saved, move into God’s company, and that the Father has pledged that design with the life of God’s own Son. No one of us need ever be the least bit anxious or doubtful about what God has in store for our lives, what God intends for us. It is salvation, the fullness of human life, lived out in God’s presence. The only concern any of us should ever have about our own success or failure as human beings is whether or not we want it, whether or not we will accept the Father’s design, or set in its place one of our own.
Christ’s words are a response to a question by Nicodemus. “Is God really with us? If so, how are we to know that?” Christ’s response is, “God is with you because I am. Watch me. What you will see will seem like a crucifixion, it will look, it will feel, like death. But it will not be so. Everything that has been promised from the beginning is happening right now.” Weakness is only weakness. It cannot last, and it cannot win. The Son of Man has been lifted up, and in that light, so have we.