Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2018
THE PARADOX OF THE CROSS: "FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY SON"
Readings: 1st- 2 Chr. 36:14-16, 19-23; 2nd- Eph. 2:4-10; Gospel- John 3: 14-21
John the evangelist vividly demonstrates Christ’s mission in his gospel; a mission to die for our sake. One of those passages is John Chapter 3 part of which we read in today’s gospel. Christ encounters Nicodemus and explains to him what this mission is all about; “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” The Son of man must be lifted up. The story of the bronze serpent reminds us of the healing granted to the Israelites by God. As the Israelites were leaving the land of Egypt, they lost patience with God and began to complain against God and Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is neither food nor water here; we are sick of this meagre diet” (Num. 21: 4-5). This angered God. He sent fiery serpents which bit the people causing death to many. The people appealed to Moses for pardon and he pleaded with God on their behalf. God said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive” (Num. 21: 8). That was how the Israelites escaped the threats of death and sin. The bronze serpent lifted up on the pole became for the Israelites a sign of God’s healing.
Jesus reminds Nicodemus that the Son of Man would also be a sign of healing to the world. It is interesting to note the difference between the healing brought by the bronze serpent in the desert and the healing brought by Christ. The serpent brought only physical healing to the people while Jesus brings healing that is eternal life. Jesus brings spiritual healing above all.
When Jesus says, “…the Son of Man must be lifted up”, he simply focuses our attention on God’s love for humanity. We are bitten by the serpent of sin and bruised by iniquity. That is what we see in the first reading. The book of Chronicles talks about man’s infidelity exhibited by the leaders and priests in the Old Testament. They mess up God’s temple. They resort to idol worship. They abandon the commandments. They reject God’s love. The people go astray and repeatedly refuse to follow the way of the Lord. They mock God’s messengers. They despise God’s warnings. They scoff the prophets. All take to their own human aggrandizement. They merit for themselves punishment and the serpent bites them as they are taken into exile in Babylon. Again, they cry out and God shows them love. As prophesied by the Jeremiah, God inspires Cyrus, the King of Persia to free the people and have them return to Jerusalem.
It is clear that God’s love overshadows our human sins and brokenness. God wants to save us. He doesn’t relent. John says, “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” (3:16). This is one of the most popular verses in the bible. It tells us of the relationship between God and man, how God, “having loved those who were his own in the world, loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1). God’s love is so powerful, the reason why Jesus is lifted up on the Cross.
Exegetes use the Greek word hypsothenai to translate being “lifted up”. One could imagine how Nicodemus understands the words of Jesus. Already we see his banal interpretation at the first encounter when Jesus speaks to him about being “born again from above” (cf. Jn. 3:5). In this case, he must be thinking of Jesus being physically lifted up. What could that mean for Nicodemus? But Nicodemus is not alone in his thinking. When Jesus speaks to the Jews about the same thing, he repeats the same words that he says to Nicodemus, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” (Jn.12:32). The Jews are confused. They answer him, “The Law has taught us that the Christ will remain forever. So how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’?” (Jn. 12:34-35). However, Nicodemus isn’t completely wrong because Jesus would be physically lifted up like the bronze serpent. He would be crucified. He and would be hanging physically on the Cross, to die a shameful death.
The second meaning of hypsothenai is that the Cross will be a sign of exaltation at the end. The Cross is a manifestation of God’s glory, majesty, and victory. Jesus is King who conquers death and sin. He says to the Jews, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am He” (Jn. 8:28). Jesus is the anointed Son of God whose death brought victory to mankind. Saint Paul acknowledges the victory of the Cross when he writes, “For this God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names; so that all beings in the heavens,on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knees at the name of Jesus” (Phil. 2:9-10).
The last meaning of hypsothenai is seen in its effects in our lives. It pulls us into the relationship with Christ and with the Cross, “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned”. God’s will for us is to “be saved and reach the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). The Cross draws us to Jesus as the Sign of our salvation. Jesus is the light that has come into the world; in him we have light. Scripture says today, “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn. 3:21). Jesus does not want darkness to overtake us. He reminds us, “The light will be with you only a little longer now. Go on your way while you have the light, or darkness will overtake you, and nobody who walks in the dark knows where he is going” (Jn. 12: 36).
The paradox of the cross is that it has become the sign of God’s love for us. Prior to Christ’s crucifixion, the cross is associated with shame and punishment. Through the Cross God demonstrates his richness in mercy, and that he loves us to the end. We are God’s “handiwork”. We belong to his plan of salvation. By his grace we live, the grace brought to us by Christ’s death on the Cross. Lent is the time to remind ourselves of the impact of God’s love, “the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). It is a time to remain constantly in God’s light. It is a time to embrace the Cross as a sign of strength over sin and darkness. Always remember how strong God’s love is for you. It is the love that is manifested in the Cross. Christ is lifted up for you so that you may be lifted up above human weakness, pain, suffering and failure. May his grace and mercy be with you. Amen.