God's chosen people called from sin and death into life

Originally Appeared in : 9805-3/1/18

On the Third Sunday of Lent this year (B in the Lectionary cycle), we will hear that while Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving God’s commandments, the Chosen People inexplicably decided to melt down the gold they had “despoiled” from the Egyptians and made the image of a calf, a baby cow or bull—which they then worshipped as “the God who brought us out of Egypt.” Nothing they ever did would rival this abominable sin, this act of wanton idolatry. Yet their punishment, though severe, was not the end of the covenant. Even at this low-point in their behavior, God showed them tremendous forbearance and mercy.


Instead, God solemnized his covenant with his people and gave them the Ten Commandments as the stipulations of keeping the covenant in force. Jesus Christ’s Great Commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, does not contradict the Ten Commandments, or indeed any of the 613 commandments of the Torah, but rather gives them their focus. As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, (namely) ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Romans 13:8-9). Likewise, worshiping God alone, having no other gods before him, avoiding idolatry and keeping his name and day (Sabbath) holy are summed up in the saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”


When Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, went to the temple in Jerusalem, built for the worship of his Father, what did he find? Not idolatry, but a form of blasphemy—of not treating God’s presence with respect. Instead of bringing the finest animals for sacrifice, people took to buying inferior beasts, often “mangy critters”—from vendors parked outside the temple. There were also money-changers, who traded Roman coins, forbidden for temple use because of their “graven images” of the Emperor, for plain temple coins for the offerings. Of course, they made a handsome profit. All this trafficking in the sacred precincts provoked the Lord, who shows his righteous indignation in a powerful way. God’s holiness must not be diminished by his people’s disrespect.


God is a jealous God, and rightfully so, for he alone is God—all other so-called gods are merely idols, vain things undeserving of our worship. Our worship of the one true God must be untainted by any lack of respect or profiteering. Zeal for our Father’s house should consume us, too. 


From the third chapter of the Gospel according to John, we heard the tail-end of the account of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus “by night.” Saint John is very precise about times and very aware of the symbolism of night and day, darkness and light. When he tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, John is not only telling us that Nicodemus was being stealthy, but that he, a leader of the Jews and therefore, presumably well-educated in the Law and the Prophets, was himself walking in darkness—as indeed he proved by his incomprehension of Jesus’ teaching about being “born from above” in baptism. (Nicodemus will eventually be enlightened, as we will see as the Fourth Gospel progresses.) 


In a way, Nicodemus is like the “world,” the kosmos, which in John is both humanity as a whole and the entire universe. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world as its light, but the world preferred darkness. So negative are the connotations of “the world” in John that it is truly surprising—actually shocking—to hear Jesus say that “God loves the world”— in spite of its darkness and not, of course, because of it. Just as in the Old Testament God took pity on his chosen people, so, in the New Testament, does he show mercy to the whole world, through his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.


The possibility of eternal life depends on Jesus Christ’s acceptance of death for our sake, in obedience to his Father’s will. We might ask, “Why did the Father will his own Son’s death?” Saint John tells us why God ultimately did so: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” God loves the cosmos, despite its darkness, and offers his most precious gift to heal it and to enlighten it: his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.


As Jesus explains to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” in crucifixion and resurrection, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In the supreme irony, Christ’s brutal death for our sins redounded to our credit. We whose sins brought him to the cross are the unworthy beneficiaries of his self-sacrifice. The “lifting up of the Son of Man” reveals the greatest love: God’s love for this unworthy world, the Son’s perfect love for the Father and perfect obedience to his will, and the gift of the Spirit, who is love and grace, and causes us to be born from above. Those who believe in God’s anointed Son, lifted up in crucifixion and resurrection, will not perish but will have everlasting life.


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.

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