Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus talked about the destruction of the Temple. This happened a few decades later when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD70. Today, our first reading takes us back to the first destruction of the Temple, by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC. The people of Israel have not been faithful to God, they have broken the First Commandment by adopting the religious practices of their neighbours. But God sent prophets to remind Israel of its obligations to worship God, and God alone. This message is not heeded, and disaster ensues. Israel is led away to captivity in Babylon for seventy years, until Cyrus, the king of Persia allows the Israelites to return. Captivity represents the most terrible thing that could happen to the people of Israel: a loss of everything, being deprived of freedom, and the destruction of their religious life, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. We should, however, remember that God was patient ‘until there was no remedy’ (2Chron 36:16), and the destruction and exile are not permanent, only temporary, and after seventy years Israel would return.
While Israel is not faithful to God, God is faithful to Israel, and does not desert her. Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus explains His forthcoming Crucifixion with a reference to Israel’s wanderings after the Exodus:
‘And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:8-9)
The people of Israel were moaning about the journey, the lack of food and water, and that God has led them out into the desert to die, so God sends fiery serpents which killed them. The people then relented, and asked Moses to pray to God to take the serpents away. God listened to Moses, and provided a means for Israel to be saved. Jesus uses this example to explain why the Son of Man must be lifted up. Just as the bronze serpent saved people long ago, Jesus’ being lifted up on the Cross will save those who believe in Him. The mention of being bitten by serpents reminds us of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where the Lord God says to the serpent:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
Being bitten by snakes is understood as a consequence of sin, which Christ will deal with by taking our sins and those of all humanity upon himself, bearing our burden, and reconciling us to the Father once and for all. Thus, whoever believes in Jesus, and the redemption He brings about, has the promise of eternal life.
There then follows one of the most well-known verses in the Bible:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:16-17)
This is the heart of our faith as Christians. Christ was born for us, lived and died for us, and was raised to new life, so that we might have the promise of eternal life in Him. This is why we follow Christ into the desert of Lent for forty days, so that through prayer, fasting and charity we may be prepared in body and soul to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the ultimate embodiment of God’s generous Love towards humanity. God loves us, you and me, each one of us, so much that He gave His only Son to die for us, on the Cross.
God, in Christ, does not condemn us, but rather saves us, out of Love. God is a God of love and generosity, who offers Himself to reconcile us to Him, and to each other. This generosity is at the heart of our faith as Christians, we worship a generous, loving God, and invite others to receive the free gift of God’s grace, and enter a relationship with the God who loves us.
This relationship explains the joyful hope which St Paul has when he writes to the Church in Ephesus in our second reading this morning. Paul’s central message is that:
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,’ (Eph 2:8)
Grace is unmerited kindness, something which we do not deserve, or earn. It is by the grace of God that we are saved, through faith, believing and trusting in Jesus Christ, who was born for us, died and rose again for us. We can put our trust in the God who loves us, and who shows us that love in His Son. It is not about what we can do, but about what God can do for us. Our relationship with God is the result of a gift, which we can receive and which can transform our lives, if we only let go, and let God transform us, more and more into the likeness of His Son.
God cares so much about the world and its people that he takes flesh, and lives a life of love, amidst the messiness of humanity, to show us how to live lives filled with love, life in all its fullness. God, in Christ, comes among us not to condemn the world but to offer it a way of being, of being truly alive in Him. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. The spiritual needs and searching which characterise people in the world around us can be satisfied in God and in God alone, through the church.
We continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross, where God shows his love for us most fully and completely, giving his body to be broken and his blood be shed for us, to strengthen us to live the risen life of Easter. So may we join the Angels in our song of love and praise to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.