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MARCH 18, 2012: FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

II Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

The author of II Chronicles makes certain his readers know why the Chosen People had to go through the horrors the 6th century BCE destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. "Early and often did Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of Yahweh against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy."

The normal biblical way to surface God's will in one's life was to surface and listen to the prophets God embedded in that life. As the late Fr. Bruce Vawter put it, "They are the conscience of the people." Of course, there's always one problem when it comes to prophets: how do you know which are real and which are fake? During the period of the classic Hebrew prophets, every shrine and palace sported its own prophets: people on the priest or king's payroll who spouted their benefactors' agenda.

One safe way of picking out the realies from the fakes is to ask, "Does he or she take me back to the beginnings of my faith? Authentic prophets are always concerned that we remember why our faith came into existence in the first place. They're especially sharp at pointing out how later additions to and subtractions from the practice of our faith have altered the original plan and vision of those who gave us that faith.

The disciple of Paul who wrote Ephesians certainly fulfills that aspect of true prophecy. He wants his community to remember that the salvation they've experienced through Jesus is completely dependent on God's love, not on any "works" of their own. "God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ - by grace you have been saved - raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus."

Because our faith is rooted in God's free gift of salvation, we're expected to spend our lives "paying it forward" to others who don't necessarily merit our help or attention. If we need an example of such a faithful person, we simply have to turn to Jesus.

That's exactly what John does in today's gospel pericope: one of the best known passages in all of Scripture.

The evangelist begins with Jesus speaking about being "lifted up" - a classic example of John's frequent use of double meaning vocabulary. Lifted up can mean exalted or it can refer to crucifixion. Were you to ask the author which meaning he had in mind, I'm certain he'd respond, "Yes!" It's precisely by being lifted up on the cross that Jesus is exalted. Our unique faith began with people who first committed themselves to dying with Jesus, people who quickly discovered they were also being raised with Jesus. They chose to follow the light, not darkness.

One last point about our Chronicles reading. The author - following in the footsteps of Deutero-Isaiah - reminds us that the Babylonian Exile ended only when Cyrus, the Persian emperor, conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jewish captives to return to the Promised Land. They were liberated not by a faithful Jew, but by an uncircumcised Gentile!

Though I presume lots of law-abiding Jews had problems with this particular mode of salvation, the sacred writer is taking his readers back to beginnings. Because Yahweh created all people, Yahweh can work with and through all people. God's not limited to working only with those with whom God made a covenant.

I wonder if today's prophets are also giving us that same message?