4th Sunday of Lent
15th March 2015
John 3: 14-21. Ephesians 2: 4-10
Rev Tony van Vuuren
John has a tendency to use words and phrases that have double meanings. In today’s Gospel verse Jesus says that the Son of man will be “lifted up;” that those who “believe in him may have eternal life.” The term “lifted up” refers to his death on the cross. But it also means his resurrection from the dead and his being raised to glory at God’s right hand. So, those who look to Jesus upon the cross are not only healed of sin, but receive the same life Jesus now has — eternal life.
The cross reveals God to us, not as a distant divine observer, but as one who shares our joy, pain and our death. A God who willingly soaks up our systematic injustices and personal sin like a sponge, but gives back only love! God joins us in our lowest moments to raise us up to new life. Jesus, on the cross and then resurrected to God’s side, is our positive proof of “eternal life.”
Christians speak of meeting God in the Cross. By ignoring or failing to embrace the Cross we miss opportunities to know God in a deeper way. The Cross is often where we meet God because our vulnerability can make us more open to God’s grace. That is why Thomas Merton wrote, “In tribulation, God teaches us. The most unfortunate people in the world are those who know no tribulation.” (Run to the Mountain)
For some folk, a church is a place to escape from the strains and tensions of daily life and the anguish of the wider world. A gathering place — where we can pull ourselves together and get some assurance that God is listening and ready to heal and strengthen us. True enough. But the cross we see each time we come into the church is a reminder that this place of worship is not another-worldly refuge, not an antiseptic room where things are “pure” and where we are in another realm, aloof from human struggle and pain.
Instead, in this beautiful church, surrounded by stain glass windows, images of our saints and the Stations of the Cross, alerted to mass with the glowing candles, we could sometimes have the very opposite feelings from those suggested by our surroundings. If we are in pain, discouragement, and life is messy, we might feel like aliens, tempted to think that we don’t belong here — until we look at the cross; the cross of pain that ended Christ’s life. But also the cross of the Resurrection!
When we make the sign of the cross upon entering and leaving church and at the beginning and end of our mass; we should all have a vivid reminder that we don’t have to leave our pain, confusion and mishaps — even our sin — at the door. Because of the cross, all parts of our lives are welcome here at worship, especially when there is pain, failure, misunderstanding and endings.
The cross anchors us in this place. It assures us that God has not been a cool and distant observer of our lives from someplace on high, but walks among us and joined us, from the very first breath of air of human life Jesus took in Bethlehem; to abandonment by those who swore they would stay by him; to being handed over by one of his own to be killed; to being mocked, tortured and put to death.
If we should wonder where God is in the mess of our lives, or whether our neat and orderly mass has a place for us — as we experience the very opposite feelings — then we must look upon the cross and know that this is our home. The cross was a cruel instrument of torture and death, meant to intimidate, frighten and keep a nation in submission. The cross reminded a captive people that they could be abused and tossed aside as trash if Rome, in exerting it’s power, thought or could be persuaded that they were insubordinate or troublemakers — like Jesus.
The scriptures tell us that God uses power in a different way — to love us and to show us that love by taking on the role of a servant.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son”
This verse is both a prayer and an assurance for us. It is a prayer of confidence in God’s love and assurance that we can be forgiven, not by any merit of our own, but because we can look upon the One who was raised up on the Cross, and so we can come out of the darkness of sin to the light of Christ
Jesus was so convinced of God’s love for us that he went to his death proclaiming that love. Now, anyone looking on the cross would know God’s determination to show us how much He loves us. Even from the cross Jesus continued to proclaim God’s love for sinners when he forgave the thief crucified next to him and his executioners.
When the cross (crucifixion) was over and Jesus dead, the evil and disruptive forces seemed to have the final victory — as they still seem to do. (We only have to look at the seemingly hopeless ISIS situation in the Middle East)
People’s hopes were once again crushed. It looked like nothing would change. Then at the very lowest point in their lives — with his followers huddled in fear, Jesus appeared; raised from the dead and offered what he promises today: “…that everyone who believes in him [the Son] might not perish but might have eternal life.”
The core of our Christian belief!
We are in the midst of Lent, celebrating Laetare Sunday; trying our best to turn away from our sin and turn more fully to the grace God is offering us in Christ. Lest we think this work of conversion is ours to do on our own, Paul reminds us that it is by God’s grace we have been saved — and are being saved. If we have any doubts about God’s intentions and how much God is reaching out to us in love, we have only to keep our eyes on the cross as we await the Resurrection; a message of unparalleled hope and unparalleled Joy.