Mar 14, 2015

4th Sunday of Lent: Rich in Mercy

2 Chron 36: 14-16
Eph 2: 4-10
Jn 3: 14-21

“God is rich in mercy.” There is likely no other word which summarizes the very heart of God’s nature – mercy.  Now, beyond the half-way point of Lent we are reminded of this great truth in our readings this Sunday.  In fact, our Holy Father Pope Francis recently announced an extraordinary Holy Year for the Church that will begin on December 8th and its’ theme will be – Mercy.  So, that concept is no small theme or afterthought.  It is the heart of the Gospel and whether we find ourselves in Lent or any other season of the year we too are called to be a Church of mercy and a people of mercy.

Our first reading from Chronicles, which is not a Book we hear from very often, lays out for us the story of God’s repeated efforts to win over his people.  Like a parent who tries just about everything to win back a son or daughter who has gone far beyond what any parent would hope for, God is stubbornly committed to winning us back.  Why would he bother?  Because he is “rich in mercy.”

Chronicles reflects on Israel’s unfaithfulness.  In fact as a nation it’s nearly what we hear in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.  Israel had “added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abomination of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple.” If a nation was a person this person would be given up as forever lost or hopelessly unrepentant; maybe even mentally disturbed and incapable of feeling guilt or shame for their behavior. 

What does God do with them?  He sends messengers, the prophets, for he has “compassion on his people.”  Not deterred by our abandonment, God is relenting in his desire to win us back to himself. Still, the nation was taken over and its people carried off captive to Babylon where they found themselves back where they began centuries before as slaves.  Is God finished with them? Not at all.

He turns to the pagan ruler king Cyrus of Persia and moves him to set these people free.  Not only does Cyrus set them free, he rebuilds the house in Jerusalem for proper worship and encourages the Jews to return to their homeland.  This time, hopefully chastened and recommitted to God.  It’s an amazing love story between two unequal parties: one clearly the greater and more powerful and compassionate with the other unequal in greatness yet totally dependent on the other for life itself. It is a love story that only God could write and only our God of mercy could carry out. 

Paul in our second reading and Jesus himself in the Gospel continue this same theme of mercy. Paul writes to the Christians at Ephesus: “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.”  Even when we were dead; so far gone that we didn’t have a hope, God continues to pursue and seduce us over to his side. 

I would have given up long ago.  It’s not worth it – just move on. Yet, not our God, thank God.

In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, we hear likely the most popular summary of the Christian Gospel and you’ve seen it on signs, at football games, and on billboards: “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.”  (Jn 3: 16).  And the most reliable and profound sign of this promise if the very cross upon which Jesus gave his life: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (Jn 3: 14-15).

Within our readings this Sunday in Lent and throughout the Scriptures we hear this truth time and time again.  God wins us over, we turn away from him, he desperately pursues us, allows us to be chastened if we don’t respond, then we come back to him and he rejoices in our return.  That beautiful story of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel in Lk 15: 12-32 personalizes this in an unforgettable way. Jesus’ words to Peter about forgiveness in Mt 21:18 about the necessity to consistently forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times” is consistent with this truth of divine mercy. Further examples of this are multiple.

Where this may leave us this Lent, no matter how successful any of us have been on our original Ash Wednesday fervor to do this or that, or give up this or that, during Lent, mercy has no end or beginning.  It just is God’s way with us. 

So, this Lent and what remains of it offers us again a golden moment to plant those same seeds in our own personality.  God is rich in mercy with me and so therefore I must be the same with my brothers and sisters.  What may sound deceptively easy we all know sometimes can be a real challenge. 

We may say: “I’ve been hurt, maybe deeply so by another. I’m angry, I’m resentful, he (she) doesn’t deserve my forgiveness let alone mercy!  Look at the damage they’ve done by their behavior and how many people have been affected by their selfish choice.”  Or someone may easily say the same about us.  We don’t deserve their mercy and if it ever comes, it will be long before it arrives. 

Well, all that may be true in a way.  But in essence before we turn to revenge or public condemnation or further scandal we must always first turn to mercy.  Evil is evil and it would be foolish to deny it exists and take an ostrich like approach to stick our head in the ground and naively think life is hearts and flowers. 

But in the face of evil, God extends hope of reconciliation.  Read the first reading again from this Sunday and God’s response to his people’s “infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations.”  Yikes!  This is a rotten lot. Yet, God does not give up.  He pursues us like a hound in a fox hunt and won’t tire until we come to our senses and return.

We have our Lent sacrifice laid out for these final three weeks – and well beyond indeed. 

O God, who through your Word
reconcile the human race to yourself in a wonderful way,
grant, we pray,
that with prompt devotion and eager faith
the Christian people may hasten
toward the solemn celebrations to come.

(Collect of Sunday Mass)