A Reflection on the Gospel for
March 15th, 2015
The Fourth Sunday In Lent
By David Somerville
19th century author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo, structured the theme and plot development of his novel around his belief that “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved….”
We have a tradition that calls the Fourth Sunday in Lent “Laetaere (Rejoice) Sunday”. It comes from an old Introit of the Western rite Mass for this mid Lent day, Isaiah 66:10:
10 Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her.
The background for this joyful call to praise was the occasion of God making it known that the faithful remnant of Jerusalem had paid their debt of repentance. Their God had promised to resume his presence with them by allowing his people to return to the ruins of Jerusalem and replace the destroyed temple of Solomon. The people of God, our spiritual ancestors, received the Gospel news that they had been disciplined, not abandoned, by God, who was at this point ready to assure them once again of his love. For seventy years, God’s chosen people had been chastised for their forming of alliances with their neighboring countries, gentile, faithless nations, rather than trusting in God’s power to protect his chosen people to live in peace. And now the period of humiliation was over. God was finished with his punishing work, using Babylon and Assyria as his agents for the chastisement of Israel. Now it was these gentiles’ turn to receive the divine wrath for being, shall we say, just a little too willing to punish!
This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is John 3:14-21. It continues the theme of the long-awaited Joy for all people in their faith journeys because the heavenly Father offered the human side of his divine nature, the light of Christ, as a gift to his people. It is an invitation to follow the light as the people of the Exodus followed the Pillar of Fire in the night. Implied in this is the challenge to let go of, and leave behind, the things we do that we would all, just as soon, not allow to be seen by others in the firelight of God.
It comes as no surprise that, as a season, Lent’s hallmark is its austerity. It is a season in which themes of discouragement and deprivation are explored not as ends in themselves, but as the means to our understanding of how we, as God’s beloved people will inherit, (not obtain, mind you, and certainly not earn) a life of deepened piece and spirituality, the serenity of knowing that the matter is settled: we are loved. For these reasons, thematic variations of bondage, exodus, accountability, forgiveness, and character development through repentance are explored. We are invited now to do this with the Gospel for this coming Sunday, and then see how, by our experience with God, might find Victor Hugo’s conviction believable.
Before the reading of the Gospel, a spiritual stage is set by the lectionary selections that precede it. Particularly striking this coming Sunday is the rather odd little story from the Book of Numbers about how the disgruntled people of the original Exodus with Moses were angry. They were hungry; they did not like the monotonous manna diet, and they did not like the bleak environment of where Moses had taken them for a temporary refuge from a near-by hostile tribe. So they became anxious, and then they really began to gripe at the presence of venomous serpents.
Following direct instruction from the LORD, Moses made an effigy of a serpent, put it on a pole, so that when the shaft was held up, the people would look at it, and the bad effects of the venomous bites would be lifted from them and brought to the effigy elevated for all to see in the daylight.
There is no doubt in my mind, dear reader and friend, that this, as with all historical types of biblical stories, is based on some kind of real, remembered event. But for holy writ, objective history, recorded in a scientific sort of way, is not the objective to its writers as they compiled the Hebrew Bible in its present form — mostly during the years of the Babylonian Captivity. What was important in Babylon was the taking of community memories, and then preserving them by clothing them with the kind of spiritual meaning that would preserve the vocational consciousness of a people dislocated.
Our spiritual ancestors, the Hebrew people, have survived thousands of years of life periodically disrupted by geopolitical turmoil. Two outstanding occurrences were the Exodus from Egypt and the captivity in Babylon, followed by the later exodus from Babylon in about 539 BCE.
If we are to be a mature community of faith, we have to learn from our ancestors, and develop a theology of salvation that is more than about the individual going to heaven. It is a community, salvation patterned after the experience of bondage, exodus, and our commitment to the development of a society informed by what was learned from the experiences in our lives of which we are reminded when we hear told again the great stories that remember what our spiritual ancestors learned. They learned about themselves with one another. Their lessons were learned as they ventured forth in one era (from Egypt) and then in another era (from Babylon). As we reflect on these great events, the Holy Spirit leads us (in the light of Christ) to ask, what then are the Egypt’s and Babylon’s in our spiritual autobiographies?
We are taught that all have sinned; without repentance, there can be no amendment of life, and without that, there is no point in having a Gospel with an only son coming into the world in our behalf. It follows, then, that life is a journey – usually involving some movement through space, but the most important part of the journey is the movement of the soul through time. In its progress the soul is molded, broken, and remolded over and over, affected by the shapes of the people encountered along the way with our beginnings in the Egypt’s and Babylon’s in the early chapters of life.
As we progress we become involved with the progress of the others whom we encounter, and for whom we pray, namely “our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.” Some inspire us; others are the cause of frustration. Frustration? Yes, we learn from the brokenness of others.
Having done work in the army community with the victims of abusive behavior, I have seen myself on a learning curve with God. I struggled to be helpful while experiencing frustration in my ministry. I felt ineffective in my striving to alleviate the suffering of young men and women in trouble. My attempts to be helpful were sabotaged by the very people I tried on many occasions to help. This caused me to feel anger not only toward the victim’s oppressors, but the victim herself. It was as if I were encountering people in the wilderness, who would say to me, “Well, actually, Egypt was not such a bad place after all, and he food was sure a lot better than this manna stuff.
I, as a chaplain for this community had a lesson of my own to learn: What kind of service does God call us to perform for those who consistently drop the charges of abuse the morning after an incident of domestic violence has occurred, and then for what purpose? To return to the familiarity of the only “home” they know – and then become the victim in the cycle of violence again!
As a Family Advocacy Committee member, I and the other members, were tasked to advise to the command organization about the quality of family life for its people, I was challenged to be an effective witness of Christ’s healing love to four people in this particular case – 1) The young wife who dropped the charges the next morning – again!, 2) the angry young military policeman officer who risked his life to stop the escalating incident, and 3) a young man, the “perp,” whose traumatic memories were his venomous serpents, and 4) my command rater who gauged my career performance on the degree to which I could be a relevant factor to solving such vexing problems for the command as this one.
I worked hard, putting hours in counseling with several of the parties in this case. The cycle of violence ended, but I can take no credit for that. It ended with a DUI arrest of the husband from an automobile accident, followed by some jail time, during which the wife filed suit for divorce. Fortunately for her, she fell under the positive influence of her neighbors, some of whom were a part of her army chapel congregation. It was not the chapel group I presided over. My supervisor did not believe that my influence in the matter was a contributing factor to the end of the cycle. He, like, I, were in simple agreement that the cycle was over. After two years of meetings in an A-anon group, the young wife found a new partner and was married.
There are many chapters in the unfolding journey-stories of our lives as God’s people. Nobody knows which chapter will be the defining denouement, but for me a repeating pattern persists – that progress continues to be made. All of us learned – the victim, the police officer, the commander, and me. How we all described what we learned, and how we experienced ourselves in the process differed significantly.
For my part, I am led to conclude that Victor Hugo was absolutely right about what he believed: “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved….” I looked at the quote and its source again. Then I noticed that there was more in his writing: “…we are loved, loved [but not just] for ourselves [but] loved in spite of ourselves”.
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
- SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/