HOMILY, Fourth Sunday of Lent
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
Doing the unthinkable
The story of Israel’s exile is a story about people doing the unthinkable. Here you have a people defined by the fact that God has set them free from slavery in Egypt and has made them a free people and His chosen people. That is one of the big themes of Lent: the Lord’s deliverance of the Israelites and their Passover journey to the Promised Land. And right along, the Lord made Himself present among the Israelites and remained with them, eventually allowing King Solomon to build a great temple where He would remain with the people.
But these chosen people, who had received gift after gift from God, who never could have become a free people themselves, who were nothing in the eyes of the world when God chose them to be His own, despite all of this, turned against Him again and again. In today’s First Reading from the Second Book of Chronicles, we read that the Israelites “added infidelity to infidelity”, that they practiced “all the abominations of the nations”, and that they even “polluted the LORD’s temple”, the most holy place in the world at that time.
It is utterly unthinkable that people could be so stupid as to turn away again and again, despite repeated warnings, from the all-powerful and totally good God Who had shown so much love for them. It’s one of those things that you couldn’t believe if it didn’t actually happen. But it did happen, and Israel paid the price, being conquered and exiled to Babylon—an unthinkable horror for a people the very identity of which was tied to its relationship with the Lord, with the Promised Land, and with the Temple.
I say all of this was unthinkable, but then I have to admit that I’ve done the unthinkable too. In Baptism, I was set free from slavery to sin and adopted into God’s family, the Church. I was set on a course for the Promised Land of Heaven. I have the Lord present with me in more ways than I can count: in the Eucharist, in His word, in all of you, in the sick and the poor and the vulnerable. I have been blessed by God beyond anything I could have even thought to ask for, and yet I have sinned. I have made choices to turn away from God and towards something else, some lesser good that was against His will for me. I have sinned in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. And so have you.
A lot of people get stuck at this point. After all, one unthinkable thing is usually enough to think about. And thinking about the bad things we’ve done can send us into a kind of exile: distancing ourselves from God, wounding our relationships with other people, tempting us to stop praying, or engaging, or striving.
Or sometimes we do a very odd thing and don’t think about our own sins too much, but do a “great” job thinking about the sins of others, and condemn them in our minds or with our words to a life of exile, excusing ourselves by thinking they deserve it.
Well, we all “deserve it”! We have all chosen darkness instead of light at some time, in one way or another. And anyone dumb enough to sin against the God Who created us, Who knows everything and has every power and Who burns with love for us beyond all our imagining, “deserves it”, for sure.
But the thing is that we aren’t the only ones who are capable of doing the unthinkable. If you really could grasp God’s greatness, and our littleness, and you could grasp how bad it is for us to sin against the perfectly holy God—the one Who is so holy we can’t even describe Him at Mass by saying “holy” but have to say “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Hosts”—then you would begin to understand how unthinkable it is, by any human standard, that God could forgive us.
But God doesn’t think according to human standards, and He does forgive us. Jesus has come, and has been “lifted up” like the serpent in the desert that healed the Israelites. Jesus has been lifted up on the Cross and died to save us. He is lifted up on the altar as He becomes present in His Body and Blood, and He forgives us of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I want to make two practical points about how we live this out:
• First, allow Jesus to be lifted up in your life, again and again. Look at images of Jesus, especially Jesus crucified, every chance you get throughout your day, and remember His love for you. Pray all the time, even if it just means lifting your heart to God for one second over and over as you’re going about your day. And go to Jesus in confession and ask Him to forgive you. Experience the power of His forgiveness.
• Second, lift Jesus up in the lives of others. I hope I’ve made it clear that it’s no good to condemn other people, but it’s not good enough just to say in a kind of theoretical way that they can be forgiven. You and I need to be the instruments that bring Jesus to people and people to Jesus. We need to lift up Jesus in people’s lives by setting a good example for them, by talking to them about Jesus and His Church, by forgiving them when they’ve hurt us, and by encouraging them to come to Church and to take hold of all that God has in store for them. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” He has done the unthinkable for us. It is totally thinkable, then, that we should love Him back, and give ourselves in lifting Jesus up before a world that without Him would be exiled from God forever.
[Pictured: Crucifixion by Giotto, 14th Century]