“Just as the serpent was taken, and—as the problem—was made into the antidote: the serpent was made the way to heal the snakebites, so Jesus, the sinless one, was made to be like sin. He enters the places of separation, sin, and suffering, darkness and death, so that he can undo and heal them.”
4th Sunday of Lent, Year B
Sin and Serpents
It’s Laetare Sunday.
That’s why I am up here in this beautiful rose vestment. You expect that twice a year.
Laetare, as you know, is a word that means “rejoice” in Latin. This is one of our two great “rejoicing Sundays”. We are over halfway through the season of Lent, and so we rejoice.
But what exactly do we rejoice in, in Lent?
It’s still…a sad season, right? It’s still a season of penance. It’s the season where we are with Jesus in the desert, and we are preparing for even sadder things yet to come in Holy Week.
So what do we rejoice in, in the season of Lent?
The answer is “mercy”. We are rejoicing in God’s mercy.
Because if we didn’t have God’s mercy, we wouldn’t have anything to celebrate in this season of Lent. We wouldn’t even be looking forward to something at the end of this period of penance.
Take out your missalettes.
All the readings today have a sense of rejoicing….in the Father’s mercy. Turn to page 73, to the start with our second reading, Paul to the Ephesians.
Look at very first line:
Brothers and sisters: God, who is rich in mercy,
<<the reason to rejoice is that He is rich in mercy>>
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 —
We are rejoicing.
Why are we rejoicing?
Because of his mercy.
What about his mercy, specifically?
Because we were dead in our transgressions, but by grace we have been saved...
And he adds:
“raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus.”
So that’s the summary: there is joy in his mercy.
How does God’s love and mercy work?
Really it works on two levels: One, before we could sin, and another after we have sinned.
The first gift of God’s mercy is that he even lets us have free will.
Now, we probably all have thought before: Boy, that was a bad idea. Why did God give us that? That has only caused trouble. Free will always led to stupid stuff. If he just would’ve made us always love and worship Him things would be great.
Instead we have free will; we do dumb stuff; and then it hurts.
You probably think of that then you look at your toddlers too. Aww, they are just getting their own sprit…and now they are wrecking the house. And now you are going to have to curb their free will.
That then—the problems of free will—tie in with our other readings too.
Look at the first reading:
A longish one.
God gave the people free will.
And again and again with their free will they go the wrong way.
“They added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple.”
So God tries to change their direction, using their free will and better judgment.
“Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
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 the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.”
So God acted by another means: Less enjoyable; using less of their own free will.
“Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects.”
So, he loves them enough to let them make their own choices; they make bad choices, despite his attempts to turn them, but then we see God gives his mercy to them a second time.
Jump over to second column there:
(We’ve talked about this prophecy the first two weekends in Lent.)
They are in exile, but there is a promise of return in 70 years:
As was spoken to Jeremiah the prophet: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”
So, seventy years of waiting, seventy years of healing, seventy years of being out of the holy land, but then God shows his mercy.
And he fulfills this through a pagan.
Final paragraph, second line: “in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom…”
The proclamation says that he will rebuild Jerusalem and its temple and they can all go home to Judah.
They had abused the free will God gave them, wasted his mercy when He gave them second chances, and yet God comes back with an even greater mercy.
Flip to the Gospel, page 74
We see mercy again, on the largest scale possible.
We all know John chapter 3 as the home of the famous line: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
We know that. We see it at football games, basketball games… It might be the one chapter and verse that Catholics can quote—John 3:16.
The context though is: there were bad things coming our way.
We had all sinned and gone stray like wayward sheep and God had to bring us back.
To help understand truth, look right before that, at the beginning of the passage:
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus is making an allusion to a very particular act of rebellion by Israel, which would make any hearer of John 3:16 realize that the famous passage had to with the price of sin and disobedience.
Back in the Book of Numbers, during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, because the Israelites have free will—because they can sin—they do.
They complain against the Lord: “Why has God abandoned us? Why has he brought us out to this terrible place?”
So God sends venomous serpents to bite and punish them.
The people are rebelling; they use their free will to oppose him.
God, in a sense, lets their biting, rebellious speech become—if you will—incarnate, in the form of these serpents that attack the people.
The people repent and come to Moses and beg his help, and he intercedes for them and God says: I will be merciful.
Take bronze, make a serpent, twist it around a staff, and lift that bronze serpent up in this desert and anyone who looks on the serpent on the pole will be healed.
So what did God do?
He took the problem: serpents. And out of that he fashions a remedy: this bronze serpent lifted up on a staff.
That is the image Jesus wants us to have in mind when we read “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
God has established a pattern of how he fixes things: Something is wrong; people have messed up. God is going to take the thing that is wrong itself and flip it and make it the remedy.
Think about how a vaccination or immunization works: You take the disease itself, the bacteria, and you use it to make the body defeat the disease.
To understand this better, flip back to page 59. This is the readings of Ash Wednesday. Often we are distracted by all the other stuff that day, but it contains a fascinating line in 2nd Corinthians.
5th line down: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Repeat: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin.”
Jesus did not know sin, right? He alone is sinless. But God made him “to be sin.”
What does that mean?
God let him enter into the space where we have been. Sin is being cut off from God. What is Jesus like on the Cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He feels, he experiences the reality of sin.
He feels it by suffering for us.
He has all our sins dumped upon him as Isaiah 53 says.
He feels that distance, that separation.
He is in the place of sin suffering and death—as human beings would be.
He has quote/unquote “become sin”
And what exactly is this “when he is lifted up from the earth”?
On the cross.
Just as the serpent was taken, and—as the problem—was made into the antidote: the serpent was made the way to heal the snakebites, so Jesus, the sinless one, was made to be like sin. He enters the places of separation, sin, and suffering, darkness and death, so that he can undo and heal them.
He goes into those. He becomes the way to heal us of sin, because he becomes it, as it were.
He becomes our safeguard from suffering and death by himself going through them.
So these are the mercies we sing on Laetare Sunday.
As the psalmist says in psalm 89: “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever.”
The mercy that lets us choose. And even if we choose poorly, the mercy that comes back to save us.
The mercy that says even though the people went astray I will bring you back to the promised land.
And which says to us: When you stray away even farther, when you as a human race are all lost in sin, he says “I so love the world that I will send my only begotten son that he will become sin in your place,” that what was once separated and dark and dead can now be alive and in the light with me.