The season of Lent considers not only the reasons for human sinfulness but also how God deals with this perennial problem. One of the most perplexing features of sin is how persistently people fall into the same patterns of destructive behavior—even with a knowledge of sin’s immediate consequences. In all the readings appointed for Fourth Sunday, God nonetheless extends grace in response to the diverse manifestations of sin they describe.
The First Reading
The Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness
When the Israelites complained about their long journey through the wilderness toward the promised land, God grew angry. In response to the people’s repentance and Moses’ prayer, God provided relief, renewing the sustenance and protection that the people needed. The bronze snake that God told Moses to lift up above Israel as a remedy for its burning rebellion would, in the eyes of John the gospeler, anticipate the way that Christ would be lifted up as a remedy for the burning rebellion of all people.
From Mount Hor the Israelites traveled the Reed Sea route to skirt the land of Edom, but the people’s temper grew short along the way. The people spoke out against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness? There really is no food and no water, and we are sick of this miserable bread.” So God sent venomous snakes among the people and they bit the people, so that a great number of Israelites died.
Then the people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke out against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to remove these snakes from us.” So Moses prayed on behalf of the people. God said to Moses, “Make a figure of the venomous snake and put it on a pole. Whoever has been bitten and looks at it will live.” Moses made a bronze snake and put it on the pole. Afterward, whenever a snake bit a person and the person turned toward the bronze snake, that person would live.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Give Thanks for God’s Steadfast Love!
God’s greatness is manifest in the experience of those in need. The reversal of their fortune bespeaks God’s steadfast love. God redeems from distress those who have been subject to devastating external forces (verses 1-3) and even those whose own foolish and rebellious behavior led them to death’s door (verses 17-19). For this constant love, God merits our thanks.
- Thank the Lord, who is good;
God’s steadfast love never ends.
- Let those the Lord redeemed speak!—
those God redeemed from distress.
- God gathered them from foreign lands—
from the east, the west, the north, and from the sea.
- By their rebellious way and their sins, fools afflicted themselves.
- They loathed all food;
they reached the gates of death.
- They screamed to the Lord out of their distress;
from their anguish, God redeemed them.
- God issued the word and healed them;
God rescued them from death’s pit.
- Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love,
for God’s extraordinary acts for all humanity.
- Let them sacrifice offerings of thanks,
and, in joy, recount God’s deeds.
The Second Reading
The Place Established in Heaven
Paul, in Galatians 4:1-9, followed the apostolic preaching of his time in declaring baptism as the moment when a person left behind the compulsion to follow elemental desires and turned to a life guided by Spirit. This passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians extends that thought to portray the life of faith as a whole as a transition away from the selfish world of flesh and towards a secure fellowship with Christ in heaven.
You were dead: in your transgressions and sins, you followed the standards of this world, the rule of mundane power—the spirit now working among the children of disobedience. We all once trafficked in the desires of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and of demons. With the rest of humanity we were by nature offspring of wrath.
Nonetheless, God—rich in compassion—loved us with overflowing love. We were dead in our transgressions; God made us alive in the Anointed One. By grace you have been rescued, and God raised you with Jesus, the Anointed, and established your place in heaven in order to show for ages to come the abundant richness of divine grace generously poured out to us in Jesus, the Anointed. Again: by grace you have been rescued through faith. This does not come from us, but is God’s gift; this does not come from what we do, so no one can boast. We are God’s work, created in Jesus, the Anointed, for doing good in ways that God has prepared so that we will follow them.
God’s Love in Sending the Son
This reading, which is unique to John’s Gospel, moves from a very specific comparison, between the Hebrew Bible and the pattern of Jesus’ death and redemption, into a comprehensive and universal declaration. Delivered as a quotation from Jesus’ teaching, the passage first compares the Crucifixion to Moses—directed by God—lifting up a snake made of bronze for the Israelites to see. Everyone who looked at the bronze snake was saved from the snake bites that they had suffered (Numbers 21:6-9). This is God’s method, who loves the entire world by giving his Son to die. All who have faith in that death, and in the deeds of light that Jesus did, have passed from darkness and judgment to vindication in the light of God.
“In exactly the way Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must this human being be lifted up, so everyone who has faith in him has eternal life. In this way God loved the world, so much that he gave his unique Son: everyone who has faith in him is not lost, but has eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but to rescue the world through him. Whoever has faith in him is not judged; whoever does not have faith has already been judged, since that one does not have faith in the name of the unique Son of God. This is the verdict: light came into the world, and people loved the dark rather than the light because their deeds were malicious. Everyone acting maliciously hates the light and does not come toward the light lest their deeds be exposed. But everyone really ‘doing’ the truth comes toward the light for their deeds to be revealed—because they are accomplished by God.”