In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord's temple which He had consecrated in Jerusalem.
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. Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power. All this was to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah: "Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled."
In the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, 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, both by word of mouth and in writing: "Thus says Cyrus, King of Persia: "All the kingdoms of the Earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me, and He has also charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of His people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!""(P) The word of the Lord.
By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps. (R)
For there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs and our despoilers urged us to be joyous: "Sing for us the songs of Zion!" (R)
How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten! (R)
May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy. (R)
Brothers and sisters, God is rich in mercy. Because of the great love He had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, He brought us to life with Christ - by grace you have been saved. He raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are His handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, to be our way of life.(P) The word of the Lord.
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."
For 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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light; and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
Last week, at the solemn liturgical dedication of our church to God and His glory, we traced our liturgical lineage to Solomon's Temple dedication and, just as Solomon did, we prayed that the Lord may hear us and deliver us from all our troubles and may also listen to prayers of those who are from outside of our community, 1 Kings (8:22-61). More especially, we prayed that God may deal with us favourably when we repent and confess our sins.
Today, we can reflect further on the same prayer. I believe, once again, it is a God-given opportunity. If you were here last week, you may remember that the day and the scripture readings at the Mass were very appropriate for the dedication of our church, bearing in mind that all arrangements were not planned deliberately. From this we learn that when we put our trust in God completely, He sets all things right in His time and way. God has once again proven Himself faithful to us, His people. After our reflections on the House of God (our church) last week, we consider it only right and fitting now to take a look at the objects inside the church.
What do you see inside our church? First you see, of course, an altar, a pulpit or lectern, the tabernacle, sanctuary lamp, the crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, pews, votive candles, stained glass windows, a statue of Mother Mary, the baptismal font, etc. In addition to all these, you see inscribed on the wall of the sanctuary, behind the altar, a Bible verse from the Gospel of John, which is a part of today's gospel, John (3:15); (3:14-21),"so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life". But the verse is distributed on both sides of the crucifix and, thus, making the crucifix the focus of our worship. What thoughts go through your mind when you look at the image of a crucifix or a cross?
The text is a part of the conversation Jesus had with a Jewish man named Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council and a scholar. He wanted to speak to Jesus face to face and to know about God and His ways. Afraid of what others might think if he was seen with Jesus, Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness confessing that Jesus must be "a teacher come from God", because no one could do such miracles unless God was with him, and He sought to learn more.
Jesus exhorted Nicodemus that only those who are "born again from above can see the kingdom of God", John (9:3). That is, Jesus told him he could never understand these things unless he was born again. Nicodemus was surprised and confused by what Jesus said. As a Pharisee, he was aware that people are reborn into the world through incarnation; but he could not understand how a person could be born again. So, he asked Jesus with incredulity, how a grown man like him can be reborn and whether he would have to enter a second time into mother's womb and be born again, John (9:4). Seeing Nicodemus' confusion, Jesus reprimanded him that, since he was a leader of the Jews and scholar, he should have already known this then, He talked to Nicodemus about spiritual birth, John (3:10).
To be born again means to become a new, spiritual person. Nicodemus already had natural birth and so he was told he had to be born again of both water and the Spirit, John (9:5). Here, water refers to baptism and, being born of the Spirit refers to believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And once again, Nicodemus could not follow this sublime teaching and asked Jesus how these things can happen, John (3:9). Jesus responded saying, "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", John (3:14-15).
Here Jesus likened Himself to the serpent that Moses "lifted up" in the desert, even though serpents are usually associated with Satan since the fall of Adam and Eve. To understand more what Jesus meant, let us go back to the time of the Israelites' journey from Egypt to the land of their ancestors, after they were liberated from the slavery. Their travel should have taken only 11 days on foot but according to the Book of Exodus (16) it took them forty years. The reason was because they had to pass through territories of many enemy tribes, Numbers (20:14-21). One of the territories was occupied by Edomites, who were the descendants of Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac and the twin brother of Jacob.
The enmity between Israelites and Edomites which began at the time of Jacob and Esau exacerbated at the time of the Israelite exodus from Egypt: the Edomites had refused the Israelites' crossing through their territory. Angered by this, the Israelites wanted to kill anyone that opposed them. But God told Moses not to fight against Edomites and instead to make a long, difficult journey around the land of Edom, Deuteronomy (2:4-5). At this point, the Israelites grew impatient and grumbled against God and Moses. Particularly, they complained about food and water. They murmured that the food and water God supplied to them were not good enough, Numbers (21:5).
In fact, by that time, God had delivered them from Pharaoh and was graciously providing them plenty of food (manna) and water daily while taking care of them; yet, they complained. Consequently, God sent among the people poisonous snakes that bit them, leaving many dead. When they confessed their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them, God provided a way for them to be healed. He asked Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole and to raise it up for all people to see it so that whosoever looked upon the bronze serpent would be healed and not die.
On the surface, it is a weird story. But Jesus took that story and applied it to Himself, telling Nicodemus that, just as God saved the Israelites by calling upon them to gaze on the serpent, so also will He grant forgiveness and healing by calling the people to look upon the Son of Man - that is, Jesus, who would be "lifted up" on the cross. Indeed, the purpose of God sending His Son Jesus was to save the world, just as the purpose of commanding Moses to erect a serpent on a pole was to save the people from death. By such comparison does it become clear that God sent His Son to save and grant eternal life because He loves us all. And throughout His ministry, Jesus not only taught about this love but also displayed it concretely.
What is the message for us?
All of us are under the curse of suffering and death because of sin. "The wages of sin is death" says Saint Paul, Romans (6:23). But, in His mercy, God does not want any of us to perish. So, just as He provided Israel a healing remedy, God has provided us with a remedy for sin's poison. He sent His Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that we could restore our relationship with Him and others and have eternal life. Yes, indeed. All our sins are forgiven; all guilts are entirely removed; all punishments are averted because of Christ.
Here in our new church, a beautiful crucifix adorns the sanctuary. We also have crucifixes in our homes or we wear these around our necks. As believers, we should not forget, the crucifix is not for decoration. Rather, it is an important sign of our belief and it reminds us of our suffering, pain, sin and the effects of sin plus Christ's redemptive sacrifice. Just like the Israelites, who looked at the bronze serpent and lived, despite being bitten by poisonous serpents, so too are we delivered from everything that oppresses us and also healed physically when we gaze upon the crucifix with faith.
Hence, during times of trials and hardships, adversities and distresses, stresses and illnesses, loss of jobs and family dilemmas, let us not become weary and discouraged; let us not be bitter in our suffering but, rather, let us look at the crucifix as the source of our salvation and truly pray before it in faith. Let us bring all our cares and concerns to the crucified Lord in prayer and even, like the psalmist, complain about them to Him in prayer. At the same time, let us not forget to acknowledge His goodness, to give Him thanks and to submit to His open sovereign hand.(P) Amen.
God Bless You!