The Church’s Lenten scriptures for Sunday thus far have been concerned with the covenants of God and the Israelites. God established covenants with the Israelites through Noah, through Abraham and through Moses and through these covenants God signaled to the Israelites that he is in a relationship with them- a relationship as profound and significant as the relationship of husband to wife.
A covenant is best understood for our purposes as a relationship, the defining characteristic of which is fidelity. God is always faithful, but what about the Israelites? What about us? What happens when a covenant is broken? What are the consequences of infidelity?
Today’s first scripture is about the consequences of infidelity. The Israelites turn to the false gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors in the manner that can be likened to a husband or wife in a marriage committing adultery and in doing so, bringing their relationship to a state of ruin.
The consequences of Israel’s infidelity was not just figurative, but was literally expressed when the House of Israel- the family of Abraham and the once, great kingdom of David, were brought to complete and utter ruin by the armies of Babylon.
The Book of Chronicles interprets that cataclysmic event, which really happened in the year 587 BC, as the consequences of Israel endured because of their infidelity. That cataclysm nearly wiped the Israelites off the face of the earth and resulted in the loss of their temple and ancestral lands. The Israelites who survived lost everything that they thought had mattered- all their wealth and power- and they were forced to endure exile in foreign lands for decades.
Marital infidelity has a consequence. Infidelity in terms of our relationship with God has a consequence. The events of 587 BC present the worst case scenario in terms of those consequences.
If you are a Christian, and you have been baptized, you have a relationship with God, you have a covenant with God and God has a covenant with you. Your Baptism set forth the kind of relationship you have with God and what is expected of you as a result. This relationship, this covenant is ratified and deepened each time you receive a Sacrament of the Church. Through your Baptism, God chose you in the same manner that he chose the Israelites.
Sacraments are not just rituals of community or ethnic customs, but an expression of your relationship, your covenant with God.
Thus, when you receive the Blessed Sacrament, you are not just the recipient of a symbol of being a Christian, but you are ratifying your relationship with God in Christ- your reception of the Blessed Sacrament is an expression of God’s covenant with you in Christ. What happens in that moment? God in Christ gives his divine life to you invites and you give your life over to him. You receive his life so that your life can become like him. That’s what receiving Holy Communion is all about.
If we do that, if we give our life to Christ, then we are being faithful, but if we say we will give our life to Christ and really don’t mean it, then we are being unfaithful.
Our experience of the consequences of infidelity to our covenant with God is probably far less dramatic than what the Israelites experienced in 587 BC, but there is a negative impact that is deeply felt.
Consider this: Our purpose, the purpose of the Church is to bear into the world the love of God in Christ.
If we are unfaithful to our covenant with God, the Church falters in its mission and the love of God in Christ becomes less and less a reality in the people’s lives.
Without the love of God in Christ, the culture coarsens and the grip of false gods suffocates the life out of people’s souls. The world becomes a sadder and more desperate place when our infidelity to the covenant (relationship) God has established with us inhibits the love of God in Christ from reaching those who need him the most.
All this is at the heart of St. Paul’s message to us from his Letter to the Ephesians.
God in Christ has manifested his great mercy to us in an extraordinary way- granting us life when we deserved death, forgiveness when we deserved wrath, compassion when we proved ourselves capable of doing our worst.
In Jesus Christ, God doesn’t give us what we deserve, but what we need the most- his mercy, his life, his compassion, his forgiveness…
St. Paul’s point of reference is the cross of Jesus. For the apostle Paul the cross is not a mere symbol or faith-based decoration, but a startling revelation of what has happened to us as a result of our sin, our infidelity, our refusals of God.
God, reveals himself to us in Christ, inviting us to be his friends and to share communion with his divine life and in response, he is tortured and killed. What should be the proper response to such a refusal? What should justice demand because of the cross? What does a humanity capable of crucifying the Lord of all Glory deserve?
Whatever is proper, what is just, whatever we deserve is NOT what God gives to us, but instead gives what is improper, unjust and undeserved- he gives us his mercy.
This mercy, once accepted, changes us, makes us different, gives us a new way of life and relating to others in which we manifest to others the mercy that we have received from God in Christ.
When we become living revelations of the mercy of God in Christ to others we manifest ourselves in fidelity to the mercy of God that we have been so privileged to receive!
In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus makes reference to a strange event that is described in the 21st chapter of the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The Book of Numbers describes the trails of the Israelites as they made their way to their ancestral lands after a long journey from slavery in Egypt.
The 21st chapter describes a terrifying situation in which the people are afflicted by poisonous serpents and many of the Israelites begin to sicken and die from the bites of these venomous snakes.
In response, Moses pleads with God, who instructs the prophet to create a bronze serpent, mount it on a pole and those who encounter this frightening sculpture are healed.
Christ recalls this story in reference to what he will accomplish on the cross- raised up, like that image of the serpent on the pole, he will impart healing to a sin-sick world.
This is but one of several instances in the New Testament where Christ takes a passage or story from the Old Testament and uses it to help the Israelites understand who he is and what he is all about.
Who is the Lord Jesus? He is the revelation of God’s power to save us from the afflictions of our sins.
After explaining the meaning of the strange story from the Book of Numbers, Christ then illuminates the reason that he has revealed himself to the world- and that reason is as striking as it is strange.
God in Christ has come into this world to save the world.
What does this mean?
Salvation is a word that has significant theological meaning. For many, it is a word that indicates how we get into heaven after a life here on earth- and, of course, this is a legitimate way to understand salvation.
But salvation is not limited to our heavenly destiny. To experience salvation, is to experience healing. The root of the word salvation is “salus” which means to heal. Think of the word “salve” (which is very close to the word salvation)- Christ is the healing “salve” God applies to our sin-sick souls.
All of us are sin-sick, soul sick by what we have done and failed to do. We have been wronged and wronged others. There is so much in us that we just can’t set right. We need to forgive and be forgiven. We long for salvation, for healing.
Salvation or the healing of our sin-sick souls is not just an idea or feeling, but a Sacrament of the Church in which we encounter the healing word of Christ, a word of mercy applied to the hurts of our sin-sick souls.
This Sacrament is called the Sacrament of Reconciliation and it is given to the Church by Christ as a remedy for sin, a source of healing, and through it the healing salve of the mercy of God in Christ is applied, through the power of his word of forgiveness, to our wounded souls.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation necessitates a confession of sin, for how else can we receive the prescription from Christ, the Good Physician unless there is first a diagnosis? But the confession of sin is only a means to the true end of the Sacrament, which is to hear and receive the healing word of Christ.
In our confession we bring our pain-filled truths into Christ’s light, hoping and believing that he will give to us, what he promises to give- not what we deserve, but the mercy we need the most.
We avoid the doctors who care for our bodies at the peril of our health.
How much more perilous is it for the health of our souls to avoid Christ, the Good Physician?
How long has it been since your last confession?