Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Lent

There is no doubt that Jesus made an impression on everyone he met. Because of the power of his words, some left their jobs and their families to follow him. Others, however, were offended by the special relationship he claimed to have with the Father and turned their backs on him refusing to listen despite the powerful signs he performed. Others were afraid of him. They feared that he would incite the people to rebel against the Roman occupation and create instability in Jerusalem. We will hear in the upcoming weeks how these people would eventually convince the Romans to crucify him.

There is another class of people, however. There were those who didn't know quite what to make of Jesus. They were moved by the beauty and power of his words. They were amazed by the miracles and signs he performed. Yet they were just not ready to follow him. Such a person was Nicodemus whom we read about in today's gospel.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a man with much power and influence. He considered himself an authority on the Jewish Law and a teacher of the people. Like the other Pharisees, he would have felt some responsibility to guard the people from error. And so he would have been especially cautious of Jesus. Nonetheless, he felt drawn by his words. So he visits Jesus at night in secret to see for himself what he is all about. He is not ready to become a follower, but he is not ready to turn his back on him either.

Jesus welcomes Nicodemus. He does not turn him away because he is skeptical and unsure. He does not tell him to come back when he has more faith. Rather Jesus builds on the faith he already has and challenges him to recognize the gift of salvation and eternal life which he is being offered.

There are two parts to Jesus' message to Nicodemus.

First, he speaks to him about the great love of God. Jesus was sent into the world by the Father, not to condemn it, but to bring eternal life to all those who would believe in him. God's desire is not to find fault with us but to draw us into a relationship of love with him. For this reason, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert to bring forgiveness and healing.

Second, that gift of eternal life is available to anyone who believes in Jesus. Those who believe are the ones who are willing to step out of the darkness of sin and falsehood and into the light of faith. Remember that Nicodemus is visiting Jesus at night, when it's dark, so that no one will see him. Jesus is challenging him to step into the light and not be ashamed to be counted as one of his followers. It will mean leaving behind the prestige and power he has as a leading Pharisee. It will mean being rejected and ridiculed by many of his friends. But, more importantly, if he can find the courage to step into the light, it will mean being a friend with Jesus, seeing his great works, and knowing the Father's love in a way he could not otherwise imagine.

The gospel reading does not tell us how Nicodemus responded. We presume that he slipped away into the night to ponder Jesus' message to him. We won't hear about him again until later in John's gospel when he argues for a fair trail for Jesus and at the crucifixion when he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helps to place his body in the tomb.

There is a little bit of Nicodemus in each of us. Most of us have an admiration for Jesus and are moved by his words. Yet there is still a part of us that wants to hold back. We are not ready to follow Jesus all the way. We fear what others will say about us if we live our faith wholeheartedly. Or we aren't ready to give up some sinful behaviors to embrace the full message of the gospel. Others of us can't get over the shame we feel about our past life and aren't ready to welcome the Father's promise and gift of forgiveness. Each of us, in some way, prefers to meet Jesus in the dark where our ugly faults and failures can be hidden from sight.

These forty days of Lent are all about stepping out of darkness into light. Through prayer and penance, we are to examine our conscience and bring to God our weakness and sin so that his forgiveness and grace can begin to fill up the emptiness of our spirit. There is still time for those of us who haven't yet gone to confession to do so before Holy Week. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important first step away from the darkness. We reveal our sins to a priest so that we can be freed from the burden of shame and embrace God's love and forgiveness. Then we can begin to live again in the joy and peace of God's Spirit.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that God is rich in mercy. We need not linger in the shadows of fear and shame because there is a forgiving God who waits for us in the light. It was for this reason that Jesus came - to draw all people to himself. At this Eucharist, Jesus will be lifted up in the form of bread and wine for us to adore and to receive with gratitude and faith. The prayer, "My Lord and my God," will come to our lips as we gaze upon our Savior who is given to us as food. Let us ask that he ignite a fire within us so that we can take the light of his truth and love to those who continue to dwell in darkness. Then we will become what he has called us to be - a light for all the world.

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