Sunday Sermon for March 11, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B

Readings: 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

In the readings today we see the mystery of God’s mercy in the light of human sin. The first reading tells us the people of Israel added infidelity to infidelity, they practiced the abominations of the nations, and they polluted the Temple of the Lord. We are also told about God’s attempts to bring the people back by sending prophets to speak His word to the people. They mocked and scoffed at the prophets and they despised God’s warnings.

When it was so bad that no remedy existed, God allowed Jerusalem to be burned and the Temple to be destroyed. The people who lived through this horror were taken to captive Babylon. They remained in Babylon for seventy years, the number of Sabbaths that were lost; that is, because the people did not leave the land fallow during the Sabbath years, as required of the Jewish people by God.

This sounds like God was taking vengeance on the people as opposed to being merciful. Quite the opposite is true. As we have seen, God gave the people multiple opportunities to repent. He gave them a clear Law which they chose to disobey. He gave them special dignity as His chosen people, but they wanted to live like the pagans around them.

God’s allowance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the people was merciful because it caused them to consider what they were doing and turn their lives around. Toward the end of the reading we hear about the crowning point of God’s mercy which took place in a manner no one would have expected: God raised up a pagan king who had never even heard of God or Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and to bring the people back to their own land.

We see a similar pattern in the other two readings as well. St. Paul speaks about how God is rich in mercy. Once again, this mercy is shown in the light of our transgressions. So grievous were these offenses against God that St. Paul says we were dead in our transgressions. But God’s love for us brought us to life in Christ Jesus and even raised us up as His beloved children to Heaven. Once again, we see God working in ways that we could never imagine or hope for. Even if we begged for mercy, who would expect God to send His Son, redeem us, make us His children, and bring us to Heaven?

While it is unthinkable that God would come to us as a human being, it is not even comprehensible that He would die for us on the Cross. Yet this is what our Lord tells Nicodemus: the Son of Man must be lifted up so everyone who believes in Him might have eternal life. So, what is required is not merely the prayer for mercy, but accepting how God has answered that prayer by sending His Son to die for us.

As we see in our Lord’s words, there is a requirement of faith: we have to believe in Him in order to have eternal life. St. Paul says the same thing: “by grace you have been saved through faith.” But St Paul adds “this is not from you; it is a gift from God.” Once again, God has taken the initiative. When so many people went astray before the Babylonian exile, one has to wonder how many people were actually grieved by these actions; how many prayed for mercy?

At the time our Lord came into the world the living out of Judaism was tragically compromised. Once again, one wonders how many were seeking God’s mercy. Today many people have gone off track in the Church and they continue to go further away from God each day. We need to pray for mercy, and also be prepared to accept the way God answers these prayers.

We also have to live according to the Truth. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. On the other hand, He says that anyone who lives the truth comes to the light so everyone can see his works are done in God.

There were faithful people in the ancient world just as there were faithful people at the time of our Lord. Perhaps many or even most had gone astray, but there was always a remnant who remained faithful to the Lord. Now it is our turn. God does not change. Again, He will take the initiative and act in a way we could never expect. Our task is to remain faithful no matter what happens and regardless of how many are unfaithful. The Light is in the world; remain in the Light by living the Truth!

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit