3rd Sunday of Lent
THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
Exodus 17:3-7 | Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 | John 4:5-42
Oh, God, author of every mercy and of all goodness, who in fasting, prayer and alms-giving has shown us a remedy for sin, look graciously upon this confession of our lowliness that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
GOD longs for our hearts to receive the message that has been poured out for thousands of years. There always have been those who understood it, who have taken it in, and it has changed their lives. They carry the message in a powerful and beautiful way, but the number, I think, always has been small. My personal opinion is that it’s growing at an unprecedented rate in this time we’re living now, and the key to this wonderful, core message that God has shared with us is that we keep blocking it in some way, not staying with it, not seeing it for what it really is. It gets cloudy. It gets confused with other things, and it strikes me that, in that second reading, Paul is saying that at the heart of this message that God has given to us, there is this way — he calls himself the way — to life. It has something to do with crucifixion.
When you look at the readings of Lent, in this period of time in Lent, what we’re asked to ponder is that very thing that brought about the fulfillment of the teaching of God. From the call of Abraham until Jesus, it is finally fully revealed that the crucifix is key. So what is the crucifix saying to us? What is Christ crucified saying? Well, the first thing we hear from Paul is that the image of a Savior who is saving the world through giving in to evil and dying this horrible death, that the core ingredient in the message is so quickly dismissed by those who hear it. He uses these phrases. He says the Jews — it is a stumbling block to them, and the stumbling block was that they had an idea of who the Messiah was going to be. They knew he was going to be a great leader. He was going to free the people from everything that had put them down, so he had a political career, and he was going to change everything and make it easier and better for the Israelites. Instead he ended up being executed as a common criminal. Well, that didn’t make any sense. You look at the Gentiles when they’re shown — let’s say they’re the ones who haven’t had any understanding of this mystery, and they just all of a sudden hear this idea that, if you die, if you suffer, if you give yourself over to evil, then you’re going to be much better off. So you take a person who’s fairly underdeveloped and not very sophisticated and certainly on a low level of consciousness, and it makes absolutely no sense. It’s foolishness to the Gentiles. What do you mean give in to evil? What do you mean to be a servant instead of a master? And the Greeks, they were the learned and the clever, and they were trying to figure out what this message meant and trying to analyze it too much. Somehow they were seeking wisdom, and by seeking it in a way that was too complex, they couldn’t see it. It reminds you so much of Jesus saying, “This message I have is hidden from the learned and the clever, and it’s revealed to the merest children.”
So all of that says there is something in this crucifix that is such a basic concept, so simple, so easy to understand if you can simply open your heart to understand what it says. So let’s see if the first readings of the gospel work with that image or don’t help us. Let’s see if they — I really believe they do help us understand this message of the crucifix. First of all, I want to say a few words about the word "crucifix" — crucial, crucifixion. The word crucial means that there are two opposite opinions about something, and it is absolutely essential that one of them be chosen over the other if there is going to be any success. We call it a crucial decision, absolutely essential if you want to go forward to decide which of these conflicting ideas is the one to choose. A crucible is an interesting thing. It’s a clay pot that holds metal that’s being mixed with another metal so that it becomes stronger. It’s also important to look at the word to suffer. This is the one thing we talk about, that Jesus had to suffer the crucifixion. There was a time in our history of spirituality in the Catholic church that, during the Middle Ages, everyone thought, if they were in a painful situation, if they were suffering, they were pleasing God, because it proved that they loved him, that pain was what suffering was about. Pain is not necessarily the core of suffering, although it includes that, but to suffer means to allow, to endure, to put up with patiently, without anger and without resistance. So there’s a conflict in us that we have constantly, I believe, as human beings; the conflict between truth and what is not true, lies, between being self-oriented and wanting everything for me versus being a person who wants the best for everyone else. There’s a whole sense of the way life is supposed to serve me versus whether I want to serve it. These are crucial questions about which you want to pick, and it seems that, when one selects the correct choice, there is an experience of loss or of something being taken from us that is our right, the right to have what I want when I want it. And that’s where we get into the real issue of the crucifix and crucifixion.
So hold those thoughts, and let me go back to the first reading and talk about the image of the temple, because the temple was the place where — you know they felt that the temple was the sacred place where you connect with God, and there was a place in the middle of the temple, in the smallest part of it where only certain priests could enter. It was the holiest place, and what was in that tabernacle was the first reading, the Ten Commandments. So here are human beings, in a way, worshipping a God who has done something for them, and what he’s done has been so incredible in their minds is that he’s revealed to them their nature. And that’s what the Ten Commandments are. They are a description of who we are, who we’re meant to be. We’re meant to be a people who trust in a power beyond ourselves. Our core essence is that we are people who respect those things that give us life, and when we’re in love and we have these most powerful of human emotions when we want to care for and love someone, we don’t want to lie to them, or we don’t want to steal from them or destroy them or even demand to have what they have. It’s hard for us to imagine that people didn’t really know what human nature was at one point, and this is the way God begins his work with people so they can see. “This is who I’m intended to be. This is my essence. It can be distorted by my mind and by my will, and I can become something that is the opposite of who I am.” And when that happens, then death enters and destruction and intense pain versus the pain and the suffering that is demanded when we understand the kingdom.
Then we go to the gospel, and what we realize is that Jesus is explaining to everyone that this image of the temple as a sacred place that carries within it the truth of who we are is about to be replaced. It has to be replaced, and Jesus is the one who replaces it. So when he looks at the temple as it is and he experiences it, he realizes that the whole notion, even of sacrifice, the notion of suffering, of offering something that you created, that God helped you make and you bring it to God and says, “God, you are the reason I have this gift. You are the one who enabled me to do this.” That was the heart of those sacrifices. It was a way of honoring God for being a part of your life and producing good through you for yourself and for others. And what happens? They turned into some kind of convenience store, meaning, if you had to travel to Jerusalem to offer your sacrifice, the problem was you had to bring whatever you created, whether it was the best of the fruits you raised or vegetables or wheat or maybe the animals became preferable, and you would bring some small animal that you nurtured, the ones who gave birth to this, and then you were identified with this creature you brought to God and thanking him for letting you be a part of him and creating life in this figure you are offering. All that was gone when they came and just had to buy the cheapest item they could to get through the ritual. It was about purification, and purification is about opening your mind to what’s real and true. And it was lost. It was all kind of a farce, and it must have been incredibly difficult. There were all these people from different countries, and they all had different kinds of coins. You had to have moneychangers. They made some money off it. I’m sure they had to give a cut to the temple if they got that job, and yeah, it was a marketplace. It was something that just had no similarity to what it was intended to be, which is what happens to people who take things like religion and twist it and turn it into something radically different.
So what is Jesus saying? “I am the new temple.” Well, what was in the center of the temple was wisdom as to who human beings are. Now the center of the temple is the person of Jesus. The person of Jesus has within him the person of God. So the new temple is not a building, but it’s us, and inside of us is God. God dwells inside us. Now, think of the difference. One is insight into who I am. The other is insight into the part that I am, the most mysterious part, and that is what I can’t do, what I’m called to do, be who I’m called to be, on my own. I have to do it in partnership with divinity. That means I have to believe in those incredibly mysterious moments of God dwelling inside me and being a source of wisdom and strength. And I call upon it consciously, and I know it’s there. And the three things that it’s trying to do so clearly is it’s trying to make sure that, on a daily basis, you hear the voice of this God inside of you, and he’s saying three basic things: “You are loved as you are. You are loved exactly as you are, and I want you to know that, basically, you are also the person who I need to be in the world. And I’m going to engage you in work that ultimately will change the world, if you surrender to my truth and you listen to me and you become who I want you to be. You’re valuable. You’re loved, and you are forgiven for everything you’ve done. And what you have to understand is that the world that I created for you is precisely what you need, and your struggles against the evil that’s around you, those are all things that I planned so that, if you’re working with me and I can help you go through this, you’ll find an amazing — amazing transformation happening to you.”
What a gift, divinity inside me versus a model of who I’m supposed to be, yet I feel at times, religion simply falls back on talking about what you should be. It’s almost like in homilies, we get the Ten Commandments, in a particular way, but in truth, it’s not about those rules and laws. It’s about a transformation, becoming those things that can only be done in partnership with divinity who is the only one who has the power to use all things and somehow use them for the good so that every evil and every setback and every problem we have continues to move us in the direction of insight, and awareness and consciousness. It’s so mysterious and so simple at the same time. To figure out how it works — you’ll never, never be able to do that. To know it works, to believe it works, to want it to work, that’s what a child does. That’s what we need to do, and when you trust in that, then life, the life that God has promised us, the Promised Land, the peaceful, inner place appears.
Father, we long for the gifts that you promise, and yet we still resist the process that you’ve opened for us. Bless us with the kind of understanding and the simple trust we need to have in you and the promise, and let us go into it without trying to figure it out, without having nice, neat clear lines that we can stay within, but give us the freedom of children who simply are so excited about a gift. And when they know that this gift has been promised, they know it will be given. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.