“If you, O Lord should mark our iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
Once upon a time, there was an Island that was inhabited by barbarians. Barbarians we know are generally wild, uncivilized, crude and hostile to visitors. This group has all the features of typical barbarians and more as they kill and eat whoever transgressed into their territory; consequently they constantly kept watch over their borders.
One day, a group of nature explorers wandered into the barbarian region and were caught and brought to the barbarian King. The fierce looking king was so angry with the intruders and condemned them to death but to be executed by sunrise. They were kept in a prison for the night. The next day, they were brought out for execution at the public square in accordance with the law of their land. After the preliminary ceremonies, they were tied and placed on a stable for execution whereby their bodies would be roasted and eaten afterwards.
Just before the executioner could strike the first person with an axe, someone gave a loud cry from the rear and everyone stood still and looked back! The King rose to ascertain what the cry was for and he was told that one of his wives just delivered a baby boy, the first male child for the King after so many years. His joy was boundless and he ordered that the execution be suspended and the captives be set free to return to their homeland. In fact, he pronounced pardon on them overlooking their transgression into their land and ordered guards to lead them out to a safer place from where they found their way. We shall be drawing lessons from this story later.
If God should take record of every sin we commit and pay us back as soon as we commit them none of us will survive. This means that beyond the justice of God, we live by His mercy and compassion. Justice and mercy are ordinarily seen as opposed to each other. While justice has to do with one getting what one deserves, mercy on the other hand has to do with the withdrawal of the punishment one deserves. In God, we see and appreciate a perfect match between mercy and justice. This spiritual match is the soul of the Readings of today.
In the First Reading (2 Chron.36:14-16.19-23), we are told that all the people of God (without exception) sinned against God. From the passage, we are told that they were unfaithful and followed the abomination of the nations. This actually means that they went after strange gods and worshipped them; thereby desecrating the house of God in Jerusalem.
When the people sinned in this manner, it is interesting to identify God’s initial reaction to their transgression. From the passage we are told that God PERSISTENTLY sent messengers to call the people back to Himself. This is an indication that God’s mercy goes before His justice (wrath) and also comes after. God did not condemn them immediately they transgressed as some of us would quickly do; but he allowed his merciful love and compassion to seek the people first.
The people did not and could not turn back to God. Their stubbornness actually brought about God’s wrath and justice. Consequently, the city and the temple were destroyed and the people were taken into exile by the Chaldeans.
While the people were in exile on the basis of God’s justice, His mercy was still waiting for them. It could actually be said that His mercy was still hidden in His justice. There is no doubt that God’s mercy never ends (Lamentations.3:22) and His love endures forever (Ps.136:1). After a period of seventy years, another kingdom arose; the Kingdom of Persia and God used their King, Cyrus, to restore the temple and the city and those who remained returned to their homeland.
Looking at the narrative in the First Reading, we can see God’s patience with the people in their transgression. The Psalmist said that God is slow to anger and rich in mercy (Psalm 103:8). It was on account of God’s patience that He PERSISTENTLY sent messengers to get the people back to Himself. God does not give up on us.
Let us also note here that the transgression affected all the people without exception. This is actually an indication that when it comes to sin against God nobody is excluded. In Ecclesiastes (7:20) we are told that there is no righteous man on earth who does good and is without sin. The prophet Isaiah (53:6) while describing the healing work of the messiah did mention that we all like sheep have gone astray. St. Paul supported this when he wrote that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
Next to be considered is that God can liberate us from uncommon places and through uncommon people. The restoration of the people from exile was activated by the King of Persia who could be likened to a heathen; one who did not know God nor worshipped Him. However, at the appointed time God made Cyrus, the King of Persia to activate the restoration of the people of Israel to their homeland. Much like how the Barbarian King spared the captives from execution when God stirred up the birth of his son at the moment they were to be executed.
One pertinent question we need to ask at this point is what motivates the mercy of God in our lives. The answer to this can be found in the Second Reading (Eph.2:4-10). Among other things St. Paul indicated that we are saved by God’s GRACE. Grace is thus the vehicle that conveys God’s mercy to us and grace by definition is unmerited favour. Without the grace of God we cannot receive God’s mercy and compassion. We can make bold to establish here that the captives in our story were saved by the grace of God which stirred up the mercy of the King.
The Gospel Reading today (John 3:14-21) recounts the instructional dialogue between our Lord Jesus Christ and a man called Nicodemus. Earlier on, Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night to ask what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God and our Lord told him that he must be born again. He went further to ask if he should enter the womb of his mother to be born anew but our Lord told him that the new birth will be by water and the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel today was a continuation of that dialogue and it is remarkably one of the few places our Lord had a long instructional dialogue with one individual; this is second to his dialogue with the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-28). If we read the gospel passage in-between lines we will discover that the word “BELIEVE” was mentioned five times.
The word “BELIEVE” has a lot to do with faith; in fact, faith entails believing without seeing (Heb. 11:1). In the dialogue, our Lord indicated that salvation will come to those who believe:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life”.
From this focus on the subject of BELIEF, it is very clear that we can only attract the mercy of God based on our faith in him: “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already”. It is thus not enough to relax and remain on the presumptuous ground that God is merciful. There is a serious need for us to believe in the power and efficacy of God’s mercy to be able to receive it in full.
This season is dependable enough for us to reflect on our faith quotient. Often we are more comfortable with disbelieving than believing. When we are in the state of disbelief we practically relapse into darkness. The men who loved darkness rather than light are those who are living in disbelief. Those who believe have nothing to do with darkness because they are radiating in the light of good deeds supported by the grace of God.
As we enter into the fourth week of Lent, let us be conscious of the fact that God’s mercy should not be taken for granted. We should not consciously relapse into sin thinking that God will always be merciful to us. Let us also remember that He is not only merciful but also just. As we continue to believe in Him, may his merciful love through His grace continue to abide with us.
This traditional Lenten hymn by E. Vaughan is highly fitting here:
God of mercy and compassion,
Look with pity upon me,
Father, let me call Thee Father,
‘Tis Thy child returns to Thee.
Jesus, Lord, I ask for mercy;
Let me not implore in vain;
All my sins, I now detest them,
Never will I sin again.
- By my sins I have deserved
Death and endless misery,
Hell with all its pains and torments,
And for all eternity.
- By my sins I have abandoned
Right and claim to heav’n above.
Where the saints rejoice forever
In a boundless sea of love.
- See our Savior, bleeding, dying,
On the cross of Calvary;
To that cross my sins have nail’d Him,
Yet He bleeds and dies for me.