Are You Listening?
By Fr. Robert J. Carr
Homily for the 4th Sunday in Lent Year B
One of the rules of the Sunday readings is that usually the first reading and the Gospel share a connection. Now that is there, but not to the level that is usually the case. Indeed, when I read the first reading (2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23), I suspected the gospel was going to be completely different, but in fact was surprised to find this gospel reading: John 3:16ff.
Well let us look at the first reading and the gospel.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE
The first reading from Chronicles gives us a thumbnail sketch of one of the key periods in the history of the Jewish people. It is called the Babylonian Exile. The time begins at 587 B.C. during the life of Jeremiah the prophet. He had been warning the Jews that they had turned from God and because of that they were walking down the day to disaster. They did not listen. They disregarded his message and they persecuted him in an attempt to silence him. They never listened. Then in 587 BC, the Babylonians, which would be what is today in modern day Iraq about fifty miles south of Baghdad, came and took over the city. They destroyed the temple, blinded the king of Jerusalem and carried him and so many others off to Babylon into slavery.
We are reminded why this happened: "they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy." (2 Chr 36:16) This is a rather ominous warning. The people had become so evil that there was no turning back.
This exile lasted forty years and then King Cyrus of Persia invaded Babylon, took it over and sent the Jews home. He helped them rebuild their temple and their country. One of the principles of the bible is that God destroys a city only if the city has become so evil that to not destroy it would perpetuate the evil. This explains why the Babylonian Exile. To be sure there was a movement to prevent this and to lead the people back to God before the Exile, but it was too little, too late.
We see this in the background and now move to the gospel.
It would seem that this is completely unrelated to what we read in Chronicles. However, let's take a closer look.
First, I know I say this in virtually every homily. I will say it again. In the background is something that Jesus knows but those to whom he is speaking do not. What happened at the Babylonian Exile is about to happen again. In about 40 years the Roman Soldiers will do to Jerusalem what the Babylonians did to the city in 587 B.C. This time, however, the temple will be destroyed and to this day it has not been rebuilt. This is because Jesus is now the temple. He is the holy of holies and he is the tabernacle.
What Jesus says is one of the most famous words of the bible. For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life. This is the famous verse of John 3:16. However, in a society that does not recognize or understand the importance of those words, this powerful promise is meaningless.
AND WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH A MILLION DOLLARS, MISTER?
What Jesus promises here is eternal life. However, what do you do if you live in a society that does not care about that promise, or for that matter outright rejects it? Then this promise is nothing. It is like giving a million dollars to a billionaire. What is he going to do with a million dollars? It is pittance compared to what he has and he ultimately does not need it.
DEATH AROUND US
This is the problem when we have those words in a society that completely dismisses the promise. Either there is no focus on death or there is a trivializing of life in light of death.
In other societies this is not the case. You may have heard on the news about the bus that fell over a cliff in Chile. This kind of accident is common in the Andes. We do not hear of them so much up here, but it happened at least one time during the summer I spent in Ecuador on my second trip there. I bring that up for a reason. When I was in Ecuador death was always staring us in the face. I was in a place that reminded me a lot of the movies from the old west complete with cowboys on horseback.
We were surrounded by cholera, by various insects common in the tropics. One American warned us about some bee that does not sting but bores a hole in your arm that takes about three months to heal. There was malaria, dengue fever, and of course poverty.
One of my profound impressions of my journey was being very tired. The roads were not paved and that constant bumping around is tiring. I was working in another language which is also tiring and just the whole culture shock can be exhausting. I remember getting tired of seeing so many people missing at least one limb and just wanting to be someplace where everyone has four limbs.
This kind of life and death situation is exactly what you could expect Jesus knew and what the people who heard him lived every day of their lives.
In these environments death is always imminent. When someone speaks to you of eternal life where suffering does not exist, you hear those words. However, when you are in an environment that is like Heaven on Earth such words can sound like a million dollar grant to a billionaire.
There is another factor in the background as well and that is technology. One of the key factors of technology is that it gives us control that those before us never had. Not even the richest of men who ever lived in all of time could sit in an overstuffed chair sitting in front of one box holding a smaller box covered in buttons screaming "Entertain me!" as he presses those buttons. However, most Americans have this as their ritual every night. Technology gives us a feeling of control that again leads us further and further away from a feeling a need to care about the promise of Christ. It gives us the false belief that we are in total control of our environments and are just seconds away from controlling the forces of life and death.
A SLOW TRAIN COMING
Yet, in the background, as in the first reading, there is a slow train coming. During the time of Jeremiah, that slow train coming was called the Babylonian Empire. We too can expect a slow train coming, one that is heading towards our society which has turned from God. The exact same kind of society described in the first reading has become our own world here. We are turning to other gods. The gods of technology, the gods of the occult, the gods of money, the gods of careerism: These are our gods. They have led us away from the true God. The warnings are there everyday.
If we recognize God as our God then these words of Jesus are words we embrace. In Him we have eternal life. If, however, our focus is on a world where death is something that is too far in the future to care about, then it will become our slow train coming. We will have nothing on the day it arrives because we never planned for it. We expected to be saved instead by our technology and our false beliefs. They will have failed us.
THE BOOKENDS TRAGEDIES
If you know me well, that you know that I am a student of the Titanic. You will also know that I talk about what I call the bookends tragedies. They are the Titanic 12 years after the turn into the 20th Century and the Space Shuttle Challenger 14 years before the turn out of the 20th Century. Both tragedies were rooted in technology, in a belief we had conquered the world and both had ominous warnings.
The Titanic passengers were warned that they tempted death if they went on a ship that boasted it had conquered nature. The Captain was warned that there were icebergs up ahead. The weather warned that they were in very dangerous surroundings for everything was dangerously calm. The warnings were never heeded and the ship sunk.
The Challenger project leaders were warned that if the space shuttle was given a go at lift off, on a thirty-six degree day in Florida it would explode. The leaders rejected the warnings. The engineers who blew the whistle were right and our own belief in our own dominance of the world ended right before our eyes.
Jesus is giving us this promise and it is ours, but look around you. There are so many that are laughing it off. God is dead they scream. They spit in our faces and legislate against us. They tell us that the experts say there is no God and that when we die, we die. They mock Jesus' promise. It is meaningless to them. They do not see the slow train coming.
Tomorrow is always a new day. Yet for the person who turns to Christ, it is always the beginning of eternity. Every day on Earth is one day closer to our first day in Heaven. Do you hear the promise, or do you laugh it off? Is death to you a non sequitor or do you see it as something that you, like everyone else, is planning to for the day when it comes.
Jesus knew that time was limited for the Jews of his day. He warned them not to build their houses on the sand of false security. Those who heard found life, those who did not died at the hands of the Romans and had nothing.
The attitude is your choice to maintain, because the promise is yours, if you accept it. If you don't then you are on your own. Just like the poor people at the time of Babylonian Exile who did not listen to Jeremiah. Or those from ancient Israel in the 8th Century BC who did not listen to Isaiah. Or those in the first century AD who did not listen to Jesus. Are you listening? Are you prepared? Are you ready? Then Embrace Christ and his promise.
Our current security can change at any moment for the Earth has no guarantees. Yet, Jesus' promise of eternal life does come with a guarantee if you accept what he has to offer you. Do you?
http://www.revrobertjcarr.com MA, US
Fr. Robert J. Carr - Priest, 617 230-3300
Babylonian Exile, Technology, John 3:16, Jesus
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