God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes I him might not perish but might have eternal life [John 3:16]. Thanks to televised sporting events, this sentence became for a while one of the best known in the entire New Testament. I guess that’s good publicity for the Gospel! God loved the world so much, he gave the world his only son, so that everyone who believes might have eternal life. The grammar of the sentence suggests cause and effect. So much does God love the world that this is what he has done for it!
Of course, it should hardly come as a complete surprise that God loves the world. He is the one who created it, after all! On the other hand, we may easily enough be tempted to forget just how much God loves the world, when we see so much that seems so wrong with our world. Left to itself, the world can seem to be a dreadful place at times. With all the world’s natural calamities, to which must be added all the misery directly attributable to human behavior, the world must seem a horrible place indeed - if left to itself.
Listening to today’s 1st reading [2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23], we sense how little seems to have changed in the world. The point of the story – certainly the point of including it in the Lenten liturgy – is to remind us of the long legacy of human sinfulness, which has been long and loud, and to remind us that the one piece of good news is that God has not left the world to itself. God’s compassion on his people and his dwelling place, led him to inspire Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, to let the Jews return to Jerusalem. That same divine compassion ultimately led him to send us his Son – because, as Saint Paul assures us [Ephesians 2:4], he is rich in mercy
Yet how easily tempted are we to escape from the burdens and responsibilities of this messed-up world which God loves so much? How many sects and cults have tempted people to try to avoid the messy, complicated burdens of society, work, and citizenship, the human burdens that define our life in the world – rather than accepting, healing, and renewing our relationships with others and with the created world [Cf. Placuit Deo, 2]?
In classical mythology, when Pandora opened the box that released so many evils into the world, she closed it just in time to trap hope in the box - thus effectively leaving the world to itself. The book of Chronicles, in contrast, highlights how the long cycle of human misbehavior and its consequences was broken by God’s not leaving the world to itself, by his surprising choice of Cyrus to be a beacon of hope in the midst of so much misery and wickedness.
The Good news of the Gospel is the hope God has offered us in Jesus his Son, who, far from leaving the world to itself, has become part of it. The hope he offers is thus not a license to abandon the world but a challenge to move forward with the task of living and working in the world. This Good news – which the Church is in the world as part of the world in order to proclaim to the world – is the hope offered us in Jesus in whom we have been transformed into agents of God’s grace for the transformation of the world which God loves so much.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in him [Ephesians 2:10].
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 11, 2018.