Lord, we thank You thank once again You have tricked these people into thinking that we are worth this feast. All of us here have gotten what we deserve, but we thank you that these people do not know any better. Amen. -- Some time ago, this was a prayer thanking God that we had spoiled recipients at the Community Meal. The anonymous man asked if he could say the prayer for that evening before the meal. Naturally, a new prayer was needed. But I was reminded of that sentiment many times recently. A number of parishioners, AFM recipients, and even strangers seem to have been struggling with the idea of God's wrath and punishment during the course of the last week or ten days. Perhaps they have always been struggling with it; maybe I just had ears to hear it recently. Such is not surprising as the Church, through the writings of some of its brightest minds and saints, has often struggled with the balance between God's wrath and God's mercy.
Our Gospel lesson from John this past week includes, perhaps, one of the most famous verses in Scripture. People who are not Christian know John 3:16 and its claim. One cannot watch a major sporting event without spotting the sign in the background of an extra point, a pitch, a free throw, or some other aspect of an athletic contest. Even people who attend church only on Christmas and Easter know John 3:16. For all our determined efforts to avoid reading Scripture, few people can go through life without learning the verse.
But I wonder. Do we really pay attention as we read or recite the verse? Really pay attention? So many of us go through life with this misunderstanding that the God of the Old Testament is somehow more vindictive than the God of the New Testament. "The God of the OT is a smiter; the God of the NT is a lover" might be one way to characterize the distinction we make of God. Jesus, though, reminds us that God's punishment and God's mercy exist in both. Jesus cites Numbers 21. If ever there was a symbol of God's punishment and God's mercy, that is a good one. Israel has rebelled, again. God has punished, again. But the story does not end there. God instructs Moses to hoist the snake on a stick and have the people look at it. All who look at it are saved. God shows mercy, again. And Jesus reminds us that He will be raised. Literally, God's punishment will be poured upon Him for the sins of everyone.
Yet His story and ours does not end there. God vindicates Jesus by raising Him on that glorious Easter morning! God the Father glorifies the obedience of the Son. And yet, all of this was done for one purpose. Jesus came into the world not as punishment, as John expressly tells us in 3:17; Jesus came because "God so loved the world." Jesus' entire incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension occured because God so loved the world. Sometimes we go through life's valleys thinking we are being punished by God. Perhaps we are correct in that we are living in the consequences of our own actions and choices. But the punishment has been paid by Jesus. Those secret sins which each of us have and each of us think make us totally unloveable are known by God. And yet He loved each of us so much, He desired to spend eternity with each one of us so much, that He sent His Son to proclaim that love and to accomplish what none of us could for ourselves. The next time you see a sign bearing the verse or hear someone simply saying John 3:16, remember the beginning of that verse. For God so loved the world. All that He has done, all that He has accomplished, has been to draw you and me and all others whom we meet into an eternal embrace. By worldly standards, we are unworthy of such love. But by His standards, we are His sons and His daughters. He has promised that His Son has taken on our deserved punishment, and He always keeps His promises. Rather than be motivated by fear of Him, we should approach Him with thankfulness and praise, knowing that the world's judgment is not the one that matters, knowing that His love for each of us is the true treasure, the source of true peace and true happiness.