At many televised sporting or public events we’ll see a sign held up by a devout Christian with this Scriptural reference: John, chapter 3, verse 16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.
Verse 17, which immediately follows, is also highly significant:
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
These two verses became famous to many people as the result of America’s astronaut program. During one of the lunar explorations, special space suits were designed for the pilots of the command module and the lunar module; each had a long flexible tube to supply oxygen to the astronauts while they were walking in space. The receptacle in the command pilot’s suit for the oxygen tube was called the J3:16, and in the lunar pilot’s suit the J3:17. The designer stated that he was specifically thinking of these two passages from St. John’s Gospel; he explained that just as J3:16 and J3:17 supplied the astronauts with needed oxygen during their journey from one space module to another, so these Scripture verses supply us with the encouragement and guidance we need during our journey through life (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series I, p. 26). Jesus’ words in the Gospel are like a breath of fresh air, giving us the wonderful and amazing news that there are no limits to God’s offer of mercy and salvation.
Throughout the centuries, and sadly, even today, many people have understood God only as a Judge to be feared, and not as a Father to be loved. Today’s readings bring out the latter themes of love and forgiveness, which are vitally necessary in understanding of who God truly is. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul tells us that God “is rich in mercy, [and] because of the great love He had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions [and sins, He] brought us to life with Christ.” We did not earn or deserve this; it’s His generous gift—and no greater proof of God’s love could ever be asked or given. In Second Chronicles, however, we are reminded that rejecting this love can have dire consequences. The leaders and people of Judah turned away from God and rejected the messengers He sent, so the Lord allowed His chosen people to fall into the hands of their enemies, and a long period of suffering and exile resulted. Even then, however, the Lord did not forget them; He inspired King Cyrus of Persia to free the Jews and allow them to return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Gospel Jesus promises that those who believe in Him, and live accordingly, will be saved. As Jesus said, during Israel’s long journey in the desert, many people were bitten by poisonous snakes, but those who looked upon a bronze serpent made and attached to a pole by Moses were healed. In the same way, Jesus was lifted up on the cross—and all who look on Him with faith are saved from the poison of sin. Thus, through Jesus we are given the chance of salvation.
One hot summer day a girl entered an ice cream shop, carefully clutching her money, but the owner sternly ordered her outside and told her to read the sign on the front door. Disappointed and embarrassed, she stepped out of the shop, followed by a big man who had just purchased an ice cream cone. The girl read the sign, which said “No Bare Feet,” and because she was barefooted, she started to turn away in tears. The man sat down on the bench in front of the store, took off his size 12 shoes, and called to the girl, saying, “Here. You won’t be able to walk in these, but if you sort of slide along, you can get your ice cream cone.” Then he lifted the girl up and put her feet into his shoes, saying, “Take your time; I get tired of moving them around, and it’ll feel good just to sit here and eat my cone.” With a huge smile of thanks, the girl shuffled inside and made her purchase (Cavanagh, Sower’s Seeds Aplenty, p. 5). By demonstrating a generous and compassionate heart, a big man helped a little girl follow the rules in a loving way—and this is what God does for us: He exercises mercy in helping us meet the demands of divine justice. On our own, our sinfulness makes it impossible for us ever to be saved—but through the gift of God’s Son, all things become possible.
Lent is usually experienced as a time of penance and sorrow for sin, and this is how it’s supposed to be—but it should also be an experience of joy and relief. God does not hold our sins against us; if we are truly sorry, He is certain to forgive us and make us part of His Kingdom. Moreover, if we’re not even sure we are truly repentant, but want to be sorry, He counts that as genuine contrition on our part. This wonderful news means three things in particular for us. First of all, God desires that we love Him, not fear Him—and everything we do should be motivated by this love. The Lord desires our faith to be a wholehearted response to Him, and not merely the following of rules and command-ments. Secondly, we must be honest—both with God and with ourselves—in admitting our sinfulness, and we must use the grace He offers to overcome our faults. The Lord always forgives us, but He asks that we never give up the struggle to improve ourselves. Thirdly, we must in turn forgive others. Our Heavenly Father gives mercy to those who show themselves to be merciful. Only when we let go of anger and bitterness are our hands free to receive God’s forgiveness and blessing.
If there’s anyone here who’s wondering, “Does God really forgive all my sins?,” the answer is “yes,” for doing so gives Him great joy. If anyone wonders, “Will God forgive even the sin I’m most ashamed of, or the one I’m having the most trouble overcoming?,” once more the answer is “yes,” for our Heavenly Father is not only rich in mercy, but lavish in sharing it. If anyone wonders, “Will God save me in spite of my unworthiness?,” again the answer is “yes,” if only we choose to accept His generous gift. Today’s Gospel promises that God so loved the world He gave His only Son for our salvation, and that Jesus came into the world not to condemn it, but to save it. These truths are a central part of our faith, and Lent in particular is a time for us to reflect upon and rejoice in them. There are no limits to God’s offer of love and mercy—and it’s up to us not to limit our response.