Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent,
Cycle C, given at St. Jude
March 20, 2022,
by Deacon Ken Steponaitis
Our purpose in these 40 days of Lent is to work towards understanding God and our relationship with God. And sometimes our understanding is skewed. Often, as humans, we tend to want to make God in our image and likeness rather than attempting to take on God’s image and likeness. It’s a kind of stubbornness. Now being stubborn is not necessarily a bad thing but only if you are right ... only if you know the truth. And whenever we live in the truth and act persistently in accordance with the truth, well let’s just call that righteous or divine stubbornness. Our task, then, is to get a glimpse into the mind of God, into God’s truths so that we move away from that negative kind of stubbornness. It’s what is known as repentance. It is a changing of the mind and heart.
Imagine a Christian director of a movie, or a play and who had to depict God in a script. And because he didn’t study the faith and didn’t understand the true meaning of scripture, like the stories of Moses or Jesus, it is quite likely that director would see an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, all-creating God maybe like a mega superhero. One that was a combination of all the other superheroes of the movies we know about. This director I would think, would probably not conceive of depicting God as a burning bush, and probably not an infant child born into a nearly destitute family; or even a God who would willingly be mocked, persecuted, hung on a cross and left to die. In other words, it is likely that the director would depict a god that was nothing like God, simply because the director in his kind of stubbornness could not understand the ways of God. For this director, it is likely the superhero god he conjured in his mind would use brute force and destruction to solve problems.
It is because of this kind of stubbornness, I believe, we all struggle with what is going on in Ukraine. The war rages on even though we know God has the power to directly stop the war. But we are not God, and our ways are not His. And as much as you and I want to see it all end, one of the things we have to remind ourselves is that although God too wants it to end, it must end on God’s terms not ours … that there is a purpose in his divine stubbornness. Now we can either, through our own stubbornness, turn away from God and try to solve problems without God, or we can turn towards prayer and ask God to help us understand His ways and trust that amidst all the death and destruction and evil, there is a greater good being orchestrated. “Therefore, [as St. Paul in our second reading writes,] whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
So how can we overcome this human short sidedness? As I was going through formation to be ordained a deacon, I found out something that I thought was incredible. There is a prayer that I pray, as Father and I are preparing the bread and wine for consecration. This prayer is said just before Father begins the Eucharistic prayer to turn bread and wine into the Body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ; (Something else that movie director would have probably never conceived of.) Anyway, the prayer goes like this: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbles himself to share in our humanity.”
To me this is mind blowing! We are supposed to share in Christ’s divinity?! That’s what this prayer is saying. The water symbolizes humanity, and the wine symbolizes divinity. As a drop or two of water mixes into the wine it is a symbol of humanity being integrated (subsumed) into divinity. God became fully human, so we can share divinity with him. God wants us to cooperate and work side-by-side with him.
So, now with all that in mind let’s look at our readings to see how this works. In the story of Moses, and we only read the beginnings of the story today, but if you read the whole story, you know that Moses was very reluctant to do what God asked of him. So much so that we read in Exodus 4:14, “Then the LORD became angry with Moses.” God was insistent that Moses go to Egypt to help God free the Israelites from the bondage of the Pharoah. And to help Moses, God gives him the powers and words of God. For example, Moses was given a staff that when laid down becomes a serpent. But picked up turns back into a staff. And it is through the staff, amazing things happened. Moses uses the staff as a means to impose the power of God. He shared in God’s divinity.
As Moses is kind of loping up a mountain while tending a flock, he sees a burning bush that is not consumed. He’s curious how the bush was on fire but was not being destroyed.
Theologians have speculated on the meaning of this scene but one commentary I read talked about how it was a prefiguration of Jesus entering in the world … enveloping the world but not destroying it. If God didn’t really care about us and all His creation, He could easily have started all over again by completely obliterating us in a way a superhero might solve the problem. But God does not work that way. In his divine stubbornness God is willing to enter our physical world and consume us with a purifying fire that does not destroy. All so He can work with us, teach us and help us to live in His image and likeness.
Then God calls Moses by name! Again, if God didn’t care about humanity why would he even know the name of Moses. God could have just kept it impersonal. And at the same time God wanted to teach Moses of God’s divine nature, so God tells Moses to remove his sandals because he is on Holy Ground.
Now things get interesting. Here we have an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-creating, all-loving God who could have easily in the flash of an instant transplanted all the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land without Moses’ help, without all the hassle of 10 plaques, the deaths of the first born during the Passover, without splitting open the Red Sea and without all the moans and complaints of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years. But that is not how God works. God wants humanity to share in his redemptive hand. God wants us to take part in God’s creative process. And that’s where Moses’s and all of humanity’s stubbornness really comes out; when God asks us to do something we don’t think we can do or something that doesn’t make sense to our human inclinations.
Have you ever entered a conversation with someone, and as they are asking you for a favor and maybe even before they get to describing the favor, you start to mull over in your mind what excuses you can come up with as to why you can’t do the favor? Well, that’s exactly what Moses in his stubbornness seems to be doing in this story. In response to God’s request to go back to Egypt, Moses doesn’t say, yea I’ll get right on it. First, he asks God for his name! In those days people didn’t think in terms of one god, rather they thought in terms of many gods. Gods that had different powers and influences. And these gods had names. By invoking the name of a god, you were in a way saying I have a god on my side that you don’t have on yours and my god has a power your god can’t overcome.
But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of all gods. Our God is more than any god that man can conceive of. Our God is more than our very existence, more than the cosmos. God is the very essence of being. God is ALL in ALL. And God is beyond naming. And so, God answers, “I am who am!” Because that’s the truth of God.
In our Gospel reading we find more clues about who God is and how God works and more importantly how we take on Jesus' divinity. There was a prevailing belief at the time of Jesus and to a certain extent in our own time, that if bad things happen, the reason they happen is because whoever was afflicted must have sinned grievously enough to warrant such suffering. This is why in the reading today it starts with people telling Jesus about the killings that occurred at the hands of Pontius Pilate and those crushed by the falling tower in Siloam. As if to say to Jesus, the reason these people died is because their sins were so grievous, they got what they deserved.
So how does Jesus respond? He doesn’t say, yea you’re right they deserved everything they got. But neither does he say they should have never died the way they did. Instead, He uses the opportunity to get them to see how God sees things … that the magnitude of our suffering isn’t determined by the magnitude of our sin. If it were, we should “all perish as they did!”
And how does Jesus explain this? He tells the story of a person who planted a fig tree and after 3 years because there was no fruit coming from the tree, he wanted to destroy it … cut it down. However, there was a gardener who was willing to cultivate and fertilize the ground. If we look at the symbolism of the story, metaphorically speaking, the person who planted the fig tree represents anyone with the prevailing belief that grievous sinners need to be destroyed. The fruitless fig tree itself, represents us who are too stubborn to understand the mercy and love of God and refuse to cooperate with God. The soil is the world we live in. And the fruit, is the good works and decisions we make in our shared divinity with God.
But remember, this does not promise us that we will not suffer. God does not work that way. Some of the greatest of all people suffer greatly, including Jesus himself. Our job is to share in the divine life of Jesus. We do this by first repenting, changing our hearts and minds by coming to know and love Jesus, by trusting in God the Father, knowing He has his divine plan. A plan he wants us to be a part of.
Throughout all of scripture we read story after story of humanities fall and God being there to lift us back up. Time and time again we turn away from God, but God never relents. He pursues us and reveals himself to us in a myriad of ways. God is not a God that wants to wipe clean the slate and start all over again. God is relentless in his divine stubbornness to bring us back to Him, back to the promised land. God is not a genie in a bottle, or a superhero made in our image and likeness. God did not enter the world to destroy us, but so too God did not come solve all our problems and shower us with all our worldly desires. Rather, God uses all things and yes, unfortunately, even suffering, “to work for good for those who love God.” God has an agenda but not our agenda. And often we are too stubborn to accept this. But rest assured that God does look out for us, and God loves us beyond anything we can imagine. God adopts us through our baptism and wants to transfigure us so that we can live in His heavenly kingdom, with Him, in glory forever.
In our Lenten journey, through prayer, obtain a change of heart. Through fasting, harden your resolve, obtain divine stubbornness, to avoid sin and evil and come to know and love God. And, through alms giving, that is, giving of ourselves, even to those who seem unforgiveable, or unworthy, become the hands and feet of Jesus, sharing in his divinity so that we become gardeners to the world we live in.