GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD – Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

March 14, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6 (6ab)
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is observed by many western Christians as Laetare (“Rejoice”) Sunday, a mid-season respite from the rigors of the Lenten journey. Laetare Sunday takes its name from the first Latin word of today’s traditional entrance antiphon, a text that is based on Isaiah 66:10-11: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.”

The Scripture readings for this Sunday in Year B of the Lectionary offer ample reason to rejoice. They remind us of the abundant, extravagant, and overflowing love of God that has changed everything.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to the fearful Nicodemus. To this religious council member who had come to him under cover of darkness he utters one the most quoted verses in the entire Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The familiarity of this verse should not desensitize us to its astonishing truth nor stand in the way of receiving its powerful message. All of us have at one time or another been made to feel that we were “less than” and many among us have been told in various ways throughout their lives that they are of little worth. Yet no matter how undeserving we may think ourselves to be or how much evil there is in the world around us, God’s love is never weakened or withdrawn. In Jesus, the Light shining in the darkness, God’s faithful love has taken flesh and shared our vulnerability. He has been “lifted up” on the cross and exalted in glory so that we might share in eternal life.

This good news gets even better: The eternal life brought to us by God’s love is not merely a far-off promise but is already here. In today’s Epistle reading, the author of Ephesians assures us that even though we were at one time dead in our sins, the overwhelming and merciful love of God “has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). Did you notice that this text speaks not of what God will do, but of what God has already done for us? Eternal life is a present reality for those who are joined to Christ.

The author of Ephesians further reminds us that “by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:5). New life in Christ is not something that we have earned or worked for but is purely a gift from God. There is nothing that we can do to achieve it for ourselves. We are called to hear the good news, to believe that it is really true, and to live the gift we have received.

As we journey with Jesus toward the cross, we are called today to pause and rejoice in the great good news of God’s unbounded love. It’s true that accepting the gift changes our lives. The response of faith that we hear about in both the Epistle and Gospel today is not merely intellectual assent as in the recitation of a creed, but rather is union with the One who gave himself in obedience to God’s will. “Belief” and “faith” are expressed in action. But it all begins with God’s gift and the outpouring of God’s love.

Laetare! Let us rejoice!

A Hymn for Today: “To God Be the Glory”

This popular gospel song by prolific American hymn writer Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915), was published in the United States in 1875 with an original tune—still in use today—by William H. Doane. It was largely forgotten on this side of the Atlantic but became popular in Great Britain. The hymn was reintroduced to the United States following the 1957 Billy Graham Crusade in Britain.

This joyful hymn celebrates God’s gift of Jesus to the human race and even quotes John 3:16 in the first stanza. The second stanza (omitted here and in some recent hymnals) expresses a highly individualistic and immediate view of faith and smacks of a satisfaction understanding of salvation that dates back to the eleventh-century theologian Anselm of Canterbury.

To God be the glory, great things he hath done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
who yielded his life an atonement for sin,
and opened the life-gate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father through Jesus the Son,
and give him the glory, great things he hath done!

Great things he hath taught us, great things he hath done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer, and higher, and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see. Refrain

Text: Fanny J. Crosby, 1875
Tune: TO GOD BE THE GLORY, William H. Doane, 1875

Image Credit: Saving grace to all humankind, Washington National Cathedral

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.