Lent 2 – Being Made Fit

Genesis 12:1-9

Romans 4:1-8, 13-17

John 3:1-17

 

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

These are the words that Google generates as the most popular final verse to the famous Christmas carol Away in a Manger.  In fact, the most popular recording of the song by country singer Martina McBride, from which Google generates its default search result, doesn’t even include this last verse; apparently going to heaven (which, of course, means dying) doesn’t sit well with the sweet nineteenth century sentimentality that characterizes the rest of the verses.  But even the words shown above represent a sanitized version of Christian hymnody compared to the version I learned as a child—an unchurched child, I might add.  The final line of the song I learned as a child went, “And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

This original version of the song called on God to act not simply for us, but upon us, changing our character that we might be ready to reside in the presence of the pure and undefiled Jesus profiled for us in the first three stanzas of the song.  It pointed us—gently, to be sure—toward the inescapable reality that we are not fit for that presence yet, that if we had been present at the idyllic scene we have had sketched for us, we would have altered its balance, defacing it fatally.

The recognition that we are not prepared to be even in the infant Jesus’ presence (let alone as he portrayed for us in the Revelation of St. John and the Creeds of the Church as the judge of the living and the dead!), is fundamental to appreciating what is arguably the most famous single line of Scripture, which appears in our readings for today: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

If we are not in need of being made fit for heaven—if we are simply accepted by God as many modernist construals of the gospel would have us be—the cross is not simply a scandal of man’s inhumanity to man, it is the most appalling act of negligence on the part of God; rather than it being the supreme act of sacrifice on God’s part, the cross becomes a moment when God either will not or cannot protect His own Son.

But the Gospel is clear.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  The cross is for our healing; it is the medicine for our sin.  This medicine is given gratis, as a blessing by God, because God so loves the world, not because anyone—not even Abraham, the “father of faith”—has earned this medicine, as Paul makes clear in our second reading.

And those who are so blessed and believe it appear strange to the world.  They seem to be blown hither and thither.  They pack up their things and move on what appears to be a whim.  They go on mission trips.  They sell their things and give to the poor.  They give up prosperity and take vows of poverty and chastity.  They give their time and energy to seemingly hopeless causes.  The world does not know where they come from or where they go.

But they don’t care.  They have more than a new lease on life; they have a truly new life.  They have been born from above— born again —by water and the Spirit.  They have been made fit for heaven as gift from the God who loves them… who loves them so much that He gave His only Son that they should not perish but have eternal life.

 

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