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“Love of Obedience to God”
March 12, 2017: The Second Sunday In Lent
Genesis 12: 1 – 8/ Psalm 33: 12 – 22/Romans 4: 1 – 5/ John 3: 1 - 17
Bishop Ariel Cornelio P. Santos
We continue our journey in this Season of Lent, and we are looking forward to a glorious Easter where we would resurrect with our Lord. We begin a new life with Him, a life that is a vindication, of suffering, and in all that, victorious.
Today’s Old Testament reading finds Abraham being called by God to leave his past so that He could take him on a journey to obtain the promise that He had for him. Abraham was an idol worshipper when God called him. God told him, “Turn away from these things. I know that your life is secure and settled. You have servants, cattle, and livestock. Turn away from these things. Give them all up. Leave them all behind and follow Me, and I will start something great through you. I will bless you and I will cause people to be blessed in you and through you.”
Abraham responded by obeying by faith, and this was reckoned to him as righteousness. He left a life of security and believed the promise of God. He temporarily lived in tents and he became a stranger in the land of promise, but Abraham had his eyes on the city which had foundations and whose architect and builder is God. God was going to begin something great through Abraham, and He would make him the instrument of His blessing. Abraham, in the foreign land, in the unsettled situation, started calling upon the Name of the Lord. It was a very good starting point.
Abraham’s story points to our own story, to our own Christian walk. We are ourselves have been called to follow God - individually. In the Penitential Rite, we have changed the pronouns to “I.” We now own up to our own sins. In other forms, it says, “I confess because I have sinned through my own fault.” It is not because our parents raised us up in a certain way, not because our environment forced us to be something that we shouldn’t be or not because our peers affected us. It is because, “I have sinned through my own fault.” We own up because individually, we make that 180 degree turn when we are called by God and leave the world behind and follow the cross before us.
In this process, Jesus called it in the gospel as being born-again. What is born again? If we are baptized, we are born again. If we are born, it is a beginning. When we are born again, it is a new beginning. It is a renunciation of the past and the leaving of all behind – all that God wants us to leave behind – and a follower of the Lord. It is a decision to follow the Lord individually and personally. When we have done this, then, we are included in the household of God.
Why do we have to be born again? Jesus says that it is for us to see and enter the kingdom of God. It is to obtain His promise of eternal life. It is a futility for God to give up His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life. This is the purpose of Christ coming – going through all the suffering, giving His life, resurrecting, and ascending to the Father’s right hand – so that we can have eternal life. It all begins with being born-again so that we can obtain the promise and taste and see the goodness of God.
How do we do this? A 200 year-old tradition tells us a certain way: pray a Sinner’s Prayer, accept Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior, and then one is born again. There is nothing wrong with this, but a 2000 year-old tradition says that we are born-again by water and the Spirit. These are two agents that God uses whenever He would start something new, something great, something exciting, and something very good. God ends bad things and begin new and good things by water and the Spirit.
In the beginning, the earth was formless and void. It was a wasteland and it was under water. The Spirit of God was hovering the surface of the deep. Out of the wasteland, with God using the water and the Spirit, comes out earth. The water and the land were separated. Out of the wasteland, to borrow the words in Genesis, came out something very good. God started creation using water and His Holy Spirit.
After a time, man became sinful and God decided to renew the earth and wash away that which has corrupted it. He instructed Noah to build an ark and He washed the earth with water. After the water had subsided and the ark was resting on a mountain, a dove was hovering over the ark, which signified the spirit of God. In its beak was an olive leaf or branch signifying peace. Now, there is victory again, a new beginning, something very good, and something great.
After so many years, Israel again started turning away from God again and found themselves in slavery in the land of Egypt under the oppression of Pharaoh. Pharaoh symbolized the devil; Egypt symbolized the world; slavery symbolized sin. God delivered Israel from all of these, and He made them pass through the Red Sea – through the water led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Again, this was the presence of the Spirit of God. Water and Spirit are the agencies through which new beginning comes about.
Centuries and generations after, God wanted Israel to come back to Him again. He said to them, “I will renew My covenant with you. I will sprinkle water on you and I will put My spirit in You and cause you to obey My commandments so that you can walk with Me, fellowship with Me, and be at peace and are reconciled to Me.” This is the grace of God through the agencies of water and the Spirit.
In Jesus’ own baptism, at the start of His ministry, He was baptized in the Jordan River – by water. After He came out of the water, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon Him and rested on Him and He started His ministry from thereon. This is the grace of God. Being born-again is not by works – having to do something to be born again like accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. An infant, being born-again by water and the Spirit, doesn’t even know what is happening because it is God’s grace.
I speak in tongues once in a while, which I do in preparation for ministry, for my homilies, for minor and major things. I utter words that I don’t even understand. All I know is that I believe the Holy Spirit strengthens me, encourages me, builds me up, edifies me, and prepares me for the work of service. It is God’s grace, not by the works of man or anything that man puts his faith in.
A horse is a false hope for victory. A theological degree is a false hope for a successful homily or speech. It is not that God told Israel not to use a horse whenever they go to battle, but it is not putting their trust in it. It is putting their trust in Him because grace comes from Him alone.
Titus 3:5-6 says, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, but the washing (by water) of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace, we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” It is by water and the Spirit that God starts and revolutionizes great and good things. Like baptism, it is by God’s grace. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace of God.
Romans 4 says that God credits righteousness to us who believe. Put our trust in Him, believe and go to His prescribe procedures and He credits this to us as righteousness. It is all by God’s grace.
There was a pilgrimage that was CEC-led, and it was stressed to the participants that they were not on a tour, but a pilgrimage. They were not tourists, but pilgrims starting from a certain point and getting to a certain destination. They were pilgrims progressing and journeying towards a goal. A tourist picks their itinerary, but a pilgrim stays on for the journey and is in for a long-haul. We, as Christians, are pilgrims. We are on a pilgrimage, and our destination is the promise of eternal life of joy and fulfillment.
During the pilgrimage, the Patriarch told the people that if they are going to be tourists, they are not going to be fulfilled. They might find pleasure in seeing sights, but they can only get the fulfillment by being a pilgrim.
We are pilgrims. There is a beginning and an end. Once God calls us, there must be no turning back. We are looking for this city with foundations that God designed, and He will fulfill it. We must be in for the long haul.
Two months ago, I was feeling something in the back of my neck. I was concerned that I might have high blood pressure. I had my blood chemistry taken and I found out that I had high bad cholesterol. Four years ago, it was normal, but it was high normal. Now, it has gone overboard and I had to do something about it. I started on a plan. I researched about food so that I could change my diet and other things to lower down my cholesterol. I started changing my exercise regimen so as to include running thirty minutes three times a week.
I used to go to a gymnasium and there was a treadmill which I used. The ironic thing was that when I do treadmill exercises, I couldn’t even last for fifteen to twenty minutes. I would not even do it three times a week. The treadmill had a timer in front of it, and my eyes were on the timer. When my eyes are on the timer, my mind thinks, “This is taking so long. Why are the seconds and the minutes too slow?” This is the problem that it presents because I am looking at something that I shouldn’t be looking at. It was such a tedious thing for me. Now, running around the neighborhood for about three kilometers for thirty minutes, I don’t even notice that I am done because there was no timer in front of me. While running, I would pray and I would meditate on the Scriptures for Sunday or for Daily Office. Many times, before I know it, I have completed my goal for the day because my eyes were on the right thing. It was not on the distractions.
We are instructed in Hebrews to let every encumbrance go. Get rid of them, turn your back on them, and fix your eyes on the goal – that city which had foundations, that city which God Himself is the Architect and the Builder.
Recently, I stepped on a weighing scale and I have lost more than ten pounds. I was not thinking of the calories, but before I knew it, I lost that much, and it felt good. What I did was to stay on as a pilgrim. At first, it was hard where one round of running was such a chore. Now, it seems natural.
Simply stay on God’s grace because before you know it, you have changed. One day, we will see Christ face to face, and we would be amazed to find out that we are like Him. We are spotless and blameless. What did we do? We simply put one foot in front of the other, and stayed on. It is a pilgrimage, not a tour. We start; we finish by the grace of God.
Resolutely, set your face towards Jerusalem. Lent is all about looking forward to Easter, to new life, to new beginnings. If our focus is on the things we have to do related to Lent like fasting and abstaining, we lose focus. We are to look forward to a glorious Easter through Lent. We are on the journey, in the pilgrimage. Do our part and God’s grace will take us to our destination, to His promise of eternal life.
The song says, “When from there thou leddest them changing water into wine; steadfast to Jerusalem.” It doesn’t require a lot, but a little at a time. I am not saying that we will not be called by God to do something radical or revolutionary, but by and large, it is just one foot in front of the other. It is not the distance, but the steadfastness. Stay on the course and this will make the difference. From beginning to end, God is with us, as He promised; and this is simply and basically the way it is in the kingdom of our God.