Throughout the history of the Old Testament, the Israelite nation kept falling into a regular pattern caused by sin. First, they fall into sin and ignore the warnings of the prophets sent by God to turn away from those sins. In the case we heard this morning, the people of Judah were falling away from the worship of God the Father and were instead turning towards the false gods of those tribes that surrounded them, including offering sacrifices to those false gods within the temple in Jerusalem. God regularly sent prophets to warn the people against worship of false gods, but the prophets were mocked or ignored, and the people continued their false worship.
Because the people were continuing their worship of false gods, punishment, the second stage of the cycle of sin, comes upon them. Judah is conquered by the Babylonians, who take many Jews into captivity and disperse them throughout the Babylonian Empire. Now, God's promised people are no longer within the Promised Land, but are forced to live within a foreign nation.
Finally, after many years, this exile from the Promised Land leads the Jews to repent of their sins, the third stage in this cycle. They express sorrow for their sins and God forgives them, allowing them to return to the Promised Land once again and rebuild the temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians. They're back in right relationship with God until the next cycle of sin starts up again.
While God permitted this cycle of sin to work within the people of Israel, it wasn't His plan for His people. Instead, He wants all of humanity to be in union with Him throughout all eternity, and doesn't want sin to get between us and Him, so He sent His Son to die for our sins. Sin leads to condemnation, but Our Lord's death on the Cross put an end to the condemnation and opened the gates of Heaven to us. Just as the Israelites were healed from the poisonous bite of snakes by looking at the bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the desert, Our Lord's death on the Cross heals us from the poisonous bite of sin in our lives. He broke the cycle that sin holds on our lives, and now we can receive the eternal life that has been promised to us.
St. Paul makes it clear that we do not receive this salvation because we're “good people”, because we are sinful people in need of redemption. Salvation is not something that we can work towards as if it was a promotion or pay raise that we might receive at a job for working hard. Instead, St. Paul tells us “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God”. (Eph. 2:8) In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, faith is defined as, “[belief] in God and [belief in] all that He has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because He is truth itself.” (CCC 1814) This faith is a gift from God, and we need to be open to that gift.
The Catechism continues by reminding us that faith apart from the other theological virtues, hope and charity, “does not fully unite the believer to Christ.” (CCC 1815) The salvation that God offers to us, the eternal life that we hope for, is not something that we're entitled to, not something that is automatic. In order to receive this salvation, we must allow our faith in God to be an active faith and to allow it to show through in our lives. When we allow our faith to be united with the virtue of hope, desiring the kingdom of heaven and eternal life for happiness (CCC 1817), and the virtue of charity, loving God above all things for his sake and loving our neighbor as ourselves (CCC 1822), we will be united with Christ and be open to the gift of salvation.
We need to be careful, as St. Paul also reminds us that this salvation “is not from works, so no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:9) A common mistake made by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike is assuming that the Church teaches “working your way to Heaven.” This is not a part of Church teaching, and never has been. Instead, as I said earlier, the faith we have must be an active faith, that is a faith which shows itself through the good works that we perform, but those works must lead from our faith in God. We cannot do work to achieve salvation, as salvation comes through faith, but our faith must lead us to do good for others.
As we journey through life, we need to allow the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity to work in and through us. May we live these virtues and be drawn into the salvation Our Lord promises us.