Isaiah 35:1-10 Psalm 146:4-9 James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11
Marnie Feinberg’s mother-in-law was one of 11 worshipers killed in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a little over a year ago. Feinberg turned her grief into a creative call to action; she encouraged Jewish Americans to invite two non-Jews to attend their next Passover seder. The idea led to forming an organization called 2 for Seder. This year some 1,000 people took part in the pilot program. Feinberg said, “You go back to your roots when you are lost.”
That’s what John the Baptist did. There had not been a prophet in Israel for more than 400 years. It was widely believed that when the Messiah came, prophecy would reappear (Joel 2:28,29; Malachi 3:1,; 4:5). When John burst upon the scene, the people were excited. He was obviously a great prophet, and they were sure that the eagerly awaited age of the Messiah had come. Some, in fact, thought John was the Messiah. John spoke like the prophets of old, saying that the people must turn from their sin to avoid punishment and turn to God to experience his mercy. This is a message for all times and all places, but John spoke with such urgency – he was preparing the people for the coming Messiah.
John had questions…who was he to turn to? It was a relief for many that he did ask the question – the question on their hearts and minds. “Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is to come? This question occurs to just about everyone in the church, even the strongest Christians. Is Jesus the real thing? Is there anything to our religion – our beliefs? Has the church grabbed hold to something that matters? Or is this business of Christmas and its Christ only a wild tale – charming but worthless and powerless against forces that dampen hopes and deaden dreams?
Advent is about waiting, and Christmas brings the newborn baby who announces a new order meant to turn the world upside down – and our lives with it. Christmas always renews our commitment to bring God’s revolutionary love into a world that so desperately needs it, and to bring that same love into our lives again.
Richard Rohr tells us that John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare and yet so very crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of people or groups. That is why we focus on John the Baptist every Advent and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature, while also going far beyond him. Water is the container; fire and Spirit are the contents, John says.
John the Baptist is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything, creating his own baptism and then saying that what really matters is baptism of “Spirit and fire.” He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him: “There is no man greater than John….but he is also the least.” It is a new reality that Jesus is bringing about. John both gets it and doesn’t get it all at the same time, which is why he has to exit right after this drama. He has played his single and important part, and he knows it. His is a brilliantly spiritual descent. “Jesus must grow bigger, as I grow smaller.”
The only way such freedom can happen is if John learned to be very empty of himself already as a young man, before he even built his tower of success. His ego, his false self, was out of the way so much so that he could let go of his own ego, his message and his own life. Some have cleverly said that ego is an acronym for “Edging God Out.” There’s got to be such emptiness, or we can’t point beyond ourselves to Jesus, as John did. Such emptiness doesn’t just fall into our laps; such humility doesn’t just happen. It surely is the result of a thousand letting-goes and a thousand acts of devotion, which for John the Baptist gradually edged God in.
And that is what we are called to do during this time of preparation, this time of waiting, this time of promise. What is getting in your way, so that your heart can’t be fully opened to Jesus? Is it unforgiveness, apathy, inadequacy, lack of awareness, grief, bitterness, being too busy to examine our hearts and our lives, are we unfocused, self-centeredness, angry, or proud?
The reading from Isaiah pulses with joy. This third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday, that is why we light the rose candle. Gaudete means rejoice. The prophet inspires thoughts of a word of hope in the midst of despair, a word of God’s sure and strong promise to lift those who are bowed down.
The transformation promised in Isaiah glistens in every line of today’s reading. The promises that redemptive reversals will be dramatic and complete. What kinds of changes do we seek in Advent? What do we sigh for, what sorrows have brought us to tears? I may not know what haunts each heart gathered here, but I do know that God’s promises spelled out by Isaiah will make us into new creations.
So far, we are overwhelmed with praise for God. It is difficult during the trials of our lives to continually praise God in the circumstances we are experiencing. But that is what faith is. The opposite of faith is not doubt but certitude, certainty. Faith is bigger than our today and filled with the promise of tomorrow. For us on our faith journey, what motivates our faith – fear of the future, or a desire to be a better person in a better world?
John the Baptist called all of mankind to prepare to meet Jesus. That includes all people regardless of their standing in religious organizations and authorities. Some people wanted to be baptized by John so that they could escape eternal punishment, but they didn’t turn to God. John had harsh words for those folks – directed toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. John knew that God values reformation and transformation above ritual. In looking at our lives, is our faith motivated by a desire for a new, changed life, or is it only like a vaccination or insurance policy against possible disaster?
Many of John’s hearers were shocked when he preached that being Abraham’s descendants was not enough for God. The religious leaders relied more on their family trees than on their faith for their standing with God. For them, religion was inherited. But a personal relationship with God is not handed down from parents to children. Everyone has to commit to it on his or her own. We can’t rely on someone else’s faith, but must develop our own.
How in our spiritual lives, do we live out these changes, this repentance? Joan Chittister tells us that a good spiritual life connects us to where we come from, even in the midst of where we are now. It gives us roots. It carries a tradition on its back. It ties us to the past in a way that enables us to know who we are in the present. She says that it is the place we never really leave because being there together is what makes us who we are today. John the Baptist knew that. And that is what Advent can do for us – slow us down and turn us inward to examine our hearts, to prepare our lives for Jesus.
Once we understand the impact of the birth of Jesus on our own lives, we come to realize the efforts demanded of us in our ordinary lives. Then we are ready to begin those daily practices designed to strengthen us for the passions, deaths and resurrections of our own lives. Life is not meant to be escaped, we learn, as the liturgical year moves from season to season, from feast to feast. Life is meant to be penetrated, to be plunged to its depths, to be tasted, to be savored and to bring us to the realization that the God who created us is always with us. Life is an exercise in transformation, the mechanics of which take a lifetime of practice, of patience, of slow, steady growth.
On Gaudete Sunday, we are reminded to rejoice in the living of our ordinary lives – to remember God’s gifts to us in family and friends, in work and in play – to remember God loves us more than we could ever understand! The temptation of Advent is to turn it into all about us - our waiting for Christ becomes our waiting for Christ. Are we sufficiently prepared for the events of the days ahead? Are we sufficiently content to enjoy them – to rejoice and delight in them? Rejoice…I say rejoice …Jesus is coming! Amen.