Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A 2019
God’s commands are found on almost every page of Scripture. They are the commands: “Thou shall not have any other God before me. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath Day. Thou shall not kill, steal etc.” Exodus 20:1-17. There is also the command, “… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5. And in Philippians 4:6, we hear Rejoice! Rejoice!
“Rejoice in the Lord always;” St. Paul said. To make sure we heard him, he said, “again I say rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” This theme of Rejoice rings all through the first reading. In the opening paragraph, we heard, “Let the wilderness and the dry-land exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy” (Isaiah 35: 1-6). Notice, it is the wilderness, the dry-land and the wasteland that are to rejoice.
Why? Because God is making a statement. He seems to be saying to the Israelites, I am your God. I know what you have gone through and are going through now. You are like a wilderness: arid, tagged good for nothing, without any prospects, abandoned. But you do not have to keep focusing on yourself or settle for what has happened to you. Do not allow your situation to speak to you of gloom. Listen to Me. Look around, see what I am doing. I am up to something.
Trust Me. Take My Hand. I am not a sadist asking you to rejoice in your situation. I am up to something great. Trust Me. You do not have to be well off before you can rejoice. To rejoice does not depend on what you have or do not have. It does not depend on your circumstances whether you are free or in exile. It is a choice you must make. A choice to listen to Me, to do what I command. A choice that demands you look around and take delight in what I have done.
This fits in very well with the Greek word Chairó, which means to take delight in what God has done, He is doing, and He will do. It is a kind of summons, to stop focusing on ourselves; on what we have done or what we could not do. For the more we focus on ourselves, the deeper we fall into despair. This was the state of St. Peter shortly after he denied Jesus. He just would not let go the memory of his denial. And this memory almost cost him his place as an apostle.
John the Baptist in the Gospel reading Matthew 11:1-6 experienced something similar. He had his expectations of the Messiah. He was expecting a warrior. Someone who will topple Herod and rule like the Biblical David. He openly reprimanded Herod for marrying the wife of his brother Philip. He did this with the confidence that his cousin Jesus would later assume the throne and reward him for standing up for what was right. But that did not happen as he had expected. He was thrown into prison, and there he still dreamed of “his cousin day.”
So, John the Baptist was disappointed when he heard from prison what Jesus was saying and doing. And He doubted. That cannot be the Christ. The Christ had a specific mission. He is meant to be a Judge. He is not meant to go about having dinners with tax collectors, debating with the Scribes and the Pharisees in the Temple and walking the street preaching to the poor. Thus, John the Baptist, the greatest of children born of women became the least in the kingdom of heaven.
Why? Because he would not let go his expectations of the Messiah. He allowed his expectations to prevent him from experiencing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Here (verses 7-11), Jesus in a very pithy way presents us a paradox. The one who was sent to prepare the way for the coming of the Christ was blocking the way for himself. So sad! Yes, it is sad. But how often do we also behave like John the Baptist? When we focus solely on what we know, how can we be open to accept the strangeness of God’s action?
Rejoice helps us shift our focus away from ourselves. To turn to the other, in our case to turn to God. To give Him our time. To pay attention to what He is doing. To question Him as John the Baptist did in moments of doubt, those dark nightsof our lives; when we cannot understand Him. Rejoice demands we tell our story from the heart and be reasonable. To wonder and allow ourselves to be drawn into and grafted onto Christ so that we can participate in His Drama.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is a good example of one who participated in God’s Drama. She had her expectations. She had her plans all worked out. But she was also open, looking beyond herself. Looking and listening to what God has done, is doing and can do. This made her ready, attentive, discerning, and responsive to God’s action. So, when the angel appeared, she told her story. How can this come about since I am a virgin? But she also rejoiced in the Lord God.
She remembered what the Lord had done. And she captured the goodness of God beautifully in the great Canticle of praise known as the Magnificat. My soul (that is my being, my whole person) proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in the Lord God my saviour! He looked on His servant in her lowliness, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, Holy is His Name! Observe how self-giving Mary was.
She gave her all to God’s Drama as it unfolded. She did not hold back. That is rejoice. That is the new life that the Spirit evokes in us. It enables us to cry out Abba, Father. To trust, to wait on God and to participate in God’s waiting for us (Henri Nouwen). Giving our all to Him. Getting in with His rhythm and allowing ourselves to be surprised by Him even when His action fails our expectations test. This is the Advent Spirit. The Spirit that enables us to rejoice even in the wilderness.
Fr. Francis Afu