|A few weeks ago when Pope John Paul II
preached his opening homily at the synod of bishops, he told the bishops
that we, speaking about them and about the church, are called upon to be
poor at the service of the gospel. That we are called to be servants
of the revealed word who, when needed, will raise their voices in defense
of the least, denouncing the abuses against those who Amos (See Sunday
of September 30.) had called the carefree and the revelers to be prophets
who speak with courage. That is the call that we in the church have
today. Certainly, it is a call that is given primarily to the leaders
of the church, but our whole church must be prophetic.
If we listen deeply to the lessons of today’s
liturgy on this Second Sunday of Advent, we will find for ourselves models
of prophets and of how each of us is to be prophetic.
First of all, we listen to Isaiah. In
that passage from this morning’s liturgy, he was speaking at a time that
would be very comparable to the situation of our own day. We are
very aware, right now, of how there seems to be so much social breakdown,
so much violence in our world. We still have not recovered from the
terror of September 11. We are very aware of the war that is going on in
Afghanistan and we are aware of violence in our society and in so many
parts of the world. It was just that sort of time when Isaiah spoke
out. It was a time when God’s people were being attacked. The
Assyrian armies were outside Jerusalem, ready to destroy it. Hezekiah,
the king at the time, was weak and unable to be the kind of leader the
people needed. Everything seemed to be in chaos and ready to come
apart. Death, destruction and violence were all around. Yet,
in the midst all of that, Isaiah was able to proclaim a word of hope.
In the midst of all that suffering and violence, Isaiah proclaimed that
there would be a new descendent coming from David, the great king of the
past, and that this new descendent would raise up a new people and there
would be a time of hope, a time of life, a time of joy.
As we heard in that first lesson today, Isaiah
describes this new leader as one who will act toward the poor with justice,
will bring about profound change, and show that there is hope for justice
in the world. This new leader will have truth as his girdle and justice
will be the belt around his waist. He will not be one who is armed
with weapons of war, but will only be one who brings justice and truth
and ultimately peace.
Isaiah goes on to show how, when this happens,
extraordinary things will take place. The wolf will dwell with the
lamb, the leopard will rest beside the kid, the calf and the lion cub will
feed together, and a little child will lead them. Befriending each
other, the cow and the bear will see the young ones lie down together.
Like cattle, the lion will eat hay. By the cobra’s den, the infant will
play. The child will put his hand into the viper’s lair. No one will
harm or destroy over my holy mountain. As water fills the sea,
the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. And with it will
come this kind of harmony and peace and joy.
The reign of God is the vision that Isaiah
proclaims in the midst of suffering and violence, chaos and death.
If we turn to the gospel, we find John the
Baptist telling us, “Now is the time. The reign of God is here, it
is at hand.” And what has to happen, John is telling us as he proclaims
God’s word in this prophetic way, is that we must be ready to change our
John is the kind of prophet who is ready to
denounce as Pope John Paul suggests that sometimes prophets must do.
John denounces very powerfully those who abuse their role.
When he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming
to where he baptized, he said to them (Matthew tells us), “Brood of vipers,
who told you that you could escape the punishment that is to come?
Let it be seen that you are serious in your conversion. Do not think
that we have Abraham for our father. I tell you that God can raise
children for Abraham from these very stones.”
Those leaders were presumptuous. They
thought that they, in some way, could always depend on the fact that their
ancestor was Abraham. That this gave them special privilege that
they were the chosen people and had not to worry about being converted.
But John challenges them and tells them that this presumption they are
depending upon will not save them. They must be converted.
As I reflected on those words of John to the
leaders of his time, I could not help but recall some of the words of one
of our leaders, the former Secretary of State just a few years ago who
talked about our nation, who talked about it as though there were certain
presumptions we could always depend upon. She said, “If we have to
use force, it is because we are America, we are the indispensable nation,
we stand tall, we see further into the future.”
It seems to me that we have acted on that presumption:
We are America, we are the good and the righteous, we see further into
the future. If we have to use force, this makes it all right.
So we engage in a violent war of destruction
against one of the poorest nations in the whole world. We’ve brought
about suffering and death in huge numbers, even though it isn’t reported
so clearly in our media.
There are hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Their access to the goods that they need to survive through this winter
is blocked. They are without sufficient clothing, without homes,
fleeing without food. It will be a terrible suffering for them during
these cold months that have begun with fierceness in that nation.
Tens of thousands of them, undoubtedly, will die.
But because we are America, the indispensable
nation, we presume that what we do is right.
It seems to me that we need to listen to John
the Baptist who says to those presumptuous leaders of his day, “You brood
of vipers, you must change. You must become humble and acknowledge
your dependence on God. You must be ready to be converted and be
serious in your conversion.” John goes on then to promise that there
is one coming after him, one foreseen by Isaiah hundreds of years before.
“The one who will come will baptize with the spirit and with fire, a fire
that will refine those who are baptized with it. It will change them, purify
them, and strengthen them. But it will also be a baptism of the spirit.”
Those words of John recall the prophet Ezekiel
who foresaw the day when God would, as Ezekiel says, “Pour new water upon
you, pour a new spirit upon you, and change your stony hearts into hearts
of flesh, into human hearts that will love.”
Jesus, who John proclaimed would come to baptize
in spirit and in fire, has come. We have been baptized with his spirit.
We have been baptized with his fire. At the roots of our being, we
have been changed. We have been converted and made over into his
likeness. If we act upon what Jesus has done for us, this Jesus who
baptizes with the spirit and with fire, who gives clean water, brings new
life, changes hard hearts into human hearts, we will act in a totally different
way than we would act otherwise.
Again, I think of John Paul II as one of the
prophets of our day when it comes to understanding what John means when
he says that Jesus will baptize with spirit and with fire. Those
who receive that spirit and are refined by that fire will give up violence,
will give up war. Because, as John Paul II said on January 1, 2000,
in his feast day statement, “In a century in which we are leaving behind
a humanity that has been sorely tried by an endless and horrifying sequence
of wars, conflicts, genocides and ethnic cleansings that have caused unspeakable
suffering, millions and millions of victims, families and countries destroyed,
and an ocean of refugees, misery, hunger and disease, underdevelopment
and the loss immense resources. . .” And John Paul concludes those
powerful words by saying, “War is a defeat for humanity”.
War is a defeat for humanity. War is
always a failure because it brings about endless suffering, conflicts,
genocide, ethnic cleansing, unspeakable suffering for millions and millions
of victims, families and countries. War is a defeat. Those
who have been baptized in the spirit, baptized with the baptism of Jesus
which is a baptism of spirit and fire, give up war. They find a different
way to bring about peace and to follow the way of Jesus which is the way
Again, in that homily that Pope John Paul II
spoke at the beginning of the synod, he proclaimed that Jesus is the hope
of the world. “The hope of the world lies in Christ. In him
the expectations of humanity find real and solid foundations. The
hope of every human being comes from the cross, the sign of the victory
of love over hate, of forgiveness over revenge, of truth over falsehood,
of solidarity over egoism. Our task, and this is truly a prophetic
task of the church today, is to proclaim this announcement of saving love
to the men and women of our time, that there is a way to peace that is
without war and without violence. It is the way of Jesus.”
There are many in our church who reject this.
In fact, recently, I read a column by a popular columnist in the Catholic
press. His words are syndicated to many Catholic papers throughout
the country. It was his contention that there are moral limits to
the nonviolence of Jesus. That in fact those who practice nonviolence
in actuality could be causing greater evil. He suggests that, clearly,
World War II was a just war and that violence had to be used in order to
It’s hard for me to understand how any war
could be just when over fifty million people were killed and the majority
of them not combatants, but civilians. A war that brought about the
deliberate bombing of cities where hundreds of thousands of innocent people
were killed in the bombing of Tokyo, the bombing of Dresden, the bombing
of Coventry in England.
That war was a war that was total. It
was against the people, not simply a war that was army against army.
And, of course, it culminated with what Pope Paul VI called the butchery
of untold magnitude, the deliberate bombing of two cities. At Hiroshima,
almost one hundred thousand people, a non-military target, where almost
one hundred thousand innocent people were destroyed in a matter of seconds.
And three days later, at Nagasaki, where tens of thousands more were killed
by the dropping of the second atom bomb.
World War II was not a just war, not when you
have civilians being killed in huge numbers, totally innocent people being
That author seems to think that there was no
other way that Hitler could have been stopped. But Jesus says there
is another way. John Paul II described it beautifully as I said before.
“It is the way of the cross, the sign of the victory of love over hate,
of forgiveness over revenge, of truth over falsehood, of solidarity over
egoism. Our task is to proclaim this saving love to the men and women
of our time.”
If we are to be the prophets that the world
needs today, people who clearly speak the word of God as made known unto
us in Jesus, we must speak this word of nonviolence. We must reject
the killing of innocent people, the devastation that war brings about,
and the failure that it always is and turn to the way of Jesus. When
we have done that, then we will be able to experience the reign of God
immediately in our own hearts which brings peace and joy in our relationships
with one another.
Most importantly, as war is rejected as the
failure that it always is and the way of Jesus embraced, we will begin
to experience the reign of God in our land. Then, that beautiful
vision of Isaiah will be fulfilled. There will be peace and harmony
in all of nature. The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard
will rest beside the kid, the calf and the lion cub will feed together,
and a little child will lead them. Befriending each other, the cow
and the bear will see their young ones lie down together by the cobra’s
den, the infant will play, and the child will put his hand into the viper’s
den. No one will harm or destroy over my holy mountain. The
earth will be filled with the knowledge of God and of God’s ways of peace.
My hope is that as we reflect deeply on the
prophets who speak to us today that we could commit ourselves to becoming
truly prophetic, to reject war as the failure that it always is, and to
embrace the transforming love of Jesus, the unlimited love that he demonstrated
as he forgave his enemies, loved those who hurt him, returned good for
evil, and showed the way to bring peace into our world. When you
and I commit ourselves to this, then indeed the reign of God will be at
In the name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit. Amen.