The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Second Sunday in Ordinary Time||January 16, 2005|
I mentioned in introducing the reading this morning that this passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one that can help us to have a very profound sense of hope if we listen to it very deeply and carefully. But also we have to insert into the passage a sentence that was dropped out when the passage was assigned for reading today, the second Sunday of Ordinary Time. Let me share with you the full passage, and I think it will become more clear what an important lesson this is.
In the first reading from Isaiah says, the servant of Yahweh is saying, "God said to me, 'You are my servant, through you I will be known.' " And here is the sentence that was dropped out; it gives a clear indication of the thrust of this reading: "Suddenly the servant says, 'I have labored in vain and I have spent my strength for nothing.'"
Isaiah is writing that this servant senses a profound experience of failure, of hopelessness. He feels his life has been a total loss, has meant nothing, because he had been sent to proclaim God's word to God's people, to guide them to follow God's ways in order that they might prosper, live in peace, have the fullness of life that God promises -- but the people refused to listen!
Now the prophet is in exile with them. Their country has been destroyed. The temple has been used as a place for abomination. They're living in exile, starving, homeless, suffering. It seems to be a total failure. They didn't listen. They went into alliances, thought they could prosper through war and violence, and the result is exile, failure, loss, suffering, death.
So Isaiah, or the servant whom he's speaking about says, "I failed totally. My life is a waste." But then he turns to God again in prayer and discovers, "what was due to me was always in the hand of God. I am important in the sight of God and my God is my strength." He experiences once more God's strong presence with him. Then he understands that out of this seeming failure God is going to make something even more extraordinary happen.
God says to the servant, "I who formed you in the womb to be my servant, to bring Jacob back to me, to gather Israel to me, I now say to you: It is not enough to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob, to bring back the remnant of Israel. No, I will make you the light of all the nations." So he has a new sense of hope.
Out of his failure, God is going to make something even more extraordinary happen. He will not be simply preaching to the chosen people, but the message of God will be taken to all the nations, spread throughout the whole world. Everyone will come to know God through this servant as God builds on the work the servant has done even though to him it seemed to be a total failure. So he has hope. And that's what can happen to us if we turn to God at those moments when everything seems hopeless.
I received a letter this week from a friend of mine, who is in jail actually. She's been in jail for a number of years, because as a kind of prophet she was trying to declare to our nation the evil of the weapons of mass destruction that we are building and preparing to use and the disaster it will be for the world when it happens. But people aren't listening and she's in jail.
She wrote at the beginning of the year and she said, "In many ways I don't know where to begin. Here we are at the beginning of a new year when we should be filled with hope, and people are desperate in so many ways." Then she pointed out something that I find very extraordinary and hadn't thought about. She quoted a writer who says, "We could live 70 days without food, nearly 10 days without water, six minutes without air but not at all without hope."
I think that's true. If we don't have hope we're not really alive. We're not living. So we need hope. These are desperate times, as she pointed out. In the beginning of the new year when we should be filled with hope, people are desperate in so many different ways and you can think about them. I can too. In very personal ways. I think of the loss of Almena Jones for our parish family and for her immediate family. Every time someone dies, someone very close to us, someone on whom we've depended and who's loved us and we've loved that loss is a kind of failure. Death can seem to be the end of everything unless we have hope, unless we have hope and trust that God can take us beyond death to new life. Unless we listen to God and know that God is going to be with us and that out of the evil of death, because it is an evil, God can bring goodness and new life and new hope, new love into our lives even now. Something good can come even from the terrible evil of death. And we can, we must have hope in that or else, in a sense, we die spiritually and emotionally.
But it goes beyond the personal. The world in which we live seems to be in some ways desperate. Last Sunday, you may remember, a new president was overwhelmingly elected in Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon immediately contacted him, congratulated him, and said: "This is an opportunity for us to now resolve the terrible violence that's gone on between Israel and Palestine."
Then just a couple of days later there was a terrible incident of violence. Israelis were killed and so Prime Minister Sharon broke off all contact with the new president. Prime Minister Sharon now refuses to enter into communication and discussion with President Abbas. It seems hopeless. Yesterday, when President Abbas was inaugurated he spoke out of a kind of desperation, but he did say, "We extend a hand of reconciliation and peace," hoping that there would be a response. But this has gone on so long that it seems hopeless. That's one of the situations where we could despair.
Also, we think often -- or at least I do -- of the people of Iraq. This week I had the opportunity to visit once more with a friend of mine who, a nun from Iraq, who was sent here three years ago by her bishop to get a degree in theology. She's finishing up this year at Boston College. When I was speaking to her this week she was especially sad and discouraged because she had been in touch with one of her sisters who is living in the area around Kirkuk, which is one of the most violent areas in Iraq.
Her sister told her about the family who lived immediately next door. It's a family who because of the war is desperately poor. The father is out of work. With no employment possibility, he asked his teenage son to take some sort of a minor job helping with the occupation forces. Because of that, his wife, the mother of the boy, was kidnapped and is being held for ransom. He paid a couple of times, but then he said, "I won't give any more money unless I have some assurance that she's alive." So the kidnappers arranged for her to speak on the phone. But it was a terrible message. She said, "Don't send any more money. Don't pay them another cent, because I don't want to live. What they've done to me is so humiliating that I don't want to live and if I get out of here I will kill myself."
That's a situation that seems obviously, desperately hopeless.
We can go to other parts of the world and find terrible things happening -- violence, war, destruction, people suffering and dying. It could make you lose hope, but like that servant of Yahweh we must not let that happen. We have to go back to God as he did, enter into prayer and come to realize again that I am in the hands of Yahweh. I am important in the sight of Yahweh and God is my strength.
We have to try to discover that in prayer and by turning to the Gospel lesson today where John the Baptist proclaims what is really good new: Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! In that passage it is important to notice that the Gospel writer uses the word "sin" of the world, not "sins," because he's talking about the world as it is organized sometimes so that violence and evil happen. That is what we now call "structural sin" or "social sin." But Jesus has come to change that. Jesus can take away this sin of the world, the sin that promotes violence and killing and war, injustice, impoverishment of people, that brings about so much suffering and death.
Jesus came to take that away, but he showed us that the sin of the world is overcome in a special way -- not by matching sin for sin, violence for violence, hatred for hatred. Jesus brought us a new way, taking away the sin of the world by transforming evil to love. It is the only way.
At the beginning of Mass today, in the opening prayer, we asked, "Almighty, powerful, and ever-living God, in your goodness hear our prayer. Show us the way to peace in the world, we pray." Show us the way to peace in the world.
Jesus has done that! He has shown us the way to peace, but are we willing to follow his way, or will we be like the people to whom the servant of Yahweh preached? We may think we know a better way to end violence and killing and hatred and war and death, but if we think so we're wrong. The only way to peace in the world is the way of Jesus. It's a sure way.
You know, one time Jesus himself had terrible doubts about what God asked him to do, what God asked him to preach. It's all recorded in the 12th chapter of John's Gospel, where Jesus is being revealed and introduced for the first time to some "outsiders" -- what the Gospel calls people from outside the Holy Land, foreigners. When Jesus is introduced to them, he begins immediately to speak about his death and then he tells a parable that we're all familiar with: "Unless the seed should fall on the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it dies it brings forth new life." Through suffering and death new life can happen!
That is a beautiful parable, but as you go on with that passage you discover that Jesus was telling that parable to kind of reassure himself. He has gotten to the point there in the 12th chapter where he says, "Now my soul is in distress. Shall I say, 'Father save me from this hour'?" He was doubting. Then he turned to God and said, "But I have come to this hour to face all this. God glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it and I will glorify it again." So Jesus is reassured that his is the way -- the way to peace, the way to fullness of life, the way in which we can have hope. But you and I have to commit ourselves to follow that way. We will then live in hope, and finally we will come to the fullness of life and peace that God promises.
In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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