The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Third Sunday of Advent||Dec. 12, 2004|
For a long time when I reflected on the Gospel lesson that we heard today, I was convinced that the question John posed for Jesus was really not so much a question from him but it was John's way of setting up his disciples so that Jesus could explain to them who he, Jesus, really was, that he, Jesus, was indeed the messiah.
But more recently, as I have continued to reflect on this passage and have read other commentators, I'm convinced that John really was beginning to doubt. The words that Jesus said after he told the messengers what was happening -- he had said, "How blessed is someone who is not scandalized at me" -- was a prayer that John would understand what was happening and would accept Jesus as the messiah.
It wasn't a foregone conclusion that John knew who Jesus was, that Jesus was the messiah, the son of God, and so on. John was struggling. You know, he was in prison. John had denounced King Herod because of his illicit relationship with his own sister-in-law, and he was thrown into prison. He was about to be beheaded in a very disgraceful way. He must have been at the point where he was beginning to think his whole life was a waste and so he was really down. He needed, somehow, to be reassured
You see John was a prophet who denounced and condemned and was ready to, well, he used those metaphors to show he would punish and destroy people who did not hear and follow the word. John had good reason to be that type of a prophet, because as you go through the Hebrew scriptures and you read the prophets there seems to be two separate strains of prophecies. One like John's which condemns and denounces, pushes people away in a sense. It's legitimate because you hope it will wake people up. Yet it is very harsh and seems to be without any kind of mitigating circumstances: condemn, destroy, and push away anyone who won't listen.
But then there's the other strain of prophecy in Isaiah, as we hear today, but also in some of the other prophets. Isaiah said: "When the reign of God happens, the blind will see, lepers will be cleansed, and good news will be proclaimed to the poor." In chapter 42 of Isaiah, the prophet speaks about the one who is to come and said, "Here is my servant, my chosen one in whom I am well pleased. The prophet speaking for God and the servant does not cry aloud in the streets. He doesn't resort to violence, but, rather, always nurtures. He doesn't break the bruised reed or quench the wavering flame." He nurtures, brings to life, and yet proclaims true justice to the nations. Brings justice and peace into the world but not through condemnation, not through destroying but only by drawing, by love. And that's the way Jesus took.
Jesus, of course, is a prophet, but Jesus didn't do what John had expected. So Jesus tells John, "Look, what's happened. You see, good is coming, breaking forth even though I'm not doing perhaps what you expected. The reign of God is going to come, not through condemnation, not through destroying evil people, but by drawing the evil people to God's love. Transforming all of us. Transforming the evil that is within our hearts into goodness and love. That's the way of Jesus. It clearly wasn't the way of John, so Jesus prayed that John would not be scandalized, that he could hear what was happening and accept it.
The same thing has to happen to us. We too have to hear the message as it's proclaimed by Jesus and I think there's been in our church a tendency to go either way or both ways. In the very beginning when Jesus first drew the community of disciples together and they began to spread out after they were persecuted in Jerusalem. They went up into Antioch and Syria and spread into Asia Minor and into Greece and then over to Rome.
The first communities of Christians were people who were marked: "See how they love one another!" They weren't about to destroy the Roman Empire by developing an army to conquer and overcome. They were going to transform the Roman Empire through love! So they really heard what Jesus had said and they began to live it, but then as you go down through history in the church there are many times when the church becomes very diligent in destroying, in condemning, even waging wars and violence, and destruction. Our history as a church has not always been a history of following Jesus faithfully.
Just 40 years ago when the Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII -- some of you are old enough as I am to remember that and some of you aren't -- Pope John XXIII called that council and he wanted it to be, as he said, what he called a "pastoral council." He insisted that there would be no condemnations. Every other general council in the whole history of the church had always ended up with some one being condemned, declared anathema -- "let them be destroyed" that's what anathema means. John said, "We're not going to have that kind of a council. This is going to be a council where we reach out to the world. Where we try to draw the church to enter into the world and transform it from within."
Well, at the beginning of that council there were many church leaders who wanted it the other way. They wanted to have a council that would condemn all the evils in the world, to make clear what was right and what was wrong, and condemn anybody who chose the wrong. John won out. We are very grateful for that, because the council published documents that supported reaching out and trying to draw the church into the world to transform the world.
But since then we have gone back and forth. We have just gone through a period where we have heard people say, "Don't let so and so come to communion. He's not worthy or she's not worthy." It has been a period of judgments and condemnations. Just recently it has come to my attention again that some bishops have forbidden certain groups from meeting in their dioceses. These are groups within the church, groups of Catholics, very sincere, good practicing Catholics like Call to Action. Bishops are condemning them instead of joining them.
There are these two ways that the reign of God has been proclaimed through the prophets and through the history of the church. I think that the scriptures today are telling us very clearly once more that we must choose the way that Jesus chose.
And sometimes, you know, that requires what St. James urges upon us, a lot of patience.
You might get the impression that what Jesus wants to happen is not going to happen. Is not happening. Here's a dramatic example of that, I think. Just the other day, the United Nations published its World Development Report and these are tragic numbers: more than a billion children, more than a billion children suffer extreme deprivation. This on a planet that has everything you need for everybody to have a full human life. The most vulnerable suffer.
The children, more than a billion of them suffer extreme deprivation because of war, HIV/AIDS, or poverty. The report said that nearly half the estimated 3.6 million people killed in wars since 1990 have been children. It is a tragic number -- almost 4 million people killed in war since 1990 and more than half of them children! What's wrong with our world? How can we let that go on? If the reign of God is supposed to happen, that certainly doesn't sound like its happening.
Here are more figures from that report: Of the world's estimated 2.2 billion children over 640 million live in a home with mud floors or extremely overcrowded conditions. More than 120 million did not attend primary school, most of them girls. More than 29,000 children die every day of mostly preventable causes. More than 2 million children were employed in the sex industry while 1.2 million were trafficked, sold.
Something is very wrong if the reign of God hasn't broken forth the way it should, but we can't give up on the way of Jesus. It won't become any better if we go to war to destroy the evil people in the world. That won't make it happen, either, for sure. That only creates more violence, more killing, more war. We have to try to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus more and more.
There are signs that can bring forth the reign of God. Maybe sometimes they seem to be very small signs, but they're powerful. I just experienced one yesterday. I mentioned the funeral of the young man, the nephew of Gary and Sandy. It was amazing. Now this is a young man -- 21 years old I think he was -- who was killed very tragically. At that funeral home yesterday, it was overwhelming. His mother said to me, "I'm just overwhelmed" -- by the sorrow, of course, but also -- "by what's happening here." Literally hundreds of young people came because of Timmy's death. They were his friends. He was a young man who just seemed to exude love and goodness and people understood him that way. In fact, the first reading they chose for the funeral was from the book of Sirach about "a friend is a priceless treasure." These people found in Tim a friend whom they loved and it was amazing. These were the young people who you might not see in church, but they have a faith in God, and they try to love, and someone like Tim is an inspiration to them. To me that was a real sign that the reign of God can break forth when someone who really loves reaches out to other people - someone who loves and is loved. Then reign of God happens. It's a small sign, but real and powerful and it was there yesterday I guarantee you. You had a sense the reign of God is breaking forth.
So what must we do?
We are celebrating Advent, expecting to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, his coming into the world and his proclaiming the way of God. Well, I think there are two things we can do. One is very clear. St. James tells us today, "Be patient my brothers and sisters. See how the soil waits for the precious fruits of the earth looking forward patiently to the autumn and spring rains. You also must be patient and do not lose heart because the Lord's coming is sure." So we must be patient.
Then, of course, Jesus invited each of us to become part of his community of disciples, so each of us has some responsibility for making that reign of God break forth where we are and what we do. It's time to be like this young man Tim, a person who loved, who looked for ways help others, and was always ready to assist and enter into other people's sufferings and joys.
So we must try to connect with people in a loving, beautiful way. Not condemning. Not judging. Just loving, reaching out. Healing. Doing all that Jesus did. Giving the blind new sight. Setting the down trodden free. Proclaiming God's year of favor. Proclaiming good news to the poor. When all of us do that more seriously then wherever we are, the reign of God will be breaking forth.
In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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