3rd Sunday of Advent 2005
December 11, 2005
John the Evangelist’s portrayal of John the Baptist in today’s gospel is a study in self-confidence. John knows exactly who he is. He is neither more nor less than he appears. He is just a voice crying in the wilderness. When asked repeatedly “who are you”? That’s all he says.
God, how I envy John the Baptist for that. When I’m asked “who are you?” I sometimes have so many answers I get confused myself. But it is such a simple question. Who are you? And what answer do you give? Everybody has multiple answers. But which one is most important? Which one says it all? Which one really defines you? Which do you choose to identify yourself?
Sometimes there comes a defining moment in a human life when one does have to choose one’s primary identity. It even happened for Jesus of Nazareth. At the beginning of his public ministry, still a fairly young man, he chooses to walk into the local synagogue, carefully open the sacred scroll, and choose a passage that identifies his whole’s life’s mission. Even before being asked by anyone, Jesus answers the question: who are you? And he chooses the opening of today’s first reading from the great prophet Isaiah.
Like John, Jesus is a study in self-confidence–at least at this moment–as he says: I am one who knows that “the spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Both John and Jesus find the courage to choose their primary identities. Just like the other great figure who hovers all through the Advent season, Mary, all three summon a terrifying “yes” from deep in their bowels. And that “yes” makes possible God’s entrance into human history. Listen again to Mary’s Magnificat in today’s psalm. She too knows who she is. She is one who expands toward God, and let’s God’s Power expand into her. And from that moment on, God re-creates the face of the earth. Hills are brought down, crooked valleys made straight, the blind finally see, the lame walk, victims of all injustice are freed from the hatred and anger and fear that paralyzes them.
This is what happens when one says “yes” to God’s invitation, and then acts on it. This is what happens when you know the answer to the question: who are you? This is what St. Paul means when he exhorts us again today: do not quench the Spirit. Be who you are: God’s sons and daughters called to re-fashion the world in justice and peace.
The self-confident “yes” that echoes in John’s heart and in Mary’s heart is not just about maintaining the status quo. It is not just about staying calm with their faith, or feeling secure or peaceful. In fact, their “yes” to themselves will bring about the biggest crisis of faith that any Jew could have. Judaism will never be the same again for either of them.
And the terrifying “yes” in Jesus’ self recognition in that synagogue is certainly not about security either; it is the antithesis of that calm image of someone huddled, shivering against a cold wind and trying to keep a candle aflame. His “yes” meant the world was about to be exploded; highways made straight, hills brought down, and all the powers of hatred or prejudice or exclusion destroyed forever. Knowing who you are is not necessarily calming.
God has entered human history. God has entered your personal history too–and God will stay there forever. We have seen three people answer the question “who are you?” by their actions. But the world still waits for you to answer that question: who are you? The world waits to be re-created today because of who you really are.
The gospel does not provide a refuge; it provides a game plan. The gospel does not create a church; it envisions a kingdom. The gospel does not really ask you to “stay on the bus”–or even to stay in the church; the gospel asks you to re-create the face of the earth–beginning on Harrison Avenue. You may have to get off the bus to do that!
It doesn’t matter whether you are female or male, black or white or brown or red; it doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight, rich or poor, sick or well. It doesn’t matter whether you are the victim of someone’s bigotry and hatred, or whether you are the victimizer. It doesn’t matter whether you are manic or depressed, anxious or elated, miserable or giddy. It doesn’t matter whether you are a priest or bishop, or a layperson; you could even be pope. None of those things really define you. It does matter that something does define you. It does matter that you–like John the Baptist, and Mary, and Jesus--can answer the question: who are you? And who do you want to be before God.
There is nothing passive, or quiet, or even secure about the gospel. The gospel was never intended to be simply a place of refuge,; the church might be, but not the gospel–not even at Christmas time, perhaps especially not at Christmas time. Christmas is the day we remember when the heavens are rent, torn apart, and God enters human history. The gospel is not intended to provide only rest, or security, or even calm in the storm. It is a challenging invitation to be Advent people: waiting, longing, and doing the work of God. That is the truth of the gospel. And that truth is the only one that will ever set us free. All the rest is a lie.
Too many things we believe are simply untrue. And too many things that are true, we won’t believe.
(I urge you to pick up a copy of an Advent poem by Dan Berrigan available in the back of the church).
My brothers and sisters, in this season let us not only see visions of love and peace and justice, let us become those visions here and now, with each other, and with all others. Now there’s a good answer to the question: who are you? Peace!
Dan Berrigan’s Advent poem (as quoted by Bishop Tom Gumbleton in the National Catholic Reporter 12/5/05):
“It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss --
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction --
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever --
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world --
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers --
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history –
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ -- the life of the world.