Dec 10, 2016

3rd Sunday in Advent: "Are you the One?"

"Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk, lepers are cured."

Is 35: 1-6A, 10
Jm 5: 7-10
Mt 11: 2-11

Psychology is not an exact science because human nature can be so unpredictable. We are living, breathing human beings motivated by our emotions and thoughts and not by a computer chip. Yet, sometimes just when you feel you know someone well, you learn something about a person that either inspires or shocks you. “I never imagined she/he would be so generous - It just doesn’t sound like him - That is so out of character - He/she could never do such a thing.” So, trying to predict human behavior with precise accuracy is often impossible. But, we also say, “By their fruits (behavior) you will know them.”

In this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew we hear further from John the Baptist, but now in prison by King Herod, ask a surprising question about Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Is John questioning his own judgment for who he was preparing the crowds?  It seems there is a sense of disappointment or confusion by John about Jesus.  Remember John’s fiery speech about the coming Messiah using quite zealous images of “winnowing fans” and “wheat and chaff” and “he will baptize you with the spirit and fire.”

Yet, Jesus seems to not exactly fill that description.  He appears to preach with conviction yet gentleness; he is merciful and compassionate to the sinner while he shows little judgement on their sinful status but calls them back by conversion; he shows empathy for the suffering; allows children to surround him, so where’s the fire and threshing?

Up until this moment both John and Jesus were seen side by side in a kind of comparison but now Jesus sets off on his own and John’s prophetic purpose fades as the New Testament begins in the public ministry of the one whom John had prepared the way. The last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament, John the Baptizer, has spoken with zeal and fire and now the New Testament begins as all the prophecies of the Old Testament are now fulfilled in the appearance of Jesus the Christ. And so, John sends his disciples off to go and convey this question.

Jesus reminds John’s disciples that they need to look at the wonders that are worked: “. . . the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (Mt. 11). If you don’t believe who I am by my words, then believe because of the actions I do. The words of Isaiah the prophet in our first reading today are echoed in the ministry of Jesus. The fruits he shows are the proof of God’s intervention in human history and we should never "take offense" or more literally - not be "tripped up" at him.  In other words, we should never see Our Lord as an obstacle, in the way of my personal agenda, but an invitation to a new life. 

Isaiah writes: “. . . Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, . . . Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. . . .” (Is 35: 1-6).  So we see a progression of thought, and there were several around the time of Jesus, about who the Messiah would be and what he will do.  Our Gospel, the very words of Christ himself, fulfills what Isaiah painted and other prophets hoped to see, in the miracles worked at his word. The Kingdom of God has come among us.  The end of the line is reached and now is the time to pay attention – to “wake up” as we hear in this holy Advent season.

To our Christian sensibilities, the comparison with Jesus’ ministry and these poetic words of Isaiah seems obvious. However, it may not have been so in the time of John and Jesus. Actions do speak louder than words so it was essential that Jesus verify the truth of John’s claim as Jesus carries out in both word and action God’s wonders with authority. Yet, this is Advent and we are preparing to recall the birth of Christ.  Why this image of his adult appearance along the Jordan River?

It is by looking to the future that we understand the past.  While the signs of the child’s birth in Bethlehem, the singing angels, the shepherds and Magi are all very tender and impressive, even to Mary and Joseph the future destiny of this child was hidden from them in its fullness.  It is so that we may see the purpose of his birth, the reason why he was born, and place our faith in the person who has come mysteriously among us – the fulfillment of all the ancient prophecies made flesh in the person of Jesus the Christ, born of Mary.   

Here is where the rubber hits the road you might say. It is by the signs (miracles) that Jesus worked, his “fruits” of preaching, that we can now follow him with confidence. Not because he is a miracle worker or charismatic preacher but because he is our Savior, Son of God, Messiah, the hope of all humanity. Yet, the transition from following John and embracing Jesus was not a smooth process in his time.  Some enjoyed the more aggressive approach and spurred on by their hatred for the Romans, or their alignment with them,  took a different course towards Jesus that put him under suspicion from the moment he appeared on the scene.  

So, these readings today open a new door for us; closer and more focused on the Christ, whose birth we will commemorate. John the Baptist was an impressive man; the last a greatest prophet of the Old Testament and the hinge on the door towards the new – who is Jesus. He was no wallflower and he never watered down his message or the integrity of his mission. Jesus alludes to this as well in the Gospel: “. . . Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; . . .”  So, these are not dueling prophets or Messiah’s each claiming his ground but John and Jesus – one prepares (Advent) and the other fulfills our hope (Christmas).

These last two weeks of Advent call us to open our eyes, to look for the signs that verify God’s presence in our lives. What are these signs, the behavior of God around you that give you confidence to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior? In his name, the hungry are fed; the poor are shown mercy and a better opportunity; the defenseless child or elderly are protected; the suffering are given dignity and compassion. His living word is proclaimed at Mass and his risen presence is made our food in the Eucharist.  Wherever good is done in his name and the sacramental life of the Church is continued as he forgives, heals, gives new life, unites, and anoints as he becomes active and alive in our midst – his mission continues to offer us redemption and his life is born in us as it all began in the manger centuries past. 

So, we may be asked the same question as John: “Are you the one?”  If we truly say Christ is, there can be no other and we follow him according to his plan and not our own.   

O God, who see how your people
faithfully await the feast of the Lord's Nativity, 
enable us, we pray, 
to attain the joys of so great a salvation
and to celebrate them always
with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Roman Missal: Opening Prayer for Mass)