Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
John the Baptist has to be one of the most fascinating and provocative characters in the whole Bible. Here is this man, the son of a priest of the Temple, who is living out in the wilderness by the Jordan River. And he looks pretty crazy: hasn’t shaved or gotten a haircut in a while, wears camel skin, doesn’t eat very well. And he’s out there, traveling about the whole region and proclaiming the imminent coming of the Lord, the Day of the Lord; and with this, he is proclaiming a message of repentance, of conversion, a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:2-3). Now, the Day of the Lord (especially according to the prophet Zephaniah, who we heard from in our first reading) was a day of judgement and doom, a day when the Lord would come and punish the infidelity of his people, when his anger would blaze up and his wrath be shown (c.f., Zephaniah 1-2). And so, when the people hear this, when they hear that the Day of the Lord is at hand, they flock to the wilderness to be baptized by John. But their motives aren’t so sincere.
When you read this section of the Gospel of Luke, you really have to pay attention to the little details. John goes out to proclaim a baptism of repentance, and then people show up to be baptized. But the first thing John does when they come? He says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7). This seems really counterproductive: call people to conversion and repentance and this baptism, and then insult them for showing up. When John asked, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath,” people must have looked at him and said, “You did. You are literally the one who warned us.” But what John is really doing is calling them out for hedging their bets; he calls out their insincerity, their lack of true conversion. Knowing that they are only trying to avoid the judgement and doom and punishment of the coming Day of the Lord, John calls out their lack of true conversion.
And so the people ask: “Ok, John, so what should we do?” And so John rattles through a list of examples, of very practical, concrete things they can do. But essentially, what he keeps saying is to turn our focus away from ourself and toward another. He is saying, “Stop making yourself the center of your world. Stop putting yourself before everything else. Stop turning inward and, rather, turn outward! Look outside of yourself! Look around and let another determine your existence.” And what John is describing is nothing other than a simple, basic human need: the presence of another in order to truly be ourselves.
It’s strange to think about, I know. A lot of us have grown-up in a culture and environment where we’re taught, implicitly or explicitly, that we have to follow our heart, follow our dreams, don’t let others stand in our way. The classic piece of advice, “Just be yourself.” And I know, most of this is very well intentioned. But what it misses is the simple fact that we cannot truly be ourselves by ourselves. When we live our life entirely for ourself, when everything revolves around us, when the only thing that matters in life is me, myself and I, life becomes incredibly tiresome and loses so much of its vigor. But when does life take on a whole new meaning? When there is another who changes everything.
As a lot of you know, the kids in Catholic high school have a certain number of service hours they have to complete each semester, and then they have to write a little reflection on it. And I read some of these, and one said, “It felt really good to help other people.” Well yeah, exactly! Yes! When life isn’t all about you, when you look outside of yourself, turn outward, life takes on a whole new meaning and vigor! “It feels really good.” And with simple acts like this, with simple acts of turning away from ourselves and toward another, something even greater begins to happen; the possibility for something greater begins to emerge.
In our Gospel, after the people presumably start taking John’s advice, listen to what happens: “Now, the people were filled with expectation.” “Now,” as in, “now after they had begun to turn away from sin, to turn from such a self-centered existence and toward an other-centered existence”—after this transition to a different way of living, “Now, the people were filled with expectation.” When the people started living like this, they began to expect so much more. Their old hopes and dreams were not enough; the idea to “just be themselves” or to follow their own dreams weren’t enough anymore. They had an incredible expectation begin to well-up inside of them. And they knew that this expectation, that the answer to this expectation, couldn’t be something of their own making. They knew that is had to come from another. And based on their faith, they knew that this “other” was the Christ. And it is to this Christ that John begins to point them, to prepare them for, to exhort them about. The message becomes the responsorial psalm: “Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel!”
And so we get to the point of this third Sunday of Advent, this Gaudete Sunday: rejoice! Taking up the words of Saint Paul, the Church commands us to rejoice! Which is a strange command if rejoicing is synonymous with “being happy.” You can’t just command someone to be happy. But Saint Paul and Isaiah and Zephaniah are not saying, “Be happy!” What they are saying is much closer to what the Angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Hail, rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” This rejoicing is not the feeling of “being happy,” but that great relief, the loss of anxiety, the loss of fear, the promise of an ease to our expectation—all because what we have been waiting for has come: the Lord has come. Imagine an army fighting a battle for days, vastly outnumbered, on the brink of destruction, and then the call goes out, “Rejoice, help has arrived! Salvation is at hand!” That’s the feeling! Rejoice, the Lord is near. What we have been expecting has come.
But it goes both ways. For those waiting for his coming, those who have that expectation welling-up within them—the call to rejoice is good news, great news, the best news! But for those who have not, for those who still are completely turned in on themselves and have no expectation whatsoever, the call to rejoice makes no sense. This season of Advent gives us the time and space to allow this expectation to well-up. It gives us the time to turn outside of ourselves and to others, to begin to seek and expect more in our lives, to expect another. So let us take advantage of it! Let us turn our focus outward, so that it can be said of us, “Now, the people were filled with great expectation.”