Advent (3) The One We Don’t Recognize

3rd Sunday of Advent (B) – December 13, 2020

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-9, 19-28

(1) “There is one among you whom you do not recognize”

As I’ve mentioned one-too-many times already, Advent is about more than just preparing us for Christmas. It is about more than just baking a few cookies and wrapping presents. Advent is reliving that long-wait of the people of Israel for the Messiah; we too are the people of God living that long-wait for the coming of the Messiah, for his second coming. 

But this only makes sense if we can really put ourselves in the position of the people of God, if we can really feel how they felt, if we can recognize that we too are in need of the coming of the Messiah just as much as they were. We are hopeless and helpless without this coming of the Messiah. We are waiting for God to do through his Messiah what we can’t do ourselves.

That’s why Advent has us focus in on the character of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is one of the central figures of Advent because he points us to the meaning of this season. John is out in the desert baptizing with water, but he is aware that this baptism doesn’t do people a whole lot of good; it is only a baptism of repentance. So why does he do it? Well, to prepare us, to awaken us to our need for God’s holy presence. (The easy analogy is AA. The first step? Admit you have a problem, admit you are powerless, admit that your life is unmanageable.) So why this baptism? Because the one coming after John is greater, and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (c.f., Matthew 3:11). This is the Messiah! This is the one we need.

So great! What’s the issue? John says it clearly: “There is one among you whom you do not recognize” (John 1:26). At this point in the story, Jesus is already there, walking among them, but no one recognizes him—no one recognizes that the one they have been waiting for has arrived.

(2) Why Don’t We Recognize Him?

There are a hundred and one reasons why we do not recognize that the Lord is present among us, that the Lord is hard at work in our lives.

A classic one is that we don’t like how the Lord chooses to operate, and so we dismiss it. We say that it’s not him, that he’s absent, he’s abandoned us. (I apologize for the repeat to everyone who was at Mass on Friday, but) One of my favorite cartoon strips is of this guy trapped in a flood, and so he’s sitting on his roof praying for God to rescue him. Along comes a man on a raft and says, “Hop on! I’m here to rescue you!” But the guy says, “No, no. God will come to rescue me.” Then a man comes along in a boat and says, “Hop in! I’m here to rescue you!” But the man says, “No, no. God will come to rescue me.” A man in a helicopter swoops in, lowers the ladder and says, “Climb in! I’m here to rescue you!” But the man says, “No, no. God will come to rescue me.” Then in the next frame the guy gets washed away in the flood and dies. When he gets up to heaven he’s upset and tells God, “What gives?! I had so much faith and so much trust! Why didn’t you come to rescue me?!” And God says, “I sent you a raft, a boat and a helicopter. What else do you want from me?” The point: many times the Lord is showing up in our lives, he is coming to us to help us, he is hard at work—but we don’t even recognize it because it’s not how we imagined that he would show up.

Another way we do this is we forget to live a life of thanksgiving. In our second reading, Paul gives the Church a summary of what they should be doing as they await the return of King Jesus. He says, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Oh, and in all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). I spent my homily at Thanksgiving talking about how gratitude is necessary, how giving thanks isn’t just a nice thing to do to repay someone for being nice to you, no. “Giving thanks” doesn’t simply mean saying “thank you” (although that can be a very important part of it). “Giving thanks” means you have to take a hot minute to recognize what you have to be grateful for. And if you tell me that you can’t think of anything, I will come to your house, take your refrigerator for a week, and we’ll see who “magically” has things to be grateful for. The point: many times we don’t recognize the Lord is at work and very present in our lives because we don’t take a hot minute to recognize it and to give thanks for it. We default to complaining about everything, or taking things for granted.I mean, if the COVID thing has taught us anything, I hope it has taught us to be careful about taking things for granted.

But the last way I want to touch on—the last way is one of the most insidious of them all. And this one—this is one where you have to be real honest with yourself. You’re here at Mass today, watching Mass via livestream, so no one can judge you but yourself. Sometimes we don’t recognize the Lord present among us because the “god” we are looking for isn’t the real God. What do I mean by that?

(3) Idolatry: More Common Than You Think

Throughout the entire story of Scripture, we find the people of God turning away from the true God and toward gods of their own making (that’s what the Bible calls “idolatry”). Adam and Eve, they have access to the Tree of Life—but instead they go after the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which (as an oversimplification) is the Tree of deciding what you think is right and wrong, “grabbing” the authority to decide what is right in your own eyes. And when humans do that, when humans “worship idols,” it leads to broken relationships, violence, and death. And that’s exactly what happens to Adam and Eve.

And then time and again, no matter how many times God makes covenants with his people, no matter how many famines or exiles or attacks God rescues his people from—the people continue to suffer from one major problem: they can’t stop turning to other gods. They keep placing things in the place of God. They “believe in God” they try to be a “good person.” But when you look at the story of their life, you realize that the “god” they believe in isn’t really God; it’s just what they’ve decided their God is going to be.

So this is what I mean: sometimes we don’t recognize the Lord present among us because the “god” we are looking for, the God we have given our allegiance to isn’t the real God. And the most common god we worship, especially as Americans? It’s work. We place our faith and trust and hope in our own abilities, our own power. For some of us, our entire life centers around our job; and I don’t mean your job is hard and involved, I mean you life is your work. For some of us, we can’t trust other people to do things for us, and so we have to do everything ourselves.

And so what happens? When we practice “our faith,” we start to live our “faith” in the exact same way. It’s all about me. My sins are forgiven because I am so sorry. I am close to God because I am at the Church. I have read books on theology so I know God. I am doing extra praying and fasting and almsgiving this Advent, so I am doing great.

This is a problem because unlike the people of God waiting for the Messiah, you don’t need the Messiah to show up. You aren’t hopeless and helpless without the coming of the Messiah, because you have you. You can do everything yourself, so you don’t need God. Who cares if you recognize him or not?

What happens when you do it all yourself? What happens when the one you look to save you and rescue you, the one you place your faith and trust in…is you? It’s the same thing that happens whenever idolatry is going on: broken relationships, violence, and death.

And then, when we ask, “Where was God? Why didn’t God help me?”, the hard truth is that your “god” did help you. But your “god” is you, and you aren’t as powerful and wise and amazing as you think you are. When the god we call on is ourself, we’re not allowed to blame God for not being there when we call.

(4) The Jubilee Year

The Israelites had a practice that every fiftieth year, there was a great Jubilee Year (c.f., Leviticus 25). This is what the first reading from Isaiah is talking about when he says that this coming Messiah (i.e., anointed one, Christos in Greek) is coming to “announce a year of favor from the Lord.” This year of favor is a technical term for the Jubilee Year. And in a Jubilee Year, there were several things that happened. For instance, all debts were forgiven, all slaves were set free. But most importantly, it was a year dedicated to rest! It was a year to recognize that God will provide. It was a year in which the idol of work was done away with. It is a year of rejoicing.

That is the focus of this third Sunday of Advent: rejoicing! Why? Because the Lord is present among us, the Lord is hard at work in our lives! We rejoice because he clothes us with salvation, he wraps us in a mantle of justice (c.f., Isaiah 61:10). The Lord promises to make us holy, preserve us in this holiness, accomplish the work (c.f., 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). “God is faithful.” We don’t have to do it ourselves! That was never the deal.

The reason we are “required” to gather on Sunday, the reason we’re not supposed to work on Sunday—the reason for all of this is to call us back to this: we are hopeless and helpless without this coming of the Messiah. We can work as hard as we want, but that isn’t going to get us anywhere. But look: our God comes to save us. And thanks be to God that he comes to us. It is cause for rejoicing.

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