Advent (2): Drowning In Our Own Self-Reliance

Second Sunday of Advent (C) – December 5, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

That Feeling of Drowning

Have you ever been in the position where you were drowning? You’re young, just learned how to swim a little, so you go over to the deep-end and jump in with your older brother…and immediately you’re like, “This was a bad idea.” You start thrashing, screaming out for help, head starts bobbing up and down under the water. Panic sets in: there’s no way out of this one.

But then your older brother swims over and calmly takes you over to the edge of the pool. You’re rescued. There you were, trapped in a situation you couldn’t escape from, and your older brother rescues you, redeems you.

Jesus is our redeemer. …Any of you get goosebumps when I said that? Yeah, me neither. No, I don’t get goosebumps when I hear that! I’ve heard that since I was two. I see it written in Christmas lights on people’s front yard. It’s a slogan on a Hallmark card.

The Goel: The Redeemer

To the Hebrew ear, though—to the Biblical ear, this Hebrew word “goel” (גואל)—this word “redeemer,” in Hebrew “goel”—to the Hebrew ear, when they hear “goel” they hear “the oldest son in the family,” your oldest brother or if you don’t have a brother your closest kinsman. The oldest brother takes up the role of goel, of redeemer, under one of two circumstances, two events. These things don’t happen, the oldest son doesn’t have to step into this role of goel. These two circumstances—the first one is that if someone in their family (a younger sibling, the father) is kidnapped; the oldest son has to step into this role as goel and redeem, save, rescue this sibling, this family member that has been kidnapped. The second circumstance is if someone in the family (a little sibling) is murdered; the eldest son has to take up his role as goel, as redeemer, and go and avenge the death of his family member.

So when we hear from the prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah)—when the people of Israel hear from the prophets, “Thus says the LORD God, ‘I will be your redeemer’”—they get goosebumps. God is saying, “I will become closer to you than blood. I will become the closest relative to you. And I will redeem you, I will rescue you. I will avenge the rule of Death you have been living under for so long. I will fill this role of goel. I will rescue you from this power you’ve been kidnapped by and return you home.” That is this great promise of return to Jerusalem we hear throughout our first reading today, and up and down the prophets. 

“God himself will be our goel? God himself will redeem us, rescue us?” Yes. And they gave him great thanks when they returned to Jerusalem, when the promise was fulfilled. But they never, never could have imagined that this was only a taste! They never could have imagined that this was only a taste of the full rescue and redemption God had in store. God would rescue them from an even worse power that had captured them, from a power that would eventually kill them. And not just them, but all of humanity. All of creation. They never could have imagined that God would literally become their closest relative—that he would become the blood brother of every human, that God would become man and rescue us.

Jesus is our redeemer. Any goosebumps? Yeah, me neither.

We Aren’t Our Own Worst Enemy, But We Aren’t Helping Ourselves

When we hear all of this—maybe it’s just me, but when I heard all of this growing up, my immediate thought was, “I don’t think I’m that bad of a guy. I think I’m ok. I’m going to go to church, I’m going to pray, teach my kids to be good kids…but I don’t need ‘redeemed.’”

I spent a long time this week trying to think of a clever way to say this (because I get it, I’m not some old priest, you know the kinds that has wisdom engrained in his face, maybe an Irish brogue)—but Jesus just told me to say it plainly.

We need rescued from ourselves—from the decision we made a long time ago to just do it ourselves.We aren’t our own worst enemy—the Enemy is out there, prowling like a roaring lion, waiting for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). We aren’t our own worst enemy, but we aren’t helping ourselves. My biggest problem, the real challenge in my life, the real hardship—is me. It’s always been me. Your biggest problem is you.

Have you ever been in the position where you were drowning? You’re young, just learned how to swim a little, so you go over to the deep-end and jump in. And immediately you’re like, “This was a bad idea.” You start thrashing, screaming out for help, head starts bobbing up and down under the water. Panic sets in. But no one shows up. Nobody comes. Because nobody is watching. Because nobody seems to care. And you, determined that you aren’t going to die today, give everything you have and make it to the side. You parents, your brother see you shocked and scared, out of breath, ask if you’re ok. And you say, “Yeah. I’m fine.” And that’s when you decided that you would have to take care of yourself from now on.

Maybe it wasn’t a pool. Maybe it was when you had you decided to trust someone, to finally let your guard down, to open up—and they walked all over that. Whatever it is, we can all point to some very real, very concrete experience in our life where we made the decision to go it alone. Think of the worst moment in your life, the hardest, the most hurtful, the most afraid you’ve ever been—and think about how you got through that. For most of us, I can almost guarantee we picked ourselves up by our own bootstraps and got through it—and then decided never to allow ourselves into that kind of a situation again, decided who we would be and how we would get there. And the Enemy, the Devil gave himself a pat on the back, kicked up his feet, and let you start being your own worst enemy—he had us. Because that was the day we decided who we would be, and left behind being a Child of God.

For me, I thought that if I kept my guard up, kept my grades up, never let people see the real me, never opened my heart to anyone—I would make sure that nothing ever happened to me. My own self-protection measures, controlling how I would receive love, making sure I didn’t “get hurt”—not trusting others, just myself, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-protection…we rely on ourselves and what we can give ourselves—because it seems to work. We can take care of ourselves and be proud of the work we do ourselves. And if something goes wrong, we don’t have to blame someone else, we can handle the let down, because it was our own fault anyway.

And at the same time we eliminate the infinite possibilities of love God can give to us. We tell God the one way He can rescue us and redeem us—“I need a million dollars, abortion to be illegal, WiFi, and an iPhone 25”—and we wait for Him to do that. And when He doesn’t, we don’t worry, because we’ll just work hard and get those things for ourself.

Do you remember when I told you about that one girl down at Totus Tuus camp? “Jesus sucks” girl? This is her. There she was, living the “perfect” life of Derby, America. Good food, air conditioned house, a shower with water pressure, her dog, WiFi, sleeping until noon. She had everything taken care of, “perfect” life. But she was unhappy. And so she tried more of the same. And nothing changed. And she would keep trying that, her whole life, like so many of us do. And nothing would change.

This is sinister! It’s a self-perpetuating loop. We trust only ourselves and rely only on ourselves. Walls up, protecting ourselves, keeping ourselves “safe,” trusting only ourselves—but we are unable to provide for ourselves—but we can only trust ourselves—but we find ourselves insufficient—but we can only… Misery builds to the point of explosion. We can’t see a path forward—the mountains and hills get in the way, the winding roads are too confusing (Isaiah 40:3). We’re trapped. Sinking. Drowning.

Jesus is our redeemer. From all of your slavery to shame, slavery to the anxieties of your daily life, slavery to your addictions, slavery to your worry and depression, to the bitterness and resentment you feel in your heart. Rejoice! Rejoice, O Israel! To thee shall come Emmanuel! This is their story, this is our story. Rejoice! Our brother, our goel is coming. During Advent we celebrate that he is coming soon. To make all things new.

“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights. Look to the east.” Your Redeemer is at hand.

If I told you—now this didn’t happen, so don’t go spreadin’ rumors—but if I told you that Fr. Rick called me and told me he had a vision last night in prayer, that Jesus presented himself before Fr. Rick and Jesus told him, “I will be coming back in less than four weeks, definitively.” If Jesus said, “I am coming back in less than four weeks”—what is the first reaction of your heart? *gasp* A leap of joy? Of excitement? “Our redeemer!” Or is it fear? 

“The end is coming.” When you hear that, are you afraid? worried? Don’t be ashamed, don’t hide from that, don’t distract yourself from that—this is a graced moment, a powerful moment, where Jesus has given us time to prepare! The next four weeks to prepare. John the Baptist tells us in the Gospel today, “Repent.” And that word “repent” literally means, “Turn around! Turn away from all of the ideas and plans and self reliance! Put aside all of those things you hold on to that distract you from your heart! Put aside all of those sins that you hold on to because they are how you protect yourself! Turn around. Rejoice! Your redeemer is on his way.” Jesus is our redeemer. Jesus doesn’t come to condemn, but to rescue and redeem.

Rejoice

Remember “Jesus sucks” girl? Remember what happened to her? She went to that camp. And at that camp everything she used to rely on, all of the self-reliance she had—her good food and air conditioning and shower and dog and WiFi and sleep—when all of that was gone, when she was placed in this position of not being able to take care of herself in all of the ways she had taught herself, when everything was put aside and she made the slightest turn toward him, “repented”…something happened. Jesus arrived. Her redeemer arrived. And she met Him. And she couldn’t deny it—couldn’t explain it, couldn’t chalk it up to her own power—but couldn’t deny, “I’m happy. I’ve never been this happy in my entire life. And I don’t know why.” Rejoice!

When we don’t allow it, when we refuse and say, “No, I am going to hold on to this! No, I can get myself out of this one. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again.” When we make that choice, when we close ourselves off and tell God the one way He’s allowed to redeem us and rescue us, we’re eliminating the infinite possibility of ways He is going to show us his love.

Remember the loop of self-reliance. It’s sinister. Remember the misery. Misery to the point of explosion. Remember the weariness, the slavery to it all.

And rejoice, be filled with joy, be consoled. Your goel, your redeemer is coming to take you by the hand, to rescue you. Rejoice.

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