Sunday, December 15, 2013

Homily for Gaudete (The Third Sunday in Advent)

Matthew 11:2-11; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Isaiah 40:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Did John doubt, or was he merely asking Jesus if He was the Messiah for the benefit of his disciples? That is the question we seem to face each year on Gaudete Sunday. And, I am not too proud to confess that I have preached to you on this day both ways. Indeed, I have preached to you that John was no different than you and I, and that, as he was languishing in prison awaiting his execution at the hands of Herod, of course he had doubts – we all would, we all do. Thus, we are to be encouraged that a man of faith such as John the Baptist is so very like us that he could question and doubt, but also find strength and courage, just as we do, in the Word of God and its promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Likewise, I have at other times preached to you that John was the greatest of the prophets, even Jesus’ flesh and blood cousin, who assuredly knew Jesus even better than His disciples. For, it was John who pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Likewise, it was John who confessed that he was but a forerunner for the Messiah, utterly unworthy to untie the strap of Jesus’ sandals. Therefore, of course John knew and believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Thus, John questioned Jesus’ being the coming one so that his own disciples would also know and believe that Jesus was the Messiah after John had fulfilled his role as forerunner and had been killed. However, this Gaudete, I am not going to preach to you about the faith or the doubt of John at all, for I have come to believe that this is of dubious relevance and is most definitely a distraction from the true theme of Gaudete, which is that we should “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice!”
Now, to rejoice in the Lord always means to rejoice, not only when things are going well for you, but to rejoice even when things don’t seem to be going very well for you at all. I believe that this is the message that is to be communicated in today’s pericope about John the Baptist in prison. When John’s disciples came to Jesus with his inquiry, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another,” Jesus instructed them to go and tell John what they have heard and seen: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Indeed, John and his disciples had witnessed all these things. And yet, they did not happen for everyone, did they? That is to say, not all the blind received their sight, not all the lame were made able to walk, not all the lepers were cleansed, not all the deaf were given to hear, and not all who died were raised up. And, this is not to mention the fact that Jesus intentionally, it would seem, left out the part of Isaiah’s prophecy that proclaimed “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,” precisely what John most desperately wanted to hear.
However, while it is true that these signs were not happening for everyone, they most certainly were happening, and that is indeed good news! Further, there was one thing that was indeed happening for everyone: The poor had the good news of the Gospel preached to them. In fact, it is the Gospel that is the healing power of the forgiveness of sins, which is the true ailment we all suffer, which is also manifested, at times, in the physical healing of blindness, lameness, deafness, leprosy, and even death. Rare as they might appear to be, these wonderful signs could not happen at all were Jesus not the promised Messiah come at long last. For, the truth is, we are all John in prison – that is, in the prison of our own sin and the darkness of sin and death. And, like John, we want so desperately to be released and to be set free. While we know in truth that one day we will be released and set free, what we too often fail to see is that we already are!
Perhaps the Lord has our sinful shortsightedness in mind. He knows that we are truly blind to His will and His ways apart from the light He provides us by His Holy Spirit through His Word. Perhaps this is why he begins His words to John with “the blind receive their sight” and ends with “the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” Jesus’ message to John is this: “The reign of God’s kingdom has begun. Even now it is breaking into His fallen creation and restoring it, making all things new.” Then Jesus adds, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
In what ways might Jesus be an offense to John, or His disciples, or to us? It offends us that the new creation Jesus brings does not manifest itself quickly enough, or in the ways in which we desire or expect. Therefore, we need to change our expectations. Or, better, we need to have our expectations changed. Our expectations can only be changed if first our spiritual blindness is taken away and the light of God’s Word enlightens us. Then, we will receive the eyes of faith to see clearly the reign of the kingdom of God. Thus, let us be admonished to “not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” And, “do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
Gaudete! “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, rejoice!” Why? Because “the Lord GOD comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” Where? Here, right now! Hear with opened ears: Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. You have received from the LORD’s hand double for all your sins. See with opened eyes: The Lord GOD comes in Word and Water, Body and Blood. The Lord GOD comes for you, to comfort you, to strengthen you, to preserve and keep you until He comes on the Last Day to crown you with glory in His kingdom that never ends. You are God’s child now, and what you will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.
This is a great and holy mystery, yet it has been, is, and will continue to unfold before you, to you, and through you until He comes. Indeed, each day you are nearer to your salvation than when you first believed. We are stewards, managers of the mysteries of God, says St. Paul. Indeed, it is with great humility, reverence, and boundless joy that I serve you with the mysteries of God. And, in turn, you have the privilege and honor of serving your brother and sister and neighbor with God’s liberating mysteries of forgiveness, mercy, love, and charity. When you encounter them in the prison of sin and darkness, hopelessness and despair, go and tell them what you hear and see.
You have been freed from that prison. The Son has set you free, and you are free indeed! What your ears do not hear, the ears of faith do. What your eyes do not see, the eyes of faith do. The shackles are off! The prison door is open! Only you can allow yourself to be imprisoned once again. You are free! Tell this good news to your brother, your sister, and your neighbor!
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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