Saturday, November 9, 2013

Homily - 2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)
First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10           Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9             Gospel Reading: Matthew 3:1-12


Once, when a conference of ministers was held in a certain town, a certain old preacher had sat quietly through it for a number of days until, toward the end of the conference, he was suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to speak. He arose thoughtfully and almost stumblingly fumbled for his words. Finally, his thoughts took form, his words fell in the rhythm of a marching column, and his impassioned oratory beat down upon the upturned faces of his audience until, as he arose to his peroration and reached his climax, the whole sedate conference broke into a spontaneous applause that shook the room, according to an item in Printer's Ink.
He had delivered the master oration of the conference. When finally the applause subsided, a cocky young Doctor of Divinity strolled up to him. "That was a masterly address you delivered extemporaneously. Yet you must have had some preparation to have done it so well. How long did it take you to prepare it?"
The older man looked gently for some time at the younger one before he answered. And then he said: "Sixty years, young man, sixty years!”

We are in the Holy Season of Advent and today is the second Sunday. Every year, on this day, as preparation for Christmas, the Church leads us on pilgrimage to the Jordan River, so that we might enroll in the school of John the Baptist, hear his message, and put it into action in our lives. At first glance, it seems like a strange choice to meet him at the Jordan, 30 years after Christ’s birth, millennia before his Second Coming. But the reason why the Church always visits John at the Jordan is because he was the one chosen by God the Father from all eternity to get His people ready to receive His Son, who was already walking toward the Jordan River to inaugurate his public ministry. The Gospel Reading of today from St. Matthew presents John the Baptist as our model for Advent preparation; he is the precursor who announced the Lord's coming and who prepared the people by preaching them the 'baptism of repentance.' In the First Reading of today, we hear that Isaiah prophesied him as “A voice of one crying out in the desert; Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths."

The First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is a Messianic prophesy. To a distressed people languishing in exile, the prophet offers words of comfort and hope. He sees a new beginning for the royal line of David. In the wake of the Babylonian exile only a stump of the Davidic dynasty remains. From this "stump of Jesse" will spring forth a shoot, that of the Messianic King. Jesse was the father of King David from whom the Judean kings descended. The prophet says that the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. Here, the prophet is providing a picture of a Messianic era when paradise would be restored. The new reign will be marked by peace, justice, and knowledge of God that extends to all the nations. The fascinating image of animal enemies living together in peace is a powerful presage of the world as God would have it – marked with serenity, harmony and the fullness of joy. Isaiah warns us that the Messiah will judge us by his righteousness and with peace he will rule the earth. He is filled with the wisdom and insight, counsel and power, knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Isaiah concludes the passage of today by saying, “On that day, the root of Jesse” - the one who comes from Jesse, that is, Jesus - “will be raised as a signal for the nation. The people from everywhere will come in search of him thus making his dwelling place glorious.” In Jesus, the incarnate word and wisdom of God, this oracle of Isaiah has become a flesh-and-blood reality. Jesus came to be a sign to all the nations of what could happen. To bring peace into our world. His reign of peace has indeed begun but has yet to be appropriated and accepted by all. Isaiah was his herald but we are the ambassadors of his reign; as such, we are reminded once again today, that the fullness of his peace and justice will come only when all the people of the earth are led to seek him, to turn from evil and know him.

In the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul calls for reconciliation among the different factions in that community. Aware of the differences which characterized the Roman communities and in order to safeguard against a splintering of their tenuous union, he calls for peace, harmony and mutual acceptance. For their edification and inspiration, he tells the believers in Rome that they could avail themselves of two main resources, viz. the Scriptures and Christ himself:
The Scriptures are filled with instructions and patient encouragement “that we might have hope.” These scriptures prepared them to receive Christ and tell them that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Another resource is the example of Christ himself who welcomed and accepted everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, or degree of holiness. Paul talks about how Jesus brought reconciliation and Peace. He talks about how Jesus came to serve Jew and Gentile alike. He talks about how Jesus...the Savior...came so all might live in peace and harmony.
So, in order to realize personally this hope of saving glory in Christ, we are to live in harmony with one another and thus glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this Advent season then, let us resolve to walk on the just path. Following St. Paul’s exhortation, let us welcome one another and be kind to one another, in imitation of Jesus Christ, the hope and object of our Advent expectation.

The Gospel Reading of today presents us with John the Baptist who appeared in the wilderness to give the wake up call. When the great prophet Isaiah prophesied a forerunner who would be “A voice of one crying out in the desert,” he was clearly making reference to John the Baptist. The introduction of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew is quite abrupt, lacking details as to who he was. The reason for this is because John was a great and well-known figure in the early days of the Christian community. There was no need for any lengthy introduction.
John the Baptist was the predicted forerunner to the Messiah. He was considered a prophet by many Jews and even by Jesus himself. His message was accompanied by an austere life of penance and self-denial. His apparel of camel’s hair and leather portrayed him as a prophetic figure like Elijah who 'wore a garment of haircloth, with a belt of leather about his loins,' and whom it was believed would return to herald the Messiah. The diet of locusts and wild honey recalled the wilderness period when the newly escaped refugees from Egypt were being formed as a people by God in the Sinai. But locusts were also a symbol of divine judgment in scripture, as honey was a sign of promise and blessings. Perhaps John’s diet signaled that the coming reign and its emissary, Jesus, would bring both judgment and promise upon the earth, a fact that is borne out in the rest of the gospel.
John the Baptist was a blazing personality with strident voice and flashing eyes. He was sent by God to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the message of salvation from the Savior. His message was one of repentance in preparation for the imminent coming of “the Kingdom of Heaven,” which is the spiritual restoration of David's empire by Jesus the Messiah. It is the same message that Jesus proclaimed when he began his ministry in Galilee, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Many people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan came to him and with the baptism of repentance, he opened their eyes to see the Lord who had come to save them and give them hope. In essence, what John was saying is not so much to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah because he was already there, but to get the world to see the Lord who stood in their midst unnoticed and to listen to the Good News that he brought. John’s message is simple: Jesus cannot be recognized and received because the path to our life is full of roadblocks: hills, valleys and crooked curves.
But John the Baptist must have had some charisma - something which did draw people to him, and not just the other crazies. In fact, today we learn that he drew even the Pharisees and Sadducees to him. John seems to recognize them immediately for what they were and what their motives were. “You brood of vipers!” he yells at them. His words are harsh. And then he gets right to the core of the problem he has with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were people of privilege who applauded social justice, helping others, but only insofar as it applied to them. But they did not really repent of their sins. They thought they had God on their side just because they were Jews. They boasted that they had Abraham as their father. But God would demand something more, says John. They needed to repent and reform their lives, undergoing ' metanoia' (conversion), a complete change of mind and heart. He thunders judgment against the complacent, contented and powerful. He proclaims that the messiah - the Christ - who is coming after him will winnow the good from the bad and throw evildoers into the fire. The forceful image of a rampaging John the Baptist warning about 'the coming wrath' and the burning of 'the chaff with unquenchable fire' complements Isaiah’s idyllic vision of the Messianic Kingdom. Isaiah and the Baptizer are really not working at odds with one another. The first is looking at the final enduring results of his coming, while the second has his eyes on the preparation that is needed.
Towards the end of today's Gospel Reading, we have the following words of John the Baptist,"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." In these words, John alludes to the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire on Pentecost Day. John's baptism needs to be distinguished from Christ's. John's was a visible token of repentance and preparation for the Messiah. The administration of water was only a sign of purification. However, Christ's baptism infuses the Holy Spirit who effects forgiveness and regeneration leading to formal adoption into God's family. We have received Christ’s Spirit and fire, but in Advent we look at it again.

Advent is fascinating - a beautiful season of the Liturgical Year. In it we experience transforming newness. Through the liturgy of the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are invited to tread the path of repentance and conversion – the just path that leads to hope and the heavenly kingdom that is the goal of Advent expectation. We therefore listen attentively to the word of God 'that we might have hope' and that 'the divine reign of justice and peace' might come upon us.
Today the Church chooses John the Baptist as the personification of the Advent theme as he preaches repentance, transformation of the heart and reform of our lives and invites us to reflect on his prophecy as a preparation for the celebration of the birth of the Savior. Christmas is a worldwide feast that many people prepare for in different ways. For many it is a time for family reunions, for others it is a time of increased business when people travel more and shop more. We too join the world to prepare to celebrate Christmas as a social event. But the best preparation for the event is the spiritual preparation. We prepare ourselves to celebrate the event when God assumed our nature to take our sins away and to enable us to share in his divine nature. There is no better preparation than that of conversion, of repentance.
If we look at today’s gospel, we can see John calling people to reform their lives. He wants them to free themselves from those things that turn them away from God. However, if we look at this as a static process, then we miss the point. John is not only announcing the coming of the Messiah, he is also announcing the coming of the next stage of the salvation process. Humanity has evolved now to the point where the process can begin. So he is calling his listeners to reform their lives that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As John the Baptist told the people in his day, so he tells us today. He makes the same call to us. Either repent and turn more to the Lord or walk away and follow other paths. The choice belongs to each of us, each and every day. And this is the Good News of today.

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