3rd Sunday of Advent A. Dec. 11, 2022

 

3rd Sunday of Advent A. Dec. 11, 2022

Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

 

Theme: How to Wait for Christ Even Amid Our Daily Suffering

Today is the third Sunday of our four-week Advent called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoicing Sunday. We light the third candle on our Advent wreath (the pink one) symbolizing Joy. As I did in the previous two Sundays, here again, I would like to remind us that although Christmas gives us the image of a holiday with decorations and shopping, let us not forget that Advent is a special time that the Church our mother gives us for our personal repentance and preparation for the comings of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is coming soon on Christmas, he will come at the end of time, and he comes every day into our hearts and lives. The first Sunday’s liturgy warned us that the day of Jesus’ coming will be unexpected and that repentance is urgent. We shall not wait or delay. The second Sunday’s scripture readings taught us that claiming Abraham as our father or claiming the faith of our parents/grandparents or claiming our baptism and our many years as Christians and ministers is not proof of repentance.  The only evidence for our repentance is the good fruit that we need to produce. And Saint Paul in last Sunday’s second reading exhorted us to live together with one another with harmony and without discrimination. This is one of the types of good fruit we need to produce as evidence of our repentance.  

Let us now focus on the liturgy of this Gaudete Sunday. Today’s liturgy calls us to wait with joy for our savior who in a few days will be born. However, the contrast is how to wait with joy when things around us seem to be getting worse. Isaiah and John the Baptist, in today’s first and Gospel readings respectively, face this challenge. You and I probably are in the same situation when we go through our trials, when we hear all the time of shootings and killings, we see people losing Jobs and others in extreme poverty. No doubt, we ask ourselves, “How to wait with joy with all these evils and sufferings? Let us learn from the experiences of Isaiah and John the Baptist, and also from the good advice of Peter in our second reading how to wait for Christ with joy, faith, and courage even in the midst of our daily trials.

I start with the painful experience of Isaiah. The thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah that we heard in our first reading passage serves as a transition between the “First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) and the Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), the third Isaiah is then from chapters 56 to 66). This chapter introduces a theme of “the people’s journey home after exile” which will be significant throughout the Second Isaiah. While the people are facing a difficult time of the destruction of their land and all crisis that surround the event, Isiah’s prophecy presents a series of images that demonstrate God’s power to restore his people. Let us review some of them. The reading opens with this vision: “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful songs.” (Isaiah 35: 1-2. NAB). Is Isaiah prophesying about the agricultural fertility of the Southern Judean desert? I prefer not to take this statement literally but spiritually. In its spiritual sense, the image of “flowers blooming in the desert” is the symbol of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people. So, the “desert” and “parched land” represent the hearts and souls of the Israelites who have become resistant to God’s Word. Isaiah’s vision sees how God will make the hearts of his people again bloom with new life. The trials you and I go through today sometimes force us to doubt God’s love for us. Many of us become resistant to the Word of God. Many stopped coming to Church and others have gone to other denominations looking for a different image of God, a God who does not watch his people suffering without doing anything but a God who intervenes as quickly as possible. To those people who experience this and to each one of us here present, Isaiah is telling us that our God will never abandon us. He will bloom “flowers” of blessings in our hearts.    

Verses 3 and 4 tell this vision: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble. Make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense, he comes to save you.” (Isaiah 35: 3-4; NAB). Note that during Isiah’s lifetime (ca. 750-680 BC), the larger northern kingdom was systematically destroyed by the Assyrian empire (ca. 722 BC). The smaller kingdom of Judah was reduced to the capital city of Jerusalem (ca. 701 BC), which miraculously survived the destruction. (See 2 Kings 19). Most of the Northern Kingdom population was captured and they scattered the captives into exile in different places of the Near East. The Israelites were “feeble” and “weak”. Their hearts were “frightened”. In this context, Isaiah, through his vision, encourages them not to lose hope because God will come to his people. Maybe some of us experience this same tragedy as the Israelites did. Even when we are in a situation in which we think that there is no hope for a solution, let us consider this vision of Isaiah: “… fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense, he comes to save you.”

Verses 5 and 6a say, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” (Isaiah 35: 5-6a, NAB). In this vision, Isaiah points to the spiritual disabilities of his people including us today. Sometimes sufferings and trials we face daily blind our eyes and clog up our ears and so disable us from seeing and hearing the good things. Sometimes, the trials that we face disable our legs and tongues and so prevent us from using our legs to go to Church and using our tongues to worship and pray to God. These verses teach us that we should not let our suffering affect our relationship with God. Matthew, in our Gospel of today, will refer to these verses 5 and 6 to demonstrate that Jesus fulfills Isiah’s prophecy.

In our Gospel story, Matthew tells us that John the Baptist is in prison. Because he heard of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is that Christ who is to come, or if they should look for another. (Matthew 11: 2-3). Let us pause for a while and reflect on John’s question. What is in his mind by asking that question? Can we affirm that he has doubts about his cousin, Jesus? At first view, John’s question seems odd because he recognized Jesus when he baptized him. Moreover, in last Sunday’s Gospel, even in other Gospel accounts, he acknowledged that Jesus was mightier than he, the one who was coming after him and that he was not worthy to carry his sandals. (See Matthew 3: 11-12; Luke 3: 16). If he already knew his cousin, then why his question? My reflection on this question takes me to see how the suffering of John in prison puts his faith to the test. It is obvious that John encountered Jesus and had an experience with him before in his good times. This is the first time for John the Baptist to experience Jesus in the afflicted moment of his life. He himself preached about the coming of God’s kingdom. He prepared the people to wait for the Messiah. But, in the darkest moment of his life, John’s faith in the power of the coming of Christ is put to test. So, we can assume what was going on in John’s mind by asking this question in v. 3: “if he is the anointed one for whom we are waiting, why am I still in this prison for the truth that I said? If Jesus is the Christ who brings good tidings to the afflicted, proclaims liberty to the captives, and releases the prisoners as Isaiah prophesized (See Isaiah 61: 1), then why does he not use some of his power to get me out of this prison?” No doubt, that is how many of us act when we face our own trials. We expect Jesus to use his Messianic power and get us out of suffering as soon as possible otherwise, we question if he really is the Christ we pray for every day.

In his answer, Jesus dismisses John’s disciples to go and tell him about the miracles that he performs: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11: 4-5). How to understand Jesus’ answer based on John’s expectation of getting him out of his prison? There are two lessons to learn here.  The first lesson is in the literal sense of this answer. Jesus uses the physical healing that he has performed on the blind, lame, deaf, and so on as proof of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. Then, he wants John to know that effectively he is using his Messianic power but to others. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” (v. 4). This passage here teaches us that our suffering should not blind our eyes from not seeing the blessings that God does to others. To believe in Christ, we do not need the sign or miracle to happen necessarily to us. We are called here to still believe in Jesus amid our suffering using the blessings of others.

The second lesson of Jesus’ answer is in the spiritual sense: those who are healed here are those who were spiritually disabled. The signs that prove the messianic of Jesus are rather the spiritual signs that enable all those who were spiritually imprisoned by the devil. Jesus wants John the Baptist to know that the Kingdom of God for which he came is already being established. He came to set us free spiritually: the blind can see the goodness of the Lord; the lame can now walk and go to Church; the lepers whose sins separated them from God and people are being forgiven and their relationship with God and people are restored; the deaf can hear God’s Word; the hope of the people that were dead are raised; and the poor who could not hear the Good News, now the Word of God is proclaimed to them. Pay attention to the contrast here. While John the Baptist needs physical proof (to get out of prison) for him to believe that Jesus is the one to come, Jesus gives him spiritual proof. Later, Peter and other disciples will also expect Jesus to start “a physical” kingdom of heaven by taking political power from the Romans. You and I sometimes are confronted by the same contrast. We probably base our faith only on physical needs. Notice what Jesus says at the end of his answer: “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (v. 5). This means, we are blessed if we are not offended that Jesus’ way of bringing in the kingdom of heaven is different from what we expect. We believe that God does not make mistakes. So, we are called to still believe in our Lord even though things do not go in the way we would them to happen.

The Gospel story ends with Jesus praising John the Baptist that he is the greater prophet among those born of women. Yet, Jesus adds that “the least in the kingdom of heaven” is greater than John. (v. 11). Who are the least in the kingdom of heaven?  They are you and me if we let ourselves be touched by the encounter with Christ. We will be “greater than John the Baptist” in the kingdom of heaven if now we take no offense at what Jesus does in us and through us.

The painful experiences of Isaiah, in the first reading, and John the Baptist, in the Gospel, taught us how today we can still believe in our Lord amid our trials. Especially now in this Advent Season, these two figures helped us to know how we can still wait for the coming of our savior even though things seem to continue to get worse in our lives. In this context, Saint Paul, in our second reading, exhorts us to be patient. He uses the analogy of a farmer who waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. For Saint Paul, to be patient means to make our hearts firm because the coming of our Lord is at hand, and to not complain about one another so that we may not be judged because the one who is coming (Jesus) is the judge of all. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

 

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