DECEMBER 17TH, 2017: THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.
Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, "Who are you?"
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, "I am not the Christ."
So they asked him,
"What are you then? Are you Elijah?"
And he said, "I am not."
"Are you the Prophet?"
He answered, "No."
So they said to him,
"Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
'make straight the way of the Lord,'"
as Isaiah the prophet said."
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
"Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?"
John answered them,
"I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.
Part of your remote preparation for today’s readings might be to rent the 1998 movie Simon Birch. It’s the story of a young boy with dwarfism who is convinced God made him for a “special heroic purpose.” Though almost everyone – including his pastor – tries to talk him out of his fantasy, the ending of the movie eventually proves his conviction had been correct all along. Though the plot might seem somewhat “hammy,” today’s sacred authors certainly connect with it.
Paul states it clearly: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy.”
His community in Thessalonica understands that “holy” doesn’t mean pious, describing the way you hold your hands or raise your eyes heavenward when you pray. Holy simply means “other,” distinct from those around you, just as God is other from every other person around him/her.
One of the characteristics which makes us unique is the conviction that God has given each of us, like Simon Birch, a specific purpose in life. That assurance isn’t an essential part of our personality just because we’re followers of Jesus. As we hear in today’s first reading, Third-Isaiah had that belief 500 years before Jesus’ birth.
“The spirit of Yahweh is upon me,” he proclaims, “because Yahweh has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners . . . .” The prophet’s life is consumed with God’s plan to help the helpless. If Yahweh is going to bring the world “justice” – good personal relationships – that justice must start with Third-Isaiah’s personal relationships with others, something he’s convinced he’s specifically called by God to carry out. It’s a major part of his holiness.
According to the four Christian evangelists, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth, no one in salvation history has a more unique purpose in life than John the Baptizer. He’s the precursor of Jesus the Messiah. As John the Evangelist tells us in today’s gospel pericope, he’s the one who prepares the way for the one who comes after him, the one whose sandal strap he’s not even “worthy to untie.”
Yet as I always remind my students, scholars are convinced Jesus’ first followers seem to be the only people who eventually believed this special precursor had that mission. Historically, John himself most probably never understood that to be his God-given role in life. It’s possible he went to his death convinced he’d failed in his mission; to help people experience Yahweh in their daily lives. (Sound familiar?) I presume only after reaching heaven’s confines was he finally able to put all the individual pieces together.
Holy people face a daunting problem; though they believe God’s designated them for a specific purpose in life, they rarely know what that specific purpose is. Perhaps that’s why Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they constantly have to “hang loose.” While they’re waiting for that purpose to show itself, they must “. . . in all circumstances give thanks . . . not quench the Spirit . . . not despise prophetic utterances.” (The latter implies they must always be open to surfacing God’s will in their lives.) Meanwhile they’re to “. . . test everything, retain what is good, and refrain from every kind of evil.”
Paul simply tells his community they’re to spend their lives becoming other Christs; no one could be holier. Yet even in Gethsemane the historical Jesus argued with God about his purpose in life. If God’s Son had to wait until Easter Sunday morning to definitely appreciate his life’s purpose, who are we?
Most of us have at least a few more years to go.