Third Sunday in Advent – December 12, 2010 – St. John’s
Last week we heard a summary of the preaching of John the Baptist. He urged repentance because the kingdom of God was at hand, and his emphasis fell upon the judgment it would entail: he spoke of a coming wrath, of the axe at the root of the tree, of winnowing the wheat from the chaff. If this was John’s message, it would be natural that he would wonder about his former disciple, Jesus of Nazareth, when he too began preaching the imminence of the kingdom but stressed the mercy that would define God’s coming reign. So John sends disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one who is to come–the Messiah–or whether he, and all Israel, must wait for another.
Jesus’s reply is that these disciples of John should return and tell them what they have seen and heard, things described in words largely drawn from the prophet Isaiah, especially from the passage we heard as our first reading. There, in language which the Jewish tradition would interpret as descriptions of the day when God would restore Israel’s fortunes: the barren desert would “bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.” Israel might regain hope, find new strength in hand and foot, banish fear out of the assurance that her God was coming to save her. Then blind eyes would be opened, deaf ears cleared; silent tongues would speak, and the crippled would leap like deer. Sorrow and mourning would flee, and the redeemed would sing with joy and gladness.
The reply of Jesus to John takes up this glorious passage and even expands upon it: lepers are being cleansed, the dead are arising, and the poor are hearing the Gospel. His reply, then, is not an appeal to miracles as spectacular deeds, an external proof of his authority. It is a claim that in Jesus, in his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom and in his deeds, the great messianic age of the restoration of Israel has begun. The Kingdom as it arrives in him is sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, movement to the lame, life to the dead, and these deeds which Jesus was performing in the sight of all, were not only symbols but also embodiments of the great mercy of which Jesus was the herald and the agent. These were public acts, with significance for all of Israel: their Messiah had come! God was beginning his reign!
Generation after generation Christian believers for two thousand years have been telling what they have seen and heard. This is the very way in which John the Apostle described what he was doing in his First Epistle: “What we have seen and heard we announce to you so that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing so that our joy may be fulfilled.” That is what the Church is: the community that tells what they have heard and seen of the mercies of God in Christ and that live in the blessed communion of faith, hope and love those mercies have made possible. It is because people have told us what they have seen and heard that we are here today, in fellowship, communion, with all those who have believed before us, all the way back to those whose eyes and ears actually heard and saw God’s love embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
Images abound in the two readings, and we ought to allow ourselves to inhabit them, that is, to let them speak to us in all their concreteness, to reflect on them as symbols of our own spiritual state, that is, to find ourselves portrayed in them. One image may speak one’s condition or circumstance more clearly than another; one may apply more closely, more tellingly, at one moment of one’s life and another at another moment. We are all different persons here. For some of us the images may describe physical conditions which we would like to be healed; for others they may describe spiritual conditions no less in need of healing; for still others they may describe circumstances from which we would like to be freed. But surely there is an image that speaks to each of us, that speaks each of us: flowers for a parched land; strength to feeble hands or weak knees; hope for the frightened; sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf; cleansing for the leprous, leaping for the crippled; life for the dead; the good news of grace for the poor.
If you discover yourself in any one of these images, then pray from within it: Lord, water my arid desert; calm my fears; enable me to see, show me whatever I have been blind to; make me hear what in your Word I have been deaf to; cure the limps that slow me down on my life’s journey. These may be so many different ways of praying, Lord, forgive me my sins. If so, we could use these or other images to examine ourselves for the sacrament of reconciliation as a preparation for Christmas. Admitting and confessing our sins could be a moment when the promise held out by our beautiful Scriptural readings today is fulfilled in the forgiveness and reconciliation by which God wishes to reign over us.