Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, our scripture lessons focused on the final coming of Jesus at the end of time and called upon us to prepare ourselves for that moment, the end of history, the fulfillment of the coming of God's reign into our world, transforming it into that reign of God. And throughout Advent, we are also preparing for the feast of Christmas, the time when we remember with great joy the birth of that child in Bethlehem, born of Mary, but later proclaimed son of God in power after his resurrection. So throughout this season, we wait hopefully to celebrate with joy a memory of that marvelous day 2,000 years ago.
The first lesson reminds us that God comes at various times and in various ways into our lives. That passage from the book of Baruch the prophet was proclaimed at a time when the chosen people had already returned from exile. They had found their temple destroyed, everything in ruins and it was a very hopeless time for the people, but then the prophet proclaims in their midst, while they are in mourning and suffering, "Put off your garments of mourning and unhappiness. Put on the splendor and glory of God forever."
The prophet is proclaiming that at this moment in their history, God is coming into their midst once more with God's love and God's goodness and God's healing power. They must be alert and ready for it, for God will show God's splendor to every being under heaven, and God will cause them to be named peace and justice and glory in fear of God. So it's a new moment, a moment in that particular time in their history that God breaks forth into their midst, in a new, loving, compassionate and saving way.
When Paul writes to the Christians at Philippi, he has already instructed them that Jesus has come and lived among us and been executed and rose from the dead, and they had believed. Now Paul, writing to them from prison, tells them to be ready, be ready because God comes again. "This is my hope for you, for I carry all of you in my heart. Whether I am in prison or defending and confirming the gospel, you are with me and share the same grace. God knows that I love you dearly with the love of Jesus and in my prayers I ask that your love may lead you each day to a deeper knowledge and a clearer discernment. Because God began such a good work in you, I am certain that at any moment and every moment, God will come again to complete that work in the day of Christ Jesus."
So Paul was urging those Christian disciples to be alert that God will come to perfect the work God has already begun. And in the gospel lesson too, we might not discern this at first, but in the life of John the Baptist, what he is experiencing as we read this gospel lesson is a new coming, a new awareness of God present to him, this time present in Jesus.
In the gospel as we read it in Luke (and Luke copied this from Mark, who wrote it first), we read how a voice cries out in the desert, "Prepare the way of the Lord," and that's from the 40th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah.
But there's a change in those words from the way Isaiah had first proclaimed them. Isaiah had proclaimed, "A voice cries out," a statement, and then a new sentence, "In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord." Scripture scholars always thought that when Mark alluded to that verse, that Mark had made the change. "A voice cries out in the desert, 'Prepare the way of the Lord.'" Mark was referring to John the Baptist as the voice in the desert preparing the way of the Lord. But quite amazingly in 1947, scripture scholars discovered, in what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls that come from a community of Essenes, a break-off community of the chosen people, gathered around a place called Qumran. That was in the second century before the Christian Era. That community continued until the middle of the first century of the Christian Era, and probably John the Baptist was part of that community, so he had understood himself as being part of a community that was a voice crying out in the wilderness, a voice crying out, "Prepare the way of the Lord to come."
Then Jesus comes into John's awareness, comes into his presence, and John realizes that he was to prepare the way for Jesus, but that community of Essenes was not the community preparing the way of the Lord, but rather now God had come in Jesus and there was John's call; there was a new call, he realized, to prepare the way for this newcomer in the midst of the people.
So God breaks into our lives at any time. As Luke makes clear in the gospel, this was a very special time, a time when the Emperor Tiberius ruled from Rome as the head of the Roman Empire, a time when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea and Herod the king over Galilee — a very special moment in history that Luke marks by describing exactly when it was. At that moment, John the Baptist now realizes he has a new role, not as part of the community of the Essenes, living in the desert, preparing for God's new coming, but now preparing and calling people to be ready for the coming of Jesus into their midst.
It happened historically 2,000 years ago, but what's important for us is to realize that God comes into our midst at any time and over and over again if we're alert, if we're ready. God is always present to us in Jesus, who lives among us, but we have to be alert, we have to listen.
Those people who had returned from exile listened and discovered God speaking to them anew. The people at Philippi, through Paul's words, understood that God was going to continue to come to them to complete the work that Paul had begun. And now for us, if we listen, if we're alert in the times in which we live, in what has happening within our lives, God will break forth into our midst in Jesus.
Just as Luke so carefully describes that woman when John was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus at a very particular time, so now we look at what's going on in the world around us and we try to listen to where God would be speaking to us and how God would be speaking to us in the circumstances in which we live. I think for us living here in the United States of America, where we have just committed ourselves as a nation to go more deeply into war, God must be speaking a message to us if we're ready to listen.
In fact, I'm sure that God is speaking to us in many different ways, but one way that I remember just a short time ago, the last year of the life of Pope John Paul II, about nine or ten months before he died, he went to Spain on the last of his international trips to speak out. On that trip, he spoke out most of all about peace, how important it was to make peace happen in our world. Most dramatically and passionately, he spoke to young people on the second day of his trip.
There were tens of thousands of them and he said, "Beloved young people, you well know how concerned I am about peace in the world," and then he bemoaned what he called the "spiral of violence, terrorism and war," and he begged those young people to give up war, to become what he called "artisans of peace, dreaming and working only for peace." He urged them, "Respond to violence and hatred, not with violence and hatred, but with the fascinating power of love."
Are not those the words Jesus proclaimed in our midst? And would not Jesus be speaking those words now through John Paul II? Truly I believe John Paul was speaking prophetically, proclaiming the word of God at that moment. We need to listen to what he says -- respond to violence and hatred with the fascinating power of love, and only with that.
But there are other ways in which God speaks to us through other people. When we hear someone speak in words that match what Jesus says, can we not believe that it is really somehow Jesus speaking to us, breaking into our lives at this moment?
On the day after President Obama announced that we were going to increase our troops by 30,000, a young man was interviewed, someone that perhaps we've heard of, Greg Mortenson. He wrote a book called Three Cups of Tea. Many people have read it, probably many of you have. Greg Mortenson said, "To me, what was most disconcerting was that there was never any consultation with the Afghan shura, the tribal elders. It was all decided on the basis of people in congress in general speaking up, with nobody consulting the Afghan elders. One of the elders' messages is, 'We don't need fire power. We want schools, health facilities, not more troops.' "
Instead of troops, we should be sending schools and Greg Mortenson points out, even girls' schools are possible in Taliban areas because they support schools and the Taliban don't dare destroy schools when they are supported by the tribal leaders. Do you know what it would cost to build 20 schools in Afghanistan? The same amount it would cost to deploy a soldier for a year, a million dollars. Instead of spending a million dollars for every soldier for a year, we could build 20 schools. Is that not what Jesus would insist upon? Isn't that the word of God being proclaimed in our midst now, a word of peace, a word of building up instead of tearing down, a word of love instead of a word of violence? Are we going to listen?
Advent means, as we reflect on this, that Jesus will come at the end of time. Advent means that we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago. But Advent also means that at every moment, we must listen and prepare for the breaking forth of the word of God into our lives now. We must listen and try to follow that word, carry it out, because that's how the reign of God will break forth and the way that peace will come to our world.
[This homily was delivered at the Franciscan Spiritual Center, Aston, Pa.]