We tend to think that the trial of Jesus happened only at the end of his life before the rulers of the people, Pilate and Herod. In reality, Jesus was on trial for the entirety of his earthly mission. Every time he did or said something it raised implicit questions from “Who does he think he is?” to “Is this the one to come?” One’s response to those questions depended on two basic sources for discernment: the religious tradition of Israel and the openness of each individual to accept or reject the challenge of Jesus’ person and message.
Just as today, in the days of John the Baptist the scriptural tradition could be read in multiple ways. Then as now there was a strong temptation to choose texts to prove one’s own point of view. John had appeared on the scene as an apocalyptic preacher who predicted that the one to come would arrive with axe and torch in hand to cut down and burn the rotten wood of Israel.
After John had been arrested for his prophetic activities, his disciples told him how Jesus was going around preaching: unarmed and disarming. It’s hard to imagine the faith crisis John was going through. He probably didn’t worry too much about his own life, after all, he had known what he was risking when he spoke out against Herod. But he was surely concerned about his mission and message. Was Jesus really the one he had been called to herald? If so, where was the action? Where was the fire?
John sent his disciples to ask Jesus to testify: “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” Jesus tended to avoid that sort of question; it was too tied up with each person’s definition of a messiah. Turning the question back on them, Jesus told John’s disciples to look at what they had seen and heard in his presence: “Judge for yourselves. What kind of activity demonstrates God’s presence?”
John had been described as a paragon of austerity. Nobody questioned his integrity, but few, even if they looked forward to the apocalypse he predicted, wanted to live exactly as he did. His lifestyle of fast and abstinence was harsh, reflecting his concept of God. Jesus, on the other hand, was criticized for eating and drinking, for mixing with all manner of folk. That mirrored his experience of God. Little wonder that John’s primary sacrament was a baptism of repentance while Jesus’ was a communion feast.
When John’s disciples came to Jesus, their ears were still ringing with John’s favorite selections from the prophets, phrases like the ones found in chapter one of Isaiah: “An ass knows its master’s manger; but Israel does not know her maker ... They have forsaken the Lord! ... Wash yourselves clean!” John preached from a perspective that recognized sin with great clarity. Jesus, steeped in the very same prophets, drew the good news from the prophets. Rather than focusing on sin and punishment he preached and demonstrated God’s offer of salvation.
Responding to John’s disciples, Jesus gave evidence from his works rather than words. Wherever he encountered people, the result was transformation: the blind saw, the deaf heard, people were restored to the fullness of their humanity in a community of love.
The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing. It is a time to rejoice in who God is. This Sunday would be a good time to listen again to what Pope Francis told us in Evangelii Gaudium. The opening paragraph proclaims: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” That might be a modern rendition of the message Jesus gave to John’s disciples.
Today’s celebration of Gaudete Sunday asks us to judge our faith in the light of Jesus’ message. What does the salvation we hope to see look like? Are we waiting for the decimation of our evil enemies or do we long for the transformation of sinners – including ourselves? Many in today’s world seem ready to offer the first option. It is the general solution offered by prisons, war and every other form of vengeance. The second option is much costlier. It requires real love to hope for the transformative salvation of those who have done us harm, and it requires humble courage to look for our own conversion.
Gaudete Sunday invites us to rejoice in all that is good around us. It challenges us to recognize the presence of God in everything that promotes freedom and communion. The more we participate in Jesus’ work of transformation, the more we will understand that we have encountered God with us and need not look for another.
ISAIAH 35:1-6a, 10
Those who live in desert climates know lots about sand and water. One of the things that surprises strangers to those climes is that an unusual rain can make the desert bloom. Where the ordinary eye detects nothing more than barrenness, life is teeming underneath the surface, simply awaiting the wake-up call of a good shower. But those seemingly spontaneous plants are short-lived, ever vulnerable to a heat wave.
What Isaiah describes in this selection is no momentary flourishing, but a thoroughgoing transformation. He’s not just talking about wildflowers, but a desert become forest with the splendor of the mountains. Hosea, Isaiah’s near contemporary, proclaimed that God would rename the faithless “no people” as “my people” and “children of the living God” (Hosea 2:1, 25). This, says Isaiah, is what is in store for the people of God who knew themselves to be beaten down, defeated and far from their God. This reading is a prediction of their homecoming parade, their song-filled return to the promised land.
Isaiah’s prophecy talks about the world’s return to how things should be. The fearful will be encouraged and the weak will find strength, all because they realize that God is with them. They will recognize how God has been with them all along, saving them even when they thought they were lost. Further signs of the great transformation will be the restoration of those whose life had been marred by injury or affliction. The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the lame will dance like deer to the tune sung by the once-mute. Those are the signs of the salvation brought by our God.
What may not occur to westerners about this vision is that it is thoroughly communal. The salvation God promises is not an individual heavenly experience but the restoration of a community. The community that desires this dream is one in which the seeing long for others to enjoy sight, the strong do not lord it over the weak but carry their burdens. This is a community that wants to sing with the harmony that can only result from the full contribution of every voice. Those who long for this restoration are truly longing for the reign of God – and as Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, those who hope for righteousness will be blessed with their fill. This is the promise Isaiah foretells.
We can better understand this selection from James if we read it in the context of what went before it. James 5:1-6 is a no-holds-barred condemnation of the wealthy who have lived in luxury at the expense of the poor. Only after speaking on behalf of the poor does James call them to task about their life.
The people James addressed were probably not facing serious persecution; they were probably oppressed by the wealthy, but they weren’t slaves or in danger of death. Their situation was uncomfortable but not life threatening. They were in danger of losing faith more from weariness than from genuine hardship. Their question, echoed through the centuries, was “Where is God? For what are we really waiting?” In other words, “If Jesus the Christ has come, why haven’t things changed?”
Plagiarizing from Jesus’ parables, James counsels patience in the mode of the farmer who sows a seed and then is impotent to hasten its growth. James is telling his people, “The reign of God, like the seed, will flower in due season. God is not on your timetable.”
Then, almost as if he were following Isaiah’s lead, James calls the community to task about their communal life of faith. James says, “Make your hearts firm.” Just as the farmer must believe in the invisible growth below ground, so they must trust the God of creation who is making all things new – even though they can’t see it and it’s not happening on their schedule.
Next, James goes to the heart of what the community must change. Earlier he had addressed the problems in their relationships talking about the “wars” they waged on one another even to the point of calling them adulterers who loved the things of the world more than they loved God (4:1-4). Now, returning to that theme, he tells them to stop grumbling about one another. He says, “the judge is standing before the gates,” reminding them that Christ will mete out justice, they need not try to judge one another.
This selection from the Letter of James is a reminder to every Christian community that petty complaints and complacency are a greater threat to faith than persecution, and that God is not bound to our agenda. When we are called to risk our lives, we find clarity of purpose and unity. When nothing threatens us, we can too easily disvalue one another. There is immense challenge in remaining faithful for the long haul, trusting that God is working things out, even by using people whose failings we see and whose foibles can disturb us.
Luke’s Gospel sets up the comparison and contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist from the very beginning: they are parallel with Jesus outshining John in each step from the announcement of their births, the moment when their pregnant mothers visit each other and their births where all the neighbors rejoice with Zechariah and Elizabeth, while angels’ songs fill the heavens at the birth of Jesus. In Matthew, as we heard last week, John preaches about the one to come after him. When Jesus comes for baptism, John protests saying that Jesus should baptize him instead. Now John makes his final pre-martyrdom appearance from prison.
John had preached a fiery message about the one who was to come and separate wheat from chaff, destroying all that did not bear fruit. Even though he had acknowledged John’s ministry of baptism, Jesus’ preaching and practice were very different from John’s. Therefore, what we have in this reading is something of a trial. John asks Jesus for a testimony: are you the real thing?
This incident offers one of the New Testament’s clearest reflections on conflicting ideas of what it meant to be the Messiah. John was in prison precisely for being true to his vocation. He had denounced the immorality of a powerful, manipulable man and was suffering the consequences. Probably knowing he would never leave that place alive, he wondered what was to come of his mission. Had he been correct that God’s judgment was immanent? Was Jesus God’s chosen one or not? Implicit in the question is the presumption that Jesus was not living up to John’s expectations.
When John’s disciples approached Jesus they asked the question and got no direct answer. Instead, Jesus told them to pay attention to what was right there to be heard and seen. Jesus would not define his identity based on someone else’s criteria. He consistently refused to fit any messianic job description people laid out for him. Rather than give himself any title or role, he did just what John the Baptist had required of his followers: he described the fruits of his ministry and invited John and the others to make their judgment on the basis of his works. Jesus’ response to John’s disciples came straight from the writings of Isaiah, but not the vengeance of Isaiah 34. Jesus was acting out Isaiah 35: healing the blind and lame, curing the lepers, opening the ears of the deaf and raising the dead. Jesus’ response to John’s disciples put their concept of God on trial. If they believed in the God who protected the lowly and brought life to the people, then they could believe he had been sent by God. If they believed in a god of coercion, retribution and violence, then Jesus was not the one they were seeking.
Following his interchange with John’s disciples, Jesus made one of the more definitive and audacious statements of his entire ministry. Praising John, he called him “more than a prophet,” saying he was greater than anyone born of woman. At the same time, making a clear distinction between the past and present, Jesus went on to say “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This was not a put down of John but the announcement that something new was happening.
Jesus represented God’s definitive intervention in human history. The time of prophecy, the time of waiting had come to an end. From Moses through John, the prophets had talked about God. In Jesus, God had come to dwell among the people. With the culmination of Jesus’ life in his death and resurrection, God would be as fully revealed as will ever happen in human history. The least of those who recognize that truth have received a greater revelation than John.
Planning: 3rd Sunday of Advent (A)
By: Lawrence Mick
This Sunday brings us exactly to the middle of Advent, and the liturgy today calls us to rejoice. That is clearest in the entrance antiphon in the Missal: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” You might consider integrating that text into a call to worship this weekend.
The theme can be found in the readings today, too, even if the word “rejoice” is missing. The first reading from Isaiah paints a vision of the future that certainly would be cause for joy. “Those whom the Lord ransomed … will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.”
In the Gospel, Jesus also offers reasons for rejoicing: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” This is a reminder to John the Baptist that God is at work in the world, even if God’s presence didn’t have the results that John was expecting.
In the second reading, James urges us to have patience, responding to the concern that the kingdom has not come as soon as some had hoped: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Patience is possible if we trust in the ultimate outcome.
Given the current troubles of our world, many people may find it hard to feel joy. What these texts suggest, among other things, is that we need to focus on what good is also happening in our world. Negative stories dominate the news media, but there is far more good in the world than evil, if we pay attention.
Can you find ways to help your assemblies embrace a more balanced focus on the world? Can the music and the readings, the preaching and the prayers today foster a recognition of what God is doing in our world, despite the negative news? Though the petitions are just that – requests – we could still focus some today on gratitude for such things. For example, we could pray to always be grateful for those who heal the sick and care for those in need, or for the grace to notice and rejoice in the ways that God is working in our lives.
Prayers: 3rd Sunday of Advent (A)
By: Joan DeMerchant
We are still waiting for the world we long to see. Like our ancient ancestors, we yearn for peace and justice, healing and restoration. Today we are told that the signs of Jesus’ presence are all around us, if we know how to see them. We hear in the Gospel the signs we are to look for, especially when we are distracted or doubtful, confused or disappointed. The good news is that there is even more to come. We live in an impatient world, but today we are told: “Be patient!”
- Lord Jesus, you come to save us and to fulfill the ancient promises: Lord, have mercy.
- Christ Jesus, you come to restore and to heal us:
- Christ, have mercy. Lord Jesus, you call us to look around and see what you do: Lord, have mercy.
PRAYER OF THE FAITHFUL
Presider: My friends, we pray for the fulfillment of all human longing and for patience as we wait. Minister: For the church: that it may demonstrate Christ’s presence to those who are impatient, discouraged or defeated … with waiting hearts, we pray
- For patience among those who live in the face of continued suffering and injustice … with waiting hearts, we pray
- For eyes that can see the signs of Christ’s presence among us…with waiting hearts, we pray
- For the grace to stay focused in the midst of holiday distraction … with waiting hearts, we pray
- For healing and unity in a world torn apart by political and religious differences … with waiting hearts, we pray
- For all in our midst who need support, especially the poor, the sick, the dying and those who care for them … with waiting hearts, we pray, ™ For those who have died … (names)… and for their families … with waiting hearts, we pray
Presider: God who consoles us and gives us hope, we pray for patience as we await the fulfillment of all our longing. We ask this especially on behalf of those who are in too much pain to pray and for those who have given up hope. We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus, whose healing work we have already seen. Amen.