Homily for the Third Sunday in Advent

December 14, 2003

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)

At one time or another you may remember me pointing out that one of the most used expressions in Scripture is "sing." But did you notice in today's first reading that God wants to sing? God singing? Have you ever thought about that?

The book of the prophet Zephaniah is one of the shortest in the Bible. Just three chapters, less than 4 pages. And 2-1/2 of those chapter are a grim description of gloom and destruction. Listen a bit:

I have destroyed nations,

their battlements are laid waste;

I have made their streets deserted,

with no on passing through;

Their cities are devastated,

with no man dwelling in them.

In her midst shall settle in droves

all the wild life of the hollows;

The screech owl and the desert owl shall roost in her columns . . .

Is this the exultant city

that dwelt secure;

That told herself,

"There is no other than I?"

Apparently God's way of dealing with us and our wayward turning from his ways is often to stand back and allow our common breakdowns -- wars and divisions and enmity among us; things we do to each other -- to simply take their course.

Then God comes again. But to whom? As we read in the prophet just before today's passage, to "a remnant, to a people who have been brought chastised," a people humble and lowly who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord." God doesn't have to intervene, to do anything extraordinary to chastise us, we do it to ourselves.

But then God comes into their midst. As the responsory verse from Isaiah puts it, "among you is the great and Holy One of Israel."

We have every reason to believe that our God is near, But on one condition. If we can acknowledge how low we are, how we have been chastised and beaten down.

And isn't that a picture of us today?

Despite all our protestations that we are a people of peace, that we want to accept and live in harmony with our neighbors, we are once again at war.

And despite our profession of faith in a holy church, we are brought low by the revelations of the sinfulness in our church and in ourselves.

We find ourselves in a divided cit. Divided racially and ideologically. We struggle to understand the meaning of the death of Nathaniel Jones, in the midst of all sorts of conflicting interpretations.

In our schools what is the greatest problem? Apparently not poor performance but the fact that children -- our children -- bully other children. According to educators bullying has become almost an epidemic. Kids bully other kids because they don't wear the 'right' clothes, or they don't participate in the right athletic group or sorority, or because they are new aliens in our land.

And where do they learn to do this? From adults. We have people who spend hours every day drinking in the poisonous hatred of so-called 'talk radio.' Hostile callers spit out all sorts of violence, while the host panders to it because shock sells advertising.

What more does it take for us to come realize that we cannot save ourselves?

As we come before our God this Advent we need to ask for the gift of faith to realize that our God is near if we can accept our poverty and lowly state, if we can confess that we don't know how to deal with the violence that is in each of us, our inability to change what cries out for change -- in our world, in our church, and in our city.

Zephaniah has God promise that "then I will remove from your midst the proud braggarts." Those who have all the answers, who know just what the other guy needs to do.

If we can only know our poverty, our God wants to have a celebration, a joyous festival! Our God wants to sing, to dance, to rejoice as a lover entering into a joyous marriage.

"Rejoice!" Paul cries out. But remember, he's writing from captivity. God didn't intervene to spare him from his house arrest. "Rejoice always!" even as he prepares for his trial.

And John the Baptist in today's Gospel knows the poverty of his baptism. He is under no illusion that he is the answer. He knows he is powerless, that the one who comes after him is the one mighty in power. When he baptizes, what is symbolized by the baptism will really happen. He will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, who will accomplish what the sign is saying. He fills us with his very own Spirit.

As we receive the Lord in Communion, let us do so as poor beggars. And then listen as our mighty God sings with joy within us.