Homily for the Third Sunday in Advent

December 13, 2009

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)

Today’s account of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke contains a phrase it would be easy to overlook. Yet it provides us with a central element of the context for the story, something that colors all the rest. It reads: “The people were full of expectations.” There was excitement in the air: after all the centuries of waiting, was it possible that the Messiah had actually come? They weren’t concerned about John as just another wandering preacher; they asked him “Are you the Messiah?

There is another accepted translation that puts the matter even more dramatically: “The people were on tiptoes with expectation.” On tiptoes. What a wonderful expression!

It conjures up the image of a parade passing through town, with crowds on both sides of the road, and a small child is jumping up and down – on tiptoes – trying to see around the bigger people blocking the view. Is he here yet, is he here yet? (You may be excused for thinking that such an image comes to me because I am altitudinally challenged. But even you folk endowed with more matter than I could have had that experience, if you were back in the third or fourth row.)

But then we turn to the two earlier readings, from the book of Zephaniah and Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And they challenge us to shift our perspective. Zephaniah, writing 600 years before Jesus, says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” Now, not still to come. And Paul says, “The Lord is near.” Close by your side. Now.

They invite us to think more carefully about what Advent and Christmas are really all about. The truth is that we are not waiting for a Lord who has not already been with us, a Lord who was absent until the birth in Bethlehem.

Our celebration of Christmas is not a kind of make-believe, a sort of romantic game we are playing: “let’s pretend that the Messiah hasn’t come yet and then on Christmas we can really know the Lord.” We need to be clear: Christmas is not a matter of God coming to a world that was without God. As we wait on tiptoe we need to remind ourselves that the resurrection has happened, that Jesus has returned to the Father and he has already poured out his Spirit on us in Baptism. The Lord will not be any more present in cur world on December 25th than he is on December 24th or December 26th.

Then what are we to look forward to with such excitement and expectation?

The promise of Christmas is not that some change will come in God. It’s a promise that if we enter seriously into prayer about the enormous grace that has been given to us in Jesus, we will be transformed. We will grow in a deeper realization and appreciation of the fidelity of the Lord, with the deepened peace that such a conversion can bring.

Most particularly, we may be given a deepened sense that we can be liberated from fear, from anxiety. Zephaniah says, “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged” and Paul says, “have no anxiety at all.”

It’s the same message that Jesus proclaimed again and again. The more I ponder the Gospel the more convinced I am that absolutely central to his message, the heart of the Good News, was that he brings us freedom from the scourge of anxiety. He said it so often: “Don’t be afraid.” “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith.” “Fear not, I have overcome the world.”

We need that message desperately today because we live in a world in which it would be easy to believe that the forces of darkness have won. The darkness has overcome light.

We live in a country fighting two wars. Thousands of our brothers and sisters have lost their jobs and even their homes. Our teenagers run our streets and kill one another with guns they can get as easy as buying a stick of gum. Women are trafficked for sex all over our globe. And our church is an object of shame for abusing its children.

It is so easy to lose hope, to give up. Why bother?

And in the face of all that the message is – rejoice? Yes, that is what we are called to do, it is what we are promised. Why?

It may help to recall what was going on in the world of Zephaniah and Paul when they called their contemporaries to rejoice. Zephaniah was preaching to a people who were living under subjugation to the Assyrians and terrified at the prospect of an even more terrible invasion by hordes of Scythian warriors from the northern steppes. And Paul was writing from prison, where he was in chains for preaching the Gospel.

But still, what is there to rejoice about? Why does it make sense to rejoice?

We rejoice because we have a God who promises – and keeps the promise. Our God has been faithful. Our God has kept the promise, over and over, to us as a people down through history and to you and me as individuals.

We rejoice because Jesus tells us that Solomon longed to see what we have seen and did not see it; that the queen of the South journeyed long to see what we have seen and did not see it.

We rejoice with the joy of Jesus himself when he thanked his Father that “you have hidden these things from the wise and clever of this world and revealed them to the little ones.” To us.

Remember, he told us that the kingdom was like a seed buried in the ground. It appears dead and lifeless. But it is growing each day, bearing life in ways we can’t imagine. It is a bit of yeast working within the dough, leavening it continually.

We rejoice because we have seen with our own eyes the deeds of the kingdom performed by our brothers and sisters right in cur own community. We know couples who have committed themselves to raise children that are not their own, from broken marriages or no marriages. We know people in our midst who give their lives to teaching difficult children, who work with people who are mentally and emotionally troubled, or who care for elderly parents and visit the homebound. I think of those black men who work day after day down in Over-the-Rhine, trying to provide mentoring and support to at-risk teenagers. One at a time, again and again. There is the rich example of those seniors up in Bangor, Maine (I’m partial to seniors, you may have noticed!), who have made the commitment to greet every military plane bringing our soldiers, no matter what time of day or night, lining up to shake each one’s hand when he or she comes off the plane, thanking them for their service.

We rejoice because we have seen the power of the Good News to transform selfishness into self-giving. We have seen the glory of the Lord in the faces of our sisters and brothers.

We need in these latter days of Advent to get up on our spiritual tiptoes and ask the Lord to transform us and free us from the fear that blinds us from seeing what is really happening before our eyes. In the face of that reality of whom and what do we need to be afraid?


The Lord is my light and my salvation,

the Lord is my light and my salvation.

The Lord is the light and my salvation –

Whom shall I fear?


Whom shall I fear?

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the strength of my life –

Whom shall I fear?

Whom indeed?