Homily for Third Sunday of Advent

December 16, 2001

St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati

(Based on Is 35:1-6a, 10; Ps. 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11)

In today's liturgy the Lord offers us a very timely grace. Let me explain.

Last week we saw a very confident John the Baptizer. He was strong, and clear, and powerful in his denunciation of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He called them a brood of vipers; told them to flee the wrath that was to come. He said the axe was already being laid to the roots. Strong stuff. He knew his mission and he knew about the one who was coming after him.

Today we get a very different picture of John, don't we? He's been in prison, cut off and isolated. And as frequently happens in circumstances like that, he's begun to question it all, to have doubts. He's asking a new question. Had he been mistaken and misread the signs of the times? Perhaps his eagerness for the Lord's final coming had made him jump too fast in identifying Jesus as the Messiah? Could it be that there was still someone else we must await?

What had happened? Jesus, whom he pointed out as the Messiah, was turning out to be a different kind of messiah. There were no thunderbolts, no burning wrath; the axe was not laid to the roots. So he wonders: what's going on? Is God's plan different from what I thought it was?

I think the account of John's questioning is a wonderful gift to us. Aren't we as a people and as a world in that same place, going through the same questions about our God?

Didn't we think that the world before September 11th was pretty much the way God intended it to be? Oh, there were a few small things we had to work on -- some poverty to clear up, and a bit of racial disharmony to work through; things like that -- but by and large there wasn't not much out of line and we can get to the few things that were. Really, the real problems were "over there". Why can't those Irish just get their act together (actually, the Irish always have trouble getting their act together . . .)? And why can't those Palestinians and Israelis just stop killing one another? (That's just about what our government keeps telling them to do.)

Our God had blessed us and made us what John Winthrop had called the original colony: "the city on the hill", a beacon to all the world. It's so easy to interpret our prosperity as a sign of God's favor.

Let me show how easy it is, in just one small manifestation:

We've had any number of wonderful events at which the people gathered to raise money for the victims of September 11; an outpouring of deserved praise for the heroism of our firefighters and police; all the great celebrities performing at benefits. At one of them I was listening to one of our rock stars (I don't even recall who) was singing America the Beautiful, which is one of my favorites, always a moving experience for me. Then I heard him singing the refrain this way:

America! America! God has shed His grace on thee

And crowned thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

You know, that's not what the composer wrote, much less what was the .intention of the song. "God shed His grace on thee" is not a statement of a past fact in which we can glory, it's a humble prayer for the future. "May God shed His grace" and "may He crown thy good." It's a hope, something we are in need of, not something we possess. But it's so easy to claim it for ourselves.

September 11 shakes our confidence: had we read God's providence wrong? Were we all that sure we understood the Messiah's plan?

Notice that Jesus doesn't answer John's question directly (he never did when people asked for a clear response which might absolve them of their responsibility for a free decision). He didn't say, "I am the one; don't worry, you've got it right." He directs John to new evidence, to look around and see how the prophecy of Isaiah and the prophets was actually being fulfilled. It's not about thunderbolts, it's about scales being lifted from peoples' eyes, ears being opened to really hear; it's about the poor being given hope, a word they can trust.

In effect, Jesus is calling John to change his expectations. And isn't that what conversion is all about? What we are praying for in Advent, to be turned to the Lord as God really is and not as would make God out to be? Have we been looking in the wrong places, for the wrong signs? Jesus says to us, "I am coming, I am very near" -- but not in the ways you have expected me.

So we have to go back once again to September 11 -- much as we would like to put it out of our minds. We have to go to it again and again, and let the event question us and our understanding of God.

Our God can't be money; our God can't be our sense of comfort; our God can't be technology -- as good as all these things are. And our God certainly can't be world domination.

Our God is present where blind people see and the lame walk and the poor hear good news. That's what the genuine prophets -- and a genuinely prophetic people -- must be about.

There are two amazing sentences in today's Gospel that are frequently overlooked. I'd like to close with some brief comments on them.

The first comes at the end of Jesus' picture of the coming of the kingdom. After he has named all the signs, he ends by saying, "And blessed are those who take no offense at me." He uses the Greek word we translate as 'scandal'. It was a stone, an obstacle placed in front of someone to make them trip and fall. He's alerting us to the fact that his messiahship will prove to be an obstacle for some, for many. Is that what the coming of the Messiah means: caring and dying to oneself -- and his own death? Remember, people said of him, even after they had followed him for some time and experienced his wonders, that he was 'too much', not to be believed; and they walked away.

If we receive the gift of conversion we will have our expectations lined up right and then he won't be a scandal. We will not be surprised when he upsets our comfortable order and challenges us to forms of growth we didn't think were part of the covenant.

The second extraordinary saying comes at the end. After he has extolled John as the greatest of the prophets, he says that even as great as John was "the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." The least in the kingdom? That's us. We who have been blessed to participate in the kingdom by knowing Jesus' death and rising, things that John never lived to grasp.

I want to share with you an example of being 'greater than John'. You may have seen or heard it, but it's worth repeating.

During all the heroism shown at Ground Zero there was a quiet thing taking place. A group of Baptists assembled from all across the country, ordinary men and women like you and me. They belong to a group whose mission it is to go to the sites of natural disasters, like floods or hurricanes or tornadoes, and help people clean up. They left their families and jobs and drove, at their own expense, to Ground Zero. To do what? To clean the apartments of those whose places had been ruined in the aftermath of the collapse. These people assemble each morning and go to the next apartment on the list to clean it. No thought of whether the people whose place they are cleaning are wealthy or poor; they're just people in need. And the Baptists do no preaching or proselytizing; they just clean. It takes 10 of them two days to clean just one apartment. And then at the end of the day they are transported in a bus over to Brooklyn - where they sleep for the night in the cells of an abandoned jail.

If that isn't what the kingdom of God is about, I don't know what is. . . .