Second Sunday of Advent – Year A
December 04 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 11:1-10 | Psalm 72:1-2;7-8;12-13;17
Romans 15:4-9 | Matthew 3:1-12
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The non-penitential, non-Christmas, Season of Advent has us joyfully anticipating the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Christians repeatedly hear that they must accept Jesus as God’s Son in order to “be saved.” But what does it mean to be a savior? What does it mean to be saved? Today’s consumer-oriented, self-centered world asks us to consider, “What will Jesus do for me,” as if the self were the center of the Universe.
Traditional Christians focus much of their spiritual energies on the so-called “four last things,” that is, “death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Thus, many traditional theologians would tell you that human salvation happens at the end of your life when God will decide if your soul goes to Hell or Heaven. And Catholics would as well interpose a detour into purgatory on the way to heaven.
According to traditionalists, the ultimate destination of your soul depends on how you lived your earthly life. For Catholics, this means how well you obeyed the canons of the Roman Church and its authority figures. At the same time, Protestants would condition the ultimate disposition of your soul based on your obedience to their literal biblical interpretations, contemporary biblical scholarship notwithstanding.
The major problem with the traditional eschatological view is that no one really knows what happens in the next world since God Himself is a total mystery beyond human understanding. Anything we might say about God amounts to pure speculation.
And I am not sure Jesus, or even scripture as a whole, consistently reinforces the traditional eschatological understanding. Today’s readings point us in a different direction. How about instead of being next-worldly, we consider that John the Baptist calls us today, in the here and now, to begin our salvific path by calling us to convert our lives, to turn things around? John focused on the world at the time in which he lived in it, not what would happen light-years away in some mysterious future place.
John’s pre-Christian understanding of Baptism does not focus on dying and rising in Christ, washing away sin, and initiating incorporation into the church community as our Baptism services do. We don’t see any of that in John’s Baptism ceremonies. John doesn’t seal his recipients with the Holy Spirit and give them candles as we do. Instead, John makes clear that the Baptism he administers differs from that which will eventually come from Jesus, that by fire and the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist calls his Baptism candidates to turn their lives around, that is, to repent. As I have preached many times previously, repentance is not sorrow for sin but a change in direction away from sin. John tells his audience to turn their lives around immediately because the kingdom of heaven “is at hand” right now in this world. John said nothing about the next world.
John wore clothing camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. His diet was that of a wilderness dweller. His appearance and lifestyle are like those of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. John was, in the truest sense, a prophet, one who delivers a divine message and calls out evil. In fact, scholars have referred to him as “the last of the Old Testament prophets.”
John attacked the religious establishment of his day, at the Sadducees, that is, the temple priests who saw no future beyond the present world, and as well, he told off the Pharisees, who focused not on love between persons but on following laws.
Not surprisingly, religious establishments are uncomfortable with prophets who call them out. In contemporary times, we see large religious institutions drunk on money and power, just like the Sadducees and the Pharisees were in the days of John the Baptist. This is true in both Catholic and Protestant churches.
The Vatican has a net worth estimated by the University of Michigan to be about thirty billion dollars. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, based on its own financial statements, holds a net worth of about eight hundred million dollars. On the Protestant side, minister Joel Osteen has a personal net worth estimated at one hundred million dollars and a personal annual income of five million dollars. I wonder what John the Baptist would say to all of them if he were alive today?
Our task as prophetic people of God is to call out stuff like that, even if it makes us unpopular. My own experience in church work over an entire lifetime has proven to me that prophecy makes one unpopular. I am sure John the Baptist did not ingratiate himself with the leadership at the Temple and the Synagogue when he told them to change the way they did business by demanding that their lives bear good fruit.
To be an effective prophet, you must focus on delivering God’s message to people, not on getting along with people. When I attended elementary school, the most important priorities were to obey the rules, respect authority, and get along with people. That is not what prophets do. Instead, prophets proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, also known as the Kingdom of Heaven.
The unanswered question in today’s Gospel is, exactly what John meant by the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven?” We find that phrase throughout the Gospel of Matthew because its Jewish author was hesitant to describe the coming regime as “The Kingdom of God,” the working used in the other two synoptic Gospels of Mark and Luke. Today’s First Reading sheds light on what John meant by describing the world to come. In other words, what is Paradise like? What characterizes the Utopia for which humanity longs?
The Kingdom of Heaven is a place infused by God’s Spirit, the same Spirit with which we are anointed at our Baptism. Isaiah tells us the Spirit of God is one of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and of strength, of knowledge, and of fear of the Lord. By fear, Isaiah didn’t mean to be afraid of God doing something bad to you, but being in the awe of God’s presence.
The Kingdom of Heaven will mirror the response in today’s Psalm, “Justice shall flourish in his time.” Justice means pity on the poor and lowly, called in Catholic Social Teaching, “The preferential option for the poor.”
In the Kingdom of Heaven, God will not judge us by our appearance. Body-shaming and clothes-shaming will not be part of the program.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, our consumption habits will not mimic today’s world, where we are urged to get what we want and disregard the needs of others and take care of “number one.”
In the Kingdom of Heaven, the poor will be rescued, and the afflicted will be helped.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, the poor will get a fair shake in the justice system, unlike today, where the quality of justice one receives in the Court depends on your financial ability to hire the best lawyer.
But above all, the Kingdom of Heaven will be a peaceable kingdom. The fullness of its peace shall flourish forever. There will be no more natural enemies. Wolves will show hospitality to lambs; goats sleep with leopards; and, calves walk with lions, all the while guided by a little child. The offspring of cows and bears will nap together; oxen and lions will eat a common meal, and snakes will not harm children. All will survive and love one another without competition for survival with each other.
The world in which we live today, however, is anything but peaceable. One only look right here at home in the United States to see the ever-escalating polarization brought about by the tribalism generated through cancel-culture. Ostracizing and alienating a person or persons from others is precisely the opposite of the ideal behavior characterizing the Kingdom of Heaven as described in today’s First Reading.
What is cancel-culture? It’s the idea that because you disagree with me, I become your enemy, and you will cut me out of your life. Both progressives and conservatives engage in cancel-culture activities. Cancel-culture means that because I agree with the Democrats on some issues but not on others, then I am automatically a Republican and, therefore, an enemy.
Cancel-culture is often justified to prevent the propagation of what some consider erroneous scientific information. Therefore, it’s necessary to cancel out those who disagree with establishment science to avoid a public catastrophe. However, scientists disagree with one another on many things, including when life begins, how to handle transsexualism, policies to address climate change, and whether covid restrictions actually do any good.
But some people feel they have a monopoly on truth because it flows from so-called irrefutable facts, or should I say, a particular perception of the facts. In their minds, so-called “orthodox science” is irrefutable, and therefore, those who disagree with the scientific establishment, particularly non-scientists, should keep their mouths shut for the good of the public.
However, when public policy becomes not what people want but what scientists say it should be, you get street battles like we’ve seen in China over covid restrictions. Is that what we really want? When human freedom abuts science, human freedom will always win.
Cancel-culture is also often justified to hold people accountable for “unacceptable” behavior or statements. In the minds of the perpetrators of cancel-culture, those who hold non-mainstream views are “agents of oppression” who should be banished from communicating their views. Here are some examples:
Those who oppose affirmative action, as I do, are canceled out as “racist.”
Those who are pro-choice, as I am, are canceled out as “baby killers.”
Those who oppose labor unions, as I do, canceled out as “oppressors of working people.”
Those who support criminal justice reform, as I do, are classified and canceled out as aiding and abetting criminals.
What all of these things have in common is people who profess to be religious pass moral judgments to exclude others. Cancel-culture is social terrorism that uses fear and intimidation to cause people to change – either hide or pretend that they’re not what they are really so that they can keep their jobs and keep their status.
Why is cancel-culture bad? Cancel-culture is toxic. It breeds anger. It destroys relationships. Cancel-culture creates an adversarial dynamic that amplifies rather than solves problems. The social exclusion from cancel culture is actually counterproductive. It actually continues to foment the hate and oppression that it aims to address.
While cancel-culture focuses on individual accountability, it fails to acknowledge the systemic issues that are often at the root of hateful behavior. In other words, while cancel-culture shames the person into realizing their individual beliefs aren’t always acceptable, cancel-culture fails to educate the public on why certain ideas are problematic and hurtful. That allows the hateful ideology behind so-called cancellable offenses to exist unchecked.
Cancel culture often backfires. Consider what happened when mainstream social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, restricted accounts belonging to Kanye West for anti-Semitic content. He has since found other platforms to amplify his objectionable messages.
Most important, however, is that the victim of cancel-culture, and/or their friends and families, may experience adverse consequences to their mental health. That fact brings up another issue, that of, “Who are you to cancel someone else?”
Today’s Gospel sheds some light on that. John proclaims that “…the axe lies at the foot of the trees” and that “every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.” John’s words are phrased in the passive voice, leaving out who exactly will wield the axe. His next three sentences, however, unquestionably say that it is Jesus, whose presence John’s ministry heralded, who will take action.
John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. John certainly doesn’t give that role to the Sadducees and Pharisees he was addressing. John himself does not act as a judge. Yet, today’s religious landscape has human persons judging, canceling, and punishing others with whom they disagree rather than judging, canceling, and punishing up to God alone.
As you know, I am quite active on Facebook and don’t hesitate to express my opinions on public issues. If someone disagrees with me, well and good. I recognize their right to do so. But I will never terminate my friendship, in life or on Facebook, with anyone because they hold different opinions or perceive the world differently than I do. I refuse to get involved in the “We Against Them” way of looking at life that comes from cancel-culture. My personal relationships have more value to me than the propagation of any philosophy.
So what’s the answer? That’s found in our Second Reading. Saint Paul urges us to allow the God of endurance and hope to give us the ability to think in harmony with one another in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. Most assuredly, the Gospels are devoid of any suggestion that Jesus encouraged his followers to separate from one another based on a difference of opinion.
Many of the people to whom Jesus ministered were quite unpleasant, but this did not deter him. Instead, Jesus calls us not to judge one another but to love our adversaries and instead to welcome one another as Jesus welcomes us to him. All have been called to sing praise to God’s name. They are invited to join us; we are invited to join them.
John the Baptist lived a life of radical self-denial, but he did not require this of those who came to hear his message, which resembled that of the prophets of old like we heard in today’s First Reading. Like Isaiah, John called for a return to righteousness, to lives of integrity, and to relationships rooted in honesty and respect. He spoke against presumption and arrogant reliance on one’s religious origin, against complacency and the shirking of responsibility, and against disinterest in the welfare of others.
John’s image is powerful for today’s world, where we tend to compromise our principles for the sake of personal status. What characterized John the Baptist and, later, Jesus is that they said what they had to say, social approval notwithstanding. We may not be called as was John to proclaim this message to a broad audience, but as pilgrims on the journey to eschatological fulfillment, we are certainly challenged to heed his message in our own lives and to do what we can to instill it in the lives of those with whom we live and work, keeping in mind always the Two Commandments to love God and neighbor. AMEN.