SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT – YEAR C
December 05, 2021- 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Baruch 5:1-9 | Psalm 126:1-6
Philippians 1:4-6;8-11 Luke 3:1-6
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Two weeks ago, I preached on the Feast of Christ the King. My homily ventured into apologetics as I defended the celebration of that feast against those who want to abolish it as “politically incorrect.” I spoke about how the reign of Jesus as king should replace the more egregious worldly domination systems jointly and severally perpetrated by ecclesiastical institutions, Corporate America, all levels of government, and both major political parties in the United States.
The two human ambitions that create the most mischief are money and power. Today, we focus on power. By power, I don’t only mean the unholy trinity of White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Clericalism, but I include any scheme of unconsented power exercised by one person or group against another person or group backed up by force, including the force of law.
When it comes to political power, who is in power, and in what territorial area, is important. Today’s Gospel reading starts with telling us the political landscape of who was in power where. The Jewish people back then were in a kingdom within a kingdom. Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, ruled Rome by Tiberius Caesar. He ruled from the year fourteen A-D to the year forty-two A-D. His immediate predecessor was Augustus Caesar, who was in power from twenty-seven B-C to fourteen A-D. Jesus was born in somewhere between four B-C and six B-C. Pontius Pilate, the same guy who participated in the crucifixion of Jesus, was what was called a “procurator,” or local governor of the region. In corporate jargon, he was a regional manager who reported to the chief executive officer.
Herod, however, was a king of the Jewish people. He was part of the Idumaen Dynasty that came from Idumaea. The Idumean Dynasty did not come from a Jewish origin but were converts. In the second century B-C, they ingratiated themselves with the Hasmoneans through their military and political skills. The Hasmoneans were descended from Judas Maccabeus, the hero who liberated the Jewish people from the Seleucid empire in about the year one-sixty-B-C or thereabouts. The Idumeans eventually replaced the Hasmoneans. They were able to do so by building alliances with the Roman Empire. So Rome and the Idumaens made a deal: The Idumaeans could remain in power as long as they kept the Jewish people in line.
Herod and his brother, Phillip, each ruled over territories in and around Palestine. Phillip ruled Ituraea and Trachonitis in the southern area, while the area ruled by Lysanias is to the north. These sub-kingdoms were known as tetrarchies. If you’re wondering what a tetrarch is, it’s a regional king, kind of like the governor of a state.
The writer of today’s Gospel reading mentions these people and these territories not so much as to tell us when John the Baptist appeared, but to communicate that the Jews lived under not one, but two, domination systems, that of Rome and that of the Idumaens. They worked together to keep the Jewish people under control. The High Priests mentioned in the Gospel reading were in charge of the Temple, and in fact, Pilate played a role in selecting them.
That was the environment into which Jesus would come, and that was the environment John the Baptist faced as he prepared the way for Jesus. The Jewish people were anything but free. Jesus faced the task of liberating them from both domination systems.
Today’s Old Testament reading highlights the optimism and joy the Jewish people felt when they returned from the Babylonian exile. To give you a bit of background, in about five ninety-eight B-C, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and deported substantial numbers of Jews to Babylon. When the Persians conquered the Babylonians in five thirty-eight B-C, Persian King Cyrus allowed them to return back to Palestine. Today’s reading from Baruch tells us how they were feeling about that.
The Gospel writer of Luke quotes from the fortieth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, which begins the part of that book proclaiming the return from Babylon. The Gospel writer included that material to draw a parallel between Israel’s liberation from the Babylonians and the coming of Jesus to liberate the Jews from the joint Roman and Idumaean domination. Just as God cleared a path of liberation back to Jerusalem, God acts through John to clear a path Jesus as a liberator from the Idumaens and the Romans.
People who want to dominate other people are as much a problem today as they were in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. Our world continues to witness the rise of two ambitious groups, both equally bad, who want to dominate the world. I’m speaking of the radical religious right in the United States and the radical elements of Islam. They may say they dislike each other, but the goals of both radical Islam and radical right-wing Christianity are the same. Their goals are to dominate other people and impose their ideas by force. The activities of both radical right-wing Christians and radical Muslims work simultaneously to give us an increasingly dangerous world. Their idea of preparing the world for the future does not reflect the Gospel as the church has traditionally taught it.
John the Baptist and Jesus faced a similar situation as to both the Roman empire, represented by Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate and the Idumaen Kings, in the person of Herod and Phillip. So, just like today, those who dominate or aspire to dominate were part of life. That was the environment in which John the Baptist operated, and that in which the church operates today. The challenge for the church right now is to get back on its message of hope, joy, and expectation that’s usually expected at this time of year.
As we move through the approaching Christmas holidays, this time of year is supposed to be a time when we are preparing for the coming of Jesus manifesting all the innocence of an infant child, to prepare within us a soft spot in our hearts to receive His teaching of unconditional love, forgiveness, and healing. In the secular world, it is a time during which we prepare for traveling to be with family and friends to renew and strengthen the precious bonds of human relationships.
During Advent in twenty-fifteen, all of that preparation was so rudely and cruelly interrupted by the events in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. Each of the perpetrators appears to have been motivated by strongly held, extreme religious convictions. Christianity is supposedly a religion of peace, and Islam is supposedly a religion of peace, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers, watching television, or surfing the Internet.
The man in Colorado Springs was motivated to shoot up the local Planned Parenthood facility because he held a strong religious opinion opposing the kind of health care Planned Parenthood delivers. These attacks on clinics are part of a long history of ideologically-driven violence. They’re perpetrated by an extreme minority that’s committed to ruling through fear and intimidation because the Courts and the political system has not been successful in accomplishing their objectives, so they, like the man in Colorado, have resorted to violence to force the surrounding world to adopt their agenda of moving society backward in the sexuality area.
The couple in San Bernardino, who killed fourteen people with assault weapons at a facility for disabled people, is no different than the violent man in Colorado Springs. Again, religion was the motivation. The San Bernardino couple appears to have been motivated by Islamic extremism that justifies violence to achieve the result they desire, that of returning the world to seventh-century politics and technology ruled by caliphs and Sharia law. Like the Colorado man, they want to move the world backward.
Why does this happen? The current political environment facilitates the planning and preparation needed for terrorist attacks by extremists by legalizing the possession of firearms for ordinary citizens. Both the Colorado and San Bernardino shooters used lawfully-obtained firearms and ammunition. Something is seriously wrong with the laws of this country and the way they are enforced. However, the legal system has its limitations. Not every problem can be solved, or every bad act prevented, by making or enforcing laws.
What is needed is to change hearts and minds, and that is where the church comes into the picture. The church is most effective when it acts as the conscience of the environment in which it lives and works to change that environment to facilitate a pathway for the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where people don’t prepare to do mass killings.
Unfortunately, the current political environment has left local authorities unable to effectively prepare for or prevent gun violence because Congress has forbidden the use of Federal funds for gun violence research. Prevention of gun violence is simply not on their agenda, as can be seen from a U-S Senate vote a few years ago to allow those on the no-fly terror watch list to purchase guns. The result is that the kind of preparation we don’t want to see flourishes, while the preparation we should see languishes, thanks to the gun lobby.
Despite the murder of three people and the wounding of many more in Oxford, Michigan, this week, the prevailing and expectant political structures continue to support an alleged “right to keep and bear arms.” This so-called “right” amounts to preparation for war, not peace. Many of the supporters of that alleged right will admit, point-blank, that they need to be armed against what they consider tyrannical governments.
Allowing an armed populace directly contradicts the values and ideals of peace, justice, and compassion that characterize the kingdom of God because it forecloses any opportunity to grow in love and understanding and allow the good works within us to come to completion. The reality is, people do not complete their good works for the Kingdom of God if they are killed by bullets.
The activities of all these actors, to perpetrate by violent means a common agenda of opposing social and scientific progress, have combined to take our focus off of what we should be doing at this time of year: preparing to herald the arrival of Jesus and celebrations with our loved ones. The time has come for the church to say, “enough.”
This Advent, I would like to be preparing to allow Jesus to make a difference in all the stuff that’s going on now. Instead, we are forced to prepare in a different way, that is, to look out first for our physical safety. Going shopping during Advent this year has become dangerous due to the organized smash-and-grab robberies, some of which have produced deadly consequences. And now we have the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has prompted governments to kick their domination systems into high gear through travel restrictions, quarantines, mask mandates, and in some cases, lockdowns, all based more on fear of the unknown rather than facts supported by evidence.
If you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, we’ve gone from our need for self-actualization at the top of the pyramid to that of physical safety at the bottom. This is not a good development for humankind. An extreme focus on safety and survival by those at the top of the world’s power pyramid is truly a distraction for Christians trying to actualize the values of Jesus in their relationships with other people.
God’s mission for the church requires a peaceful world, so much unlike what we have now, where violence is a way of life that is slowly, but unfortunately, becoming the “new normal.” Extremists often claim they act on behalf of oppressed people, but they forget that extremism is oppression, too. The tendency of extremists to use force to execute their agenda cannot be anything but oppressive. And this applies to both right-wing conservative and left-wing progressive domination systems. The fact is, using violence against someone totally negates that person’s existence. What could be more oppressive than that?
No matter what their claims or their justification, extremists who commit terrorist acts are not clearing a pathway for the reign of God, Allah, or any other divinity. They are clearing a pathway only for themselves. That is because one thing all extremists lack is humility. The extremist sees herself or himself as better than the surrounding world. The extremist does not accept others as God made them but instead justifies using force to make others conform to the norms of the extremist.
Preparing a pathway for Jesus that will bring the peace the world needs requires a transformation of the world as we know it. We must rethink domination systems and structures that we see as normal but which God sees as destructive and oppressive, among them, religious extremism of all kinds. The way we prepare in the future to make the Kingdom of God a reality will be entirely different from the way the church has done it in the past. To quote Lowell Mason, “new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.”
John the Baptist calls for God’s bulldozers to reshape the world’s pathways. Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod are mentioned in the Gospel reading as they were facts of life that stood in his way and eventually obstructed the path of Jesus Himself. The heart of the message of John the Baptist was a message of repentance, meaning a turning or change of the direction in which one is headed.
We, as Americans living in a prosperous country with blessings all around us too numerous to count, often have trouble seeing the need for change. How many more incidents like those in Colorado Springs, San Bernardino, and Oxford, Michigan, will it take to wake this country to the reality that the present values of our society are untenable as a long-term path for the success of the Gospel message? In the words of Pope Francis, “Religious fundamentalism must be combated.” Fundamentalism is not religious because God is lacking; it is idolatrous.”
If John the Baptist were alive today, he’d likely say, “Church, do your job by relentlessly preparing the world for the reign of God through advocating policies consistent with peace and justice.” Then, as now, the church’s mission is to build a highway for God, which will require reshaping the world’s social systems and the landscape of our minds. AMEN.