Second Sunday in Advent – Year B
December 06, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 40:1-5;9-11 | Psalm 85:9-14
2 Peter 3:8-14 | Mark 1:1-8
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Have you ever been to a Presidential political rally? The last one I attended was in 1972. It was for Senator George McGovern, who was the Democratic Party’s candidate that year. The rally was in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was going to college at the time. I was twenty years of age.
Not only do I remember Candidate McGovern’s speaking, but there were other speakers before him to warm up the crowd, including the local mayor and members of Congress. But the warm-up speaker I remember best was Senator Ted Kennedy, who was accompanying Candidate McGovern on the campaign trail. I remember him because he really got the crowd excited. As you might expect, he excoriated President Richard Nixon in no uncertain terms and prophesized how much better American life would be with a Democrat in the White House.
Senator Kennedy was doing for Candidate McGovern what John the Baptist did for Jesus. At the rally I attended, Senator Kennedy prepared the way of Candidate McGovern. Even though the crowd cheered wildly every phrase in Senator Kennedy’s speech, he was not the main event, just like in First Century Palestine, John the Baptist was not Jesus. As John tells us in today’s Gospel, “One is coming who is mightier than I.” John knew his place in salvation history, just like Senator Kennedy know his place at Candidate McGovern’s campaign really
John’s estimation of his role in relation to Jesus is an example for all of us to reflect upon and proclaim our precise respective mission in the church. Each of us has particular gifts. Part of being an effective Christian is to identify and execute what we’re supposed to do, and do it, and not try to be something we are not.
John was unlike anyone in the society in which he existed. We can infer that from the Gospels, which provide detail about how he lived. Today, we learn that he was clothed in camel’s hair and subsisted on locusts and wild honey. If he dressed ate like everyone else, there would be no reason to include that information. His clothing and diet were included to show he was different than other people. Individuation from the surrounding social landscape characterizes all the biblical prophets. None of them were mainstream people. If they were, no one would notice them or pay attention to them.
Yet many people find non-mainstream individuals make them uncomfortable and even threatening, often making them a target for violence, particularly if they oppose the political status quo ante. You might recall Jesus saying that prophets are popular everywhere except in their own home towns. John the Baptist was beheaded. The prophet Jeremiah was thrown into a pit and left to die. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was shot and killed. One takes one’s life into one’s hands when one speaks truth to power.
The New Testament quotes Isaiah the prophet more than any other Old Testament book. Today is no exception. Not only do we hear in today’s Gospel a quotation of a prophecy of Isaiah, but in today’s First Reading we hear the actual prophecy in the Book of Isaiah itself. Isaiah foretold the coming of a messenger ahead of the Messiah, and today’s Gospel proclaims John the Baptist as that messenger.
The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to speak His words to the people of Israel. Specifically, they were sent to prepare the way of the Messiah. Thus, John the Baptist has been called, “the last of the Old Testament prophets.” He was the transition to the New Covenant established by Jesus.
Most Christians and Jews are aware of the prophets for whom Old Testament books are named, that is, not only Isaiah, but Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Nahum, Obadiah, Jonah, Joel, Habakkuk, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, Micah, and Hosea, but there are prophets in the Old Testament for which no book was named. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Nathan, come to mind. Since there are no known writings attributed to John the Baptist, he would fall into that category as well. Prophecy is not about writing books, but functioning to communicate God’s word through foretelling the future.
That’s precisely what John was doing. He was foretelling the coming of Jesus, in the tradition of Moses, who predicted a prophet in his footsteps yet to come. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read,
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brothers, him you shall hear. The Lord said to Moses “They have spoken well. I will raise up a prophet from among their citizens like you, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”
No prophet of the stature of Moses during his lifetime, so it’s highly plausible that Moses could be referring to Jesus, and indeed, many scholars interpret that passage as foretelling the coming of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus saw himself as fulfilling that particular vision of Moses when he identified himself in the Gospel of John as speaking on behalf of God the Father, when he said,
“For I did not speak on my own initiative, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told me
The prophetic message of John the Baptist was intended to prepare the way for Jesus. Last week, Deacon Sharon talked about how Advent is a season of preparation for the Incarnation that we will celebrate at Christmas. Like John the Baptist, we are preparing the way for Jesus to enter our lives.
Over two thousand years down the line, Jesus is not going to be physically born for us again. Rather, Jesus will be coming among us spiritually. Although there will be no little baby to pet while we exclaim, “you’re so cute”, stories of the innocent vulnerability of Baby Jesus will implore us to remember his humanness. All of this is part of the “a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells,” to which today’s Second Reading from Second Peter refers.
The Second Reading speaks of conducting ourselves in holiness and devotions awaiting the coming of Jesus. As the author of Second Peter tells us, God does not wish us to perish, but that we should all repent preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus, or as might say, the Parousia, that is, the arrival of the reign of God, which will come at a day, time and manner unknown to us, which again tells us the fullness of its mystery is yet to unfold. Second Peter gives us a glimpse of that, foretelling a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness will be found, but the lack of certainty of what is to come and when it will come underscores the urgency for repentance.
As today’s Gospel tells us, John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That message appears in stories about him in all three synoptic Gospels, that is, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Repentance was part of what Deacon Sharon said last week we can and should do to prepare for the arrival of Jesus in our hearts at Christmas. Today’s Gospel drives that home. So what is “repentance”?
The common person on the street relates to the word “repentance” in pedestrian English word usage, which defines repentance in the way it appears on the website “Dictionary dot com.” There, we read, that to “repent” means, “ to remember or regard with self-reproach or contrition; to feel sorry for, or to regret.” For Christians, there’s a lot more to it. Yes, saying “I’m sorry” for the bad things I did or said is important, but that is not what “repentance” really means.
In the New Testament, the word translated as ‘repentance’ is the Greek word metanoia, a compound word of the preposition ‘meta’ (meaning after or with), and the verb ‘noeo’ (to perceive, to think, the result of perceiving or observing). In this compound word, the preposition combines the two meanings of time and change, which may be denoted by ‘after’ and ‘different’; so that the whole compound word means: ‘to think differently after’. Metanoia, is, therefore, primarily an after-thought, different from the former thought; a change of mind and change of conduct, “change of mind and heart”, or, “change of consciousness.”
That’s what John the Baptist meant when he talked about “repentance.” That concept goes way beyond feeling sorry for what you did but changing your conduct going forward. However, to get yourself to that decision point, you first have to identify your sin so you will learn in what direction you must change your behavior.
So what did John the Baptist mean by sin?
One of the procedures I use in preparing a homily is to do a parallel reading of the Bible. Once you know your way around scripture, you will find that the same stories appear in multiple places and that each author writes from a different perspective. For example, the history of the Jewish people overlaps between First and Second Kings and First and Second Chronicles. But nowhere is this more true than in the three synoptic Gospels, in chronological order, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. As Deacon Sharon pointed out last week, Mark was the first Gospel to be composed, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke relied on it.
The story of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel from Mark also appears in the other two Synoptics. The Lukan version of the events in today’s Gospel from Mark contains ethical mandates to share clothing and food with the poor; and that soldiers not extort money from citizens with threats. From that, we can conclude that failure to look after the least among us and extortion are sins. To hear John say this was not surprising, as he was, after, “the last of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament books of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Proverbs exhort us that not caring for the indigent is sinful, and the books of Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes condemn extortion.
The classic definition of sin is not “disobedience to God’s laws,” but hamarton, the Greek word for “missing the target”, that is, not living up to what God has planned for us. Identifying what your sins educates you as to how you can best change the direction of your life to get on target with God’s plan for you so that you do not sin again. if you find yourself going the wrong way, that you make a U-turn to get yourself headed in the proper direction.
Here is a practical example. You say bad things about someone else behind their back. There’s no question that gossip is a sin. It is identified as sinful in numerous places in both the Old and New Testaments. So the person about whom you said the bad things finds out and confronts you. Many people in that situation would say, “I’m sorry, I apologize, please forgive me,” and you expect to move on with life.
However, it’s not that simple. The problem with that scenario is that words make lasting impressions and are hard to undo without taking positive action to fix the problems they create. But more important, merely saying you’re sorry does not require you to take responsibility for what you did. The first step to the “turning around” or “life change” that repentance requires mandates that we accept personal responsibility for our actions. More than anything else, repentance, which is a change in your behavior, proves that you have responsibility for what you did. Mere apologies do not do that.
Thus, automatic apologies cannot, and should not be, a ticket to automatic ongoing forgiveness. Something more is necessary. John the Baptist has the answer. For him, repentance and forgiveness go together. Their connectedness is at the heart of his message. Note that in today’s Gospel, they appear in the same phrase in the same sentence. They are inextricably linked.
Forgiveness requires that you change your behavior, not just say “I’m sorry. In the context of my hypothetical gossip, it means that you stop saying bad things about the other person, not just regret for having said the bad things and say you won’t do it in the future. It means you actually stop saying the bad things and instead say good things about the other person. Perhaps you put up a Facebook page praising that person.
However, the converse of that concept is also true. Genuine repentance should bring genuine forgiveness. If my hypothetical gossiper is genuinely sorry and demonstrates through behavior real personal change, forgiveness must follow as a moral imperative. As you will recall from one of my homilies this past summer, Jesus calls us in no uncertain terms to forgive others seventy times seven.
So why this urgency to repentance and forgiveness? As today’s Second Reading makes clear, life on our planet is finite. None of us know when it will end. In God’s timeframe, a thousand years is one day. We are but infinitesimal specks of dust in the universe.
The disputes that human persons have with one another, whether involving the leadership of a country or personal relationships, are ultimately like dust in the wind in God’s grand plan. Yet our loving God cares enough about humanity to send prophets and ultimately a Messiah by way of Jesus. Humanity’s short time in the universe will be so much better if we just listen to Moses and the other prophets, and ultimately, Jesus, our Savior.
The message of John the Baptist of repentance and the forgiveness of sins anticipated and paved the way for the message of Jesus to love one another as Jesus loved us. John’s baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins with water was the precursor for the baptism with the Holy Spirit that would come with Jesus.
We recognize that in our baptismal rite when, after pouring water on the candidate in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we anoint the candidate’s forehead with sacred oil of chrism with the words, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” When we do that, the baptismal candidate receives the fruits of the Holy Spirit: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and last, but definitely not least, love, which is the essence of Christianity.
While repentance and forgiveness operate purely on the human level, connecting humanity with the Holy Spirit operates in an entirely different realm that connects us not just to earth and our fellow humans but to the eternity and enormity of the created universe. Jesus takes us beyond ourselves to ultimately enjoy oneness with God.
The mindful and deep preparation that evolves from repentance tied to forgiveness enables us to fully experience the saving power of God’s incarnate Word by way of Jesus. The change in behavior that forgiveness requires us to forgive other people, and other people to forgive us, often means that we must fully change the essence of who we are.
We must be open to change ourselves from the inside out. As you will recall, Jesus tells us that what comes out of us, that is what we do, tells God and the world what’s going on inside us. Simply put, our behavior reveals what’s in our hearts. To meet Jesus, change is required!
Change requires that we embrace new ways of thinking outside the small boxes in which many people live their lives.
Change requires that we reconsider expanding the universe of our ideas through ongoing research and investigation.
Change requires we explore new facts and modes of analysis, often revisiting past situations armed with new facts and new ways of looking at those facts.
Change requires us to listen to people other than ourselves.
Change requires the ability to realize that the thoughts of persons other than ourselves as having value for us.
Change requires that we experience life not just with our senses but our minds and hearts as well.
Change requires that we expand our knowledge of the world around us and its people.
Change requires us to seek new ways to accomplish our objectives and expand the goals on our horizons.
Change requires that we realize that sometimes we are wrong and that different behaviors may be more effective to get done what needs doing.
Change requires we explore new ways of relating to people.
Change requires we be open to more relationships with more people who are not like ourselves, even if some of those people make us uncomfortable.
Change requires we leave our comfort zone.
At bottom, repentance requires change.
This Advent, think of presenting yourself as a changed person to welcome our Lord Jesus on the day of his birth. We remember his birth as part of history, yet we once again invite Jesus into our lives in a new way every year. When someone is born, they inaugurate a new future, a new person who will have a distinct history with potential gifts to be offered to the world.
Think of Christianity as a time warp, where the future is now, and where we are called away from our sinful past to look to the days yet to come as the future made present triggers our imagination. Advent will bring us out of our comfort zone as we will continue to prepare for Jesus by living in the future, imagining things yet to be, and change yet to come. AMEN.