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INDEPENDENT CATHOLICS ARE JOHN THE BAPTIST TO THE WORLD
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
December 14, 2014
St. Thomas Independent Catholic Church, San Diego, CA
Isaiah 61:1-2;10-11 Luke 1:46-48;49-50;53-54
I Thessalonians 5:16-24 John 1:6-8;19-28
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
(Sing) “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.” Now, I know that’s a bit premature. We all know that Christmas is a joy-filled holiday, or at least, it’s supposed to be that. Today, however, we’re still in Advent and celebrating “Gaudete Sunday”, and that’s why I’m wearing rose colored vestments, which are traditional for this third Sunday of Advent. The word “Gaudete” is the imperative form of the Latin verb gaudeo, gaudere , meaning to be joyful. The imperative of a verb is used to give commands; here, the church is commanding us on this Sunday, “be joyful.” But it’s a different kind of joy from the joy we’re going to feel at Christmas. In Advent, we feel a rejoicing of anticipation, similar to what you feel in the days leading up to an important event in your life where you anticipate a celebration of some sort. I felt that recently, in the weeks leading up to my ordination as a deacon. I also felt the same way in the time between the time my wife Beeper and I became engaged until the time we actually married…and I presume Beeper felt that way too. In Advent, we celebrate the joy Our Blessed Mother Mary experienced while anticipating the birth of Jesus, who was miraculously conceived in Her by the Holy Spirit. God wants us to always rejoice, not only in the present moment, but always, anticipating good things in our lives yet to come.
That’s probably the way the Jews felt as they were returning to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. They were thinking, “thank God it’s over, better days are ahead.” As you may recall, in about 589 BC, the Babylonians invaded Judea for the second time and deported large numbers of Jews to Babylon where they remained captive until 539 BC, when the Persian King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and adopted a policy of religious toleration. He released the Jews from captivity and allowed them to return to their old homeland, joyfully anticipating a new and different life.
The book of Isaiah was written in three parts, probably by three different authors. The first part, Chapters 1 to 39, is known as “proto-Isaiah”, was written in about 700 BC, while the second part, known as “deutero-Isaiah” originated as the Jews were returning from Babylon. Today’s Hebrew Bible Lesson is taken from the third part of Isaiah, what scholars call “trito-Isaiah”, covering chapters 55 to 61, believed to have been written by yet a third author later on after the Jews had already arrived in Judea.
The prophet’s message is not only one of concern for the poor, a theme that runs throughout all of Isaiah, but one of anticipatory joy, somewhat like we’re experiencing this Sunday in Advent. Life is going to be better. Good things are about to happen…hope for the poor, healing of disappointments, and most important, freedom for those like the Jews who had been held captive for decades. The prophet asks his people to rejoice in all these good things. We sort of think this way about Christmas, hoping in the generosity of those around us will bring us a better life next year. This passage also has a connection to Jesus, as you may recall from the Gospel of Luke where Jesus starts His ministry in Nazareth by reading it in the synagogue.
So how does John the Baptist fit into all this? About the best analogy I can give you comes from the world of politics. When I was a reporter for a college radio station in Pittsburgh in 1972, part of my job was to cover the presidential campaign by reporting on the candidates as they came to town. I got to see George McGovern, Sargent Shriver, Richard Nixon, and Spiro Agnew up close and personal and asked them questions only a 20 year old green reporter would. The local politicians would make arrangements for the candidate which included getting large enthusiastic crowds to the candidates’ rallies. Typically, they gave “warm up” speeches to the crowd to get everyone excited for the candidate who was the main event. Sometimes, however, the crowd gets confused, particularly if the warmup guy does a real good job, and that’s what happened with John the Baptist. He was attracting lots of positive attention from large crowds, but also negative attention from the local religious establishment. The priests and Levites felt threatened. John the Baptist was competing with them for attention. They wanted to know “who in the heck is this guy”, so they sent a deputation to inquire of John the Baptist, “Who are you?” Now, we all know who he is. His mother was Elizabeth, a cousin of Our Lady, and his dad was Zechariah, a priest who got the word of his son’s arrival while he was offering incense (You see, good things happen when you offer incense). He grew up to be that strange guy in camel’s hair who ate locusts and wild honey. He was the quintessential outside the mainstream non-conformist, just like we independent Catholics are. Those priests and Levites thought, perhaps, he’d lead them away from Temple worship. The first thing John the Baptist said was to tell them who he was not. He said he wasn’t the Messiah they had so long expected (you probably know the hymn, [sing] “Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free”). He told them that he was not a prophet, and most assuredly, he was not Elijah reincarnated!
But nowhere does John the Baptist tell us about his personal identity. Nowhere does he name himself or tell us anything about his background. Instead, John the Baptist defined himself by the task he was sent to perform. He defined himself as a verb instead of a noun…”I am the voice of him crying in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” The translation we heard today uses the term, “desert” while other versions translate the same world as “wilderness.” The Greek New Testament uses the word eremos, which means “deserted place”, which is the typical characteristic of both what we know as desert and wilderness. Both, however, denote an absence of civilization. John the Baptist was a lonely voice crying out in a desolate area that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Not only was he on the physical outskirts of civilization, he was in a place of spiritual desolation. By that time, the Jews had been through a lot of unpleasant history, because the tolerant Persian empire lasted only about 200 years. After that, the Alexander the Great, who was a Greek, conquered the entire area and imposed the Hellenist culture. Then the Romans took over Palestine in about 63 BC. So by the time John the Baptist came on the scene, the ordinary Jew on the street had suffered enough and was anxious for relief. Not only were the Romans a problem, but the rulers of the Jews, that is, Herod and his ilk, cooperated with them so they could stay in power. Together, Herod and the Romans created an oppressive society where the Romans collected heavy taxes and interfered with the operations of the Temple, like dictating who the high priest was going to be. The ordinary Jews who were not part of the power structure, the kind who would eventually be attracted to the message of Jesus, were ripe to receive good news. Someone who was crying out that he was to make straight the way of the Lord by way of a Messiah was very good news indeed. The message of John the Baptist brought them the joy of hoping for better days, just like Third Isaiah did.
The particulars of the message of John the Baptist articulates a call for repentance, which does not mean “I’m sorry” as it does in everyday speech. Nor does it meaning turning away fromsin. Repentance is more than that. To repent is a translation of the Greek word, metanoeo, a compound word meaning to change one’s thinking. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action. It is a change of the inner self to turn to God. Just like today, the immediate world around John the Baptist, the world into which Jesus came, was focused on money and power. The Sadducees ran the temple and made money doing it, and there were more than enough rich people taking advantage of poor people, just like today. That had to change then, and must change now.
John the Baptist called for compassion and justice, just as Jesus would later do. In Luke’s Gospel, he tells those with an abundance of clothing to share with others who have none; that those with plenty of food should share it with the hungry; and tax collectors to stop collecting more than what is due. John and Jesus each got the same reward in this life for what they preached: they were killed by the power structure, as often happens to those who get in the face of the powerful to speak on behalf of the poor and dispossessed: look also at what happened to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the many martyrs of the Christian faith.
So what’s the takeaway for us independent Catholics from a centuries-old story about a strange guy calling in the wilderness for making straight the way for Jesus? We can ask John the Baptist to pray for us, and I’m sure his prayers will help, but I think he also has value to us as an example to follow. We too, can be voices crying in the wilderness calling for change in the world around us. Although our church is situated in an urban area, it is really a wilderness or desert, a place of desolation, and by that, I mean spiritually desolated by a very secular culture. The latest religious statistics according to a 2012 Pew Institute study, show that people not affiliated with any church are now about 20% of the population overall, and 33% of adults under 30. That’s pretty depressing, isn’t it? Other studies show pretty much the same thing: atheism, agnosticism are on the rise. Secularism is taking over. That looks pretty desolate to me. But we can’t lose hope. We can carry out God’s mission despite those statistics. What motivates us, what gets us going, is that anticipatory joy to make straight in the spiritual desert in which call out a highway for our God. We, as independent Catholics, can and should be voices crying in the wilderness to make way for the message of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God.
How? Just like the signs you see in the train station, “when you see something, say something.” When you see injustice, call it out. Expose it. If you see police beating up someone, capture it on your cell phone and post it on You-Tube and/or turn it over to the media. You want that kind of stuff to go viral on the Internet to get some demonstrations going. If your local government tries to prohibit you from feeding homeless people, do it anyway and tell the media why it’s an oppressive law to rile up public opinion. If you see abuse of children or elderly people, call the appropriate agency and publicize what you’ve done. If you know of a business that mistreats its workers or customers, organize a boycott.
All of this sounds a bit anti-establishment, but it’s in the spirit of John the Baptist. It will make you feel joyful as you anticipate the everlasting kingdom of God where peace and justice will reign. Jesus may not return to us in person as a live body, as many early Christians thought He would, but He can and will return by way of his Real Presence to permeate the way the human race does its business. Our job as Christians is to set a straight pathway so that can happen, just as John the Baptist prepared the way for the first coming of Jesus. We, as Catholics, are called to participate in human affairs and to recognize in the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed, the presence of the Lord summoning the Christian community to action. Independent Catholics may be small in number, but we can put ourselves on the map by being John the Baptist to the world. We are called to rejoice while doing that. (Sing) “Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.” AMEN.