Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Reinaldo Martínez-Cubero, OHC
Advent 3 C - Sunday, December 16, 2018
Advent 3 C - Sunday, December 16, 2018
Click here for an audio version of the sermon.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoice Sunday. The name is taken from today’s second lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” The reading from the prophet Zephaniah also calls for shouts of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” And in the lectionary, for today, there is also a canticle (not included in this liturgy) with the words of the prophet Isaiah calling people to sing praises and ring out their joy, for the great one in the midst of them is the Holy One of Israel.
But, ah, today we also have our gospel lesson with John the Grouch Baptist. "You brood of vipers!" he shouts. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." According to the Gospel of Luke, great crowds streamed into the desert to get yelled at by John. Why? Well, a clue in the gospel passage is the question they ask at the conclusion of John’s sermon. "What should we do?" That's not a question people ask when things are going well. It's the question we might ask when we've come to the end of our rope, or when what we have thought to be wisdom has failed. It's what we ask when we are desperate. "What should we do?"
What did the crowds think such a character as John, ascetic, rough, dressed in camel’s hair, an appearance that bespeaks the margins, would say in answer to their question? Abandon your homes and families? Dwell in the desert? Start a revolution? Oh, no. The answer he gave is much more radical than that. To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." To the soldiers: "Don't extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages." In other words, he tells them to go home. He points them to the very places in which they already live, and work, and suggests that these places are precisely where God calls them to be, and where God is at work in them, and through them.
So the message for us is to stop escaping, and insisting God is somewhere else. God is present. God is here, amid our imperfections and failings, blessing our efforts to reflect God’s love, and claiming us as God’s own, even when we fall short. John calls us to inhabit the stuff of our lives as deeply and as generously as we can. Our Messiah is closer than we think. We are to inhabit our lives, no matter how plain or obscure or unglamorous or difficult. And why? Well, because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath our feet.
Holiness is not the ethereal and mysterious thing we tend to make it. If we're willing to look closely, if we're willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we'll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. We don't have to look "out there." The reign of God is here, within and among us. God meets us where we are, accepts us as we are, and makes good use of us to care for (NOT take care of) those around us. John, in this gospel lesson, challenges us to right relationship not only with God, but also with our neighbors because, really, that is the only way to be in right relationship with God. So bearing fruits worthy of repentance has to do with how we are living out God’s love with each other.
John concludes his sermon in the wilderness with a harrowing description of the coming Messiah: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." The Gospel writer calls John's exhortation "good news." My first reaction to that was: “Say what??” How is the portrait of a Messiah who judges, sorts, and burns us good news? After much pondering, I decided to look up the word “judgment” in the dictionary. I was shocked, and enlightened. Synonyms for “judgment” include discernment, acuity, and perception. We can think of judging something as seeing it clearly, or knowing it as it truly is.
Perhaps John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us, and knows us at our very core. Perhaps the winnowing fork is an instrument of love, wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff. It is by surrendering to God every part of our lives that we consent to God to separate all that is destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and priceless in us. Perhaps this Messiah who is coming to save us is actually coming from within us. All we have to do is take responsibility for our actions and our lives.
To conclude, I’ll share an interesting thing I learned recently. John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. That’s right, John the Grouch Baptist. It makes sense. He was still in his mother’s womb when he first leapt at the presence of Mary and Jesus. When it came time for him to “decrease” and for Jesus to “increase,” he did so willingly, saying, “…my joy has been fulfilled.” Clearly, John understood something unyielding about joy. Joy is not just happiness, but as my Spiritual Director reminded me recently, joy needs sadness, and heartbreak to be complete. Joy will cost us. We are to bear fruits worthy of repentance, yes, bear fruits, as in bring them forth, but also, bear them, as in carry them, shoulder them, endure them. Gaudete! ¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+