3rd Sunday of Advent A

The Gospel on this joyous Sunday begins in a dark place both literally and figuratively.  John the Baptist has been imprisoned by King Herod after his astoundingly successful ministry in the desert.   John had preached about the need for repentance and the forgiveness of sins through his baptism.  And before his arrest, he had pinned his hopes on Jesus, the one he believed to be the long promised Messiah to rescue Israel.  His influence had grown so large that he was considered a threat to the king whom he had directly criticized.

Now in prison, under the constant threat of death, John seems to be having his doubts about Jesus.  Perhaps Jesus was not meeting his expectation of a Messiah; perhaps the Jesus movement had not developed the momentum he expected.  He is worried about his legacy – had he prepared the path for the right man?  He was experiencing what John of the Cross would describe 1500 years later as a dark night of the soul.

He looks for reassurance and sends his disciples to ask Jesus the only question that matters.  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Jesus’ answer is succinct, powerful and right from the scriptures.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”  John must have known great peace at his not too far off death knowing Jesus was indeed all he had prayed he would be.

But in a different age, at a different time, the “only question that matters” still haunts: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  It comes from those who wonder if Jesus truly is their answer.  It comes often but not always from a younger generation whose doubts are rooted in their values.  In an increasingly material world, how can we put something as immaterial as God at the center of it? In a scientific world that demands that each proof be based on evidence, what role does faith have to play?  In an increasingly cynical world, who relies on miracles?

We no longer have Jesus to defend himself, we only have his Church, a powerful institution at a time when every institution is suspect.  We cannot point as Christ did to John the Baptist to those who have been healed or as they came to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead.  We only have their stories.  Is that enough?  I believe it is.  I bet my life on it.  So did you.

It is enough because of the keeping of the promise of proclaiming the good news to the poor.  It is what we do in our teaching and above all in our actions.  You would be stunned by the thousands of pounds our parish donates each year to our local food pantries.  We open the doors of our school to anyone without regard to their ability to pay because God does not ration the Gospel to only those who can afford it.  We welcome every vulnerable population and let them know they belong.

This is such a Jesus instinct- to not see others’ weaknesses as competitive advantages for ourselves, but to instead feel beholden to the poor.  We are called not to exploit the least among us, but to serve them.  We do not look down on the least fortunate but honor life and value it from the moment of conception throughout all their lives.  It is impossible to be Christian without loving the poor and recognizing the poverty within each of us because the poor and darker parts of our lives and the lives of others is where Jesus abides now.  Proclaiming and lifting up the poor is not “merely charitable,” it is the foundation of our salvation.

And finally, we rely on loving as Jesus Christ taught us.  As materialistic, scientific and cynical we may all be, we put love at the center of our existence.  And at some level we know that love is not a hormonal outcome or a chemical reaction.  It is what moves us.  It makes all the difference worth making in our lives.  Ironically then, despite the protestations, we do place something immaterial at the heart of the matter.  What requires more faith than love?  Love is the food of the Divine.

And if I am going to love, I am going to love the way it has been described and lived by Jesus.  He explained it with command and intimacy. As if it were his own idea.  Because it was.  Who else could have defined love as laying down one’s life for one’s friends?  How else would we discover that to live our life we would have to surrender it?  How wide he made love so that it would also embrace our enemies for every other solution leads to death?  He called for a love that was whole, that rejected violence and made the stranger a neighbor with a reasoning and a hope that could only be divine.

This is the soul of the human experience. There is no love without sacrifice.  There is no moving forward in our relationships without mercy.  There is no resurrection without death. Jesus did not explain love, he embodied it.  If this is what you believe love is, why wait for another?  Jesus Christ is here.  Jesus Christ is Lord.