Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s baptism, but also on our own. For in an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of his body. As Christ enters the water, he makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water and we follow. And in these waters he acquires gifts to give us, as we shall see below.
Let’s examine this text in three stages:
1. The Fraternity of Baptism– The text says After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized”
Luke puts the fact of Jesus’ baptism in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps he mentions it in passing because he, like many of us is puzzled about Jesus requesting baptism. Why? John’s baptism of repentance presumes the presence of sin. But the scriptures are clear, Jesus had no sin.
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15 ).
You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (1 John 3:5 ).
Jesus identifies with sinners, even if he never sinned. As he comes to the riverside he has no ego concerns. He is not embarrassed or ashamed that some might think him a sinner even though he was not. It is a remarkable humiliation he accepts to be found in the company of sinners like us, and even to be seen as one of us. He freely enters the waters and, to any outsider who knew him not, he would simply be numbered among the sinners, which he was not.
Consider how amazing this is. The Scripture says He is not ashamed to call us his Brethren (Heb 2:11). It also says God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
Jesus ate with sinners to the scandal of many of the religious leaders: -This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” (Lk 15:2). Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, had pity on the woman caught in adultery, allowed a sinful woman to touch him and anoint his feet. He cast out demons and fought for sinners. He suffered and died for sinners in the way reserved for the worst criminals. He was crucified between two thieves and He was assigned a grave among the wicked (Is 53).
Praise God, Jesus is not ashamed to be found in our presence and to share a brotherhood with us. There is a great shedding of his glory in doing this. Again, Scripture says, [Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself (Phil 1:3)
2. The Foreshadowing of our Baptism – In accepting Baptism, Jesus does not enter the water alone. He takes us with him, for we are members of His Body. He the Head of the Body, goes where the members will follow. St. Maximus says:
I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed……But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people….At the time of the Exodus the column…made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism. (de sancta Epiphania 1.3)
So what God promised in the in the Old Testament by way of prefigurement he now fulfills in Christ. They were delivered from the slavery of Egypt as the column led them through the waters. But more wonderfully, we are delivered from the slavery to sin as the column of Christ’s body leads us through the waters of baptism. God’s righteousness is his fidelity to his promises. Hence Jesus says, in his baptism and all it signifies (his death and resurrection) he has come to fulfill all righteous and he thus fulfills the promises made by God at the Red Sea and throughout the Old Testament.
3. The Four Gifts of Baptism– The Text says, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.“
Eph 5:30 says we are members of Christ’s body. Thus when Jesus goes into the water we go with him. And in going there he acquires four gifts on our behalf as this text sets them forth. Lets look at the four gifts he acquires on our behalf:
Access – the heavens are opened . The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, the text says the heavens are opened. Jesus acquires this gift for us. So, at our baptism, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, (Romans 5:1) It also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence the heavens are opened also at our own Baptism and we have access to the Father.
Anointing –the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove – Here too, Jesus acquires the Gift of the Holy Spirit for us. In Baptism we are not just washed of sins, but we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After baptism there is the anointing with chrism which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults this is Confirmation. But even for infants, there is an anointing at baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
Acknowledgment – You are my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from his Father for the faith of those who heard, but also to acquire this gift for us. In our own Baptism we become the children of God. Since we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your Baptism the heavenly Father acknowledged you as his own dear Child. Scripture says: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26)
Approval – With you I am pleased . Jesus had always pleased his Father. But now he acquires this gift for you as well. Our own Baptism gives us sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is the grace to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph 1:1-3)
Thus, at his Baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us so that our own Baptism we could receive them. Consider well the glorious gift of your Baptism. Perhaps you know the exact day. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday. Christ is baptized for our sakes, not his own. All these gifts had always been his. Now, in his baptism he fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for you. It’s alright to say, “Hallelujah!”
There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, the nations, and their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they see, and the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod and their ultimate rejection of him in favor Christ.
In this meditation I would like especially to follow these wise men in their journey of faith. We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star, to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story serve ultimately to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey to Jesus, let’s walk the way of the wise men.
Stage 1. CALL – The text says – When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” – Notice first the identity of these individuals. They are called Magi, (μάγοι, (magoi) in Greek) and they are from the East.
Exactly what “Magi” are is debated. Perhaps they are wise men, perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as Kings though the text does not call them that. It also seems Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern Kingdom. In our imagination we often think of them as Kings since Psalm 72, read in today’s Mass, speaks of “Kings” coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s gospel does not call them kings, but “magi.”
Yet, here is their key identity: they are Gentiles and they have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. But now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the gospel is going out to all the world.
St. Paul rejoices in this fact in today’s second reading as he says: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Most of us are not Jewish by ancestry, and hence we ought to rejoice for in the call of these Magi is prefigured our call.
And notice that God calls them through something in the natural world. In this case a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.
We do well to wonder what is the star that God used to call us? Perhaps it was Scripture, but more usually, it is first someone God has used to reach us, a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, religious sister, or devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life by whom God called you?
God can also use inanimate creation like he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a beautiful Church, a painting or a song. By someone or something God calls. He puts a star in our sky. These wise men, these Magi, follow the call of God and begin their journey to Jesus.
Stage 2. CONSTANCY– Upon their arrival in Jerusalem the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning King, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. It must have seemed probable to them that the newborn King would be related to the current King, so his surprise may have confused them. But Herod seems more than surprised, he seems threatened and agitated.
Even more puzzling, he calls religious leaders to further inform him of this King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah! So the birth of this king has religious significance! How interesting!
But, these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic of the newborn King and after giving the location of his birth seem to make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people that a longed for king had finally been born. Not even further inquiry!
So the wicked (e.g. Herod and his court), are wakeful, and the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi. Perhaps it occurred to them to suspend their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this birth, and those who did, seemed little interested.
Ah, but praise the Lord they persevere in their search. They do not give up!
Thanks be to God too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy and others, who should have led them joyfully to Jesus, were either asleep, or ignorant or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard, people who found their way to Christ and his Church, despite some pretty discouraging obstacles like poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy and bad example. God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).
Stage 3. CONFESSION OF FAITH – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. – With what little information they have they set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.
Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable but it seems not. Mary (Joseph) and Jesus are found now in a house. It would seem that decent lodging has now been found. Has it been days since the birth? Perhaps even longer, but we are likely dealing with a different day than Christmas Day.
Notice too that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration.
This is no mere homage or a sign of respect to an earthly King, this is religious worship. This is a confession of faith. So our Magi manifest faith!
But is it a real faith, or just a perfunctory observance? It’s not enough to answer an altar call, or to get baptized. Faith is never alone. It is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So lets look for the effects of a real and saving faith.
Stage 4. COST – There is a cost to discipleship. The magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. And they are costly gifts.
Gold is a symbol of all our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.
Frankincense. is the gift of worship, for in the Bible incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (eg. psalm 141). In laying down this gift we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life. To be in his holy house each Sunday and render him the praise and worship he is due. To listen to his word and to consent to be fed the Eucharist by him. To worship him worthily by frequent confession and to praise him at all times. And they give
Myrrh – a strange gift for an infant. Myrrh is usually understood as burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, my life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will. So here are gifts that are highly symbolic.
The magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts so too are we.
Stage 5. CONVERSION – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Here then is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get happy in Church, we have to obey. Hence, these wise men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction, they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in a possibly perfunctory worship, they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what he tells them (cf Luke 6:46).
So there it is. Through careful stages the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you) to conversion. He called. They remained constant, confessed him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?
Walk in the ways of the Wise men! Wise men still seek him. Even wiser ones listen to him and obey. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is on-going conversion part of our journey home to heaven? If Epiphany means “manifestation” how is our faith manifest in our deeds and conversion?
I have it on the best of authority that as the wise men went home by another route they were singing a Gospel song: “It’s a highway to heaven! None can walk up there but the pure in heart. I walking up the King’s Highway. If you’re not walking start while I’m talking. There’ll be a blessing you’ll be possessing, walking up the King’s Highway. “
Here in the middle of the Christmas Octave, the Church bids us to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. On the old calendar, the feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday after Epiphany, which makes some sense. For it is a bit odd to read a gospel portraying Jesus as 12 years of age, a mere 5 days after his birth. And then, next week, we revert back to a Gospel where he is an infant, on the Feast of Epiphany.
Nevertheless, here we are. Perhaps, it is a good time to reflect on family life. For, at Christmas time family, and extended family, often gather together. In terms of this feast of the Holy Family, let us make a consideration along three lines: Structure, Struggles, and Strategy.
I. Structure–All through the readings for today’s mass we are instructed on the basic form, the basic structure of the family. For example:
God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons. (Sirach 3:2).
May your wife be like a fruitful vine, in the recesses of your home; your children like olive plants, around your table (Psalm 128:3).
Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so that they may not become discouraged. (Colossians 3:20–21).
Each year, Jesus parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover… Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety… (Luke 2:45, 51,).
And he was obedient to them;… And Jesus advanced in age and wisdom and favor before God and man (Luke 2:51–52).
And thus we see the basic structure of family:
A father in honor over his children
A wife and mother, supportive of her husband and his authority.
A mother, having authority over her children, supported loved and encouraged by her husband, and obeyed by her children.
Children who both honor and obey their parents.
Fathers, and by extension mothers, who instruct and admonish their children, but not in the way that badgers and discourages them, but in a way that encourages and builds them up.
A family structure that helps children to advance in wisdom, and age, and favor before God and man.
Here then, is God’s basic teaching on family and marriage. Here is the basic structure for the family, as God sets it forth: a man who loves his wife, a woman, who loves her husband. And in this stable, lasting, and faithful union of mutual support and love, they conceive and raise their children in the holy fear of the Lord.
Add to this, the principal description of the book of Genesis, which describes how God says forth marriage: “A man shall leave his father and mother, cling to his wife, and the two of them shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24). And to this first couple, God gives the mandate, “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Genesis 1:22).
And thus we have set forth biblically the basic structure for the family: a father, a mother, and children, all reverential, and supportive of one another, in their various roles and duties.
Note how the structure of the family, take its basic form in terms of its essential fruit: the procreation and rearing of children. Why should marriage be a stable and lasting union? Why is Adam told to cling to his wife, to form a stable and lasting union with her? Why?
Because, this is what is best for, and just for children! Children both need and deserve a stable and lasting union, of a father and a mother, of a complementary influence of the different sexes. Here is what is best for children to be raised and formed. Hence, the family structure of a father and a mother, a male and female parent, flows from what is best, and just for children. The structure of the family, as set forth by God, is rooted in what is best, and just for children. Here is what is sensible and best, sociologically, and psychologically, in terms of the proper development of Children.
Even before we open the Bible, it makes sense that a child should have a father and a mother, a male and female influence, and teaching. There are things that a male, and a father, can teach a child, that a mother, and a female, cannot best teach. Further, the mother, and a female, can teach, and model for children what only a mother, and a female best teaches.
This much is clear before we even open the Bible. Male and female influence are essential for the proper psychological and sociological development of the child. Clearly then, God’s biblical mandates that marriage should include a father and a mother, is not without basis in simple human reason, and common sense.
To intentionally deprive a child of this context is both unjust to the child, and unwise. Hence, we see that the basic structure for marriage takes its shape from what is best, and what is just for children. Both God, and nature, provide for a father and a mother, a male and a female, to conceive and raise a child.
It also makes sense based on simple human reasoning that that relationship should be stable, something the child can depend on from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year, through all the formative years.
Here then is the proper structure for marriage. It is set forth both by God, and by human reason.
II. Struggles–And yet, what should be obvious to us as a culture seems to be strangely absent in the minds of many. Let us be clear, sin clouds our judgment, and makes many think that what is sinful and improper is in fact okay and good. It is not. In our current modern culture we gravely sin against God and against our children by consistent misconduct, and by the refusal to accept what is obviously true. The words of St. Paul are fulfilled in our modern times: their senseless minds were darkened, and they became vain and foolish in their reasoning. (Rom 1:21).
It is clear today that the family is in grave crisis. And it is also clear, that it is the children who suffer the most. Our modern age, in the Western world shows forth the mentality that is both deeply flawed, and gravely harmful to children.
Marriage and family are in great crisis do the willful and sinful habits of the vast majority of adults in our culture regarding sexuality, marriage, and family life. The rebellion of adults against the plan and order of God have caused endless grief and hardship, and set forth a culture that is poisonous to the proper raising and blessing of children.
Last week, we commented on this on the blog. Without repeating that whole blog post that the following excerpt stands forth:
Children have much to suffer in this world of our collective making. And while not all of us are equally guilty of contributing to the suffering of children, none of us are wholly innocent either, if for no other reason than our silence.
Consider that most children born today are no longer born into the stable and lasting family units they justly deserve with a father and mother committed to one another till death do them part.
The problems begin with fornication, which is rampant in our culture. And while most do not think of this as a sin of injustice, it is. It is so because of what it does primarily to children.
The fact is many children are conceived of fornication. Tragically most of these children who are thus conceived are outright murdered by abortion. 85% of abortions are performed on unmarried women. And for all the vaunted declarations of how contraception makes every baby a wanted baby, nothing could be further from the truth. Abortion has skyrocketed with the availability of contraception. This is because the problem is not fertility, it is lust, promiscuity, fornication and adultery. And contraception fuels these problems by further enabling them. The promises associated with contraception are lies, it does the opposite of what it promises.
Thus fornication and the contraceptive mentality (founded on lies) cause grave harm to children, beginning with death, in huge numbers. And the children, conceived of fornication who do (thankfully) survive are, nevertheless subjected to the injustice of usually being born into irregular situations. There are single mothers, some single fathers, and many other irregularities.
Add to this picture the large number of divorced families. And make no mistake, these shredded families cause great hardships and pain for children that include: children be shuttled back and forth between different household each week, having to meet “daddy’s new girlfriend” or mommy’s new “live-in boy-friend” and all sorts of other family chaos. Blended families also dramatically increase the likelihood of sexual and emotional abuse, since legal relationships seldom have the built-in protections of natural relationships.
All of this misbehavior, individual and cultural, harms children. Not being raised in a traditional marriage dramatically increases a child’s likelihood of suffering many other social ills, starting with poverty.
The chief cause of poverty in this country, is the single motherhood, absent fatherhood.
71% of poor families are not married.
Children of single parent homes are 2 times more likely to be arrested for juvenile crime,
2 times more likely be treated for emotional and behavioral problems,
Twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school,
33% more likely to drop out of school,
3 times more likely to end up in jail by age 30.
50% more likely to live in poverty as adults,
And twice as likely to have a child outside of marriage themselves. [*]
Add to the burdens children must experience, the new trend of same sex adoption. Never mind that it is best for the psychological development of a child to have a father and mother, a male and female influence. No, what is best and just children must be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Same sex couples must now be given equal consideration under law (in many states) to heterosexual couples. It’s the adults and their rights that seem to matter most here, what is best for children is quite secondary.
Here then are our struggles. Our families are in grave crisis and MOST children in our culture are not raised in the stable and committed homes they deserve. And let us be even more clear, to intentionally deprive children of this sort of home by raising them outside of marriage, or in same sex unions etc., is sinful, wrong and an injustice.
Let us also be clear that it is not possible to personally judge every case of a broken family. The modern world has experienced as cultural tsunami and many have been influenced by lies and other false promises. It may be true that, if you are divorced you tried to save your marriage, but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps in a moment of weakness, perhaps before your your conversion to Christ, you fell and bore children outside of marriage, but have done your best to raise them well.
But in the end we must say that children have had much to suffer on account of adult misbehavior in our culture. It is a true and sad fact, and we need to repent, and beg God’s grace and mercy to undue our grave sins of commission, omission and silence. We have set forth a bitter world for our children to inherit.
III. Strategy – What are we to do? In phrase, “Preach the Word.” What ever the sins of us, in this present generation (and there are many), we must be prepared to unambiguously re-propose the wisdom of God’s Word to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even if many of us in the current generation have fallen short, we cannot hesitate to announce God’s plan for sexuality, marriage, and family.
Our strategic proclamation must include these key elements:
No sex before marriage, ever, or under any circumstances. Sexual intercourse is rooted in the procreation of children and there no legitimate use of it outside of marriage, ever; no exceptions to this.
Children deserve and have the right to expect two parents, a father and mother, committed to each other till death do them part. Anything short of this is a grave injustice to children and a mortal sin before God.
Gay unions, or single mothers and fathers, are NOT an acceptable alternative to biblical marriage, and to intentionally subject children to this for the sake of “political correctness” is a grave injustice to them.
Marriage is about what is best for children, not adults.
Married couples must learn to work out their differences (as was done in the past) and not rush to divorce courts, which offends God (cf Malachi 2:16).
The needs of children far outweigh the preferences and needs of adults.
Whatever the personal failings of any of us in this present evil age (cf Gal 1:4), our strategy must be to preach the undiluted plan of God for sexuality, marriage and family to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In a phrase or two: “Back to the Bible! Back to the plan of God! Away with modern experiments and unbiblical schemes.” God has given us a plan. And we, thinking we had better notions, have caused great sorrow and hardship for our descendants. We have acted unjustly, murdered or children through abortion, and, sowing in the wind, have caused those who have survived our misbehavior, to inherit the whirlwind. It is time to repent and help our heirs to rejoice in chastity, marriage and biblical family. Otherwise we are doomed to perish.
God has a plan and it must be our strategy out of our struggles and back to God’s structure for our families.
This song says, So, humbly I come to you and say As I sound aloud the warfare of today Hear me, I pray What about the children?
There is a Scripture reading proclaimed at the Christmas Liturgy that usually gets overlooked. And yet it should elicit considerable reflection since it is proclaimed at the Christmas Midnight Mass, one of the Church’s most prominent Liturgies. It is from the Letter to Titus in the Second Chapter. I would like to reproduce it in full and then give some commentary following.
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. Titus 2:11-14
The Moral Life is a gift – The grace of God has appeared– The Word Grace (χάρις – charis) most fundamentally means, “grace” but it also means “gift.” And this word “gift” needs to govern the whole remainder of the passage which is an exhortation to receive the gift of a new moral life in Christ. One of the biggest mistakes made by most Christians regarding the Christian moral life is that it is something we must, by our own flesh power, “do.” It is not. It is something we must receive as a gift. Without this understanding the Gospel is not good news at all, it is just a long and burdensome list of requirements that we must do “or else.” Frankly, some of the more demanding passages of the New Testament (e.g. that we should love our enemies, never have lustful thoughts and be perfect and the heavenly Father is perfect) ought to clue us in that this is going to have to be God’s gift and God’s work in us. This text is teaching us that the grace (gift) of God’s very own life is available to us. Jesus Christ wants to live his life in us and offers us that relationship. As he begins to live his life in us sin is put to death and the grace (the very life and love of God) comes alive in us. Of course we can then love our enemies because it is God who is doing this in us. Lust, greed, self-centeredness, anger, resentments, fear and the like all begin to die and are replaced by joy, serenity, peace, patience, chastity, love, generosity, self-control and the like. A completely new life is made available to us. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). This grace, (the gift of the very life of God) has now appeared in Jesus Christ and is available to you right now. Don’t leave this gift under the tree!
The gift is offered to all – saving all – The gift is offered to all. As I live, says the Lord, I do not want the sinner to die but to turn to me and live! (Ez 33:11) No one can say they are excluded or that that they are not being offered the gift of a new life in Christ. Therefore the Church’s moral exhortation cannot exclude anyone. There are many today who want to claim exemption from some aspect of the moral law. The claim comes most commonly today from the Gay community who say that God “made me this way” and thus that the Law of Chastity does not apply for them in the same way as others. But this cannot be so for it would amount to a denial that God’s call was universal and that his grace is sufficient. No indeed, God can equip, empower and enable all of us, whatever our condition or apparent limitations to receive and live this new life. ALL are offered this grace. Don’t leave any gifts under your tree unopened!
The gift does not just inform, it transforms – and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires– The Greek word translated here as “training” is παιδεύουσα (paideuosa). First note it is a present participle which signifies an on-going action. As Catholics we see salvation as a process more than just an event. The training involved here is lifelong. We ought to have the experience that we are growing into the perfection that God has promised. I may not be what I want to be but at least I’m not what I used to be! Our training and transformation are on-going and lifelong. Secondly, we need to grasp what is meant by training. Some translators render this as “instructing.” But let’s be clear, our instruction is more than an intellectual thing. It is experiential as well. The Greek word παιδεύουσα is rooted in the Greek word paideuo which means to train up a child by discipline and instruction. Perhaps the best example we have of this today for adults is the notion of a personal trainer. A personal trainer does not just write instructions or talk over the phone. They show up and take you through the exercises personally. They point out bad form that will bring on injury and establish an exercise routine that works all the major muscle groups. They also impose a kind of discipline or routine until the next visit. This is what God wants to do for us. He wants to personally train us and build up strength in us so that we will recognize godless ways and worldly desires and he gives us the strength and will to reject them not merely because we have to but because we want to. Make sure you open and receive this gift from under your tree.
The gift of a clear, clean, sober mind – and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age – The Greek word translated as “temperately” here is σωφρόνως (sophronos) and it more usually means sober, of sound mind, and by extension it can mean moderately or temperately. Obviously intemperate, extreme behavior causes our mind to be unsound. A good, clear mind is a gift that God wants to offer us by also giving us the gift to temper our behavior. To live justly is to be in right relationship with God and others, render to each what is due and receiving also what is due. This too is a very great gift to be sought. So often we are NOT in right relationships with God and others and the result is guilt, anger and frustration. The Greek word translated here as “devoutly” is εὐσεβῶς (eusebos) and it is an adverb meaning more commonly “reverently.” This helps us to understand the word more widely. To be devout is usually interpreted in religious terms as being prayerful. That is a good thing to be sure but the reverent behavior that is the gift here is to be respectful not only of God per se but also of everyone. The gift that the Lord offers in this verse is that with clear and sober minds we live in a right and reverent relationship with God and others. Don’t leave this gift under your tree either.
The gift of hope – as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ – To live with hope is a very great gift. The Theological Virtue of Hope is the gift to have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Therefore hope is not some vague wish, it is a confident expectation. We ought to live with great confidence for our God has the power to save and the will to save us. And if we but open the gifts under our Christmas Tree and allow them to flourish in our life we can look with confidence to our judgement and to the glorious second coming.
A very personal gift– who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness – Notice again, the moral life is a gift. We are delivered from lawlessness. We are not just warned not to be lawless we are offered the gift of deliverance. And this gift isn’t something Jesus went and got at some store. He paid the price for it with his own blood. We are delivered from lawlessness by the precious blood of Jesus. This is a very personal gift. Now don’t leave it unwrapped!
The gift of a willing heart – and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good – The final expression of the gift is that when we receive the gift of the moral life from Jesus we are not only cleansed, our desires begin to be reformed. Thus we do not keep the law merely because we have to but because we WANT to. We become eager and joyful at keeping God’s law, not resentful and mournful about it. What a gift. Don’t leave it to be lost under the tree!
So, Here are gifts by which our savior saves us. There are many gifts he offers us but the fundamental gift he offers us is the gift of a new life, a reformed and restored heart and mind, eager to do what is right. This is his gift to us this Christmas and every day.
Here on the 4th Sunday of Advent, we are but a day away, practically speaking, from the unfolding of the great mystery of the Word made flesh. It is possible for us to look right past this 4th Sunday of Advent, but we do well to pause and ponder what is taught to us today about the salvation that is to unfold. One significant way we can do this is by pondering the first reading today from the prophet Micah. In four short verses we behold a kind of summary of our salvation, a snapshot of what ails us and how God heals us. Let’s look and see what the Lord, and the Church have to teach us.
I. Our Humility–The text begins: And you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.
Of all the towns and villages in the land of Judah, one of the lowliest was Bethlehem. Though not far from the great city of Jerusalem, a matter of a few miles, the town was little more than a rundown frontier village, with little to recommend itself. It was a place by which one passed quickly, on their way to nearby Jerusalem.
Even today, after all that happened there, Bethlehem remains a troubled, and rundown little city, impoverished and crowded. It’s steep, hilly streets feature little that is pleasant on the eyes. There is a great sorrow that hangs over the city. It is hemmed in by walls, covered with razor wire, and guard towers. These are signs of a great standoff between Israel and the Palestinians. Largely isolated economically, the city shows forth great poverty and unemployment.
The ancient Church of the Nativity at the top of the hill looks every bit of its 1500 years in age. It is dingy covered in smoky soot, and largely in poor repair, due to a standoff among the Orthodox factions which oversee the building in different corners of the church. The tensions are palpable as one enters the church, and nervous tour guides engage in delicate negotiations, to ensure a quick visit to the cave of the Nativity beneath the altar.
Yes, Bethlehem remains lowly, troubled, and very humble. And yet it is here that our Savior chooses to be born, among the humble, among the troubled. He does not choose nearby Jerusalem, or the distant city of Rome, or any great and Imperial city. Not in a palace he is born, but in a cave. And even in this humble and lowly city, one has to get mighty low to find the place where Christ was born. One descends down steep and narrow steps into a cave. And even in this cave, one must stoop lower still, even kneel on the floor, to touch the place where Christ was born.
A lowly place, in a lowly village. Here is where Christ is born. See how the Lord is esteems humility. God hates pride, he just can’t stand it. Pride is our greatest enemy, it is at the root of every sin we commit. And thus it is the Lord teaches us that humility is one of our greatest gifts.
The story also reminds us of something that took place in Bethlehem 1000 years before. The prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a new King to replace Saul. Having been sent to lowly Bethlehem, Samuel surveys the sons of Jesse. Samuel is impressed by the strong young men he sees before him, but none of these seven were the king he was sent to anoint. There was other one son, so young and insignificant, that Jesse had not even thought to include him. It was little David, out in the field tending the sheep. Yes, the lowliest one, he’s the one whom God chose. Humility won the day. (cf 1 Sam 16)
And so it is, that Bethlehem shows forth the humility, the lowliness that alone opens the door to God. Bethlehem, a name which means “house of bread,” not house of caviar, not house a fine wine, rather, the house of ordinary bread. Humility ushers in our God.
II. Our Hardship–The text goes on to speak of our condition, prior to the coming of Jesus: Therefore, the Lord will give them up, until the time when she will is to give birth has borne.
For indeed, our condition without Christ is grave. We are given up, given over to sin and to our own fruitless and self-destructive tendencies. And thus we learn of the gravity of our condition, that we cannot save ourselves. The prophet Isaiah had cried out, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! …All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. (Is 64:1,6-7)
Yes, our condition apart from Christ is hard and quite hopeless. In the age of the Law and the prophets, we learned the hard way that, strive though we might, we cannot save ourselves. Our wounds too deep, our pride too tall, our hearts too dull, in our minds too dark. We are lost without God. How often have deluded men sought to create utopia only to discover ruins. We have only to consider the utopian notions of the last bloody century.
Yes, the age of the Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament, shouts to us that we cannot save ourselves. We must rely on God we must turn to him. We don’t just need an Angel, we need a savior. And until she who was to give birth has borne the son, the only way to describe the human family is just the way this text form Micah does, we had been given up, that is, given over to our own sins so as to discover humility and our need for a Savior.
Isaiah wrote,All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6) St. Paul would later write of the time before Christ, we were dead in our sins (Eph 2:1), given over to our transgressions and iniquity.
So here is our hardship, wandering, lost and in need of a Savior.
III. Our Head – the text goes on to speak of our Savior, our shepherd, our ruler and head. Speaking of him: Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God.
And thus we see that our Savior will be both God and man. He is God, for his origin is from of old, from ancient times (cf also Hebrews 7:3). He also saves us by the strength of the Lord. And yet, he is also one of us, for the text speaks of him as acting in the name of the Lord, his God.
He must be God, to have the power to save us, and yet he must also be one of us, in order to speak and act on our behalf. As God, he cannot obey God, for there is only one divine will. But as man, having a human will, he is able to obey the Father. Thus it makes sense that our Savior must be God, and man.
It is said that he will shepherd his flock. Shepherds feed, lead and protect their flocks. And all this, the Lord does for us. It is a trait of sheep to be wayward animals, sheep tend to stray. They need the watchful care of a shepherd. And thus, even after saving us from our sins, the Lord must continue to feed us, lead us, and protect us. Lest having been snatched from the wolf, we run into a bear, or having been saved from the edge of a cliff, we wander into a thicket.
Thus, Christ our shepherd and head must go before us, showing us and opening the way. He must walk behind us, to guard us and observe our every action. And he was walk beside us to keep our paths straight. We need a Savior, not just on Good Friday, we need him every hour, every day.
IV. Our Healing — The text goes on to say and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.
And thus we see that the essential task of Jesus in healing us, is not simply a personal healing for me alone, or you alone. But it is also healing that removes the division’s within and among us. One of the chief sources of our suffering in this world are our divisions. Nation is divided against nation, races and ethnic groups in competition, conflict and crushing hatred.
At the time of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles, (largely Romans and Greeks) were in major conflict. The Jews of Jesus time were taught to love their neighbor and fellow Jews, but hate their enemy. Jesus taught that we must love and forgive our enemies, and he began the process of establishing a universal, a Catholic Church. He gave the apostles standing orders to preach the gospel to every nation, and to unite everyone under the common title of disciple, of Christian. The dignity of baptism and of being a child of God was to be offered to all and, as this text of Micah prophesies, the Lord’s salvation and greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth.
The text goes on to say, He shall be our peace. Not that this shall be a slogan-like peace as in “can we all just get along” but that “He” shall be our peace. That is to say the Lord Jesus Christ, and the truth he proclaims are to be the source of our unity. In sending the apostles forth to proclaim the gospel to every nation Jesus says that they should teach them to observe everything he has commanded, and draw them into the life of the church through baptism (cf Matt 28:19). He is our peace, Jesus and his teachings are what are meant to unite us. Every other form of peace is not a true peace or lasting peace.
Thus Jesus initiated a process that was not meant to politically conquer the world, but rather, he initiated a process whereby his truth and his grace would be proclaimed, and that men and women accepting these gifts, would be able to come to greater and more lasting peace.
This peace must begin in the heart and mind of every individual believer, who by the grace of Jesus Christ, experiences and inner healing of the many conflicts and destructive drives caused by sin. Then, by drawing others to that same healing through evangelization to a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, that peace is meant to spread throughout the world, putting an end to divisions, bringing together the children of God, and showing forth God’s greatness and truth, his salvation and peace, to the ends of the earth.
He is our peace, Jesus is our healing.
Here, just prior to the in-breaking of the Christmas reality, we are thus given a summary of iur salvation. It is a summary that extols our need for humility, describes our hardship, announces our Head a Shepherd, and sets for the basis for our healing. In a Word, the Word made flesh: Jesus.
This song says,
We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live.
Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can
Given recent circumstances and events, having Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday is a bit inconvenient this year. And yet the Liturgical calendar transcends time and current contexts and summons us beyond the merely present to the eternal realities of God.
Nevertheless I must say that I changed my approach to this Sunday based on the current violence and murder in Connecticut. St. Paul’s second reading has moved to the forefront ahead of the Gospel and I would like to focus attention here. For St. Paul does not just say “rejoice,” he says how.
We tend in modern times to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to external circumstances and happenstance. And thus happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way and quantity we like. If we just get enough money and creature comforts, we will be happy and have a better sense of mental well being.
And yet, it remains true that many can endure difficult external circumstances and yet remain inwardly content, happy and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content and are beset with great mental anguish, anxiety and unhappiness. Ultimately happiness is not about happenstance or circumstances, it is an inside job.
St. Paul says,
For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Phil 4:11-12)
Interesting, Paul wrote theses words, and the words of today’s Second reading from Jail. So its not a bunch of slogans.
In today’s second reading he tells us the “secret” to this contentedness, to joy and mental well-being whatever the circumstances. He gives a kind of five point plan, that, if we work it, will set the stage for a deeper, inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review what St. Paul has to say as a kind of five-point plan. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterated list, though the substance is my own reflection).
Here is the text of St. Paul’s five point plan for better mental health. And then we look to each point.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:4-9)
Note that the final verse is not in today’s liturgical proclamation, but it seems well to include it in these reflections, so I do.
Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord – The text says, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Of supreme importance in the Christian life is to request, receive and cultivate the gift of the presence of the Lord. We are too easily turned inward and forgetful of God’s presence. To become more consciously and stably aware of God’s presence is to be filled with joy and peace.
As an aside, note that the text mentions joy, (χαίρω – Chairoo) but it also mentions moderateness. The Greek word here is ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes) which means to be gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, or moderate. Epieíkeia relaxes unnecessary strictness in favor of gentleness whenever possible. Such an attitude is common when one is joyful and unafraid. By contrast, an unbending and unyielding attitude often bespeaks fear.
There are of course times to insist on precision and to not easily give way. But often there is room for some leeway and the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit which are the gift of the presence of God can often allow for some leeway and presume good will. There is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to control and manipulate conversations and outcomes and to win on every point.
But the central point is, as we become more aware of God’s presence and thus serene and less conflicted within, we no longer need to shout or win in every moment and on every point. We insist on what is true, but are able to express ourselves more moderately and serenely. We are able to stay in the conversation and are content to sow seeds rather than insist on reaping every harvest of victory.
Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God and the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits are a first step toward and sure sign of greater mental health and contentment.
Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord – The text says – Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition…present your requests to God.
There are very few things as destructive to our mental health as worry. Worry is like sand in a machine. It not only hinders the working of the machine, it damages it. But simply being told not to worry isn’t very helpful. In this case St. Paul is not simply saying “Don’t worry.”
Paul has already laid a groundwork for the diminishment of worry in telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. Some years ago when I was a little boy, my Father left for the Vietnam war. For the year he was away, I spent many anxious nights worrying about a lot of things. But when my Father returned my fears went away. Daddy was home, everything is alright.
And for all of us, to the degree that we really experience that God is near, so many of our fear just go away. My own experience is that as my awareness of God’s presence has grown, my anxieties have significantly diminished.
Paul also says, that the power of God is only a prayer away. Here too, I and many can testify that God has a way of working things out. He may not always come when you want him, or handle things exactly as you want, but when I look back over my life, and I think things over, I can truly say that God has made a way for me. And whatever my struggles and disappointments, none of them has ever destroyed me. If anything, they strengthened me.
Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. And ponder deeply how he has delivered you in the past, made a way out of no way, and drew straight with crooked lines.
Let the Holy Spirit anoint your memory to make you aware of God’s saving power in your life and recall how God has delivered you. These memories give us serenity when we consider how prayer is both effective and an every present source of power.
Antidote – So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness just goes away to the degree that we experience God is both present and that his power is only one prayer away.
And here is the second step to greater mental health, knowing by experience that God can and that God will make a way.
Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord – The text says, with thanksgiving,
Thanksgiving is a way of disciplining the mind to count our blessings. Why is this important? Because too easily we become negative. Every day ten trillion things go right, and about a half a dozen things go wrong. But what do we tend to focus on? You bet, the half a dozen things that go wrong. This is a form of mental illness that feeds our anxiety and comes from our fallen nature.
But gratitude disciplines our mind to count our blessings. As we do this, we begin to become men and women of hope, and of confidence. Why? Because what you feed grows. If you feed the negative it will grow. If you feed the positive it will grow. And the fact is, God richly blesses us everyday if we will but open our eyes to see it.
Step three is disciplining our fallen minds to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals and gives us us great peace and serene minds.
Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord – And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
As we begin to undertake these steps our mental outlook and health improves. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that this serenity will not only be present, it will “guard” or as some translations say “keep” our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words as this serenity grows it screens out the negativity of this world and the demons of discouragement. Having this peace allows us to see the Lord, and seeing the Lord deepens that peace… and the cycle grows and continues!
It has been my experience that the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years has not only gone away, but also the serenity I now increasingly enjoy makes all that anxiety unlikely to return. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.
Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord –Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
Maintenance plan – And as this serenity, this sense of well being, this mental health, comes to us, St. Paul finally advises a kind of maintenance plan wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is Godly, true, good and beautiful.
What you feed grows – While it may be true that we need to stay up with the news of the world, be careful of too steady a diet of the 24/7 news cycle. They focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and adversarial. If it bleeds it leads. Too much of that and you’re unsettled before you know it. Limit your portions of this and focus on the greater, better and lasting things of God. Ponder his plan, his truth, his glory, his priorities.
And old song says, More about Jesus would I know, more of his saving mercy show, More of his saving fulness see, more of his love who died for me.
Yes, more about Jesus, less of this world. How can we expect to keep our mental health and serenity on a steady dose of insanity, stinking thinking, wrongful priorities, endless adversity, darkness, chaos and foolishness?
Do you want peace? Reflect on the plan of the Lord for you.
So then, here are some steps to better mental health. It all begins with the practice of the presence of the Lord, calling on his power and being grateful for his providence, savoring his peace which inevitably comes and turning our attention more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.
Here’s to good mental health for us all! In times like these we need to balance our sorrow with the capacity to rejoice in God’s ability to draw good even fro the worst of circumstances.
But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth? And this is the cry that goes up from the final pages of the Old Testament (Mal 3:2). And the Lord himself gives the answer:
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)
And thus with these words the Old Testament ends.
And so the New Testament opens in the desert but near the banks of the River Jordan with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, “He is the Elijah who was to come.” (Mt 11:14). Yes, in John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.
And all this leads us to today’s Gospel, with John the Baptist summoning the faithful to repentance so that when the Messiah arrived, they would be ready. And for those of us who would be ready, we too need to go in the wilderness and hear the message of John the Baptist: Prepare the Way of the Lord! And though only the Lord can finally get us ready, we for our part must be able to say to the Lord, I’m ready as I can be.
Let us look at this gospel in three stages, going in the wilderness with John as our Teacher:
I. Context – The context of this Gospel is meticulously set forth by Luke: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
OK, so what’s going on here, why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an Ancient Middle Eastern Phone book, or some list of “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean!” Yes, notice:
A. The Prestige – You might say there is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! We have an emperor – (i.e. the Federal Government), a local governor – (i.e. the State Governor), Three Tetrarchs – (state and local officials), two religious (and secular) leaders…you name it, all the “somebodies” are on the list. But it was not to any of the these glitterati that the Word of God came.
B. The Person – It was to John, the simple man in the dessert that the word went forth. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? And where do say he lives? Not in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Hmmm…. And yet recall:
1 Cor 1:27-29 But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Luke 10:21 At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
He hath lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. Yet to this simple man the Word of God came, and many went out to hear this unlettered man speak the Word of God in Wisdom.
C. The Place – Where is the word of God proclaimed and where is John the baptist found and where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the Ivy League Town of Jerusalem? No indeed, not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned controlled environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert where the prophet was found. (Judean Desert upper right in photo)
It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? The context is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power, it is found in the desert where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is hear that the Word of God is found and heard.
And this leads us to part two:
II. Call.The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.
Here we have a basic Biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this but so did Jesus in his opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)
There has to be a balance in preaching: Repent, and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice has strayed from this kerygmatic balance REPENT! and BELIEVE the GOOD NEWS! Today many only want to hear or proclaim “Good News.” But the good news only makes sense if we understand the bad news and that we are in need of a divine physician. “Repent” sets the premise for the “Good news.”
Now as we have seen before, Metanoia (repent) means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally to have your thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought) , to have your mind renewed, to think in a new way. Thus the basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self satisfaction and self righteousness, and to be convicted of our need for forgiveness and our need for a savior. Yes, I am a sinner in need of a savior. I am bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save myself. But there is Good News – the Savior is here, even at the door! And now I must arise and be ready to answer as soon as he knocks.
Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief, not real healing, needs to experience something of the desert where John was. There’s nothing like the desert to remind us our our frailty and neediness. In the Church today we have often stressed trying to make everyone feel comfortable. No talk of sin or controversial topics that might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert, with few creature comforts to be found. No padded pews here, no finely tune PA system, and no Air Conditioning, no pleasantries either. Just the call to come to a new mind, to surrender our stinking thinking, our misplaced priorities, our self-righteous, “I’m OK your OK, I’m basically a nice person” stuff and to accept that I am a frail sinner in need of a savior.
Now with the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense and really is good news, the savior is near at hand, even at the door. But for all this, we have to go into the desert and listen to a humble man, no the glitterati and the intelligentsia, John, clothed in camel hair and eating wild honey and locust.
And he does proclaim good news, but only if we’re ready. So on to part three.
III. Content – OK I’ve gotta repent, but what does that mean? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Notice then elements of the content:
A. READY – The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season where we’re all getting ready for Christmas. But most of this involves social readiness (presents, parties, poinsettias). But will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things, tax day – We’re on time for work — We know how to catch a plane — We know how to be on time for a movie or a sporting event — We spend years getting ready for careers. But why don’t we spend more time being ready for God? The one thing most certain is that we will die and stand before God. Are you ready? The text says, PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! This world will pass away but the things of God remain. Advancing careers and promotion are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for worldly and uncertain things and not take spiritual things all that seriously?
B. RIGHT – The text says, make straight his paths.…The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, waywardness, and a heart that is not steadfast or straight. Too often we are all over the moral map, we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:6)
Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. (Prov 4:24-27)
Consider an example. If I am driving from Washington DC to New York, and I see a sign that says, “South -Richmond” I know that to follow such a path is foolish. We know how to set a direct course for worldly destinations, and how to avoid going the wrong way. But what about our course home to heaven? We might sing: I’m on my way to heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm. But then we see the exit, “Sin City, Next Exit” And sure enough we take it. Why do we take it? And then so many are outraged to hear that they can’t go whatever way they please and still land in heaven. And then comes all the anger directed at the Church and the Bible and preacher and any one who might wish to remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to get up. You can’t turn left or right and say it’s straight. Thus the text says, make straight the way of the Lord.
C. REVERENT – The text says, Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. Now the mountain is pride. Every sin is pride since it says my way is better than God’s way, I know better than God, I am a modern man, and the Scripture is old fashioned, the Church is out of touch etc. This is the mountain of pride, and it has to go. God hates pride, He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from heaven than pride, thinking we know better than God.
And the valley is low self-esteem and despair. Now it may not be obvious, but a LOT of sins come from low self esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think if they are brought low, we will feel better about our self. We also give way to peer pressure since we can only feel better about our self if we “fit in” and are approved by others, and we’ll even sin to do it. Some young ladies fornicate for the price of a beer and pizza, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would, because they fear they won’t be loved if they do. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they don’t think they’ll be “a man” (or a stud) if they don’t. Many youth join gangs, even drop out and commit crime all to “belong” and be cool. Low self esteem is an ugly business that leads us to lots of sins. These valleys have to be filled in.
The solution to both pride and low self esteem is to fear the Lord, is reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of a lot of sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord I don’t have to fear any one else. And when I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear for the Lord.
D. REFINED – The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways, are obstacles or pitfalls? Are they relationships, lifestyles, habits? What are the things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make ME rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, nonspiritual, and unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up and what in me needs softening and smoothing?
E.RECOGNIZING – The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word is ὁράω (horao) which while translated “see” involves an active receptivity, more in the sense “to look” than merely to have something overshadow us or cross our visual path. For the danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus we must remain active, receptive, and look for salvation and redemption, to seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.
It is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the meaning of the letters and the words and to make sense of a written language, its writings can look like gibberish. And for many today, the ways of faith are just that, gibberish. But for we who believe, having been made ready for God, making straight his paths, reverencing God and rejecting roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption. and to rejoice at its presence.
As we begin the Advent Season, we are immediately drawn into its principle theme of preparation and readiness for the coming of the Lord. The first coming of the Lord has already been fulfilled at Bethlehem. And while we should prepare spiritually for the coming Christmas Feast, these first weeks of Advent bid us to focus even more on the Second Coming of the Lord in Glory.
Thus, as the curtains draw back on the opening scenes of Advent we are given warning from the Lord that he will come on the clouds with great power and glory and we must be prepared. Beware! He says, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
The Gospel is taken from the Mt Olivet discourse, and as we saw two weeks ago, the historical context in which the Lord was speaking was not the end of the world, not the destruction of the cosmos, but was the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. It was however, for those ancient Jews, the end of the world as they knew it. And for us as well, the destruction of Ancient Jerusalem is also a paradigm (a symbol) of the end of the world, which, for us, will definitively end, either by our death and going to stand before the Lord, or by his coming to us, in the Second Coming.
Whatever the personal context will be for us, the message is the same: Be ready!
With that in mind we do well to study this Gospel and heed its message, set forth in two stages.
I. DOUBLE VISION – The Gospel opens with a description of tribulations that are about to come on the Land. Bu in that description there is a twofold reaction that is described. Note the First the tribulation that is described and first of two reactions that is intertwined with it:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
And thus we see all the political powers weak and in dismay, and fixed points in this world such as the sun, moon and stars, the sea and the land, shaken. And this will cause many to be frightened, in shock, bewilderment and dismay. And thus is described the first reaction of one group of human being.
But note that not all human beings do react this way. There is a second reaction that is prescribed and described:
But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Yes, a very different reaction, one of expectant joy and of serene confidence. And so we see here a kind of “double-vision.”
Some cry out with fear and say “He is wrathful!” Others with faith say “He is Wonderful!”
To some he is frightening, to others fabulous.
To some, these events are awful, to others Awe-inspiring.
Some shout “Horror on every side!” others sing “Hallelujah to the King of Kings!
Thus, there is the dread of the defeated and the delight of the delivered. Of those who experience dread other Scriptures say
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Rev 1:7)
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
And of those who experience delight other Scriptures say:
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)
Come, O Lord! (1 Cor 16:22)
Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book. (Rev 22:7)
He who is coming will come and will not delay. My righteous will live by faith….we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Hebrews 10:37,39)
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Rom 8:37)
Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. (Malachi 4:1-2)
Yes, a kind of double vision, a double and very different experience of the same reality. The difference of course as we shall see is sin and grace, and with which “army” we have allied ourselves.
Consider as an image, the Civil War. As with any war, the issues were complex which led to arms be taken up. But it is simply not possible to extract from the mix the egregious injustice and sin of slavery. And, as the Northern troops swept (often ruthlessly) through the South there were some who saw only destruction and conquest. But there were others who saw something very different. An old spiritual from the time said:
Oh the slave folk say “Ho! Ho!
And the master says, “Oh No!”
And it must be now that the kingdom’s coming
In the year of Jubilo!
Yes, a double vision. For some, the definitive end to power and the “South” they knew. To others, vindication and freedom.
But in order for us to celebrate on that day when the Lord shall come, there are prerequisites that must be met. And that leads us to the next stage of this Gospel.
II. DIRECTIVES – The Lord goes on to instruct us in how to be ready for the Great and Terrible day of the Lord:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
And herein the Lord gives us five basic directives of things to avoid, and practices to adopt in order that we be ready and able to greet him in all his Glory. It may be helpful to alter the order in which the Lord lists them since he announces the effect (drowsiness) and then the causes. This is typical of ancient practice. But for we moderns, it is more common to speak of causes and describe effects. Hence we proceed with a slightly different order:
1. DEBAUCHERY – In our text the Lord warns of the problem of “carousing.” But the Greek word here is κραιπάλῃ (kraipale), meaning most literally, the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess. More generally it means the excessive indulgence of all our passions, or living life to excess. Other translators render this word “dissipation” referring to the general squandering and loss of resources that results from excessive indulgence.
We of course live in times that are skilled in (over)supplying our every need. There is lots of potential for excess. At the market there is not merely bread, but fifty different types of bread. Our oversupply and overindulgence is literally reflected in our bodies as obesity and its consequent diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease plagues us.
But it is not just food that is excessive, it is everything. We are excessively busy in the non-essentials of life and there are innumerable schemes to occupy our minds. Our minds are overstimulated so that we cannot hear that “still, small voice.” Most people have a very short attention span due to over-stimulation. All day long the noise of radio or mp3 player, the TV, DVD, CD’s, PC’s iPads, cell phones, all constantly seizing our attention. It jams our minds and break that union with Christ, even with our self. And then there the 24 hour news channels generating noise an hype about even ordinary events: “BREAKING NEWS!” Our e-mail is flooded with junk mail and every kind of alert and promotional, offering free products, services and false hopes. There are endless money schemes, Powerball, the numbers, sweepstakes. An oh the sales, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, post and pre holiday sales. Excess everywhere: news, money schemes, sales, deals. It is like the carnival hucksters: “step right up!” But it is worse since we cannot get away.
We spend, spend, spend then borrow, borrow, borrow. We need double incomes and to work 6 or 7 days a week, 10- 12 hours a day, so we can afford our lifestyles. Having “the goods” we are never there to enjoy them, and we sacrifice family on the altar of pleasure. We have an excess of everything except children, for they harm our ability to consume by denting our income.
Even our recreation is excessive. Our weekends and vacations often leave us exhausted, disquieted, and unprepared for the coming week. A simple quiet weekend, reflecting on nature and God’s wonders, or spending quiet time at home with family? No way, its off to sporting events of our over scheduled (but fewer) children. The weekends meant for rest feature more shopping, and disquieting events like loud bars and often enervating events like football games and drinking rituals related to same.
Yes, its all excess. It weighs us down, wearies us, cost a lot of time and money and isn’t really all that satisfying anyway. It is dissipation. In the end we have something like that headache and hung over feeling after a night of drinking of which the Greek word kraipale speaks. But up goes the cry anyway: “More! – Yes, “One more round.” Excess, dissipation, surfeiting, carousing, more, more more! And that leads next to:
2. DIVISIONS – The Lord warns of the anxieties of daily life. Here the Greek word is μερίμναις (merimnais) meaning more literally “a part, separated from the whole;” “that which divides and fractures a person into parts.” And thus we see the human person, overwhelmed with excess, incapable of distinguishing the urgent from the important, the merely pleasurable form the productive. On account of our over-stimulation, our excess, we are pulled in many contrary directions. We are chasing butterflies. We can’t decide, our loyalties are divided and conflictual. We are endlessly distracted by a thousand contrary drives and concerns.
This is anxiety, the condition of being overwhelmed and divided by many and contrary drives, demands and priorities. Anxiety freezes and perplexes us. There is too much at stake and no central governing principle to direct our decisions. All of this overwhelms and clouds our mind and heart. We are anxious about many things and cannot determine the “one thing necessary” that will order all the details (cf Luke 10:42). This is anxiety and the Lord enumerates it as among those things that destroy our readiness to stand before him with joy. Next comes:
3. DRUNKENNESS – Here the Greek word is very straight forward: μέθῃ (methe), drunk on wine. But why do we drink? Frankly we drink to medicate our anxiety. Overwhelmed by the excess that leads to anxiety (inner division and conflict) we drink to medicate our sense of being overwhelmed. Something has to soothe us. And, instead of slowing down and seeking God, we drink. We anesthetize our mind. And it is not only alcohol that we use. We use things, people, power, sex, entertainment, diversions and distractions, all to soothe our mind, stirred up by tensions and anxieties.
This of course only deepens the central problem. For all these things only add to the very problem that has disturbed us in the first place: the kraipale that is excess and dissipation. For the solution is to get clear about our priorities, seek God and allow him to order our lives. But instead of seeking a clear mind, we do the opposite and tune out. A little wine is a gift from God, (cf Psalm 104:15) to cheer our hearts. But remember excess if the problem, and so we go beyond cheer to dull the mind.
To be sober is to have a clear mind, a mind that knows and is in touch with reality, goals and final ends. To be sober is to be alert, to be honest, to be be reasonable and to be acting in a way that bespeaks thoughtful, and deliberative movement toward a rational and worthy goal. The sober person acts consciously and purposefully toward a unifying goal, the goal that is being with God. St. Paul says, But this one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14).
But lacking one unifying thing, and torn apart within and anxious on account of the excesses we insist on keeping, we dull our minds and use alcohol as a medicine for our stress, our anxiety, our inner divisions. The Lord calls us to clarity, but we retreat into an insobriety.We are, in effect hung over by indulging the excesses of this world and then “medicating” the inner divisions it created. Our minds go dull, we tune out. And all of this, the excess which leads to
4. DROWSINESS – The Lord says, Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy – The Greek word translated as drowsy here is βαρηθῶσιν (barethosin) meaning burdened, heavy-laden, overcome, or weighted down. And thus we see that the effect that all of the above has in our lives is to weigh us down, to burden our hearts. Laden with excess, divided by contrary demands and medicating the stress with insobriety, our hearts become burdened and tired. They are no longer hearts inflamed and animated with love. They are hearts that have become weary, distracted, bored and tired of holy things and of the Lord. Instead of being watchful in prayer, the drowsy heart weighted with sin, excess, division, and insobriety, sleeps on. It no longer keeps watch for the Lord whom it is called to love.
Yes the world, and our sinful preoccupations with it, weighs our hearts down. It captures our love and attention and we become drowsy toward spiritual things.
In the Garden the Lord asked the Apostles to pray. But they had spent their energy that night at table arguing with Jesus and debating among themselves about who was greatest. And divided within, they wanted Jesus, but they also wanted the world and its fame and power. Struck by the conflict and tension that Jesus’ words about suffering and dying brought, they were divided and anxious. And so they medicated it all, and tuned out. They likely had more than a few drinks of wine that night. Weighed down and exhausted by worldly preoccupations and priorities, their burdened hearts were too drowsy to pray. Drowsy, they slept. (But Satan did not sleep that night).
Consider the words of Jesus to the Church at Ephesus:You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Rev 2:5-6) Jesus also warns: Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Mat 24:12). Yes, the sinful indulgence of the excess of sin, divides and stresses us. Since it is too much we tune out, and dull our mind, and thus our hearts grow cold, burdened, and heavy with sin. Thus heavy and weary, our hearts go to sleep and we lose our first love. As thus Jesus described the pattern: Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. This is the cycle.
What to do about this awful cycle? And thus comes the answer:
5. DUE DILIGENCE – The Lord says, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.“
The Lord does not describe this terrible cycle of Debauchery (excess), Division (anxiety), Drunkenness (self-medication), and Drowsiness (heavy hearts) merely to define the problem. Having diagnosed our condition he prescribes the remedy of prayerful vigilance.
To be vigilantly prayerful is to be in living, conscious contact with God. It is to have our hearts and minds focused on the one thing necessary (cf Lk 10:42), and having this focus, to have our life ordered. With this order properly established our excesses regarding this world fall away, and the many anxieties and divisions associated with it depart. That having gone, we no longer need to medicate and soothe our anxious minds. This lightens our heart and its heaviness goes away. No it is free to love and desire with well ordered love.
Having set our sights on God, through vigilant prayer, everything else in our life becomes ordered. And when Christ comes, he will not come to disrupt our world, but to confirm what we are already used to, namely, that Jesus Christ is the center and meaning of my life.
Through prayerful vigilance we can stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand. Why? We are used to seeing him and experiencing his authority. He thus comes not to destroy and usurp our disordered lives, but to confirm and fulfill what has always been true for us, the Jesus is the center of our lives.