REJOICE IN THE LORD!
Is 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
Today, like last Sunday, our reflection is still based on John the Baptist. Last week, we read from Mark’s account of John the Baptist. Today we turn to John’s Gospel and consider THE PERSON AND ROLE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST. In John’s narrative about John the Baptist, there is a high expectation of a Messiah, to the extent that John the Baptist is being mistaken for the long-awaited Saviour.
1. WHO ARE YOU?
When things are tough-going, when conditions are unbearable, when suffering abounds in any land, people easily begin to look for a Messiah who can come and put things right. That must have been the situation in Palestine before and during the time John the Baptist. The prophets—notably Isaiah—had foretold the advent of such a Messiah, as in today’s 1st reading, for instance. According to Isaiah, the Messiah would be anointed with the Spirit of the Lord, and be sent “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favour for the Lord.”
Later on, in the New Testament period, going by the testimony of Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-39, quite a good number of people had laid claim to being the long-awaited Messiah. They gathered followers around them. But no sooner did they die than their claims evaporated. John the Baptist was the exact opposite. He was very authentic, simple, convincing, and fearless in his ways. The priests and Levites sent to ask him who he was. The first question to John was: Are you the Messiah? John responded without hesitation: “I am not the Messiah.” Next, they ask, “Are you Elijah?” Again John answers “No!” “Are you THE Prophet we are expecting?” “No!” “Then who are you? We need an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” On the surface, these sound like idle and ridiculous questions.
2. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUESTIONS POSED TO JOHN
These questions do not make sense to us but made perfect sense to the Jews. The last verses of the Old Testament, in the book of Malachi it says, “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal. 4:5-6). As it were, the people were asking, “Are you the Elijah from Malachi 4:5-6?” John said, he was not. Jesus later said John actually was the fulfillment of this prophecy. Certainly, John did not yet know this. Next they asked, “Are you the prophet we are expecting?” They are not asking if you are A prophet. They want to know if he is THE Prophet. It is good that we do not miss this allusion. In the book of Deuteronomy in chapter 18, Moses told the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him (Deut. 18:15). The Jews believed this prophet would be the One God sent to save them fully and finally.
The Jewish leaders wanted to know who John was and why he believed he has authority to baptize anyone for remission of sin. John quoted Isaiah 40 and said he is the forerunner who is crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” This was unsatisfying to the questioners who, we are told, were sent by the Pharisees. Pharisees were a Jewish religious/political party who were laymen (not priests), who zealously followed the Mosaic law. They are known to have added scores of additional laws to clarify what it meant to obey the Mosaic Law. These Pharisees did not think that it was right that some “nobody” was baptizing people. They wanted to know what “right” John had to baptize others for the forgiveness of sins. John refused to defend himself. Instead he continued to point to the One who was coming (Jesus). “John told them, ‘I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal’” (Jn 1:26-27).
3. NOT AN IMPOSTOR NOR A USURPERS
Our world, today, is full of impostors and usurpers, persons who actively seize the rightful position of others for their own personal benefit and gratification. Examples are quack doctors, fake ‘men of God’ (pastors), “4.1.9’s”; house-girls who overthrow their mistresses, best friends who take over their friend’s boy or girl, etc.
It is interesting to note that John’s stature among his people was so great that many of them came to believe that he was the messiah. Indeed, when Jesus later ask his own followers who people thought he was, the apostles told him that some think he was “John the Baptist who has come back to life”. But John’s answer, in today’s Gospel, as to whether he is the Messiah carries no pretensions. He refuses to dress himself in ‘borrowed robes’. John is clear in his own mind. He tells the people that he is not the light. He must make way for the light. He must create a space for the light to shine through. And when people see the light, then his own task would be finished. Like John, we are asked to make way for the Jesus Christ. We must put a check on our personal ambition in order to ‘let God to be God’. We are not to obscure the vision of God.
4. A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,'” as Isaiah the prophet said” (Jn 1:23). The message of this VOICE was: “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” The Kingdom of Heaven and the phrase The Kingdom of God mean exactly the same thing. It means God’s presence and rule are in force. This is a warning to the people. It is kind of like saying the boss is coming or your parents are on the way home. It means it is time to shape up. Before someone can be made right with God), John says that something is necessary: People need to repent and turn to God.
We tend to think of repentance as being sorry for our sin, but it is more than that. To repent means first, to ACKNOWLEDGE AND CONFESS YOUR OWN SIN. A person cannot repent if he/she does not think he/she has done anything wrong. Sometimes you get the feeling that when people say they are “sorry,” they are really saying that they are sorry that you are upset. They are NOT sorry for what they did. You can be sorry without repenting. It is common for people to feel sorry that: a) Others were upset. b) They were caught, c) They hurt people. d) They miscalculated. e) They were not paying attention, etc. But there is one thing in common in each of those statements: there is no recognition of guilt and therefore no requirement to change.
The first requirement of the gospel is to realize that we need a Saviour. It means admitting that we are broken. This is why many people are not interested in the church, in Christianity, or even in Christ as a Saviour. They truly believe that they are doing well enough on their own WITHOUT CHRIST. God says, “Be holy, as I am holy” (1Peter 1:16). If you look up the definition of holy (pure and set apart for the service of the Lord), you would realize that you have not been close to that standard since the earliest days of life! John called people to admit their lies; their immorality, their hatred, and their all-around general resistance to the things of God. But admitting sin is only the first step in repentance. To repent means to turn and go in another direction. True repentance is about a change in attitude and behaviour.
5. A SOBER WARNING
If we read St. Matthew’s account on John the Baptist, he tells us: “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones” (Mtt 3:7-10). The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders to whom people looked up as those who were “right with God.” They would be like most of us today who go to church every week. These men came to WATCH what John was doing. Undoubtedly, they believed they were exempt from his command to repent. After all, they were not only part of God’s “chosen people”; they were also the acknowledged leaders in the faith. They believed they were right with God and that God was probably pretty lucky to have them on his side. John pierced through their pride and their defenses. He reminded them that God could easily replace them. If they did not also repent (and in their case they could start by repenting of their self-righteousness), they would be thrown into the fire. Strong words! John teaches us two things here:
a) He reminds us of the responsibility we have before a watching world. The temptation is to water down the truth in order to please people. But here is the truth: if our Christian message excludes REPENTANCE then we are presenting a false gospel; one that is powerless to save anyone.
b) Secondly John reminds us to look at our own hearts. Are we like the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Do we think we are OK with God because we go to church and read our Bible occasionally? Advent is the time for us to stop fooling ourselves.
6. THE MARK OF TRUE REPENTANCE
In his account on John the Baptist, St. Luke, the evangelist, tells us how radical was the repentance preached by John.
“The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
“What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
True repentance makes a practical difference! It brings JOY AND LIBERATION to the repentant person. As it were, it fulfils the promise of the Prophet Isaiah in the 1st reading of today. Repentance liberates. Through our repentance, the Lord brings ‘liberty to our captive selves’; he ‘releases us from our prison’; he announces a year of favour and the day of his vindication for us, so that we can receive the promised Messiah with clean hearts.
7. REJOICE IN THE LORD!
Today, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is known as GAUDATE SUNDAY. “Gaudate” is the Latin word for REJOICE and it is the message of the readings and the prayers for the Mass of today. In Isaiah (1st Reading), we hear the prophet saying; “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” In the 2nd Reading, we are invited to “Rejoice always”, as we continue our preparation for the birthday and 2nd Coming of Jesus.
While it is lovely to hear someone tell us to “rejoice”, the reality is that in the world and in our lives there are times when it is difficult to find joy. How can we be joyful amidst pain and hardships? When Saint Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians and tells them to rejoice, he is not living in the best of situations. Everything is not going well for Paul, and he wrote this letter as he was being persecuted and was fleeing from town to town. Paul suffered multiple times, including stoning and imprisonment. His sufferings are too many to be listed here. Yet, he never stopped calling upon the various Christian communities to rejoice. To the Thessalonians (2nd Reading of today), he exhorts: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” The response to our responsorial Psalm says: “My soul rejoices in my God.” Again, to the Philippians Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always, I shall say it again, rejoice!” When Paul speaks of joy he is not referring to a nice, fleeting feeling that makes one feel good. He is talking about a rich long-lasting joy that comes from the Holy Spirit that goes to the very core of our being.
8. JOY IN PRAYER WITHOUT CEASING
St. Paul underlines the necessity of prayer. “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” The reason is that without prayer rejoicing can become empty. Without prayer, the season of Christmas becomes bare and meaningless. For some people, the season has become a time for spending and partying with no thought for what underlies the feast. Prayer reminds us that joy is not a sentiment to be experienced for the moment. Joy has a cause. It is the recognition of the presence of something good in our lives. The reason we, Christians, are joyful at this time is that we remember that in the birth of Jesus we have proof of God’s love for us, a love still present to us in Scripture and in the life of the Church. Joining in the Church’s prayer helps to remind us of this our greatest reason for joy.
However, we also know from experience that it takes a lot of faith to rejoice amidst hardships, fear and pain. Today, many of us are experiencing tough times; some have lost jobs, some are enduring hardships, personal losses, and what appears as insurmountable obstacles. And yet we are to shine as Joyful witnesses. Nonetheless, it is good to know that prayer during Advent helps to make us aware that our celebrations at the present time are really only a prelude to and a promise of a much greater celebration still to come. Our present festivity is like John the Baptist pointing to what still lies ahead. It is important for us to remember that greater joy lies in the future because not everyone feels happy at Christmas time. Some may be remembering that this is their first Christmas without the presence of someone dearly loved who died this past year. Others may be struggling to care for a seriously afflicted family member. Others may be sick themselves with some life-threatening or disabling disease. For others, depression only grows worse as they feel different from others who seem to be having such a good time. Many are worried about the economic and socio-political situation in certain parts of our country and in the world today.
In fact, Christmas is not a time to force ourselves to be happy. It is a time to remember that God is with us in the bad times as well as in the good. After all, he was with Joseph and Mary when they could found no place but an animal shelter as the only home for their child at the moment of his birth. It is a time to recall that the best Christmas is yet to come, when God will welcome us into his own home blazing with light and good cheer. It is a time to pray that God will make known to us his loving presence whether we are glad or sad. We can pray confidently because we believe with Paul that, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it” (1Thes 5:24).
Joy, prayer, and thanksgiving – these are important elements of Christian living that Paul wanted his converts in Thessalonica to remember. They are also a solid basis for a truly Christian celebration at this time of year.