Gaudete Sunday: Joy in the waiting

Listen to mp3 file
3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A: Dec. 12, 2010
Isa 35:1-6, 10; Ps 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matt 11:2-11

Last Sunday we heard the preaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness. He was baptizing and preaching repentance, to prepare for the coming Messiah. And a big part of his message, you remember, was that there was a judgment coming, with both rewards and punishments: the coming wrath, he said, when the Messiah would gather his wheat into his barn, but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. [Matt 3:7, 12]

Now today we see John again, but now some time has passed, and he is being held in prison by Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. John could face execution at any time. And from his prison cell he has a question for Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

It is a question that is based on a contrast. For we heard that John had been hearing in prison of the works of the Christ; but the works he is hearing of are not works of judgment. For in the chapters of the Gospel of Matthew leading up to this passage, Jesus has been traveling to different places; he has been teaching and healing; and he has been sending his disciples on some missions. Now, this is all very nice; but it doesn’t seem to include massing an army to overthrow the Roman government. It doesn’t seem to include punishing evildoers… like Herod Antipas, who is holding John prisoner. It doesn’t seem to include freeing prisoners… like John the Baptist, the prisoner, himself. John probably thinks that now would be a really great time for a little bit of Messianic wrath.

But Jesus hasn’t gotten to that stage yet. He is doing something else. And so he tells John’s disciples:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”

Jesus is fulfilling Messianic prophecies from the prophet Isaiah, such as we heard in our first reading today, and also in other passages in that book. And he is going to continue to heal and to save for some time.

And, actually, this is something that John can identify with. For as much as he had been preaching the coming judgment and wrath, he wasn’t preaching it with glee, or looking forward to it as a done deal. No, he was preaching to motivate repentance. He wanted to help move people from the punishment column over to the rewards column. And so Jesus is telling him that this is going to continue for a while longer—indeed, throughout all of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Even though that means that John is going to stay in prison and indeed become a martyr for the faith.

Now John the Baptist had to grapple with Jesus’ timing. And we ourselves also have to grapple with Jesus’ timing. For it seems, as we read the pages of the New Testament, that the earliest Christians expected Jesus to return within a few months or years. And so we see, within the New Testament itself, that, after some decades has passed, the apostles were having to encourage the Christians that they were leading—in that Jesus had not come back yet. St. Peter wrote in his second letter [3:9]:

The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

And, similarly, we heard St. James write in today’s second reading:

Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient.

We must be patient with the Lord Jesus, St. James tells us, because his delay is actually because of his patience with us. This image of growing things that St. James uses, of abundant living crops or of trees springing forth from the earth, is a good image. For this is the source of our joy. Not that Christ has already set everything right in the world, for he has not done so yet; but that, in the midst of this world, he has touched us, has touched you and me with his grace; that he has made us truly alive, truly living with a new life—his life, his life in our hearts.

John the Baptist was surrounded quite literally by the four walls of his prison cell; but he knew the joy of Christ. When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, from which our entrance antiphon today came—“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”—he also was sitting in prison. And yet he knew the joy of Christ, and he commended it to those to whom he wrote. And as you sit here today, you may be surrounded by your own problems, like four walls of a prison cell: perhaps problems with your finances or your family, your job, your neighborhood, your health. Perhaps your heart breaks for the problems of someone near to you. Maybe you have found life itself to be a burden.

During this Advent Season, we do look toward to that day when Christ will come again and when he will make all things right. When he will pull down the walls of all these prisons. We long for that day to come. But while we wait, he is acting; and so there is joy in the waiting. He is ready to revive the parched land of our souls. He will make our hearts bloom with abundant flowers, as we heard in the first reading, and to rejoice with joyful song. He will restore hope and joy in us, and give us his peace that passes all understanding.

Now some of you know exactly what I am talking about. But some of you might not. Perhaps you have never truly and personally experienced this inflow of grace into your hearts. Or perhaps it was a long time ago—a long time—and you would want to ask Christ: What have you done for me, lately? Go ahead, ask him; but be prepared for him to ask you back: What have you let me do for you, lately? Have you given me time in prayer? Have you received the grace that I offer you in the sacraments? What have you let me do for you, lately?

This week we have a special opportunity to receive that grace, when we come together for our parish penance service during Advent, this Tuesday evening right here at 7:30. There is nothing like confession, nothing like the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, for unloading any burden of sin that you have been carrying. There is nothing like this sacrament for finding and knowing yourself to be truly loved and cared for—personally, directly, yourself—by Christ, in your moment of greatest vulnerability. If you have committed any mortal sins, the life of grace will be restored within you, where it has been dead. And even if you have only small sins to confess, bring them to the confessional; and there you will be encouraged and uplifted.

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. And so there is joy in the waiting. During this Advent Season, let the Messiah fill you with his joy!

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