3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C
Text: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.
“‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”1 It seems a strange question for John to have his disciples ask Jesus, doesn’t it? After all, when John baptized him, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily shape, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’”2 What more could John be asking for?
Jesus’ answer is interesting, because he doesn’t answer the question directly; as is often the case, his answer reveals something about those who hear him. Not only John’s disciples, but many others, heard and weighed his response, which pointed out what he was doing: he was fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah which he had quoted in the synagogue.3 For him to claim honour directly would have been unacceptable; others had to see his actions and recognize his honour.
As in many a mystery story, though, it is what is absent which reveals the secret. Last week, we heard John prophecy, “‘Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’”4 Jesus says nothing at all about judgment and fire. Isaiah’s prophecies are full of promises of a secure kingdom, and Israel and Judea are ruled by the Roman Empire. Jesus says nothing at all about throwing off the oppressor’s yoke. Many were unsure about this Messiah, who seemed so different from what they expected.
We have an advantage over Jesus’ listeners: we know what happened next, and we have been told what is to come. The promised judgment is coming, but between the prophecy and the judgment, God sends us healing, and mercy, and forgiveness. It’s tempting to look around and see the evils around us that want judging, but Jesus recalls us to ourselves, telling us to remove the planks from our own eyes before taking the splinters from others’.5 In that spirit, James warns us not to complain about each other, so that we may not ourselves be judged.6
We should not seek to hurry the Day of Judgment, because as Peter writes, “[God] is being patient with [us], wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change [our] ways.”7 James likens God to a farmer, waiting for the rains to bring forth fruit from the ground,8 and in another passage, Isaiah likens God’s word to the rains, saying, “Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.”9
This Advent we celebrate is not only about the coming of Jesus who was born two thousand and more years ago, but also an anticipation of and a preparation for the fulfillment of the great purpose of the cosmos, so vast as to include everyone and so loving as to include each one of us as essential, worth waiting for as we grow in readiness. We are called to two convergent missions: to grow and be good fruits, loving God with all our hearts, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our minds;10 and to be rain—to be the word of God—for each other, loving each other as Jesus loves us.11
To do this, we have to open ourselves to receive love: love from God, love from each other, and yes, even love from ourselves too. The great Christmas present of Jesus is given freely to all, unearned by any and surprising even to the prophets: God’s all-embracing, healing, reconciling love.
1: Matthew 11:3
2: Luke 3:22
3: Luke 4:16-21, Isaiah 61:1-2
4: Matthew 3:10
5: Matthew 7:3-5
6: James 5:9
7: 2 Peter 3:9
8: James 5:7
9: Isaiah 56:10-11
10: Luke 10:27, Deuteronomy 6:5
11: John 13:34