2nd Sunday Advent A

See commentary on Matthew 3:1-12

Homily 1 - 2007

All three readings speak to me today about hope.  With Advent, hope is in the air! Pope Benedict has just published his second encyclical, and that’s about hope.  Depending on your political leanings, the goings-on in Canberra may also give rise for some to a response of hope… though, for others, it may be more a case of  “don’t hold your breath”.  And then there’s the Bali conference addressing issues of Climate Change.

Isaiah, in the first reading, looked forward in hope to the birth of a son to King Ahaz to whom God’s spirit would give wisdom, who would have the skills to govern well, who would listen to God’s voice speaking through his conscience, and who would take that voice seriously.  The lad did in fact grow up to be one of the best of Judah’s kings – though the competition wasn’t really all that great.  Not many people handle power well.  

John the Baptist pinned his hopes on the one who would follow him, the one stronger than he: but he let his imagination run wild, confused things, and experienced later on quite a conflict of faith when Jesus turned out to be the kind of person John did not quite expect.

Where might all that leave us – in the midst of all the things that go on in our lives? How does the coming of Jesus affect our outlook on life?

Matthew’s Gospel – the gospel we shall draw from this year – assures us, right from its opening pages, that, with the birth of Jesus, God is with us – or, as he said in Hebrew, Emmanuel! The final words of Matthew’s Gospel return to and emphasise the theme: Jesus assures his disciples:  I am with you always, till the end of the world.  We can live in that hope: I am with you.  Daniel Berrigan, the American Peace activist and poet, once wrote of: “The breathing space in the iron cage:  Behold! I am with you!”  

What "I am with you" always says to me is that, whatever is going on in my life, however I read it - good news or bad news – Jesus is there, right in the middle of it; not necessarily responsible for what’s going on, not pulling strings, not trying to persuade me that bad is good, but ensuring me, as St Paul put it in his Letter to the Romans, in all things, God works together with us for the good.

In whatever happens, God is there, empowering a way forward, provided we draw on the inner resources God gives us.  If we give God room, God can make, even of sinful decisions – destructive and all as they inevitably are – the opportunity to grow beyond them.  Jesus, Emmanuel, through whom God is with us, himself grew through the most destructive of situations – his tortured, tormented, death by crucifixion…  And, as the Letter to the Hebrews, put it, he became perfect through suffering – precisely because God was there, empowering him to trust, to persevere, to forgive, to hope, and not to lose heart. 

It is the promised constant, involved, presence of the loving and empowering God in every moment and in every situation of our lives that is the source of hope.  We don’t have to understand.  We simply draw on the resources that God always provides – not necessarily beforehand, but as we need them – and trust the outcome.  The outcome may not necessarily be what we expected, but, if not, then something better.  Things did not turn out as Isaiah anticipated.  Things did not turn out as John the Baptist anticipated.  But what did turn out, contributed to by their faithfulness, was infinitely better – something that they would never have dreamt of.

For us, it does not have to be only the really significant things, either.  In every situation of our day, complicated, or as simple as could be, God is there in the reality – empowering us always to accept what is as opportunity and as gift.  Beginning always simply from what is, God enables us to bring all our personal resources to bear to make any experience life-giving.  That is why we hope: In Jesus, God is with us.

Homily 2 - 2010

Quite a Gospel: John appeared in the wilderness of Judea .. and his message was Repent! Matthew then shared what he understood by John’s call to repent: Prepare a way for the Lord.

Here we are, not in the wilderness of Judea, but in the cultural jungle of “life in Hamilton” – three whole weeks of chaos before Christmas … And John’s cry to us has hardly changed: Prepare a way for the Lord.  Make room for God in your life now.  Find the silence in your own heart, and come home to it now.

I suggest that, rather than me talk about it and you listen to me, we do it.  We touch into the process of repentance; we simply sit in silence now.  Close your eyes.  Do nothing beyond noticing – don’t think deliberately of anything.  Your mind will fill up of itself – no end of thoughts, feelings, reactions, cares.  That is normal.  Just let them go.  Don’t go with them – or fight them.  Just let them go.  Do nothing – sit, and breathe; and don’t worry about anyone else, or about the little children doing their thing.  Just four minutes sitting in silence – four minutes answering John’s call to repent.  I’ll tell you when the time is up.

Homily 3 - 2013

How did you find today’s First Reading from Isaiah?  It strikes a deep chord in me: “The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid … The infant plays over the cobra’s hole; into the viper’s lair the young child puts its hand … They do no hurt, no harm on all my holy mountain.”  Isaiah wrote that not much under three thousand years ago; and it moves me today.  Perhaps, we all share his yearning for peace – “no hurt, no harm, on all God’s holy mountain…”.  And for Isaiah, it was not just a yearning.  It was a hope, an expectation, even a confident future certainty.

I have been thinking about it during the week, wondering…  Where did it come from? not so much Isaiah’s yearning but the certainty?  I believe it came from his sense of God.  And that had me wondering too.  Where did that come from?  How did he come to see God in that light?  It is alright for me – I have Isaiah to stimulate me.  I have Jesus to assure me.  Isaiah was quite unique – such profound insight, already so early, into the mystery of God: God who wishes peace for his people is a God who loves.

I kept on wondering …  looking more closely at my yearning for peace.  Then it occurred to me: Do I really want peace? Do I really want to live with the wolf in my life? Do I really want to lie down with the panther?  There are people who have hurt me.  There are people I deliberately tune out from, refuse to listen to, certainly never seek really to understand or to get closer to or, possibly, to discover the pain hidden in their cry of anger.  Do I really want peace?  Or is it more victory that I am after?  If they do not change, does the cold war continue on my part?

How does my sense of God speak to this? my sense of Jesus?  When Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, he said: “Love your enemies ... Do good to those who hurt you … Pray for those who …  speak evil against you”.  Does that mean I have to compromise my integrity, my human dignity?  Does that mean I have to surrender my integrity?  Sometimes it seems like that.  And it may be why I am frightened of it and why I hold back.  But then I wonder whether my integrity, my true human dignity, are compromised when I do not set out to love the one who hurt me [whatever that might involve and whatever shape it might take].  It can be tricky.  Life-giving forgiveness is a factor of maturity and wholeness.  Co-dependence can look like it, but is quite destructive.

I need to get to know my deeper self better.  Isaiah spoke of the “knowledge of the Lord filling the country as the waters swell the sea.”  I wonder if a condition for that is that firstly I honestly and clearly get to know my self.  Which is first?  Or do they, somehow, grow together?

 “Live with the wolf … Lie down with the panther … Love my enemy …”.  I think that that is what I want; but it is slow coming.  These days, I like to see it not so much as command as invitation – and so as possibility.  And I also believe that I move from possibility to reality, to fait accompli, as I stop trying to succeed by resolution after futile resolution, and choose instead to relax and to allow God to love me as I am.  In that way, I hope that, by taking that love on board, I might slowly find myself becoming more like God, honestly wanting what God wants for me and beginning even to love with God’s love.

I cannot make others change.  They do not need to.  All that is needed for me to know peace is for myself to change.  This Advent, I wait for God to come ever more creatively into my life.

Homily 4 - 2016

Another beautiful Advent reading from Isaiah again this week, not about God wielding authority over the nations directly, as in last week’s reading, but working this time through what the prophet called “a shoot sprung from the stock of Jesse”, that is, a ruler from the House of David, who would bring peace to the world, “The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together, the cow and the bear make friends, the lion eats straw like the ox. They do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain, for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea”. Natural enemies getting along together.

“The country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord”. Yet, I wonder. Isaiah can still somehow find no incongruity in claiming for this “shoot sprung from the stock of Jesse” that “his word is a rod that strikes the ruthless, his sentences bring death to the wicked”. Is that what God really wanted him to do? Isaiah was not alone in having those sentiments. At the moment the Victorian Government is threatening to jail the troublesome juvenile offenders previously housed in the Juvenile Detention Centre at Parkville, in one of the State’s adult prisons along with hardened criminals.

In the Gospel reading today we had John the Baptist proclaiming, “any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire” and again, in a second metaphor, “the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out”. Was he referring to the same fire when he said of the one who would follow him, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”?

Is that what God would want Jesus to do?

Isaiah dreamt of the country being filled with “the knowledge of the Lord”. John called his listeners to “Repent”. “Repent” is a deceptively inadequate translation for what really refers to a radical growth in understanding that opens people up more to the mind of God and to their grasp of reality generally. Both equip people to move from “either/or” thinking, from categorizing things according to black and white, yes or no, in-group/out-group, good/wicked, right/wrong. They open people to nuance, to both/and, to “on the one hand” as well as “on the other hand”. For example, do you, do I, qualify as “wheat or chaff”? Do you, do I, produce “good fruit or bad fruit”. I don’t know about you, but I am a mixture of wheat and chaff, and I produce both good fruit and bad fruit.

John insisted that “the kingdom of heaven” was “close at hand”. It still is. But to recognize it, we need a fair dose of Isaiah’s “knowledge of the Lord”. We need to have progressed a fair distance along John’s path of “repentance”. We learn to see God everywhere, in ourselves, in each other, even in violent juvenile delinquents. No one is hopeless. We can always hope for change. God does not close his eyes to the reality of anyone or any situation. God sees clearly the world’s, and people’s, wickedness. But God at the same time can see the potential in everyone and in any situation. Juvenile delinquents need effective rehabilitation, not sterile punishment. Jesus rejoiced in being able to reveal to his disciples the mercy of God. And we can learn to see that God, too – everywhere and always.

I love the way that St Paul, in today’s second reading, could write, “Everything that was written long ago in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope”; and how he went on to rejoice in how the action of Jesus was directed “to get pagans to give glory to God for his mercy”.

Our “knowledge of the Lord”, the work of “repenting”, are never complete. We can keep going deeper until the day we die – and it gets better and better.

Homily 5 - 2019

At the risk of being a spoil-sport, I want to reflect on the coming feast of Christmas through the lens of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel will provide the overwhelming bulk of Sunday Gospels for Year A ahead of us. I suggest that, if you can give yourselves a chance to read about the infancy of Jesus in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in the next week or two of Advent, you will be quite surprised. But it will call for a certain discipline, because it is almost impossible to hear Matthew’s account without being distracted by what Luke wrote in his Gospel.

Interestingly, Mark, who wrote the first of the Gospels ten to twenty years before either Matthew or Luke put pen to paper, and on whose storyline they heavily relied, totally ignored Jesus’ early years. Mark began his Gospel with the adult Jesus, and virtually nowhere in his Gospel did he even mention Nazareth. John’s Gospel likewise said nothing about the conception or birth of Jesus.

Luke’s story has certainly stolen the limelight. It is a pity, in some ways, because, unless we recognise its uniqueness and difference from Matthew, we can miss the messages that even Luke was trying to get across to his readers.

Luke’s story was full of joyful moments. Joy was mentioned only once by Matthew, and that was in reference to the Magi. In fact, as Matthew told his story, the relationship between Joseph and Mary was quite strained at first, and was nearly called off, but not before causing real consternation for Joseph – that took a revelation in a dream to be resolved.

With the visit of the Magi, things hardly improved. What was Matthew hinting at by writing that the gifts they brought were gold, frankincense and myrrh? Whatever about gold and frankincense, and their symbolism, myrrh was a spice used for embalming the dead. And it became almost immediately necessary. As the story unfolded, the paranoid Herod proceeded to kill all the young males born within a certain radius of Bethlehem, hoping thereby to remove any future threat to his power from any new-born Jesus.

Their escape required another revelation in a second dream. Joseph and Mary, with their child, immediately became refugees. They sought asylum in the neighbouring independent nation of Egypt. But there were no welfare services there, or grandparents to be baby-sitters. Presumably Joseph found work.

After a few years in Egypt, Herod died. Alerted to the fact in another dream, Joseph took his wife and child with him and went back to Bethlehem with the intention of resuming life there. But Bethlehem was not safe either. Herod’s son, Archelaus, equally paranoid as his father, had inherited the region of Judaea, making life there as dangerous as it had been under his father. Informed of the continuing danger in a fourth dream, Joseph took his family secretly up to the north of the country, under the rule of Herod Antipas, a brother of Archelaus and not quite as dangerous. They looked around for somewhere to stay and settled in Nazareth, a small Galilean village in easy reach of the city of Sepphoris. Sepphoris was a major administrative centre in the process of being reconstructed and needed competent carpenters and builders. Presumably, Joseph found work there.

So - a quite different story from Luke’s; but equally helpful, prefiguring as it did the reality of the uncertainty, suffering and danger that constantly overshadowed the life and mission of the adult Jesus - as they still often do the lives of committed disciples.

As I suggested at the start, make a point of reading the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, skipping over perhaps the genealogy of Jesus that can prove unnecessarily distracting [and for the moment blocking out the more joyful emphases of Luke’s account]; and keep asking yourself: Why did Matthew write his story this way?