Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Hope We Await—Third Sunday of Advent(Cycle A)

Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10; James 5:7–10; Matthew 11:2–11
            This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin Introit for today's Mass from Philippians 4: "Rejoice in the Lord always." The light of Jesus' coming is dawning on us, and so we light a rose colored candle and wear rose colored vestments to celebrate and rejoice in the coming dawn. Some ministers will rejoice a bit less if you tease them about wearing pink today, so for the record, I will remind you that we are wearing rose colored garments.
            So my question to you today is for what are we waiting?
            Advent is about anticipation. We are in waiting for the coming of Jesus, not once but twice. First, we await His coming in human history, in the Incarnation. Second, we await His final coming at the final judgment. And for both of these events we rejoice. But I think we see these as two separate events. We have the Incarnation of the Son of God in the world, and few millennia later we have the Son of God coming on the clouds to judge the nations.
            I'd like to suggest we look at these events as not two separate and disconnected events but as a single continuous reality. Not as individual events in history but as two instances connected by a single thread.
            This is not an unusual way to look at events in the Church. The Passover that the Jews celebrated has always been seen as a single event entered into annually by the people of Israel. The Eucharist is our own celebration, an evolution from the Passover and the Todah (thanksgiving) offerings in the temple, but now an eternal offering: one that took place at the Last Supper, but also one that takes place simultaneously here on this altar and in eternity as the wedding feast of the Lamb.
            And in a way, Advent is the same. We have two events separated by time, but the first is the precursor to the last. Christ's incarnation is necessarily joined to His coming again, and His coming into the world instigated a process that will be complete when He comes again.
            So for what are we waiting?
            The second reading perhaps captures this sense of anticipation best. James writes to believers in what he calls the "twelve tribes in the dispersion." This language is usually used to speak of the People of Israel, but James is specifically addressing Christians in the diaspora. And he is telling them to be patient. They are experiencing a time of trial, but the judge is waiting and will soon come to set things right. That's really what the prophets say consistently throughout the Old Testament.
            A few weeks ago on Christ the King Sunday, I mentioned that Christ is the God of reversals. And our readings this week bear this out. Our first reading from Isaiah proclaims,
Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with Divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind will  be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Isaiah anticipates that the just judge will reverse the injustice and misery of the people. Recall that our first parents in Eden lived in original innocence and suffered from none of the maladies from which the rest of us now do. Their disobedience introduced suffering into the world. But even before they exit the garden, God the Father has already pointed the way forward to a remedy, to His vindication:
Then the LORD God said to the snake: Because you have done this, cursed are you among all the animals, tame or wild; On your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.
Even as God explains the consequences of their actions to Adam and Ishahwoman, which is her original name—she doesn't get the name Eve until after the incident—even as He explains the consequences to them, he announces that there is a plan: the seed of the woman. "They will strike at your head." Mother and son will both strike at the head of the serpent. That is one interpretation, at least. Either way, God has a plan, and the Son is its fulfillment.
            And Isaiah picks up on it. He predicts that the just judge will vindicate and save the people. And then he gives all the signs of that vindication: the blind see; the deaf hear; the lame walk; and the mute speak.
            Remember, all of these ill effects are consequences of the disobedience of Adam and the Woman. So everything that Isaiah proposes is an undoing of the effects of our first parents' disobedience.
            We get a lot of these kinds of reversals in scripture—the undoing of evil by the redeemer who flips history on its head. It begins with the small reversals, like when Sarah's son Isaac precedes the first-born Ishmael, or when Joseph's slavery becomes the redemption of his family. In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, sings of the reversals that God brings to the righteous: those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. This song has a parallel in the liturgy of this season, in the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1: " The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
            John the Baptist reflects the same hope, the same desire, when he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the one. And Jesus responds by pointing to the reversals taking place in their midst: "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." All of the reversals proclaimed by Isaiah and then some. He goes beyond all our hopes.
            All of these signs reiterate James' message to the dispersion: Be patient. Our vindication is coming. They are all signs of the hope of Israel, and signs that point forward to our hope.
            For what are we waiting? For what are we hoping?
Jesus is the God of reversals. He undoes the disobedience of Adam, he unties the knot of original sin that bound us. What more does He need to unbind in our lives?
            All of us have those wounds, those weaknesses, those bad habits and attachments that weigh us down and bind us to this world. What in your life does Jesus need to unbind?
            That is our hope this season, to be released from our own failings, from our anxieties, from our sorrow. Sometimes we can successfully paper over our brokenness, hide it, and forget that it's there. We can fill our lives with noise, wealth, parties, and busyness—but all of that ends. All of that leaves us in a short time, and the emptiness is still there.
            Unless...
            Unless He comes and unbinds us. Unless He comes and removes our brokenness. Until He undoes our failings and refills that emptiness, that God-shaped hole in all of us that was left from our loss of grace.
            Until He comes again to fulfill all that He promised.
            God has no intention of letting us go, of letting us fail, of letting us remain in our brokenness. He continues to carve out paths where we build walls. And with every wall we throw up, He provides a gate. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

            He is the fulfillment of our hope in this season.