Second Sunday of Advent

I heard a story about two 90-year-old men, Mike and Pat.  They played minor league baseball together. They were the best of friends.  When Mike was terminally ill, Pat saw him every day.  Pat finally asked Mike to do him a favor.  “When you get to heaven, Mike, let me know if there's baseball in heaven."

Mike looked up from his death bed and said, "Pat, if I can, I will."  And shortly after that, Mike died.  A few nights later, Pat was awakened by a flash of light, and a voice whispered: “Pat, it's Mike.  I'm in heaven, and I've got some very good news and a little bad news." So Pat said: “Tell me the good news first.”  "The good news is there is baseball in heaven.  Our buddies are here; we’re young again; it's always springtime; and we can play baseball all we want.”

Pat said, "That’s fantastic.  So what's the bad news?"

"You'll be pitching up here next Tuesday."   Life is full of surprises!

How many of you have begun Christmas shopping?  We may be spending more time than we should in search of that “perfect gift.”

During Advent, I invite you to treasure the gifts or gems you already have in your own house: family and friends, colleagues and neighbors.

I often think of what Marian Wright Edelman, a children's advocate, wrote in her autobiography:

“I no longer remember most of the presents I found under the tree as a child.  But I carry with me and treasure the lessons in life my parents and good neighbors taught me throughout my childhood.

Her point is simple: some gifts can really transform the lives of people we love: gifts of teaching, of listening and supporting, gifts of sharing time and experiences, gifts of compassion and forgiveness and affirmation.

This kind of giving begins in our families and reaches out to our workplaces and communities.  I hope all of us will think of these enduring gifts we can give to one another this season.

The Word of God takes us back to a prophet in Ancient Israel by the name of Isaiah.  Isaiah here speaks about an ideal king who possesses wisdom and intelligence, courage and empathy, good judgment, wonder and awe at our great God.  Would that politicians everywhere would manifest these gifts.
This ideal king, Isaiah says, will usher in a kingdom of peace, justice, truth and freedom.

Isaiah might ask us: Do we exemplify these baptismal gifts in our everyday lives: wisdom (to recognize what truly matters), intelligence (to see what's true), courage (to stand up for what's right), empathy (for the needy), good judgment (to do the right thing for the greater common good), and wonder and awe (to worship the great God of this universe.

 Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Rome calls for reconciliation among the different factions in that community.  Paul asks them to accept, love and support one another as Jesus unconditionally accepts, loves and forgives them.  And why?  So that they can live and work together to make their community even better.

Paul may be asking us: practice virtue, the key organizing principle of a good society!  But what is virtue?  It is “a habitual and firm disposition to do good.”  Virtue leads to better people, better living, better relationships and a better world.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness with a message of immediacy.  He proclaims repentance:  a turning away from a self-centered to an Other-centered or God-centered life. The Messiah, John says, is about to come.

John the Baptizer challenges us to examine our own conscience:  do we live a God-centered life?

Now the Advent season is really about “waiting.”  We do plenty of waiting, don’t we?   We wait “on line” at Lowe's or Home Depot.  Luckily there's “online shopping.”  We wait in a doctor’s office. We wait at the airport. Yes, we do a lot of waiting.  And so too did the ancient Hebrews, as Isaiah reminds us.  But theirs was a different kind of waiting.  They often waited for the Messiah to rescue them.  Yes, from their hardships in Ancient Egypt; from the follies of their kings; from their exile in Babylonia; and from their sufferings throughout their many foreign occupations.

And yet the Messiah often did not seem to “rescue” them.  In fact he often appeared to be “hidden” from them.

In many ways, we are like the Hebrews: we often pray to God to rescue us from a crisis of one kind or another, e. g., a severe illness, or a job loss, or a broken friendship or a divorce.  We beg God to suddenly appear and make things right.  In fact, some would say that this is the story of everyone. Think, e. g., of the people who have lost loved ones in wars or addictions or accidents.  They may ask: where was God?  Why didn’t God protect their loved ones?  Why didn’t God make sure they weren't in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There of course are really no satisfactory answers.

Yes, we often pray for God to rescue us from this or that.  Or make this or that right.  And yet God seems silent, hidden.  

But is God silent?   Is God hidden?  We profess that God is in our midst.

Not in a manger.  That happened centuries ago in Bethlehem.  
Where is God?   All around us.   In nature, in sunrises and sunsets. God is in us, deep within our own selves.  Why?  Because we are a community of faith; and wherever two or three gather in Jesus’ name, there God is.   He is in the Word proclaimed; he is in the signs of bread and wine.   He is at the core of our being.  

We cannot touch the God-man Jesus like the first disciples, sit at his feet, break bread with Him, or stand near Him crucified as they did.   And yet he is here: in all of us gathered together in faith.

And what does all of this mean: God-with-us; Emmanuel?    St. Paul wrote centuries ago: God’s favor, God’s grace, God’s eternal life, has been revealed to us in Jesus.

This is the good news, the Gospel.  And this Jesus once crucified and now risen anticipates what we hope to become.  And until he comes, we are to continue the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray during this Advent season that the Spirit of God that dwells within us will empower us anew to become better instruments of faith in God, hope in eternal life and love of one another; channels of forgiveness, compassion, truth and fairness; instruments of hospitality, service and responsibility -- so that we will re-experience a change of heart, a change of attitudes and behaviors that John the Baptizer calls for today, so that the Risen Christ will recognize us as his disciples when he does come to us in the mystery of our own dying.

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