Sunday, March 26, 2017

Looking for God at Work

March 26, 210017 –– 4th Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:6–7, 10–13a  / Psalm 23  / Ephesians 5:8–14 / John 9:1–41
Looking for God at Work

Where are we most likely to see God at work? Surely we see his power and glory in the spectacular. Nature shows us the grandeur of majestic mountains, pristine beaches, huge storms, and a star-studded universe. The psalmist was aware of God’s green pastures and still waters.

Scripture also gives us stories of a sea dividing so people could walk through on dry land, and even people being raised from the dead. We sometimes hear incredible conversion stories and are aware of examples of extraordinary love and service to others. In those situations and more it is relatively easy to say “God is at work.”

Yet that level of divine activity is not aways so common. I often think, and remind others, that Scripture itself is very selective and encompasses thousands of years. For the average Israelite, spectacular miracles were not everyday occurrences. C. S. Lewis reflected:

You are probably quite right in thinking that you will never see a miracle done:...They come on great occasions: they are found at the great ganglions of history--not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of those ganglions, how should you expect to see one? If we were heroic missionaries, apostles, or martyrs, it would be a different matter. But why you or I? Unless you live near a railway, you will not see trains go past your windows. How likely is it that you or I will be present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made, when a dictator commits suicide? That we should see a miracle is even less likely. Nor, if we understand, shall we be anxious to do so. "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery." Miracles and martyrdoms tend to bunch about the same areas of history--areas we have naturally no wish to frequent.
~C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 17 (1947)

Where are we most likely to see God at work? There is a sense in which we can see God at work anywhere we look if our spiritual eyes are open. Speaking of Christ, St Paul tells the Colossians In him everything continues in being. That means the very active presence of Jesus in our world is what holds everything together; neither we ourselves nor anything else can even exist apart from the ongoing active work of God. It is the presence and power of God that upholds and energizes what we understand as “science”. Behind the “rising” of the sun and the orbits of the planets and a seed germinating into a plant is the light and life of God.

We need to understand that God works in these spectacular and powerful ways. We need to be awestruck sometimes. We need to be humbled sometimes. Knowing that God works in these ways which are beyond our comprehension is right and good. But we also need to be able to see God at work in a way that is much more intimate and personally encouraging.

In our personal lives, where are we most likely to see God at work? The second reading calls us to be children of light. There is a spiritual darkness in our world that will not––cannot––see God at work. It is a spiritual darkness that gets most things wrong. Truth gets twisted; right and wrong become inverted. Worthless things are prized and true values are disdained. God is dismissed and every effort is made to explain how the universe is self-generating and people are free to do whatever they want to do. This is spiritual blindness.

The light of God reveals those distortions and enables all who are willing to be able to see. This is the bigger context of today’s Gospel. The blind man is every human being who needs to be able to see the glory of God. Any time we are able to “see” God, grace is at work; the Spirit of life––the very Spirit of Jesus––is close to us and actually at work in us whenever we have times of God-consciousness. God loves us so much that he wants to heal of the blindness that keeps us from seeing God at work all the time.

Isn’t it amazing that some people can see even the spectacular signs of God’s glory––the grandeur of majestic mountains, pristine beaches, huge storms, and a star-studded universe––and still have no sense of the reality of God?! That is spiritual blindness. It is a tragedy.

But here is the word for today: We do not have to be always experiencing something spectacular to see God at work. The amazing thing is that God is at work, mightily, in the small things. God is at work in every one of us every day, and he wants to heal any hint of blindness that prevents us from seeing him in everything.

In the story of Samuel coming to anoint David we find another kind of blindness to the work of God. The assumption is that God would choose those who were visibly impressive. David’s older brothers were strong and mature. They made great first impressions. They fulfilled everything we usually look for when we look for prime candidates. David, at the time, was young; he was not yet “filled out”, and I’m sure that when he was called in from the shepherd field he looked and smelled far less than impressive. Yet the young and outwardly inferior David was exactly the person where God was most mightily at work at the time.

Think abut the man Jesus healed. He was a cultural nobody; the Pharisees considered him an especially marked “sinner.” Consider even the establishment opinion of Jesus: he too was judged a sinner because he had healed on the Sabbath.

Look around. Take an inner look at  yourself. You may see nothing particularly spectacular, but if your heart in open to Jesus Christ you will be able to see God at work.

Can you see it? If you can, the grace of Jesus is removing your blindness. Look out at a world where things are not always what they seem. Look into your own soul and understand that God can do something incredible beyond what anyone else thinks. That is how we are healed of blindness. That is how you can see God at work even in your own personal experiences.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


March 12, 2017 –– 2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1–4a / 2 Timothy 1:8b–10 / Matthew 17:1–9

What if we could go back in time and see Jesus when he was on earth! What did people see when they looked at Jesus? They saw…. a man. Sometimes they saw him do some amazing things, but he was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.

Still, those looking at him during those earthly years would have asked (if they had been told this Man was God): What? How? Jesus seemed—even though he was engaging, puzzling, commanding, divisive and exasperating—just another man.

But one day—one time on one particular day—Peter, James and John saw Jesus in his glory: he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And so John wrote later in his Gospel: we have seen his glory. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. The glory that covered Adam and Eve at the beginning, the glory that came down on Mt. Sinai and caused Moses’ face to shine, the glory that inhabited the Tabernacle and the Temple, and the glory promised by Isaiah and Ezekiel came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Yet God does not overwhelm us. God wants us to trust him. So Jesus let three of his disciples see his glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established by the Apostles. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived —in such a contrasting way to who they previously were—so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.

What do you “see” when you come to church? Do we limit our vision to the human side of the liturgy? Do we ever wonder:  If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, why isn’t there an obvious and overwhelming glory? The Transfiguration calls us—warmly and powerfully invites us—to “see” the glory of God beyond what is usually considered “normal” in the world around us. Without faith, we do not see beyond outward appearance, but Jesus came to show us what is real.

As Christians, we live in the hope of glory. Our destiny is to be like Jesus. As we journey through these days of Lent, let’s not forget the bigger picture. Jesus gave this early glimpse of his glory so that his disciples (and that includes us) could have a brief picture of reality. The truth of Jesus… his presence in the Eucharist… the transformation he is doing in us…. it’s all right here.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)

February 19, 2017: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16–23 / Matthew 5:38–48
The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)

What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? There are, indeed, signs and gifts. One important “sign” is character and the behavior that comes out of it. The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life in this world lived in the Spirit of Jesus. Christianity is not just doctrines and rules; it's who a person is––a person who is alive to God in the Spirit given through Jesus.

Jesus speaks to what this life is like by using several issues––murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and revenge. The Pharisees had built rules around these things. Jesus exposed how they used these laws to make themselves look good. That is not what it means to have “spiritual life.”

The issues that Jesus uses show us something about God and his life in his people. When we truly see what God wants of us, the first thing we will do is cry out for his mercy and grace. We fall so short. We cannot obey the Sermon on the Mount, or any of the Commandments, by ourselves ––at least not from the heart. We can force some things outwardly, but God has to work his life into ours through his Holy Spirit. That is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.

The text today focuses on a difficult subject: one’s response to evil in others. It is an oversimplification to hear Jesus say we are not to resist evil at all. Scripture is clear that God's people are to resist evil. Paul writes to the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.... (6:13). Peter, speaking of the devil in his first letter, says, Resist him.... (5:9). James gives instruction along with a promise, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (4:7). Christians are not to be passive in the face of evil.

The particular issue here is how a godly person responds to evil in others. This affects us in two ways. First, all of us sometimes get the brunt of human evil––we are lied about, short-changed, lusted after or even abused. But secondly, none of us is totally without evil, and we all have extended, in some way, our own evil to others (at least by God’s standard). Confessing that and wanting to be different (like God) is what it means to be poor in spirit and mournful and meek (to use Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes). In today’s verses, Jesus focuses on what it means to live as God's people in a world where evil is the rule rather than the exception. A good translation could be: Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.

If we’re honest, we know the desire for revenge runs deep. Some years ago I saw a bumper-sticker that read: You toucha' my truck, I breaka' your face. The evil of human revenge is such that we can want to do more “back” than was done to us. God says that is wicked.

Jesus gives illustrations from his day of what he is talking about. Slaps in the face, giving one's cloak and going another mile were situations that touched personal insults, rights to personal property and government interference with personal convenience. (Note that Jesus did not give examples of a one's wife being assaulted and abused or a gang trying to beat a person to death. In fact, when Paul was in danger of being beaten by the mob in Jerusalem, he gratefully accepted help from the Roman army––Acts 21:30ff). The issue here is not civil order. The New Testament speaks plainly to that in other places. Here, Jesus is directing his disciples to the heart attitude of people  who want to be like God––to show his life and character––as they live in this world.

The issue is really one of self. Do I put myself first? When I am insulted, do I retaliate? Do I try to "get back" at someone who hurt me in order to satisfy my itch for revenge? This is different than having a desire for justice for the sake of a stable society. If we are victims of heinous crimes, we can have two very different heart responses: One wants the state to execute the death penalty so we can have some personal revenge; the other recognizes that the state needs to act in justice to maintain right and order for everyone, but we also have concern for the person who committed the evil so that we personally forgive and pray for their salvation.

Here is what Jesus says to do: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.... (v44). Now here is where we need to be careful. This is not a mere rule. This is not an abstract obligation that we, in our broken humanity, will miserably fail to obey. Yet, this is the standard for people who want to embrace God and his kingdom. What are we to do?

The main thing is to know that we cannot obey what Jesus says by making a bunch of rules. These are “impossible rules”, and to view them that way will only result in failure. We “naturally” want revenge. We cannot “naturally” love our enemies. So again, what is Jesus really saying? What is he calling us to do? We are to focus on who God is and what he has done.

The focus of life in God's kingdom is God himself. Jesus concludes everything by saying, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. This is after Jesus has described God's character as that of one who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (v45). As Christians, we are called to respond to our enemies the way God responds to his. How does he do that? Paul is explicit in his letter to the Romans: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [v10--God's enemies], Christ died for us (5:8). The more God's Spirit controls us, the more we will be able to respond according to his character. So you see, as in the whole Sermon on the Mount, the emphasis is not so much on what we do in any given situation as it is on who we are. There are not enough rules to guide us in godly living, even if we could keep them by ourselves (which we cannot). But what rules cannot accomplish, God's life in us can as we “live in the Spirit.”

The way you and I respond to evil and enemies is in direct proportion to how much the Spirit of God controls us. If you want to see someone who perfectly lived in God's Spirit, look at Jesus. The power of Jesus’ life in us is the way we can truly be God's people and have his own character growing in us. Do you see the glory? Can you believe that you and I can be enabled to respond to people with God's love? What if the world could see Jesus in us to this degree? Listen to Jesus again: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…. be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

January 29, 2017: 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12–13 / from Psalm 146 /  1 Corinthians 1:26–31 / Matthew 5:1–12a
What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

We live in a culture that prioritizes personal pleasure and convenience. If we pay attention to what the commercial world tries to sell us we will hear a seductive invitation to pursue bigger, better, nicer, sexier…. We are told to go after what makes us look good, whatever makes us happy, how to be the envy of others. There is a constant message that security comes from owning and controlling. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honor are the ultimate goals.

Jesus says the opposite as he begins The Sermon the Mount with what is commonly called the Beatitudes. He says God’s blessing rests on things that are polar opposites of what the world-spirit urges us to seek. Jesus uses words like poor, mourn, meek, insult, and persecute as a context for a right relationship with God. As Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, he commends them for being foolish, weak, lowly, and despised in the eyes of the world.

The world is full of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’….. That’s not the way God intended it to be. Every human being, man, woman, child, and even unborn child, bears the image and likeness of God, [no one has] more nor less dignity because some other people have heard of them, look up to them, or think they’re special. But [most] people feel that it’s better to be ‘somebody’ [in some way that makes them “better” than others. (N. T. Wright)

A right understanding of what God has said and done through his Son calls us to dare to believe that we do not need to live under the burden of what consumes our world, either frantically seeking the so-called good or living in fear of the bad. Christian Faith turns the world’s common values upside down. As Christians, you and I are asked to believe that there is another world far more important than this one….. and then let that belief––that faith––affect the way we think and speak and act.

For the next several Sundays, the Epistle and Gospel readings are going to be taken mostly from this section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and from Matthew’s presentation of The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again St Paul is going to contrast so-called human wisdom with God’s wisdom. The whole concept of wise and foolish is turned inside out. Paul insists that our glory as Christians is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Christians are mostly inoculated to the image of the cross. A cross is often a gold ornament on a nice chain that we wear. We even make a crucifix a work of art (and there is justification for that in the right context). Yet in those early years of the Church the cross was a scandal. It was nothing but an instrument of the most cruel and shameful death of its day. Imagine wearing a hangman's noose around your neck for ornamentation, or having an oil painting of an electric chair on your living room wall; that gives a bit of context for what people felt when Paul exalted “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

We hear these Gospel readings and we know, on some cerebral level, that it is Jesus giving divine teaching. But if we truly hear Jesus we can hardly believe he is serious: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad….. What?! Jesus, you have to be kidding…. you’re using hyperbole, right? You are all about love and mercy, right? You want us to be happy (don’t you?)…. What is this about insult and persecution when we don’t deserve it? ….But let’s finish that one verse: Rejoice and be glad…. for your reward will be great in heaven.

As we hear the readings over the next weeks, please try to remember this foundational truth (it’s the only way that Christian Faith makes any sense): Jesus came to bring––and teach and show––a whole new world: the Kingdom of God. Although we now can only see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. What the world calls "the good life”–– the world’s veneer of nice things and beautiful people is going to dissolve. Jesus invites us to be free of the rat race and the fear of threats.

Think about it: no matter how wealthy or otherwise secure we are in this life, every one of us is going to die. Most people want to run from that reality. So much around us functions as a decoy to keep our minds and emotions occupied with something––anything––that seems to be important enough to keep us going and distracted. None of it is going to last.

Now it’s not that bad things do not matter, that we shouldn’t be concerned about them. It’s not that we should not desire good things. It’s just that even good things can be bad if they keep us distracted from what is most important, and no bad thing on earth is the worst thing that could happen. Jesus warned us to be more afraid of what can kill the soul than what can kill the body.

So we have Scripture readings like these to call us to a deep reality. The only way to live with any security in this world is to trust God. In love, God lets hard things come to teach us––to draw us––to run to him. God’s own Son, our Lord Jesus, suffered to the point of death so (among other reasons) we could see, in the context of our own fears and sufferings, that God is bigger than evil and death.

We will each leave here today and go out into a world that has all kinds of delightful distractions. Let’s not let them be too important in our lives. We will leave here today and perhaps have to face something awful (and if it doesn’t happen this week, something awful eventually comes to all of us); let’s dare to believe that God’s love in Christ Jesus is bigger than pain and death––even bigger than evil and hell.

Hear again part of our readings today: ….you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. God forgives us and heals us and delivers us from our false attachments through his Son. So hear again the words of our Lord himself: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. This is our faith.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

Sunday: January 1, 2017–– Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Numbers 6:22–27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4–7 / Luke 2:16–21
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Catholics grow up with Mary as a key figure in the life of the Church. That is good.... but it's not so good if there is little understanding of why and how Mary is so important. On the other end of the continuum, though, are many Evangelical Christians, who think––as I once did––that Catholics worship Mary. This means that, other than a brief cameo role at Christmas, Mary is at best ignored and, sadly, even demeaned in order (it is thought) to “correct” the Catholic error. I know this is true because it was part of my journey. One of the biggest hurdles separating most Evangelical Christians from Catholic Faith is the person and place of Mary.

This first Marian dogma goes back to 431 A.D and the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, which raised the question of whether Mary is rightly called theotokos. That’s a Greek word meaning "bearer of God.” One popular teacher, Nestorius, did not want to give Mary the title theotokos, preferring to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ" because he separated the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus said that this destroyed Jesus as one undivided person. Nestorius' teaching was declared heretical and Mary was formally given the title theotokos, “God-bearer”, as the orthodox way to describe Mary.

This title was not meant to exalt Mary so much as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her Son. When properly understood, all the Marian dogmas are about Jesus. We use God-bearer language for the mother of Jesus to confess who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), and thus God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16). Yet implicit in this is indeed a great honor for Mary. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary says (in the Magnificat): all generations will call me blessed. There was a point where I truly “saw” that for the first time, and with it was a shocking realization: the Christian tradition that had formed me had not taught me to call Mary “blessed.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow when it first dawned on me that it was the Catholic tradition which has fulfilled this prophecy of Mary recorded by Luke.

One of the objections from my past was the argument that Mary does not have prominence in the New Testament––that she has little role in Acts and is hardly mentioned in the Epistles. This point of view ignores the implication of Luke’s early chapters. Where did the details of those chapters come from if not from Mary herself? There is one vignette after another that can only be known because Luke, in composing his Gospel, sat at the feet of Mary and––inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so––recorded her “ponderings” so that we have their fruit today as Scripture.

If we take that as a premise, we then have in Mary a very important figure who is a source of authority for the earliest part of the “Jesus story”. She has stored these memories in her heart and she is highly revered. After she was taken to heaven and the Church was facing great persecution, there was an emphasis on the memory of the holy people who had first formed the Church. From the beginning Mary was uniquely remembered as the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit conceived our incarnate Lord. This was part of the Apostolic Tradition that guided the Council of Ephesus.

The declaration that Mary was the theotokos, the Mother of God, does not imply Mary’s divinity; again, it was primarily about Christ’s humanity. Jesus took his human flesh from his mother. The Church teaches clearly, and has always taught, that Mary is not divine. She is human, a creature, just like us, created by God. When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted so that Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11) and Mary becomes our mother. Then we are all one in Christ in his mystical Body. This Body, of course (as Paul explicitly teaches), has different parts, different roles, and different gifts. Not everyone does the same thing. Mary has a special role: She is Mother, because she is literally the mother of Jesus’ physical body, and as we are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit as his mystical Body she comes our Mother, too. Jesus, on the cross, explicitly gave his mother to his disciple (and implicitly to the Church). So everything about Mary is connected to the communion of saints, of which we are a part––and of which she is the preeminent member (everything in Catholic Faith interfaces, as a seamless garment). As Catholic piety began to develop and grow, Mary’s role as an intercessor became important as early as the early second century.

Yet this was another cause for concern in my former tradition. How can Mary not be ascribed divine omnipresence if she is constantly able to hear millions of individual prayers all around the world? Then a wonderful analogy came to me: Facebook. It is possible to have a friend on Facebook who has thousands of other friends. That friend can have all other friends tell him their fears and woes. How? Through the internet. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in the least, but the internet functions something like the Holy Spirit. The internet is everywhere. The internet can deliver messages seemingly at the speed of light. A FB friend does not have that power by himself, but it is available. So with prayer, the “vehicle” is always God. We can only pray in and through the Holy Spirit, but because every Christian is a partaker of the Spirit and because physical death does not cut the bond all Christians have in the Spirit, there is a communion of saints, and at the pinnacle of all saints is Holy Mary, the Mother of God. No other human being has greater intimacy with Jesus than Mary. She is is a powerful intercessor. In the Spirit, we can ask for her to pray for us just as we ask for the prayers of our dearest living friend.

Yet there is a caution here. Even as we honor Mary with the title Mother of God and seek her motherly aid, we need to remember than Mary is not the source of holiness, or love, or mercy. Those things come first from God; God’s people have those qualities derivatively as gifts of grace. Let’s not think that is Mary more merciful than Jesus.

But among all the people of God––among all the saints, no one has greater fulness of grace than Mary. She is first in the Church. She is first among the saints. She alone gave flesh to the eternal Word, and in so doing became the very Mother of God. In that grace, and from the very words of Jesus on the cross––Behold your mother, she is our mother, too. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Prepare the Way for the Lord

December 4, 2016 –– 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,12-13,17 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12
Prepare the Way for the Lord

The promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in the Gospel: In those days John the Baptizer came, preaching....“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Some people were excited. God was visibly at work. Some other people were not so excited––and many of them were religious leaders. John preached repentance. John confronted people with their sins. Many people who knew they were sinners welcomed this invitation to repent and find God’s mercy. Other people, though––mostly the religious elite––did not see themselves as sinners. For them, “evil” was expressed only through the “big, bad sins,” and since they did not commit any of them (at least outwardly), a call to repent was an affront. But the heart of the matter was this: they did not want God messing up their convenient little world. Through John, God was offering the next step to bring his peace into the world, but the people in control did not want it if it meant giving up their place of control.

Down to today, many people are willing to be “religious” as long they can choose what it means. Some make great claims of spirituality, but will not give Jesus Christ his exclusive place. Then there are people who claim to be Christians, but they reserve the “right” to have a “personal choice” on social issues on which the Church has spoken with clarity and conviction: abortion, sexual purity outside of marriage, homosexual practice, etc. Others claim to be Christian but fervently support political agendas that protect extravagant living at the expense of much of the world. Many more claim to be Christian and yet live in relational discord, even with unforgiveness and disdain, with other Christians.

You know, any of us can look around and find other people to judge. If we’re honest, we know we too often do just that. What God was saying through John, and continues to say, goes beyond that: all of us have sins, and repentance should be a regular part of our spiritual lives. The call to repent of our sins and believe the good news was the message of both Isaiah and John the Baptizer, and it is the ongoing message of the Church. As we go into this Advent season of preparing for the true meaning of Christmas, it is right for all of us to repent of our sins and affirm our belief that the only way to salvation is through the forgiveness God gives in Jesus Christ.

We never grow beyond the practice of repentance. I believe a big obstacle to Christian unity is the failure to repent. St Paul calls the Christian community to a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus (Rom 15:5). Hardly anything gives greater testimony to the Spirit of Jesus in a person than saying, “I am sorry; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” That is repentance, and the Christian community needs to model more of it to a watching world.

It is human nature to balk at this. It is human nature to say, “you don’t know what he did to me!” Yet Paul reminds the Christian community: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…. (Rom 15:7). Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the one who has become a servant (v8) so that we may glorify God for his mercy (v9). The only claim we have to salvation is God’s mercy, and the only way to allow mercy to do its work in us is through repentance.

This is the Gospel…. and because the Gospel is real and true, there is an effect. John the Baptizer proclaimed a fire (Mtt 3:11b,12) that is unleashed to destroy evil. In a Christian’s life, that fire is a burning love. God’s love is so intense that it consumes sin. We are invited to enter into the love of God with such abandon that all our sin is burned up. That actually happens in the process of repentance and forgiveness. 

But for those who will not repent––who persist in sin––then both Isaiah’s and John’s words give the grim reality: with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isa 11:4), and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mtt 3:12). When God’s burning love is rejected, it turns to fiery judgment. The readings today tell us that true and full peace will only come when God’s burning love destroys all that is evil. Only then will all of creation be at peace so that even among the animals they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isa 11:9).

As Christians, we long for that, but at the same time we must face a real problem. It’s easy to worry about animals and world peace and yet not be willing let peace start in us with our own families or neighbors or co-workers. As the old spiritual says, Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Advent is a time for us to face our own sins. The message of John the Baptizer comes down to us today: Prepare the way for the Lord.... Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let’s Prepare the way for the Lord in our own hearts.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The End Is The Beginning

November 13, 2016 –– 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19–20a / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7–12 / Luke 21:5–19
The End Is The Beginning

This is my favorite time of year. The crisp temperatures and the beauty of autumn colors combine to make this season invigorating. I love the longer evenings that give an embrace of coziness. When the celebration of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas are thrown in, it’s about as good as life gets in this world.

Yet there are those who have different feelings. They see the beauty, but even more they see in autumn a blatant picture of coming death. The warmth of vibrant green is waning; the longer evenings are merely the darkness of shorter days. For them, the cold, dark days of winter bring the same effect to the soul.

Both perspectives are true. As with life in general in this world of ours, warmth and coldness––especially of spirit––are always coexisting. To use the language of spiritual direction, we face a mixture of consolation and desolation. The Church affirms this in many ways, and the Gospel itself illustrates it.

We are at the end of the liturgical year. In two more weeks we’ll be in Advent, which should come as no surprise since the secular version of “Christmas” is already being thrown at us. But while the culture at large wants to rush to what it calls Christmas and find a shot of happiness in the next party, the Church calls us to something quite the opposite. Even before we get to Advent (which is not just a “church-word” for Christmas; it’s supposed to be a time of spiritual examination and preparation), the Church brings its liturgical year to a close with what is called The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The Scripture readings for today are not warm and cozy. The world that is described is not Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pies nor Christmas trees and Yule logs. A fire is indeed burning, but it is a fire of judgment on everything in rebellion against God: all the proud and all the evildoers will be stubble. This is not limited to stereotypical Old Testament fire and brimstone; Jesus warns of mighty signs that will bring havoc to the world. And then he says, Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you…. and they will put some of you to death.

We “know” that Christians have died for the Faith, but such a thing has not literally come close to us––at least not yet. But as we enjoy the beauty of this fall season and anticipate the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Church––and Jesus––has a warning that corresponds with the waning of the year: Along with the assurance we can have of God’s love, mercy, and grace…. mixed in with the temporal consolations of family and feasts and cultural frivolities…. there is something else (that we’d rather not think about): Every one of us must face the reality of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The world around us tries to calculate ways to secure ourselves: If we can “go green” in time, we can save our planet. If we can just figure out which candidate is the anti-Christ or which candidate is likely to trigger Armageddon and avoid letting that person get in office, the we will be safe. If we will tolerate everything and everybody, then everyone will leave everyone else alone and we can all live happily ever-after. This world just doesn’t work that way.

It is a mercy when the Church keeps these Scriptures before us that remind us that we are going to die. Every one of us is one day closer to our death than we were yesterday.

The judgment of God is coming. All of us will face a particular judgment in which we each will give a personal account to God of our lives. The whole world is moving to a general judgment when all that is unholy will be burned up and a new earth is ushered into the fulness of God’s forever kingdom.

As a result of that judgment, every one of us faces either heaven or hell. God promises heaven for every person who will not shut him out, because the essence of the nature of God is love and Jesus carried the sins of the world to the cross. Yet God gives every one of us the ability to shut him out; love is not forced, and the only way to open ourselves to God’s love is to love him. We cannot love God if we reject his ways. The commands of God are not arbitrary rules; the commands of God are safety codes given in love, Manufacturer’s instructions to insure that we function according to the way we were created.

We look out on a world where many things are not going right: nation against nation…. earthquakes…. famines…. plagues…. These things happen because our world is in rebellion against God. It will not always be this way. One day God will say Enough!

As surely as the year cycles to its place of dying, life in this world faces The Four Last Things. But that is not the final word. The final Word is Jesus. On the other side of death and judgment is a promise from our Lord that comes in the final book of the Bible: Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:5). That is why Malachi could end his prophecy of the coming fire with these words: for those who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

It is a grace to listen to the Church’s warning of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We end the  old year realistically. This takes us to the true meaning of Advent and Christmas that starts a new liturgical year. In the powerful mercy of God, the end is the beginning.

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