Third Sunday of Advent

Dominica III Adventus C

16 December 2018

The change of vestment color for this weekend and the permission to decorate the sanctuary with flowers serve as a visual reminder that over half of Advent is in the past.  The color rose – rose being traditionally associated with joy – and the repeated message of the Scriptures call us to rejoice.  And so this day has been called “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoice Sunday.”  This weekend the Church calls us to step up our joy because we have completed more than half of this holy season and are drawing near to the celebration of the source of our joy, the birth of Christ Jesus.

The gospel selection is the continuation from last Sunday of the preaching of that famous Advent figure, St. John the Baptist.  If you back up to the start of Chapter 3 of St. Luke, from which chapter the gospel is taken, you see the world scene into which St. John was sent to preach.  St. John the Baptist is preaching his message in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, and while Herod ruled as tetrarch of the Jews in Galilee.  Each of these figures in St. John’s world has a checkered legacy.  If you find yourself lamenting how bad things are today (and they are!), and if by that you uncritically adopt the notion that it was easier in Jesus’ time (it wasn’t!), then you need to correct that thinking.  Tiberius is associated with adultery, murder, and political executions.  Herod’s life is associated with lavishness, jealousy, and sexual excess.  And Pontius Pilate.  We know that story.  St. John’s preaching was at times a seemingly non-threatening proclamation.  Things like: “I am not the Christ” (Jn. 1:20), “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Jn. 1:23), “He who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Mt. 3:11), “I am not worthy” to untie his sandal (Jn. 1:27), “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:36).  These are the sorts of messages that are easy to hear from a preacher.  But St. John also knew how to deliver the hard truth.  Things like: “Repent” (Mt. 3:2), “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7), “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9).  St. John was a tough and wild preacher.  After all he wasn’t arrested and beheaded for failing to speak the truth.

When you think of the very different personalities who listened to St. John and who heard him preach – the powerful rulers, the religious authorities, the everyday people – what accounts for the difference in those who responded to his message versus those who did not?  I think an answer is that question that three different groups ask in the gospel.  “What should we do?”  In St. John’s time, and as now, some people are going to hell and are heading there with wild velocity.  Then, like now, some people are trapped in grave sin but perhaps various circumstances or personality struggles lessen their guilt.  Then, like now, some people are basically holy but are still working out the lesser sins.  Then, like now, our lives might be marked by some or all of this.  Then, like now, some are responding to God’s grace and making their way to deeper friendship with God.  What should we do?  It’s a question from those we hear about in today’s gospel, a question that shows a serious engagement with the message of St. John.  That serious engagement makes all the difference and leads to repentance.

What should I do?  Are you willing to hear the call of God across the ages to repent and prepare for His day, culminating in His arrival in our flesh to save us?  Or are you here but sort of coasting through the drama of salvation?  It is time to listen to the call of God and to seriously engage with the need to repent and to engage with the generous offer of God’s loving mercy.  What should I do?  It’s a question we should ask ourselves.  The answer, like it was for the crowds, for the tax collectors, and the soldiers, is not too high, lofty, or impossible for us.  If you have two cloaks and enough food, give some to the person with none.  Like the tax collectors heard, stop cheating and do your work well and fairly.  Like the soldiers heard, don’t use your power to lie and to take advantage of others, but be loyal and satisfied with what you have.

When we engage seriously with the call to repent and to foster life with God we stop treating the Gospel we hear as simply a collection of faith stories from the past serving purely to remind us to be religious.  When we engage seriously with the call to repent we allow the drama of salvation to be something alive and active within us who are still being saved by God’s grace.  When we engage seriously with the call to repent we are willing to be moved out of our stagnation and to ask that uncomfortable question that betrays that I need to change.  “What should I do?”  It is the willingness to ask that question of ourselves day in and day out of our earthly journey that permits us to live the joy and rejoicing encouraged by this Gaudete Sunday because repentance, confession, and conversion lead us away from a relationship with God’s wrath and instead to a relationship with the Father who saves us by placing the irreplaceable gift of His Son in our midst.  What cause for our rejoicing!  As we heard in the first reading, “Shout for joy…. Be glad and exult…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.”