Our Gospel for this weekend is taken from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, where John the Baptist has been arrested and wonders from his jail cell whether Jesus “is the one or should we look for another?" When this inquiry is conveyed to Jesus, the Lord does not respond theoretically, but rather by pointing to things that are happening, namely, God's grace is making people whole again. “Go tell John what you see and hear".
This week's readings take us to chapter 11 of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah looks back to the garden of Eden and the world in right alignment with God, and then looks forward to the Messiah who will set right what has gone wrong in God's world. Sin interrupts right order, justice, and goodness. The righteous king will restore justice when he rules on his holy mountain.
This week we enter into the great season of Advent. Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah describes how every nation streams towards God's holy mountain. As you enter the Advent season, think about this holy mountain. Is the mountain of the Lord higher than every other mountain for you? Do you stream toward it with your whole being?
We celebrate, as the very last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. Think perhaps of the way that a king would come last in a great formal procession: so this feast comes as the culminating moment of the Church year.What I should like to do in this sermon is to explore three dimensions of Christ’s kingship, one inspired by each of our three readings for today so that we might marvel at the sublimity of what a strange and surprising king he is.
I’m pretty sure that in thirty years of priesthood I've never preached on this Sunday's short second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, and I realize now, as I peruse it, what a little gem it is! Isn’t it fascinating that St. Paul, precisely in the context of a letter to his church on spiritual matters, endeavors to speak of work? When we do authentic work—of whatever kind—we participate in God’s ongoing creation and providence. Don’t follow the instinct to secularize work; but rather see your daily labor, however humble, as part of God’s plan to bring you to joy.
The story conveyed in our first reading from the second book of Maccabees is one that resonates up and down the ages, one that still stirs our hearts today. It's the story of a martyr's death. We can talk about heaven; we can speculate about it. We can write learned treatises about it, and we can hope for it. But up and down the centuries, it is the martyrs from the ancient Maccabees to the Christians slain by ISIS that most vividly witness to the promise of heaven. They literally bet their lives on it.
In Luke's Gospel we read the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector, was considered a very bad man in first century Israel, but Christ greets him with love. It is the love of God that causes everything to be, and comes before everything we do. God does not love us because we do good; we do good because God loves us.
The entire point of religion is to make us humble before God and to open us to the path of love. Everything else is more or less a footnote. Liturgy, prayer, the precepts of the Church, the commandments, sacraments, sacramental—all of it—are finally meant to conform us to the way of love. When they instead turn us away from that path by devolving into a source of pride and pomposity, they have been undermined. Jesus' famous parable about the prayers of the pharisee and the tax collector from this Sunday's readings illustrates precisely this danger of coopting religion for the purposes of our ego.
Our first reading from the book of Exodus is illuminating at so many levels. On the surface, this is a report of an ancient war, more of a tribal dispute really, between two minor peoples. But read with a sensitivity to the multivalence of the Biblical text, this report clues us in to the spiritual warfare that always obtains in a fallen world. We should expect a battle when we walk the path of Christ.
Something I’ve found over the years is that people use the word “Gospel” to mean all sorts of different things. People say, “I’m committed to the Gospel.” “I want preach the Gospel.” “I want to live according to the Gospel.” But what precisely do people mean when they say these things? The word literally means “good news.” But what good news? We have a wonderful text for our first reading today from Paul’s second letter to his disciple and friend Timothy. One of the many things that makes it wonderful is that it contains a very pithy summation of what St. Paul meant by the word “Gospel.” When we unpack this summation, we hold the key to transforming the world.