By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments, instead of violet ones. (But in my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I refuse to wear pink!) But as you are probably not terribly interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at those “less gloomy” readings.
The first reading from Isaiah really has no hints of gloom at all. It prophesies the return of the people to Zion in the midst of a sweeping transformation almost beyond imagining. Isaiah prophesies that those who are marginalized due to disabilities will be healed and reincorporated into society. And not only will the people be transformed, even the wilderness through which they pass will become a luxuriant garden. Finally, we are told, that “they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” What a fitting reading for Rejoice Sunday!
The context of the original prophecy was the Babylonian Exile, which was to last some 70 years. The prophet wrote this inspired poem to give hope to a captive people as they awaited the day of their return. And return they did, but the blind and the lame and the deaf and the mute were not restored to wholeness, and the wilderness was not transformed into a new Eden. The prophecy was fulfilled only in part, it seems. Christian scripture hints that there is another, deeper fulfilment of this prophecy yet to occur. We find references to this in the Gospel reading from Matthew. It implies that the complete fulfillment of this prophecy will come only at the consummation of the Kingdom of God, which began to break into this world with the first coming of the Messiah and will reach its fullness only at his second coming.
In the meantime, we wait and wait and wait. And sometimes we grow impatient. Even in the early days of the Church, folks grew impatient. The Letter of James exhorts the brothers and sisters to be patient until the coming of the Lord, which will come only when the time is right. The prophets and martyrs were tested with a variety of torments, James reminds us; one of our torments, it seems, is to wait…interminably. And waiting can be such torment! And as we wait and wait for the Lord, there is always the temptation to turn on each other. James warns his folks not to grumble against one another, lest they be judged and found wanting in love. Now, I know that we all love one another, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that we also do a fair bit of grumbling. Now, there are plenty of things to grumble about: we are few, and the tasks are many. The point that James drives home is that we are not to grumble “against one another.” It’s OK to complain that the annual bazaar is too much work and that it kills your back. It is not OK to point out that Ms. So-and-so isn’t contributing as much as she might or that Mr. So-and-so just can’t be relied on. You get the picture!
In the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we have a startling situation. St. John the Baptist, who had publicly proclaimed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, now seems to have some doubts. To be fair, he is in prison awaiting his execution, and he can be excused for wondering what the hell is going on. John sends messengers to Jesus to ask him if he really is the one who John thought he was. The implication is that if Jesus really were the Messiah he proclaimed, John would not be in jail, and Herod and the Romans would not still be running the country. The messengers ask. Jesus responds. But his response is not a straight-forward answer to the question. (Jesus is really annoying that way!) He merely points out that his recent miracles are the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, and even the dead. His answer is a kind of “yes, but.” He seems to be saying, “Yes, I am the Messiah, but not the Messiah you expected.” Instead of the royal warrior who would overthrow the corrupt government and harshly judge the oppressors. He is a living and breathing instrument of divine healing, anointed by God to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven. One is left desperately hoping that John will, in fact, discern that Jesus is the Messiah and so find some comfort in the fact that his imprisonment and impending death are not in vain.
After John’s messengers have departed, Jesus gives John a glowing commendation as a prophet, contrasting him with both a shaking reed and a wealthy nobleman. (The reed, by the way, just might be an oblique reference to Herod Antipas, whose personal logo was a reed.) Jesus goes on to say that John is, in fact, the final end-time prophet and is as great as any human being that has ever lived.
Then, in a sentence, Jesus seems to undermine everything that he has just said about John. Jesus goes on to say that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” Literally understood, Jesus has just excluded John from the kingdom! What are we to make of this? To its discredit, the early Church understood this to mean that the worst Christian was better than the best Jew. Clearly, Jesus could not have meant this, for one thing it is flatly anachronistic. A few Church Fathers, translated the sentence rather differently: “the younger man is greater in the kingdom of heaven than [John].” In this unlikely translation, Jesus is just saying that he, who is six months younger than John, is in fact greater than John. I can’t see Jesus bragging like that—I just can’t. My recommendation is to take Jesus’ statement less literally and to understand it as hyperbole. I think what Jesus is trying to get across is just this: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Now, according to Scripture, the world has witnessed the healing of the lame, the blind, the deaf, and the mute. The world has even witnessed the resurrection of the dead. But Jesus’ dictum still applies: we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. When Jesus comes again in power and great glory, when the Kingdom of God blossoms into its fullness, then all Creation will be transformed in ways that we can hardly imagine, in ways that only poetry and song can hope to describe. All that is evil will be erased. All that is good will be made even better. And every righteous child of God will be given new and unending life in the very presence of God.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can hardly wait for Christ’s return. But wait we must! And with God’s grace, perhaps we can even do so patiently, with only a modicum of grumbling and doubt.
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.