Like Jesus himself, and John the Baptist before him, during these 4 weeks of Advent, we have been calling ourselves and the world to Metanoia
, to repentance, to rethinking our lives and the life of the world about us, because in the coming of Jesus, the very Kingdom of God has come near.
Last week, we told the story in Mt 11 about when things turned sour for John. When he found himself in Herod’s dungeon from which he will never emerge alive, he was naturally overcome with doubt. He wondered: had he gotten it right? If the Kingdom of God really was at hand, if Messiah really had come into the world, then why was he there in the dungeon? So he sent Jesus a message:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
Do not be hard on John for his doubts. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that looking at our world, it is very easy to miss the signs of the coming of the Kingdom. While driving to church this morning, we may have heard the radio playing, this:
Joy to the world… the Lord has come.
Yet neither this morning’s Washington Post nor Baltimore Sun told such a story. Their stories reported not a joyful world where the Lord had come, but an angry, frustrated, despairing world, a world struggling with war, poverty, plague, and environmental turmoil and disaster.
As we peer out from our own dungeon windows, like John peering out from his, we see the same signs of brokenness that he saw: Signs of Herod’s corrupt kingdom, empowered by the oppressive minions of Rome, leaving the tears and scars of injustice as far as the eye can see. And perhaps, just as they overtook John, so our own doubts overtake us.
Perhaps Christopher Hitchens’ best-selling claim that god is NOT great
begins to sound more compelling, more persuasive, more realistic, than John’s claim that the Kingdom was at hand. If John began to doubt his own preaching, then why wouldn’t we doubt, even more?
Jesus did not chastise John’s doubts and questions, like some radio preacher, with a snappy comeback. No witty, clever, philosophical argument. No disparaging his doubts with harsh, judgmental scolding.
Never blinded by the polls or his own ideology, even Jesus accepts the reality of the world around us, a world of corruption, war, and despair. Yet in the midst of the winter of our discontent, Jesus points out for us, like he did for John, the tiny, emerging signs of new life – emerging signs of the Kingdom of God coming into its own, even here, even now.
Yes, John, what you see is true. The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun accurately report a world dominated by Caesars, and Herods, and Pontius Pilates. Rome continues, not only turning a deaf ear and blind eye to the needs of the people, but continues to create policies that make many things worse: policies that favor the wrong parties, that wreak havoc on tomorrow. But look beyond that, John. Look here and there in the very midst of all that. Look and tell me what you see, here… and there…, and yes, over there, too. Can you not see the emerging signs of another reality at work?
In Eucharistic Prayer C we pray, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” So Jesus invites John to look again, not at the signs of the Kingdom of Caesar, but just as Spring time is announced by the tiny budding on bushes and trees, so those with eyes to see and ears to hear may discover the budding signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God:
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Is Jesus the one we have been waiting for? Or are they to seek another?
Jesus gently invites us to open our eyes to the very real signs of the coming of the Kingdom. For if we learn the art of contemplative spirituality, we learn to open our eyes to see, to open our ears to hear, to open our hears to discover, already, in this very world, at this very time, and in this very place, the coming of the Kingdom. Wherever we see restoration of the lost, broken, or corrupted, wherever we see recovery and deliverance, wherever we see redemption, there we see what Jesus pointed out to John.
Is Jesus the one they have been waiting for? Oh, yes, thank God!
But today’s Gospel points even these signs, and points to yet another sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom, a sign more subtle that the signs that Jesus pointed out to John.
John, in his terrible situation, John in the dungeon, John facing the sword of decapitation, needed those more concrete, external signs that Jesus gave him at that time. But we, living in our world, more likely need a different sign. A deeper sign. An inner sign, because for us, the point of conflict in which we encounter the struggle between the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God is a deeper, more subtle, more inner conflict.
We are not the poor, the oppressed, and the hopeless. We do not inhabit the dungeons of Herod. We are more likely to inhabit the halls of power, the homes of the privileged. We are in one way, less desperate than John, and yet, in another way, perhaps far more desperate. We need a sign of the Kingdom of God that touches not John’s life, but our lives. So the Church tells us, in today’s Gospel:
an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,"
which means, "God is with us."
In this Gospel, we turn the spotlight away from the oppression of Rome. Away from poverty, blindness, and oppression. Away from plague and death. We turn the spotlight inward, inside, toward our own hearts. “You are to name him Jesus, (salvation), for will save his people – not from the external threat of Rome, poverty, oppression, plague, disaster, or death, but from the internal threat: our own sins.”
We don’t talk much about our own sins in church. In fact, if we talk about sin at all, it’s much more likely that we’ll talk about someone else’s sin. Our neighbor’s sin. The sins of those hypocritical pastors and priests in those other denominations. Or the sins of those pastors and priests in our own denomination, but on the opposite side of whatever position we hold in contrast to them. But not about our own sins.
If you want to find an honest look at sin in today’s world, you’re better off going to the movies. The best films are very often a struggle with the civil war that rages within our own souls. All the best films – Casablanca, High Noon, Shane, Spitfire Grill, Rocky, Shawshank Redemption, the Green Mile, Stranger than Fiction, Cinderella Man, the Mission
, most films by Steven Spielberg, Les Miserables
(all versions, including the terrible last one), The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films (like the books that inspired them) -- are largely the struggle of good people with their own fears, doubts, failures and temptations.
Did you know that the theme song for Rocky II is titled Redemption
In the 1993 film, Tombstone
, Marshall Dake tries to recruit Wyatt Earp to come work for him. Earp wants to get out of that life, and seek his fortune. Dake tries to appeal to his sense of duty. Kurt Russell, as Wyatt Earp responds:
I did my duty, and now I'd like to get on with my life.
I'm going to Tombstone… to strike it rich.
Marshall Dake, counters:
Tell you one thing, though: Never saw a rich man... who didn't wind up with a guilty conscience.
I already got a guilty conscience.
Might as well have the money too.
In the darkened theater, most of the audience laughs, softly, knowingly. Most of us know exactly what he means. Most of us too, already have a guilty conscience. Not all of us, not the sociopath or the self-righteous, but most of us. Those of us who look in the mirror. Those of us who look inside. Those of us who long to please God… to become better people… to be good people. Throughout history, the saints all had to deal with their conscience. They wanted a savior, not just from the external threats, but from the inner threat.
Once Clint Eastwood reached the place where he began producing and directing his own films, every one of his films is about the need for rescue from oneself, the need for redemption, the need for salvation. Consider the stories of the aging, guilty and despairing gunman in Unforgiven
... the estranged father, failed husband, aged thief in Absolute Power
... the failed secret-service agent forever haunted by guilt for his inability to protect Kennedy from the assassin's bullet in In the Line of Fire
... the failed, flawed cop in Tightrope
, racing to stop a murderer before he his own struggles with guilt and temptation destroy him completely, the ruined life following abduction and abuse culminating in even more injustice in Mystic River
... and the unspeakable horror, grief, loss and despair in Million Dollar Baby
What I most deeply appreciate about Eastwood's films is his unflinching spotlight on human pain. He sees it, and tells it straight. Eastwood knows the pain that comes from our own failures, our own flaws. True pain. Human pain. Our pain. Not just the pain inflicted upon us from an external, broken world, but the deeper pain inflicted upon us from our internal broken world.
Film – the central story telling medium in our culture – focuses on our need to be rescued from our own sins. And his films are wonderfully adept at getting us to see that pain, to recognize it as the universal pain within us all. Moreover, whether Eastwood intends this or not, he always makes me see this inner, human need as God's pain too. I leave an Eastwood film knowing exactly why the Hound of Heaven relentlessly pursues us. And for this I am always grateful. This clear-eyed vision of reality, this splash of the cold icy water of what real humans experience and feel is something we all should see. The would-be contemplative (and I dare not call myself anything more than "would-be") must contemplate all the world -- the shadow as well as the light, the pain as well as the joy.
Redemption is what none of us want to be beyond. Redemption is the recovery, deliverance, or restoration of the lost, broken, or corrupted.
Redemption is what the Church at its best is all about, and at its worse often forgets and neglects.
The search for redemption is at the heart of the best of all human thought, effort and endeavor. At one end, we hope to redeem ourselves. At the other end, we hope to redeem the world.
Optimism, rather than pessimism, is the foundation for the ubiquitous human search for redemption. Our search, not only for global transformation, but for personal, communal, and inner transformation, reveals our belief that things can be better than they are, that we can be better than we are, and that the effort to know and follow Jesus Christ, can take us where we most desperately want and need to go.
To focus on redemption is both honest about our own reality, yet wonderfully hopeful about what can be -- with God’s help -- if we commit ourselves to the search to redeem ourselves, our church, and our world, through a deep, honest, and faithful relationship with Jesus Christ.
The center of the Christian faith, like the center of every major religion, focuses on continuing, never-ending, ever-deepening, personal, spiritual transformation, and is convinced that this focus will lead to the spiritual transformation of the world.
Is Jesus the one they have been waiting for? Or are they to seek another? If you keep your eyes on the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, you will never know the answer. But Jesus gently invites us to open our eyes to the very real signs of Kingdom. And for us, the greatest sign of the coming of the God’s Kingdom can be the light that shines into the darkness we hide in our hearts. The greatest sign of the Kingdom can be our own salvation, not from the external threats, but the inner one: salvation from our own sin.
And so, on this 4th Sunday of Advent, we pray:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.