Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Third Sunday of Advent: Whom Are We looking for?
I would like to speak to you today about the prophets. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is full of dynamic leaders. There is Noah and Moses, Abraham and David. There are kings and queens, male and female judges, patriarchs and matriarchs. But of all the people in the Hebrew Scriptures, the most dynamic are the prophets: Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and so many others. They challenged the world and drew people to listen, to change, to follow. Some stood up to the King in support of justice, "How dare you put Uriah to death so you can have Bathsheba his wife," Nathan said to King David. "How dare you put Nabaoth to death so you can steal his vineyard," Elijah said to King Ahab.
Some prophets were so powerful that they would determine who would reign as King. The prophet Samuel was told by God to anoint Saul to be king, and then he was told to reject Saul and anoint the youngest son of Jesse, David. Some prophets drew the attention of the entire nation yet spoke in symbolic ways like the prophet Hosea who married Gomer, a woman of ill repute, as a sign of the way that God's people had treated him. Others spoke directly to the people of God's power, his compassion and his love, like Isaiah in our first reading for today. Some prophets were mystics like Ezekiel. Some were on the inner loop with the king, counselors like Jeremiah. Others were just common everyday people, like Amos, a dresser of trees.
The prophets were all very different one from the other, but their message was the same: Repent and reform. Return your lives to your God, and the Lord will come and be with his people. Nothing, not torture, not death, not even money would turn the prophet from his message or tempt him to abandon his faith. In difficult times, the prophet would tell the people, "Hold on to your faith, the world will be transformed by the Lord when he comes."
Sometimes their message was frightening, such as their predictions of the sufferings of the evil at the end of time. Sometimes their message was consoling, like the message of the first reading for today, when Isaiah speaks about the desert blooming, the blind seeing and the deaf hearing. But always their message to the people was to be strong in their faith. The people needed to be ready for the Lord's coming.
The ancient people believed that as long as there was a prophet among them, they were blessed. God was communicating to his people. If there was no prophet, then that was a sign that somehow the people's sins had turned God away from them.
By the time of Jesus' life, it had been two hundred years since the people of Israel had last had a prophet in their midst. Two hundred years. Two hundred years of no intimate communication with God.
And then, John the Baptist appeared. He was dynamic. His message wasn't new: he told the people to repent and reform and prepare for their God. That was the same as all the prophets. But there was a power these people had never seen before in his words. And John added something; He said that God is coming now. The Kingdom of God is at hand. People were drawn to John. It was obvious to them that God was once more blessing his people.
John did not offer people a semi-spiritual semi-emotional experience. He demanded that the people remain faithful to their traditions. He followed Isaiah's first reading for today, "Strengthen the knees that are weak, the hands that are feeble, and say, "Be strong, fear not. Here is your God." John was not a fad. He was not a reed in the wind, changing the way it leans with every new gust of air, every new whim. John was a rock anchored on his faith in God. His infectious dynamism led people to a strict adherence to their faith. They accepted his baptism as a sign of their participation in a new world order, the Kingdom of God.
We modern people are also looking for a prophet. But what type of prophet are we looking for? What type of prophecy do we seek? Are we looking for a prophet like John who is going to tell us to hold on to our faith, change those hidden parts of our lives that are self-destructive? Maybe he will tell us to give up that grudge we love to nourish, or perhaps it is that secret little vice that is only a secret from our conscience but quite apparent to all around us. Are we looking for someone to tell us to stand up for our faith, or are we looking for a reed shaken by the wind? We have got to admit it, there is a part of all of us that would love to hear someone tell us that certain of our secrets are now no longer sinful. We'd love to hear someone say, "These are modern times, this or that is OK now, even if it was unacceptable before." We'd love to follow a reed that is bent by the winds of moral decay. But then we would not be listening to a prophet. We would not be listening to God's dynamic voice. We would only be hearing our own selfishness.
Whom do we go out to the desert to see? Someone who will give us a lovely emotional experience while permitting us to compromise on morality. Or do we go out to the desert to see someone who will encourage us to stand up against the pressures our society places upon us to compromise our consciences. We come to Church not for entertainment, not to see our beautiful children, but for the strength to be ready for the Lord to enter our lives.