You could say that our reading from Isaiah was picked especially for this 3rd week of Advent. Our candle is named “joy” today, and the reading begins with “…the desert and parched land will exult and the steppe will rejoice and bloom; they will rejoice with joyful song.” At the end of the reading, the Lord rescues captives from Babylon. They return home “singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they meet with joy and gladness, and sorrow will flee.” Release from years of captivity is like being “crowned with everlasting joy”. What vivid images!
Or perhaps our candle is picked for the readings today? In the center of our first reading we find, not the word “joy”, but more importantly, the source of joy. Reading about the opening of blind eyes, clearing the ears of the deaf, the mute singing, we remember that this was written in a time when little could be done to relieve suffering. Can you image what these words meant to people? Even now, strokes and brain injuries remind us of how precious sight and speech are.
What is Isaiah’s point? That these gifts come from God, gifts of love and compassion. The ability to see or hear or jump or sing does not come in a box from Amazon Prime. Isaiah uses our physical ills as symbols of our spiritual failures. When we read scripture only on a literal level, we miss half the message! God is kind and eternally faithful to his creation and us, his creatures, and saves us, who are by no measure worthy. Isaiah spells it out: “God comes to ransom and redeem you. You were captives because your eyes were closed to love, your ears were shut to God’s Word, and you became lame when you refused to walk with God. God comes to restore you to spiritual health.” Every good thing is a gift from God, and we should find our joy in God’s love.
So all of that is kind of like the “Theory of Advent”. Now let’s wander over to the Gospel of Matthew and wade into the muddy side of life to see the “Reality of Advent.”
John the Baptist was in prison for telling Herod that he shouldn’t have taken his brother’s wife and married her. John was likely very frightened. John had obeyed God and preached repentance and baptized people. But prison wasn’t in his plan. John was impatient, for Herod’s new wife was already plotting his death. The Messiah was supposed to be a warrior king like David, not like Jesus who has no army, no military strength. The Messiah was supposed to bring fiery judgment and condemn sinners and the wicked were supposed to pfft, perish. The Kingdom of Heaven should have been there already, and the Romans should’ve been toast by now. John’s anxiety made him wonder, was he wrong? Was Jesus “The One Who is to Come”?
The thing is, if you read chapters 7, 8, and 9 of Matthew, just prior to this scene, you find the answer to John’s question. Compare to Isaiah’s list; check them off. The woman with the hemorrhage was healed, the Centurion’s servant was healed, and Peter’s mother-in-law was healed. Yes, the blind man was given his sight, and the paralytic rolled up his mat and walked away. The lepers were cleansed; the man who could not speak now was talking.
Jesus raised the little girl from the dead. And the poor have heard the Good News and were taught about prayer, discipleship, and having God as their foundation. And that is only a literal interpretation of these chapters. People were given the “eyes” of understanding, ears to “hear” the truth in their hearts, the “voice” to proclaim the goodness of God by their deeds, and so on. The point, of course, is that all that Jesus has done for the people, in broad day light, right in front of everyone, is exactly what the prophets said the Messiah ( the Christ) would do. Matthew is very clear about who Jesus is.
So, if Jesus does not meet our expectations, do we not believe in Jesus as the Son of God? Do we decide what we want, or determine what we need, and then deny Jesus if we don’t get things when and how we think we should?
Just as when Thomas doubted Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus has no words of recrimination for John, but commends John on who he is and what he has done. Even the people recognized him as a great prophet. John fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi; he was the messenger send ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way. In fact, Jesus says John was the greatest among men. But no army would John save from prison. Those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven can see what John was blind to in that moment. Did we skip that verse from our Isaiah passage that reads, “Say to those whose hearts are frightened, ‘Be strong, fear not’!” Does it make sense that real, justifiable fear can be replaced by peace? Don’t we quote Jesus as part of every Mass, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give to you”? We don’t call it the peace that passes understanding for nothing! But that peace is even more real than our fear. For teaching purposes we separate “love”, “peace”, and “joy”. But really, I think they are more one thing- “lovepeacejoy”.
Some people turn from the faith, they say that God has forgotten them, that the promises were not kept because they suffered losses or illness or met other tragedies in life. Do not take offense at me, Jesus says. There is nothing bad or misleading in the Son of God. Do not reject God’s obvious truth, he warns us. Jesus proclaimed the power and goodness and compassion of God and acted it out in front of everyone. Do not stumble from grace and blame God for the pains of this life.
We can live through health issues and spiritual doubts, and fears for the future, with peace-filled joy in our hearts, for we can see and hear and share the certainty of God’s love and faithfulness. With joy, then, we can celebrate the coming of the Holy Infant, and the 2nd coming of the One We Know Who Is to Come.