We struggle to complete the mission Jesus has for us

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  • November 29, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) Dec. 11 (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Timely words of comfort and encouragement can work miracles, even more so when they are inspired by the Spirit of God. The prophet figure in Isaiah has clearly been anointed to bring healing words to the broken Israelite exiles. Good news: freedom, liberty, release and healing. But this is far more than a pep-talk — he will proclaim these Spirit-inspired words on behalf of God.

The prophet’s ecstatic sense of God’s grace is expressed with a riot of metaphors: robes, garments, garlands, jewels and gardens, all signifying new life, salvation and righteousness. God is definitely not stingy and after all that Israel has endured God desires only good for her. This passage will be reutilized in chapter four of Luke’s Gospel to illustrate another instance of God’s graciousness and kindness manifested in Jesus. These are the sorts of words that we need to hear at this point in our history. The human heart is heavy and fearful and for many the future seems lacking in hope. Even if we are not granted a prophetic mission, the Spirit that dwells in all believers can use us to light candles amidst our collective darkness.

There is so much packed into a couple of verses in 1 Thessalonians: pray without ceasing, rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. This sounds like enough for a lifetime! Many of the Desert Fathers wrote about prayer without ceasing — how is it possible? But Paul is not talking about an endless flow of words. Prayer is a disposition of the heart and mind — a constant awareness of God’s presence and openness to God’s Spirit. It is often wordless and without rational thought.

Rejoicing always sounds like a tall order and a cloying and artificial joy characteristic of some religious people is not what Paul has in mind. This is the sort of joy that quietly radiates from within and is possible only when one lives in the Spirit and walks the path of selfless love.

Giving thanks in all circumstances can seem like a cruel joke but Paul insists that when we meet these challenges gracefully, patiently and gratefully then we are doing the will of God.

But the Spirit is crucial, and Paul warns against quenching the Spirit, and this is what we have been doing for the last two millennia. The Spirit is a scary thing — it will not do our bidding and cares not a whit for our opinions, fear, desires or prejudices.

The Spirit definitely blows wherever it wills and for that reason most people are content to see it kept under wraps. But our spiritual transformation occurs only to the degree that we learn to be led by the Spirit.

John the Baptist has an interesting job description. His entire ministry is to point to someone else and to exit the stage as soon as this person appears. Not only that, he is conscious of his own insignificance and unworthiness — at least in his eyes.

It is not that he has a self-esteem problem. His insignificance is only in comparison to this individual who is appearing on the horizon. He already has an inkling of status, mission and identity of the one who is coming. That knowledge is so shattering and overwhelming that he cannot contain himself or remain silent.

John the Evangelist portrays John the Baptist in a very intriguing way — one somewhat different from the other three Gospels. Only in this Gospel is the Baptist interrogated by the delegation from Jerusalem who are keen on finding out just who he is.

He explicitly denies that he is the Messiah, Elijah or “the Prophet” — the latter being a mysterious latter-day prophetic figure inspired by a passage in Deuteronomy. He refuses a title — his mission is solely to rouse within the minds and hearts of the people such a burning desire for God, righteousness and justice that they are able to break free from moral and spiritual lethargy.

His hope: that people will be spiritually aware enough to recognize the presence of God and to accept the strange and challenging message that God’s emissary Jesus will reveal to humanity.

That is a continuous struggle and the mission continues — a mission in which we are invited to take part.

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