Third Sunday of Advent
First Reading Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10
Psalm Psalm 146:6–10
Second Reading James 5:7–10
Gospel Matthew 11:2–11
The maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, Who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, who gives bread to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord protects the resident alien, comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked. The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!
Reading the Word
Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10
The wilderness and the parched land will exult; the Arabah will rejoice and bloom; Like the crocus it shall bloom abundantly, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen hands that are feeble, make firm knees that are weak, Say to the fearful of heart: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall see, and the ears of the deaf be opened; Then the lame shall leap like a stag, and the mute tongue sing for joy. For waters will burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the Arabah. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning flee away.
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain, brothers, about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In [those] days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be [also] at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
Hearing the Word
“Beyond Complaint: The Lord Shall Reign Forever’”
Isaiah of Jerusalem had every reason to complain. Living in the later part of 7th century before Christ, the prophet saw his country ravaged by wars with the mighty Assyria, its population impoverished and enslaved, its Temple desecrated, its national hopes shattered and buried under the yoke of oppression. Engrossed in this troubled reality the prophet raises his eyes beyond and above his immediate situation and contemplates the religious tradition of Israel. In it he sees a different reality, reality of God’s salvation. In the oracle which we read, he describes this reality of salvation in a poetic manner. First, he sees deserts and dry wilderness (Arabah) blossom. This is regeneration of life through the blessing of rain sent by God upon nature. Creation itself rejoices and recognizes the glory and splendour of the life-giver. Humanity is exhorted to take notice of it and be reassured: “Do not fear” says the prophet. Since God restores the desolate land, how much more will he restore his people. Next, the prophet speaks of four infirmities which affect the people, that of eyes, ears, legs, and tongue. In the social context of the day these afflictions isolated the person affected from the community and were seen as results of wrongdoings committed in the past. No matter, the prophet states, even these human distortions will be remedied by God. Together with the creation, those restored people will enter God’s holy mountain, Zion, in joyful and celebratory procession to possess the new world without sorrow and pain. Early Christians had every reason to complain. The author of the second reading is said to be James the Elder, called “brother of the Lord.” He was martyred 62 AD, martyrdom was not unusual for the early Christians. The first years of the Christian movement were full of conflict and persecution. To compound the problem, the ardently expected parousia (the coming of Jesus as the glorified Lord) was delayed. Initially, Christians expected the return of Christ within their lifetime. As the years went by, they came to realise that Christ is not going to return soon. Frustration might have grown among the believers. Unfulfilled hopes and expectations easily lead to discouragement, which, in turn, leads to complaints and, eventually, conflict. The author warns Christians against falling into the trap of complaining about one another and judging others. Such attitudes destroy the unity in the community and bring judgement upon the very person who causes rifts. The positive exhortation in the reading points to the attitudes which Christians should nourish. The first is patience, like that of a farmer waiting for the harvest. The farmer trusts God to provide what is necessary at the right time, and secure his well-being. James follows with the example of the prophets, perhaps having the oracles of Isaiah in mind. Prophets, more often than not, spoke in the context of hardship, persecution, and hopelessness. In the midst of those unfavourable circumstances they faithfully delivered their message. Christians are called to imitate them through that patient endurance with which they need to wait for God’s salvific intervention which, despite all our uncertainties, is sure to come because God does not fail to deliver on his promises. John the Baptist had every reason to complain. He had surely heard about the deeds of Jesus. Those deeds, as Jesus himself said, fulfil the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading. Indeed, Jesus went beyond these prophecies, raising the dead and proclaiming the good news to the poor. It might well be that John when posing the question to Jesus whether he is the awaited Messiah, had another prophetic oracle in mind. Isaiah 61:1, another significant passage about the deeds of the Messiah, indicates that he will “release the captives.” Yet here he is, John, still languishing in prison, with no sign or hope of release. Because of this unfulfilled hope of John, Jesus speaks of the blessedness of those who “take no offence” at him. Saying this, Jesus indicated that John must accept the Messiah on his own terms. The Messiah comes to accomplish his purposes, not necessarily to cater to the hopes and needs of every individual, even those which were justified. These words directed to John were also addressed to the people of Jesus’ generation who expected the Messiah to be the Royal Davidic king who will restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. They might have been “scandalised” by Jesus and his way of establishing God’s kingdom: dying on the cross and opening the gates of the kingdom to all peoples. This is not what the Messiah was supposed to do. The Gospel passage continues with the highest praise that any individual in the New Testament ever received: Jesus praises John for his integrity and loyalty. He is a prophet and God’s messenger who fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi (3:1), and the greatest human being ever born! Yet, his greatness as a human being and as the last of the Old Testament prophets is surpassed by the Christians who have the privilege of being members of God’s kingdom. The author of the Gospel wants to highlight the great privilege and infinite dignity that the Christians enjoy because of what Jesus had accomplished for them. Because of that grace, the followers of Jesus stand above, but not apart from, all who preceded them, including the Old Testament prophets. The liturgy of the third Sunday of Advent proclaims the absolute commitment of God to the salvific work. Starting with Isaiah, the emphasis rests on God as Saviour who will restore his creation and his people to the state of security and well-being. Matthew further elaborates on this theme, declaring that Jesus is the one who acts as the agent of salvation. Because of what he had accomplished, his followers can rest with the assurance of the great dignity that has been bestowed on them, and even of the greater future that awaits them. The words of James serve as instruction on how to deal with the current situation of difficulty and discouragement. He emphasises patience and endurance. Matthew advocates trust in what God is doing. We must allow God to be God and act in ways and at times which God himself sets. Secure in certainty of God’s salvation we have no reason to complain and thus diminish our confidence and trust in him. Rather, the proper attitude for the faithful, despite unfavourable circumstances, is to acknowledge that our God reigns forever. We, his faithful, can be assured of his salvation. Confidently, therefore, we can sing the song of praise and thanksgiving, the joyful “Hallelujah”, together with the author of Psalm 146.
Listening to the Word of God
At times we all complain. At times we have good reasons to do so; at times, we don’t. It seems that complaining is part of human nature and our human condition. One dictionary defines complaining as an expression of dissatisfaction, pain, grief, misfortune that leads to a wide range of feelings such as anger, impatience, rage and at times violence. Many businesses have a “complaint desk” where customers voice their dissatisfaction at products or services rendered. On the internet we are constantly asked to complete surveys or questionnaires to express our complaints. So “complaint” has become an industry. In some cases, complaining is necessary to bring to the notice of the authorities’ violations of rights of individuals and communities, to point out things that are done wrongly. Even in our relationships, complaints have a role in alerting others to things done or said that hurt us or have negative consequences. In politics, particularly after elections, parties complain about the results, and often as we have seen in our countries, these complaints have led to violence. In places of employment, employees also complain about unfair labour practices, poor wages, etc. So complaining has moved from being a “human thing” to a human rights issue - we have a right to complain and expect results in response. This understanding of complaining certainly has its place and we have seen some good come out of it. However, as in the case of conflict and violence, some negative results can also come. As important as complaint is, particularly in relation to situations that require time to resolve, it can lead to loss of hope with all the tragic outcomes that accompany such a view. In our spiritual lives, complaints arise when our prayers are not answered immediately, or if they are answered but not in the way we wanted and expected. The Psalms offer examples of complaints of this nature. But the complaints we see in the Psalms do not end with complaint. Rather, through patience and perseverance they lead to deeper faith and patient waiting for God’s wise and timely intervention. Without faith in God’s love and purpose, in his faithfulness and wisdom, complaints and disillusion with life can lead to a loss of faith, bitterness, anger and actions that are detrimental to us. Patience is a virtue that is associated with faith and hope. Notice that the Psalms teach us that we can complain, but we bring our complaints to God as John the Baptist did. It is then than we hear the word of hope. Such an attitude comes from the virtue of patience and faith which leads us to look at our life, plans and desires in a different way. This attitude is well summed up in an African proverb: “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns be happy that the thorn bush has a rose.”
“Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns be happy that the thorn bush has a rose.”
Write down one main complaint that you have in your life in relation to the following: your own qualities, your family, your parish, your nation, your relationship with God.
Response to God
Offer your complaints to God in a prayer. Pray the serenity prayer (below) and discern where you can change and do so, and accept where you cannot change.
Response to your World
Following the self-examination, decide which of your complaints are legitimate and which come from your own impatience, laziness or mistakes. As a community: what can we do address the negative situations we face, and how can we move beyond them?
Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things that I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.