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The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018


    
Ministry has more than its share of rewards and blessings and, for me, nearly every one of them has a human face.  For reasons I will share with you in a moment, today’s scriptures bring to my mind the faces of parishioners who have held onto their faith when, humanly speaking, they had every reason not to.  I see their faces in my mind’s eye: the faces of parents who have lived through the nightmare of losing a child from illness or an accident; the faces of people in their prime of life with everything going for them, who one day were mapping out their future and the next were diagnosed with a debilitating or terminal illness; the faces of parents with small children, a sizeable mortgage, and a backlog of bills who both got laid off at work.

     So many faces, so much heartbreak!  And yet, in the midst of their pain, I saw those people hold onto the conviction that God was with them and would see them through it. Conviction is the right word: I’m quite sure they didn’t feel this, but deep down in that mysterious place where faith lives, they knew it. So many times over the years, I have found myself moved beyond words by the faith of people who came to me for ministry but who really ministered to me because of their amazing faith.

     I think of what a homeless fellow I visit with from time to time said to me not long ago. He didn’t have a clue where he was going to sleep that night and I’m sure his pockets were empty, yet he told me, “I don’t worry, Father. The Lord stays with me.  He never leaves me.”  You see what I mean by my being on the receiving end of ministry…!

     The words of that homeless fellow came back to me as I reflected on the first two scriptures for this third Sunday of Advent. I heard them in the prophecy from Zephaniah in the first reading:  Don’t Zephanaiah’s words, “The Lord is in your midst,” sound like “the Lord stays with me, he never leaves me?” And don’t those words of my homeless friend sound a little like St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety; the Lord is near.”  And, you know, there are similarities – not just in words but, more importantly, in the situations that prompted the words because when Zephaniah and St. Paul spoke them, neither had any reason, humanly speaking, to believe that the Lord was anywhere near them.

     Zephaniah prophesied to the people of Israel when they were in the midst of some gravely troubling times.  They had suffered appalling losses to foreign powers and had been brought low and humiliated time and again by ruthless forces of occupation that made a mockery of their faith and ridiculed their religion.  It was against that background that Zephaniah told the people not to fear but to “rejoice with all your hearts because the Lord has taken away all judgments against you….”

     How could this be?  How could he tell the people over and over again that the Lord was in their midst when there was so much evidence to the contrary?  And how could St. Paul, in today’s second reading, write to his friends at Philippi telling them to “rejoice in the Lord always”, and to “have no anxiety about anything because the Lord is at hand?”    Those words may not sound all that remarkable – they may sound like the conventional clichés of a polite letter - but when you remember that St. Paul wrote them from Rome while he was in prison awaiting trial, they take on a whole new meaning!

     And so the question is one worth asking: how is it that people like St. Paul, and the Prophet Zephaniah, and the Israelites of old, and my homeless friend, and those other people I mentioned earlier – how is it that they could remain convinced that God was with them when everything must have told them that he wasn’t? How is it that they could rejoice in the Lord when many people would only have despaired?

     And we know the answer.  The answer is faith: belief that God’s goodness and faithfulness are more powerful and more enduring than even the most devastating of human tragedies; belief that when God seems to be distant to the point of non-existent, that can be when God is actually the nearest.

     My friends in Christ, we know all this.  Many of you know this far better than I do.  Many of you are living witnesses to the power of faith and to God’s faithfulness, come what may.  On this Advent Sunday, in the midst of a world with problems both agonizing and seemingly unsolvable, a world where glimpses of light are all too quickly eclipsed by darkness, a world where poverty is rampant, and violence and terrorism go unchecked; and in the midst of our own personal lives which are never very far removed from pain of one sort or another – the pain of personal inadequacy, the pain of strained or broken relationships, the pain of sickness or incurable disease, the pain of death itself – in the midst of this vastly imperfect world of ours and of these vastly imperfect lives of ours, there is still room for hope.  Great hope, because God’s love has always been more powerful than even the greatest of natural and human evils and it always will be.

     That’s what Advent is about and it’s what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas – light in the midst of darkness, hope for the world in the face of a tiny child.  Hemingway once wrote that “life breaks all of us, but some people grow at the broken places.”  May the presence of Jesus in this Eucharist and in this blessed season bring healing to all our broken places and hope to our hearts!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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