Third Sunday of Advent

You may be familiar with the singing competition on TV called “the Voice.” I don’t watch it. But I’ve caught a couple of clips online, mostly because some people can’t stop raving about it, adding their two cents about how this contestant was haunting, and this other one was mesmerizing, and this third one was simply angelic. I don’t usually read the comments. I just watch. But once I’m hooked, I will find out more about the contestant, and their amazing story of heartbreak and triumph. And like a bad accident, I am drawn deeper and deeper, until I realize I’ve spent more time on all this than I should. But you didn’t need to know that.

The objective of the contest is to discover the next awesome vocal talent and award them US$ 100,000 and a record deal. Now as each contestant comes on stage, the 4 judges sit in swivel seats with their backs to the stage. I imagine these judges, who are usually also vocalists and musicians in their own right, are not that easily impressed. They’ve probably come across some really amazing talent through their years in the music industry, and I would imagine a few not so great ones as well. So they know a thing or two about real talent. Now the audience sitting in the music hall and everyone watching on TV can see the person on stage. But you can choose to close your eyes and not be influenced by the contestant’s physical appearance. And then this disembodied voice begins to fill the hall and glide through the notes, while the judges listen intently. If they so choose, they press this big red button in front of them, and their seat swings around to face the stage. This is their vote of confidence. It is a sign they are willing to assist this new talent move forward in the competition toward the grand prize. If more than one judge votes to give the contestant a chance to advance, the contestant gets to choose which judge would mentor them. But that’s more detail than I want to focus on.

The premise I gather is that the voice of the singer alone should move the listener to want to hear it even more, regardless of any other qualities of the owner of that voice. This image invites us to consider the man standing by the river Jordan in Bethany in today’s gospel reading, a man who claims he is “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” We were introduced to John the Baptist last Sunday, and were told he was strange looking, clothed in a rough garment made of camel’s hair, sandals, and a leather belt. He also lived on a diet of wild locusts and honey. And he preached repentance to the crowds, and baptized any and all who came to him. It is easy to understand how he attracted attention. Even the religious leaders of the time were intrigued. So they sent priests and Levites and Pharisees to question him.

“Who are you?,” they asked him. In the back of my mind I’m hearing instead, “Who do you think you are, and what do you think you’re doing?” When someone or something disturbs the relative quiet and balance we live with, we will take notice. At times, we will be annoyed by it. At other times, we will be suspicious, or charmed, or if it looks to be something we need, we will welcome it joyfully.

When a people experience extreme hardship and misery, they will naturally long for relief and deliverance. We can only imagine how difficult life is still in Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic after hurricane Maria. It’s been 12 weeks without power for many of these places. Families are displaced. Homes and communities are in disrepair. Businesses are on hold and losing vital revenue with each passing day. And other communities have been devastated by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose along the gulf coast, as well as wildfires still raging out west, flooding in Bangladesh, Albania, Sierra Leone, and Honduras, and the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico, and the wars that continue to ravage Syria and Myanmar. Add to that the incidences of gun violence that have devastated many families and communities. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT marked a grim 5th anniversary this past week with still no realistic hope of preventing yet another tragedy like it. And with the loss of affordable healthcare coverage, some of our most vulnerable citizens, children and the elderly, and the poor who rely on public assistance, will slowly fade from notice, their own voices and the voices of their advocates not loud enough to even reach our ears, or catch our attention.

But this was exactly the helplessness and despair that Israel faced when the prophet Isaiah spoke to them God’s promise of redemption and deliverance, that God was sending one who would “bring good news to the afflicted, [who would] bind up the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, [who would] announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.”[1] Later at the start of his public ministry, Jesus would read this very same passage in the synagogue and announce that he came to fulfill this very promise. So it is not surprising that John the Baptist would tell those who asked him “Who are you?” that the one God had promised to send was already here. “There is one among you whom you do not recognize, … whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”[2] God’s promise is fulfilled. He is already among you.

This shouldn’t be news to us. The long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise has already entered human history, the son of a lowly maiden of Nazareth. Born a child in Bethlehem that holy night 2000 years ago, Jesus grew up to proclaim good news and bring about the reconciliation of the human family with God through his suffering and death on a cross, and his rising to new life. This promise fulfilled is what gives St. Paul cause to bid us “rejoice always, and pray without ceasing, and give thanks.”[3] And although we still suffer hardship and misery, we are not without hope because the one whom God has sent, whom we do not recognize, is among us. God does not abandon his people. Yet we might wonder why relief and deliverance from hardship and misery take long to arrive. What’s the hold-up? We have to remember that like John the Baptist, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ, also give testimony to the light. We who know intimately the joy of forgiveness and the freedom of spiritual rebirth carry within us the light that is Jesus Christ. And by our actions and our lives, we are heralds announcing him and his mission of reconciliation. Sometimes our external appearance or the prejudices of those who hear us might distort the message. But it is the voice of John the Baptist they hear, announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise. There is one among us whom others may not recognize. But we have known him. We have heard his voice. We have seen his face. He has healed our infirmities. He has nourished our hunger. So rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks. The one who has been promised is already among us.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] Isaiah 61: 1-2.

[2] John 1: 26-27.

[3] 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18.