The Kingdom Incognito No More

Third Sunday of Advent

I like being incognito. It’s more challenging here since I’m easy to pick out of a crowd. I like walking into another church, for example, and sit in the assembly, and just blend in, listening, praying, and singing like everyone else. I like walking around a shopping mall or commuter station in any big city just observing, listening to people talk, watching the human drama unfold. When on vacation away from familiar faces, I like to step back and observe the world around me. It doesn’t work as well when I know they might be watching me. So, I make sure to keep my cool. I watch my every move, every word, every facial expression, and not be too quick to react. Being incognito allows me to let down my guard. I am able to interact with random people whose words or actions don’t undergo drastic adjustment to accommodate me. They can just be themselves. And I am undetected, unknown, and yes, invisible.

What must it be like for someone who’s famous or popular or important? I bet they get tired feeling like they’re on display all the time. Every word, every gesture is analyzed and interpreted. Sometimes, intent and meaning are assigned where there may be none at all. Whether they like it or not, they are held to a different and often higher standard. They are expected to be better than the average person. Their mistakes are not as kindly overlooked as yours and mine. And people around them are perhaps not always as honest or relaxed.

“Are you the one … or should we look for another?” I remember visiting a parish before I was assigned for the first time. Somehow word got around. People knew me from another parish. So, when I came to visit, they assumed I was their next pastor. It was a weird experience. Everyone was on their best behavior. They even made cookies. I didn’t tell them what I was thinking. In fact, that parish wasn’t even on my wish list. Realizing you are the “one” is a scary thing. People have such unrealistic expectations sometimes. And I don’t want to disappoint.

“Are you the one … or should we look for another?” Expectations, unrealistic or otherwise, can greatly influence what our senses perceive. If we are filled with hope, with eager longing and joyous expectation, we are more likely to anticipate optimistic results even in the face of otherwise discouraging and challenging realities. But if we are filled with dread, with fear and anxiety, we are more likely to imagine the worst.

When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus the question, “Are you the one?” he was being held captive by Herod, and his future was looking bleak. John was an outspoken critic of the king, who had married the wife of his brother Philip in defiance of law and custom. And the woman hated what the Baptizer said. Last Sunday, John was at the Jordan river offering Israel a baptism of repentance in anticipation of the Messiah to come. Today, he sounds a little discouraged, a little deflated. But there is a glimmer of hope in the question. He must have remembered that he baptized Jesus himself. But soon after, he was arrested and thrown into jail. Jesus’ public ministry was just taking off, so John may not have seen and heard how Jesus was doing.

Jesus then sent John’s messengers back telling them, “Look around you. What do you hear? What do you see?” A little encouragement goes a long way to reignite hope, especially when darkness seems to be closing in. The passage from Isaiah announces the dawning of the Messianic age, a time of unprecedented peace and fulfillment. The images he describes clash with our present reality and most everything we consider normal. Isaiah speaks of the desert and the parched land blooming with new life. Familiar places like Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon in the north country synonymous with lush growth, fertile fields and valleys are projected onto the barren desert south. Last week we heard of domestic and wild animals living in harmony with each other and with the human race, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the young lion with a child to guide them, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox, the baby playing by the cobra’s den.

And today, still more striking images, the healing of all human ills, strength for the feeble, firmness for the weak, comfort for the frightened. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” And this hope carried and nurtured in the hearts and minds of his own people, Jesus hints that the age of peace and fulfillment has arrived.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” It would take many of them a while longer to recognize the signs. And today many still do not see or hear.

In his letter, James asks us to be patient while our hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow seem to take a while. He did not mean necessarily an economic recovery in our time, something that would definitely ease our troubles and tensions. He was not speaking of the end to all war and violence, or disease, famine, and poverty. Rather, he was speaking of the culmination of all human history when Christ would return in glory at the end of time. “Do not complain, so that you may not be judged.” And the farmer awaiting the harvest is a most striking image.

In every generation people will claim and lament that their time is the worst the world has known. Yet each Advent, we hear of the arrival of a new and glorious age, a time of fulfillment and renewal, a time of tremendous grace and blessing, of strength, and reconciliation, and second chances, a time of healing for the broken, resolve for the struggling, hope for the discouraged, and new life for the dead. Look around you, he invites us. What do you hear? What do you see? The Lord is near. The Kingdom of God is in our midst, no longer incognito. Do not be fearful. Rejoice!

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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