THE JOY OF REPENTANCE AND HUMILITY
Zephyr 3:14-18; Phil 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
- JOHN’S ACTION PLAN
Today’s gospel text begins with crowds coming forth to John wanting to know the practical implications of his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel text). It would be interesting and important to know the category of people who made up this “crowd”. From Matthew’s account on John the Baptist, we read: “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones” (Mtt 3:7-10).
These Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders to whom people looked up as those who were “right with God.” They would be like most of us today who go to church every week. These men came to WATCH what John was doing. Undoubtedly, they believed they were exempt from his call to repentance. After all, they were not only part of God’s “chosen people,” they were also the acknowledged leaders in the faith! They believed they were right with God and that God was probably pretty lucky to have them on his side. John pierced through their defenses. He reminded them that God could easily replace them. If they did not also repent (and in their case they could start by repenting of their self-righteousness, and apparent lack of humility), they would be thrown into the fire. These are strong words, indeed!
Here, John reminds us to look at our own hearts. Are we like the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Have we reduced ourselves to idle watchers or onlookers as far as our faith is concerned? Do we think we are OK with God because we go to church, receive Holy Communion and read our Bible occasionally? Advent is the time for us to reflect, and stop fooling ourselves. The call to repentance is for every Christian, including ourselves. If our Christian message excludes REPENTANCE, and if anyone puts him/herself beyond or above repentance, then he/she is believing in a false gospel; one that is powerless to save anyone.
Coming back to the gospel text of today, Luke tells us how radical was this repentance preached by John. No one is exempted from the need for repentance. No aspect of our human life falls outside the realms of repentance:
- “The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
- Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
- “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
True repentance makes a practical difference in the life of the penitent. We live at a time when many preachers prefer to minimize any talk about SIN. In order to attract a large following, many prefer to keep the demands of Christ to a minimum. They prefer to make the requirements of following Christ as undisruptive as possible. Such an approach to repentance is far from what John (and later on Jesus) teaches. True repentance makes of us a different people with new hearts and new attitudes. Repentant people follow Christ with a new enthusiasm. This would imply changes such as these:
- Families would be safe places rather than places of terror
- Marriages would be mended and made strong rather than quickly tossed aside
- There would be less needy people in the world
- We would be content rather than feeling deprived
- People would be drawn to us like a magnet, wanting to know what is so different about us.
Repentance demands that one makes changes in one’s life. One may need to make some tough choices about one’s calendar, eliminating things that stand between us and truly putting God first in our lives. We may need to return what we have taken unjustly from another person. We may need to pay a debt we have incurred. We may need to apologize for a hurt we have inflicted. This is serious stuff. We may not like the tone or the topic. We may resist the notion of repentance and prefer a Christianity that makes no demands. However, if we want a life that is satisfying and liberating, a life that is deep and eternal, we have to start by repenting. Indeed, repentance requires a lot of HUMILITY!
- JOHN’S HUMILITY
Next, in the gospel text, we learn that John the Baptist refused to dress himself in ‘borrowed robes’. He was so humble and truthful that he did not fall into the temptation of usurping the place of Jesus, the true Messiah. For centuries before the birth of Christ, the Jews had been taught to look forward to a Messiah, who would come to restore the glory of their nation. One prophet after another had foretold the coming of such a Messiah. Not unexpectedly, a number of people actually showed up who claimed that they were the Messiah. From the testimony of the Pharisee, Gamaliel, in Act 5, we gather that one of them was called THEUDAS and another was JUDAS THE GALILEAN. “For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered (Act 5:36-37). It did not take too long before the claims of these impostors were punctured and they themselves came to grief.
Then John the Baptist came along, calling people to repentance and baptizing them with a baptism of repentance. His fiery preaching, his fearless confrontation of the establishment and his ascetic personal lifestyle soon made a deep impression on the people. They began to wonder if he, at least, might be the Messiah. Well, there was only one way to find out: ask the man himself. That, they did. John did not only tell them emphatically that he was not the Messiah, but he said that he was so inferior to the Messiah that he was unfit to untie the strap of his sandal. Now, that was a routine task that was reserved for slaves in those days. If John was unfit to untie the strap of the Messiah’s sandal, that meant he was unfit to be even a slave to the Messiah.
John the Baptist refuses to dress himself in ‘borrowed robes’. John is clear in his own mind. In the Gospel of John, the evangelist, we are emphatically told that John the Baptist is not the light. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (Jn 1:6-8). He must make way for the light. He must create a space for the light to shine through. And when people see the light, then his own task would be finished. In today’s world, full of impostors and usurpers, persons who actively seize the rightful position of others for their own personal benefit and gratification, John refuses to succumb to any temptation of obscuring the vision of God. He simply lets “God be God’.
We must not forget that it was about the same John the Baptist that Jesus would later say, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Mtt 11:11). And yet John said he was unfit to be even a slave of the Messiah. What humility!
This agrees perfectly with the teaching of Jesus that those who humble themselves will be exalted by God, while those who exalt themselves will be humbled, also by God (Lk 14:11). John the Baptist humbled himself to a level below that of a slave, and God exalted him to the status of the greatest person ever born of a woman up to his time. The others who claimed that they were the Messiah when they were not were duly humbled by God, and shown up for the impostor that they were.
The teaching of Jesus on humility and every other issue remains valid for all times. History is replete with instances of its realization. History’s pages are illuminated with countless examples of humble men and women who were raised to dizzying heights of glory by God. At the other end of the spectrum, the pages of history are also littered with the carcasses of proud men and women who were brought down to earth rather unceremoniously from the pedestals on which they had installed themselves. We can bet on history repeating itself if we are wise enough to follow John’s example of humility, however much we may be endowed and whatever the volume of our achievements.
- REPENTANCE AND HUMILITY BRING JOY AND LIBERATION
True repentance and humility bring JOY AND LIBERATION to the person who practices them. This is the joy that comes from one’s acceptance of our dependence on God, and our unworthiness before spotless throne. It is a joy that one experiences when one gives God the all the glory and lets God to be God. Joy is the reward of every heart that recognizes that all that every human being HAS and IS are God’s gifts first, before becoming personal merits.
Today, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the Church celebrates GAUDATE SUNDAY. “Gaudate” is the Latin word for REJOICE, and it is the message of the 1st and 2nd readings, and also the prayers for the Mass of today.
- In the opening prayer, the celebrant prayed: “O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the JOYS of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and GLAD REJOICING.”
- The prophet Zephaniah exhort us in the 1st reading: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph 3:14).
- Paul, in the 2nd reading, calls on the Philippians: Brothers and sisters: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).
The reason for this joy is because “the Lord is near”; he is at hand! (Phil 4:5). “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, a mighty savior” Zeph 4:15). His mission is to bring joy and gladness to his people who have suffered one calamity after the other. “He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (Zeph 4:17-18). Today, we are invited to rejoice as we continue our preparation for the birthday of Jesus, and his Second Coming.
While it is lovely to hear someone tell us to “rejoice”, the reality is that in the world and in our lives there are times when it is difficult to find joy. On the news we hear of wars, senseless massacres as are happening in various parts of our country and the world-over. Where is the joy in all of this? In our own lives we might be facing various trials of health, family tragedies, joblessness, financial insufficiency, and relationships that are almost on the rock. How can we be joyful with all these things going on around us and in our lives? When Saint Paul wrote this letters to the Philippians and tells them to rejoice, he is not living in the best of situations. Everything is not going well for Paul, and he wrote this letter as he was being persecuted and was fleeing from town to town. This joy can be with us at all times, even the most trying times. It does not take away the problems pain we might experience, but it lifts us up to accept them, to bear them, and to trust the IMMANUEL – “God is with us”.