Third Sunday of Advent
"BE STRONG, FEAR NOT! HERE IS YOUR GOD" (Is.35:4)
These are the exact words which God spoke to Abraham while reassuring him of the promise to make him great, "Be strong, fear not..." (Gen.15:1). Today, the prophet Isaiah speaks these words to a people expecting deliverance from bondage. The reading is taken from one of Isaiah's many passages of hope probably after Israel had returned from the Babylonian captivity. The prophet Isaiah attributes the unsuccessful attack of Assyria in 701BC to the power of God. He speaks of messianism, the God who comes to save his people from bondage. Having experienced terrible things in their exile, the Israelites are trembling and are afraid. But the prophet Isaiah declares restoration and hope. He reminds them of the need to believe only in God and not rely on human authority for liberation. God is the reason to be strong, not afraid. He is the God who brings divine recompense and salvation. The prophet declares numerous reasons to trust in God's saving help- "the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; the lame will leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy, they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee".
The message of today's readings is that God's presence brings complete restoration to those who believe. The prophet says, "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not". While Isaiah points to the coming of a messiah who will free the people from bondage, the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist in the gospel provides the answer to Isaiah's declaration of messianism.
Last Sunday, John the Baptist lashed out at the Pharisees while calling them to repentance. He threatened and cursed them, described them as "brood of vipers" who deserve God's wrath. Today, John is in prison and Jesus begins his ministry. John is a bit uncomfortable and perhaps scared that Jesus' approach downplays his persuasive and provocative tone. John's emphasis is on divine anger and Judgment whereas Jesus embodies healing and divine mercy. John wants to confirm his belief or rather his doubts. He sends his disciples to go find out if Jesus is truly the messiah he is working for. Scripture says, "When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" (Matt.11:2). That is a serious question. It is like saying to your boss, "Now, let's look at the schedule here. Let's put things straight, sir".
John's feelings portray frustration for some reasons: 1. Jesus is supposed to speak on behalf of John while he is in prison. 2. The methodology of Jesus seems to contradict his own, and so John needs to be sure that he is really preaching the same message as Jesus. 3. John has palpable fears.
Characteristic of Jesus, he addresses John's questions with proofs. Since John preaches about the Kingdom, it is good to let him see proofs of the presence of God's kingdom among his people: "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 good news proclaimed to them". This is God's kingdom made available to believers.
Let's remember that Jesus had earlier declared this mission in the synagogue of Nazareth. Thus Scripture says, "they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from where he read, "The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord" (Lk.4:18). After that declaration, he said to his listeners, "This text is being fulfilled today while you are listening" (Lk.4:21). His statement could imply thus, "this text is being fulfilled in me as I speak to you this day". Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, the saving Power of God. He strengthens all trembling hands, calms all weary hearts. Therefore, Jesus confirms John's beliefs and urges him not to take offense at him.
On another note, Christ also uses the opportunity to endorse John the Baptist as a prophet sent to declare God's plan of salvation. John the Baptist is a great prophet in the pattern of Elijah. He is not a self acclaimed prophet, "a reed swayed by the wind". He is not a flamboyant figure who lazies about in the palace. He is the one prophesied by Malachi, God's messenger sent like the prophet Elijah to declare God's reign (cf. Mal.3:23-24). Hence Jesus states, "He is the one of whom scripture says: Look, I am sending my messenger in front of you to prepare your way before you. In truth I tell you, of all children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matt.11:10-11). So, both messages of John and Jesus corroborate one another and do not contradict.
Meanwhile, Jesus is the reason to be strong. He is the source of courage and consolation. He is a consoling presence for believers. He is the reason why the prophet tells us, "Be strong, fear not!" Sometimes we tremble. Sometimes we panic for various reasons in life. Certain forces confront our individual existence and family lives. We experience disappointments and failures in our relationships, in marriage. We experience delays. We experience anxieties caused by sicknesses. We experience denials. We encounter losses. We get scared. The words of the prophet ring out strongly, "Be strong! Fear not!". If you believe in Christ, he gives you the strength, he makes you strong in the midst of temptations. Sometimes, too, those temptations do not go away, but Christ strengthens you with the grace to tackle them. While addressing the Galatian Church, Saint Paul talked about a certain illness in him which would not go away. It was this illness, he said, that first gave him the opportunity to preach the gospel (cf. Gal.4:13-14). Yet, Paul remained strong and committed to the gospel message, converted his weakness to opportunity.
In this advent season, God is telling us to be strong. He is inviting all of us to trust in his love and mercy. He is our God, yes, he does not abandon us in times of trouble. He is a saving God. Don Moen sings, "Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the holy one. Give thanks because he's given Jesus Christ, His Son (2ice). And now, let the weak say I am strong. Let the poor say I am rich. Because of what the Lord has done for us (2ice). Give thanks!!!"
In Christ, the poor are rich, the weak are strong. In Christ all trembling hands are steadied. In Christ sorrows turn to joy, hunger gives way to fullness and satisfaction. In Christ we are made whole again. Let's go about to declare this message of restoration to those around us. Let us convey hope by our presence which is the love of Christ that we embody. Take this message home with you today to those you meet; say to them, "Be strong! Fear not! Here is your God". He is the God of possibilities.