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The Third Sunday in Advent

Readings: Is. 61:1–4, 8–11, Ps. 126, 1 Th. 5:12–28 & Jn. 1:6–8, 19–28.

Who am I? Have you ever asked yourself that question? I know I have, and I still do. In fact, I remember a specific occasion recently when I did just that. And the reason why I remember it so clearly, is because I wrote about in my journal.

It was Monday, September 18th, and I had just finished my spiritual reading for the day. The reading was from a book titled ‘A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals’. Merton was an American Catholic writer, theologian and mystic. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion.

The title of Merton’s journal entry for that day was ‘Love is our Measure’. Let me read for you now a portion of what Merton wrote:

“The measure of our identity, of our being (the two are the same), is the amount of our love for God. The more we love earthly things, reputation, importance, pleasures, ease, and success, the less we love God. Our identity is dissipated among things that have no value, and we are drowned and die in trying to live in the material things we would like to possess, or in the projects we would like to complete to objectify the work of our own wills. Then, when we come to die, we find we have squandered all our love (that is, our being) on things of nothingness, and that we are nothing, we are death.”

The thing that really hit me was the opening phrase:

“The measure of our identity, of our being (the two are the same), is the amount of our love for God.” I’d never stopped to think that our identity and our being were one and the same thing. And yet when I thought about it that morning, it made perfect sense to me. When I asked myself the question, “Who am I?”, the simple answer was, “I am me. I am who I am.” I thought about answering the question in other ways: I am a priest; I am a husband; I am a father, I am a son, et cetera. But I realised they were answers to a different question. They were describing “what I am”, rather than “who I am”.

Then I thought about what Merton said about the measure of our identity. That it is the amount of our love for God. He contrasted that with a love for earthly things: reputation, importance, pleasures, ease, and success, all things which I’m sure we can all easily recognise in our own society today as measures of someone’s identity. Yet Merton would argue that in measuring our identity in terms of earthly things, we are watering down our identity, dissolving it among things that have no real value.

Why is he spending so much time talking about identity, you might be asking yourself? Well, our readings today have a lot to do with identity. In our first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, we hear an unidentified person saying, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.’ (Is. 61:1) Who is this self-proclaimed messenger from God? We are not told. Whoever they were, they were talking to the exiles in Babylon who were now free to return home and rebuild Jerusalem following the defeat of the Babylonian Empire by King Cyrus of Persia.

And they were telling the exiles that a spiritually healthy community, would be a community dwelling in a secure and productive land, and this obviously involved bricks and mortar. But they were also saying that always what is built in obedience to God goes beyond bricks and mortar. Placing God’s justice and mercy at the heart of the project of rebuilding Jerusalem, would enable the community there to reach the highest purpose possible for any human group, which is “to display [God’s] glory” (v. 3).

If we look at today’s passage from Isaiah in the context of Advent, we could say that the speaker in this passage is Christ, and ‘we’ are the audience he is addressing. Reading the passage in this way, means that rather than hearing the words of the speaker as exaltation of a God who serves our needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world. Or, to put it in Advent language, we are called to be Christ to others.

In a way, this is what Paul was saying to the church at Thessalonica. Today’s passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, is actually the ending of the letter. It contains a series of admonitions designed to stop the church community from becoming lazy or passive. Paul ends the letter with action words that are God-centred. Rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, discerning, and testing–these activities leave no room for idleness (1 Thessalonians 5:14) nor do they allow the church to forget the source of their good news.

The church today reads these final admonitions as we too await Christ’s return. Paul is insistent that Christ will come again when he writes, ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’. (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Death, pain, suffering, and turmoil do not get the last word. We await a Saviour who has conquered Death. This period of waiting, though, is not a time to twiddle our thumbs. We are called to be active. Pray and rejoice that God has not abandoned us to evil. Model what is good and peaceful. Allow God’s Spirit to shine in your midst for the God of peace is really at work among us.

We are to bear witness to Christ in the world, just as John the Baptist did in today’s passage from the gospel of John. John gave his testimony to the Jewish religious leaders concerning Jesus. Here are seven things we learn about Jesus from John’s witness that a first time hearer would have known

  • Jesus is the true light (In John’s gospel, light refers to Jesus’ [the Word’s] ability to create and maintain life),
  • Jesus is exalted (John is not worthy to untie his sandal),
  • Jesus is the Lamb of God (the Passover lamb, a symbol of God’s deliverance of the Israelites in the Exodus),
  • Jesus takes away the world’s sin (sin is singular–the world’s communal brokenness),
  • God’s Spirit is upon Jesus and remains with Jesus,
  • Jesus will baptise people with the Holy Spirit,
  • Jesus is the Son of God (meaning John recognises that Jesus has a special relationship with God and a unique ability to reveal God),

John’s witness lends credibility to Jesus’ actions and activities. Furthermore, in John’s gospel, witness is the beginning of faith–bearing witness to the Word, Jesus Christ is the foundation for the emergence of human faith in God.

In order to witness to Jesus though, John has to understand the measure of his own identity. He has to know who he is not, who he is, and what he does. When the Jewish religious leaders ask John three times:

“Who are you?”

John answers truthfully, but differently, each time. trying to be clear about his identity, John answers in three ways:

  1. Clarifies who he is not (for example not the Christ, not Elijah…),
  2. References a Hebrew Bible text that discloses something of his vocation (“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”),
  3. Owns (the limitations of) his actions (“I baptise with water” and there is another immanently more worthy),

Perhaps we can use these same three methods to help us answer the question:

“Who am I?”

and claim our identity within our own vocation to bear witness to Jesus?

  • Firstly, by clarifying who we aren’t.
  • Secondly, by finding a passage in Scripture that describes something about what each of us does in our particular vocation.
  • Thirdly, explaining specifically what it is that we do in our vocation.

Then perhaps once we have claimed our identity within our vocation, we can then begin to measure our identity, by understanding the amount of our love for God. And being confident in that knowledge, we can truly bear witness to Christ in our own lives.

The Lord be with you.

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