Third Sunday of Advent

Reflection: What do you expect from God?


“Lord, hear our prayer.”

How much thought or emotion do you put into those words at each liturgy? Is it a plea or just a rote response? Perhaps a subtle bit of social justice promotion? A reminder about the parish’s sick and dying? Do you really expect prayer to change anything?

Those questions aim at deeper ones such as: What do we anticipate from God in our ordinary, daily life? How do we expect God to exercise power in our world? What results do we anticipate as a result of prayers for peace and justice, for the sick or for refugees?

John the Baptist had questions about Jesus. He knew Isaiah’s prophecies. John preached with images of a God who meted out vengeance and reward. He anticipated a savior with axe in hand, ready to incinerate the useless and call out the unrighteous as chaff. John preached as though he were expecting God’s wrath to swoop down at any moment. Then, as he languished in prison, he sent disciples to ask Jesus what kind of salvation he was offering — a thinly veiled expression of disappointment

Jesus emphasized an alternative dimension of Isaiah’s prophecies from John’s. Where John paid attention to retribution, Jesus focused on blind eyes, deaf ears, paralyzed tongues and lame legs. John seemed to envision God’s salvation as overturning oppressors on their own violent terms. Jesus concentrated on the needy and how igniting their faith could turn their lives around.

Isaiah prophesied that dry lands would flourish like a fiesta and the wasteland would bloom as if rejoicing. This image depicts a rare, but real, experience when long-dormant seeds are watered by unusual rainfall. Suddenly and for a short time, a desert landscape bursts into a riot of color, with a bounteous beauty garbing an otherwise barren landscape. This is the dimension of Isaiah’s message that seemed to catch Jesus’ imagination.

John’s disciples asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Responding, Jesus made no claim about himself. He didn’t say, “This is what I have done.” Instead, he told them what was happening with the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the dead. About himself, he simply said, “Blessed the one who takes no offense at me.” This beatitude sums up the nine found in Matthew 5. It prods listeners to see things from Jesus’ vantage point, to ask how Jesus understood God’s way of seeing things.

Of John, Jesus asked only that he not be scandalized. He asked that John not cling to his image of a vengeful God, but to be open to the God of the blooming desert, the God who awakens life’s buried or dormant potential. This image of God guided Jesus’ ministry. Jesus never took credit for healing people; he told them it was their faith, their trusting openness to God — that made them whole.

John questioned Jesus’ message and methods. Jesus replied by telling John what he had awakened in people and how they responded. Isaiah talked about the glory and the splendor of the Lord. Jesus saw God’s glory shine forth when feeble hands became strong, weak knees ceased trembling and frightened hearts moved beyond fear. The vindication and salvation Jesus offered individuals was a recovery of wholeness, an authentic and effective faith that the hidden seeds of their potential could bloom beyond their wildest imaginings.

This suggests an interpretation of one of the perplexing phrases we hear in the second eucharistic prayer. We hear the request: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts … by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.” Science tells us that dew doesn’t actually fall. Dew forms in the interaction between the humidity of the air or material and changing temperature. Symbolically, the difference between the image of dewfall and actual dew formation suggests the difference between God acting independently from outside our realm and God calling forth the innate potential of creation — including us!

This Third Sunday of Advent invites us to join John in asking ourselves what we expect of God and, in turn, what God offers and hopes for from us. Are we, with John, waiting for God’s intervention? Waiting for God to swoop down to reform or restore everything? Or do we believe that Jesus is inviting us to collaborate with the grace that unleashes our share in divine power so that we and everything around us can rejoice and bloom with our innate potential? Those alternatives might describe the difference between John, the greatest of the prophets, and the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Who and what are we awaiting in Advent?

Reading 1

(Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10)

The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
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.
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.

Responsorial psalm

(Psalm 146: 6-10)

R. Lord, come and save us.

The LORD God keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Lord, come and save us.

The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.
R. Lord, come and save us.

The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations.
R. Lord, come and save us.

Reading 2

(James 5: 7-10)

Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.


(Matthew 11: 2-11)

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“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.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off,
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”