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Saturday, 12 December 2015

Homily for 3rd Sunday of Advent Year C, Gaudete Sunday, By Fr. Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

Zephaniah 3:14-18, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:10-18
– on the Gospel: What then Must We Do?

Two men, Charlie and Roger, got together and opened a butcher shop. The business did quite well and they prospered. One day a preacher came to town, and Charlie gave his life to Christ. He tried to persuade Roger to accept Christ also, but to no avail. "Why won't you, Roger?" asked the newly baptized Charlie. "Listen, Charlie," Roger said. "If I get religion too, who's going to weigh the meat?"

Roger has this going for him, that he understands that believing in Christ implies a radical change in personal and professional behaviour. Many people who identify themselves as Christians do not seem to get it. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 1987 in the USA, there is little difference in moral behaviour between people who go to church and people who don't. There is as much pilfering and dishonesty among church members as among non-members. There seems to be a widespread misconception among Christians that we can add Christ to our lives without subtracting sin. Accepting Jesus as one's personal Lord and Saviour is seen as a matter of changing one's belief and not much to do with changing one's behaviour. How many times have you heard street preachers say, "Only believe, and you will be saved?"

In today's gospel we have the rare opportunity of listening to the preaching of John the Baptizer. "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people" (Luke 3:18). John's preaching of the good news has two principal components: (a) the invitation to live a Godly life, and (b) the invitation to believe in Jesus the Messiah.

The Invitation to Live a Godly Life
This appears to be the emphasis in John's preaching. Various groups of people who heard John preach responded by asking, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:10, 12, 14). To the crowds or the masses his answer was: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise" (verse 11). Accepting the gospel demands a change in one's personal conduct. One becomes a person who loves to share, rather than a person who loves to accumulate.

To the tax collectors John answered: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you" (verse 13). And to the soldiers he answered: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages" (verse 14). To them he enjoined honesty and fairness in their business dealings and professional conduct. The gospel is a leaven that affects every aspect of our personal, business and social life. To repent is to turn from evil and do good. "Only believe, and you will be saved" is at best a half-truth.

The Invitation to Believe in Jesus the Messiah
To accept the gospel, however, does not mean simply to strive to be a good person. It means above all to be a person of faith, a person who believes in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. The people to whom John preached were beginning to mistake him for the Messiah. If they did so, they would be mistaken in their belief, their zeal and goodwill notwithstanding. It is possible for a believer to be full of goodwill and zeal for the Lord, to be blameless in both personal and professional behaviour, yet be in error in his or her beliefs. An essential part of imparting the good news is to point out possible errors in belief and help the believer to move from an imperfect and naive to a more perfect and mature knowledge of the doctrine of Christ. This is what John the Baptizer did.

The tendency among us Christians today is to emphasize the belief aspect at the expense of moral behaviour. For John, however, change of behaviour came first, before change of belief. The synthesis of John's preaching was, "the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). For him repentance, turning away from selfishness to a Godly behaviour, precedes and accompanies belief.

As we prepare to celebrate the coming of God to His people in the birth of Jesus, let us call to mind that the basic problem with Christian faith today is that we profess to believe but do not match it with practical behaviour. This self-contradiction constitutes a stumbling block for would-be believers, who are often attracted by the person and teachings of Christ but are turned away by the behaviour of those who claim to be his followers. John prepared his people for the coming of Jesus by challenging them to mend their ways and believe his message. We cannot do better than that. The best preparation we can make for the birth of the Lord is to repent and guide our behaviour by the selfless teachings of the gospel. This is what is needed today to make our faith perfect so that we can stand with heads raised high in joy at the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

On the Epistle: Don't Worry, Be Happy!
In today's 2nd reading, Paul gives us some important, practical advise, "Rejoice in the Lord always" (Philippians 4:4) and "Do not worry about anything" (4:6). Doesn't this sound like the famous hit by Bobby McFerrin, Don't Worry Be Happy? Even though we live in a world that is chock-full of toys, comforts and luxuries yet fewer and fewer people seem to experience true peace and satisfaction in their lives. Rather we continue to experience more and more worry and anxiety. Life is full of problems, as Bobby McFerrin admits, yet he goes on to advise us not to worry:
  • In every life we have some trouble/ When you worry you make it double/ Don't worry, be happy.
  • Ain't got no place to lay your head/ Somebody came and took your bed/ Don't worry, be happy.
  • The landlord say your rent is late/ He may have to litigate/ Don't worry, be happy.
  • Ain't got no cash, ain't got no style/ Ain't got no gal to make you smile/ But don't worry, be happy.
Yet there is a big difference between St Paul and Bobby McFerrin on this issue. Bobby McFerrin tells us "Don't worry, be happy" without telling us why we should be happy or more importantly how to not worry. Paul, on the other hand tells us in today's reading both why we should be happy and how we can dissolve our worries and attain happiness. Here we have Paul's key to happiness.

The first part of the reading tells us why we should be happy and not worry. "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near" (4:4-5). We should be happy not because everything is going well with us right now, not because our health and finances are in great shape, not even because someone has bought us a big Christmas present, but simply because the Lord is near. We should be happy not because of what we have seen in the past or what we see today but because of what we shall see tomorrow. It is a happiness that springs from the faith and the hope that our Lord is coming to wipe away the tears from all eyes. I can think of a friend of mine who was diagnosed of leukemia around this time some years back. Before he died only weeks later he asked me, "But why me? I never smoked or touched a drink in my life. I know people who smoke and drink and do all the wrong thinks and yet they never got cancer. So why me?" I wish I knew the answer.

No one really knows the answer. But Paul today reassures us that the coming of the Lord will be a happy surprise for those who believe and hope in Him. It helps if we remember that Paul is writing these words from the dark walls of a Roman prison where he was not sure of coming out alive. So here he is teaching us not only by word but by example as well. "Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near." The Lord is coming. "And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well" to use the famous words of Julian of Norwich.

It is one thing to know why one should not worry and another to know how not to worry. How could one keep from worrying when one is surrounded by apparently insurmountable problems and difficulties? Paul gives us an answer in the second part of the reading. "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." (4:6) In every situation, in every difficulty or problem, in all circumstances, Paul knows one thing we should do rather than worry, and that is: take it to the Lord in prayer. Paul does not ask us to deny that we've got problems or to pretend as if they are not there. He urges us rather to face our problems squarely, not with worry but with prayer. Turn worries into prayers.

This is how we arrive at that inner peace which people around us cannot understand. "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (4:7). It is the peace that God gives, the peace that nothing in the world can give, and all because we have learnt to trust God in everything and in every situation. All because we have learnt to bring everything to God in prayer. No matter the magnitude of the problems facing us at this time, we can with the prisoner Paul pray with joy and confidence: "Maranatha, Come Lord, Jesus."

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