Sunday December 9, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Week in Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 11:1-10) Reading II (Romans 15:4-9)
Gospel (St. Matthew 3:1-12)
"Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" That was the message Saint John the Baptist preached to the people out in the desert. And the people, recognizing their own sinfulness, recognizing that they had strayed from the way of the Lord, came in droves out into the desert to be able to hear this man preach. All you have to do is think about the scene that would have been going on. Here you have a man who lives out in the desert, eating grasshoppers and wild honey, wearing a camelís-hair outfit with a leather belt around his waist Ė completely unkempt in any way. He is out in the desert miles about 20 miles away from Jerusalem through very difficult terrain. We are told that Jerusalem, all of Judea, and the entire area around the Jordan were all going out to hear him preach.
Now, on the natural level, this makes absolutely no sense. If we just look around at what is happening in our own day and within our own society, it is exactly what Saint Paul warns people about when he says, "Be wary of preachers who tickle your ears." Be very careful about somebody who is going to say to you just what it is that you want to hear. If you want to hear somebody telling you that you are a wonderful person, that your life is in great order, that there is nothing wrong, that whatever you want to believe, whatever you want to think, whatever you want to say is just great, there are lots and lots of preachers who are willing to tell you that. Of course, they usually are very quick to add "Make sure you put nothing less that a $20 bill into the basket as itís being passed around," because they are not interested in you; they are interested in themselves. And even far less are they interested in Jesus because they are not willing to do whatever it is going to require to bring the people to Christ. They are going to do whatever they think is required in order to get what they want.
That is not the task of one who preaches the Gospel. For one who preaches the Gospel, it is made very clear that there is an obligation to preach the Word of Christ. It is the Gospel that we are preaching, not ourselves. We are to "preach Jesus Christ and Him Crucified" Saint Paul says - and nothing else. That is not an easy message. It is not a fun message. But it is the truth. When people hear the truth it does not matter what the messenger looks like, it does not matter what the voice sounds like, and it does not even matter that it is a difficult message; if people want the truth they will rise to the challenge.
That is exactly what happened when Saint John the Baptist was out in the desert. The amazing thing is that anybody found him in the first place. It can only be the movement of the Holy Spirit at work in peopleís hearts, recognizing that the time was at hand. They knew, of course, as I have pointed out many times, that it was the time for the coming of the Messiah. They knew the prophecies that were given through Jeremiah and Daniel. They knew the teachings that their rabbis had taught them. They knew the time was at hand. But then there was another phenomenon that was happening: When this became a popular movement, there were lots of people who wanted just to hop on the train. They had no intention of doing anything that the Baptist said; they just wanted to be part of the crowd; they wanted to look good; they wanted to fit in. That is something that everybody needs to be very cautious of. We have to ask ourselves in the depths of our heart: "Why is it that I do the things that I do? What is the reason?" It cannot be just because this is what everyone else does. It must be because of the Lord, because of our faith in Jesus Christ. He is the one that Isaiah spoke of: the root of the stump of Jesse, the root of Jesse that is held up as a signal for the Gentiles. We are told that when He comes He is going to judge, not by hearsay, not by appearance, but with justice. He looks at the heart. He knows the reason why we do what it is that we do. He understands perfectly. He knows our motives. He knows our thoughts. He knows our intentions. Nothing is hidden from Him. If all we are trying to do is conform to some sort of external appearance, our judgment is not going to be a pleasant one. But [it needs to be that] in our heart, we are taking seriously the call to repentance, to change our lives, to turn around. That is what the word [repentance] really means: in Greek it is metanoia, a "turning around", to be able to turn the other way. In Latin, "to turn around" literally means conversion; it literally means to turn the other way, to face the other direction. And we need to turn our face toward the Lord.
The time is short. This season of Advent is a call to preparation for the coming of the Lord. As I challenged you last week, we need to ask the same question again: If the Lord were to return, do you think that you are ready? If the Lord were to come down right here, right now would you be able to stand before Him confident that the One who judges with justice is going to be able to see in you, in your heart, a person who does things for Him? Or instead, is He going to look at the appearance and just simply look at what is external and judge with the rod of His mouth and slay us, as Isaiah says He will do? That is what we need to look at. Why do we do what we do? Is it just to fit in? In other words, when we come to Mass do we make it look pretty good because everybody else is doing the same thing? But then, when we go out into the world we do what everybody out there is doing because we want to fit in there, too. When we come to Church we make it look good. We can put a smile on our face; we can even use decent language and put up a nice façade. But when we go back out into the world it is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; you would not even know it is the same person. The only thing that is the same is that we, like a chameleon, try to conform to wherever it is that we happen to be.
We need to be about Jesus Christ always, not just when we are at Mass, not just when we are around other people who are God-fearing people, not just when we are with those who believe in the Lord and want to profess Him, but when we are out there in the neopagan society in which we live, in which we are called to be the leaven in the midst of society: the salt for the earth and the light for the world. That is what the Lord wants us out there for. We need to live our lives for Christ. And so, Saint John the Baptist looks at the Pharisees and the scribes that have come out and he does not say to them "What a wonderful thing that you guys are repenting and believing," but "You brood of vipers!" It was just external appearance; they were simply doing what everyone else was doing. "You brood of vipers!" Then he goes on to say, "Show a sign of repentance by good works."
That is what we need, then, to look at. Are we truly repentant? Have we turned our lives around toward the Lord? Or are we giving Him lip service? Maybe a couple of times a year we humble ourselves to come to Confession, but we really do not have a whole lot of intention of changing anything in our lives. There is no repentance there. It is an acknowledgement of our sins with no true repentance. To repent means to turn away from the sins. We have to have the intention of changing our lives. That is what we need to make the decision to do: to look at the areas in our lives where we are not united with Christ. We need to look into our own hearts and we need to judge because we are the ones, other than the Lord, who know our own intentions and our own motives. We know what is in the heart. We know when all we are doing is putting up a façade. We know when all we are doing is trying to fit in, trying to be like other people. We know when we are not being true to the Lord, when we are only playing a little game. We are the only ones who know that. We need to judge our own selves and we need to be rather ruthless about it. We need to be able to look honestly at ourselves and to size things up and ask ourselves: Am I really living the Gospel that I profess? Am I really following Jesus Christ?
If there was some man out in the middle of nowhere who, if found in our society, would be locked up in a psychiatric unit because of the way that he was looking and acting; if there was some man out there wearing camel skin and not shaving and eating grasshoppers and doing other things, would I go out to listen to him? Would I want to hear his voice? Or would I say, "The guy is nuts! Ignore him. Keep doing what youíre doing; itís not a problem. Thereís no need to prepare. Thereís no need to repent. I can do it all by myself." That is the American way, and it is a way that leads directly to perdition. No one can do this by himself; we need Jesus Christ. And the people that Christ sends into our lives are not the ones that we would anticipate. They are not necessarily going to be the ones that look real good, that try to impress other people. Saint John the Baptist is the greatest man born of woman, but the people said that he was crazy. The Lord even told us that that is what the people said of him. Then they said of Jesus: "This one, heís a glutton and a drunkard!" So they ignored them both.
What about us? Do we just keep Jesus at a distance and look at Him totally objectively 2,000 years removed and say, "Well, yes. Jesus was God," but we do not have Him here on the inside [in our hearts] because we really do not want to see Him, because we really do not want to change our lives, because we really do not want to hear the message that He is preaching? Maybe we do not really want to hear Saint John the Baptist because maybe he would look at us and say, "You brood of vipers!" Maybe we need to look at ourselves and ask if that is what we are. And if we are, then listen to what he tells the scribes and the Pharisees when he says, "Show some sign of your repentance." It is not a lost situation, but rather, it is a situation that calls for change. So do not simply read this Gospel today and assume that we are in the right camp, but make an honest inventory of yourself. Ask yourself, first of all, if you would have gone out to hear him; and secondly, why. Would it have been because you really wanted to repent, because you really wanted to change your life to live the way that the Lord lays out for us? Or just because it was the popular thing to do at the time? "It might be kind of interesting to see this crazy guy out in the desert, and then when we come home we can laugh about him." What would be our attitude in going out into the desert? Do we really want to change our lives?
If we do, then we need to look deeply into ourselves, not just to make a surface-level, quick inventory of what we did wrong over the last couple of months or however long it has been since weíve been to Confession, but we need to take a serious, hard look into our own hearts. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and to show to us the areas where we are violating our relationship with Christ, where we have offended God. Then we need to look seriously at how we are going to change, not just to simply say, "Letís go through the rote Confession. Oh yeah, I did that at Easter; I have to do it at Christmas again." That is a pretty sad statement. It is to look at what needs to change in our lives and to make a choice to change it. There is only one person who can make that choice, and that is you. It is entirely up to you to decide whether you are going to keep Christ, John the Baptist, the Gospel, the Truth, and God Himself at an armís distance or if you are going to let Him in. To keep Him at an armís distance is pretty antiseptic; it is very safe. We can tell ourselves that we are good people because we believe in the Lord. We can give lip service to God and we can make it sound pretty good. We can go through the motions while continuing to play the other side of the coin when we are out in the world. Or we can look on the inside and we can see where the hypocrisy lies. We can see where there are things in our lives that keep us from really living the Catholic life the way we are called to live it, where there are areas where we are not changing our lives, where we do not really intend to repent and convert.
When we see those things, that is when we need to make the choice. Do I really want to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Or do I just want to say that I am? That is the choice that each one of us needs to make. John the Baptist is crying out in the depths of our heart, in the depths of our conscience to repent because the kingdom of God is at hand. "The kingdom of God," Jesus said, "is within." It is already there inside of you. He has planted that seed within and now He Himself, the root of Jesse, is set up as the signal for us to be able to see, to draw us to Himself. Do not keep Him at an armís distance. Look at Jesus - come to Jesus - and repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.