Fr. Bill Carroll – Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2022
Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong. Do not fear!”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week, I’ve been reading a book by Fr. William Barry, SJ, called Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God. It is a sequel to a book he co-authored forty years ago that is still a standard textbook for spiritual directors. In the more recent work, published in 2004, Barry lays a theoretical foundation for the older, more practical book. And, against the assumptions of many modern people, he argues that God is real—and that God can speak to us in our everyday experience.
Building on the work of John MacMurray, Barry notes that we are motivated either by love or by fear: “Love,” he tells us, “is for the other. It moves [us] to care for the other. Fear (by contrast) is for the self. It moves [us] to try to force the other to respond to [our] need.” Barry then goes on to distinguish self-centered from other-centered behavior:
A predominately egocentric motivation (he writes) means that fear for oneself dominates and subordinates love for the other. Fear motivates defensive behavior, and one can defend oneself either by a submissive or by an aggressive behavior toward the other…Both kinds of behavior are self-defeating, because what I really want and need is the mutuality of a personal relationship. Indeed (he continues), to the extent that FEAR predominates in my personal motivation, I am unfree.
As I was reading these words, I thought of the First Letter of John, chapter four, where the apostle teaches us that “Perfect love casts out all fear.” And then I remembered today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “Strengthen the weak hands (says the LORD) and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong. Do not be afraid!’”
Beloved, there is an epidemic of fear in our nation today. Neighbors have become afraid of one another. And so, we are increasingly self-centered, anxious, and aggressive with each other. This extends to our families and neighborhoods—even to our churches. Fear is everywhere. And so, this is what God is telling us today: “Be strong. Do not fear! Love one another as I have loved you. My perfect casts out all fear.”
In today’s lesson from the Gospel, we see a contrast between two kinds of power. On the one hand, there is the power of Herod to put John the Baptist into prison. On the other hand, there is the power of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. The power of Herod is based on fear and violence and control, and it is temporary. The power of Jesus is based on love, and “his kingdom will have no end.”
It is in this light that we need to understand John’s question to Jesus. John sends messengers to Jesus, whom he’s already baptized, asking for reassurance: “Are you the one who is to come,” he says, “or are we to wait for another?” John is asking if Jesus is the long-expected Savior. It’s as if John wonders from his prison cell whether his suffering as a prophet is worth it? “Are you the Messiah?,” he asks, “Have you come to set us free?”
Jesus sends the messengers back with a list of the things he is doing. They are signs of the Kingdom—all taken from biblical prophecy: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raise, and the poor have Good News brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus’s answer may strike us as indirect, but it’s not at all unclear. God’s promises about the Messianic age were well-known—and John knows them too. We can imagine his joy when hears about the fruits of the Kingdom. Jesus is the Son of God. He is the one who brings God’s Kingdom. And how we respond to him is how we respond to God: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The doors that imprison us, whatever they are, are starting to crack and splinter under the pressure that’s been building for centuries under the long, patient work of God. Now they are bursting and shattering apart. The King is here to claim us as his own.
That’s what we are praying about when we ask God to “stir up your power and with great might come among us.” We want to encounter the power of God, which is the power of love. This love has the power to cast out our fear. God’s love can move us out of our selfishness into real love for other people.
When we ask God to “stir up your power,” we are asking God to show up and heal us. We are asking God to “help and deliver us.” We are longing for God to set us free. We are longing for God to show us the way.
Jesus is the Way. And God calls us to follow him. His Kingdom belongs to the last and the least. It belongs to all who suffer—to all who are excluded, or deemed unworthy or unclean. And so, we read that
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
The lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless, sing for joy.
Jesus fulfills these words in his ministry. For when God returns to reign:
The ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Be strong, beloved. Have no fear. Know that you are loved and worthy of love. Be strong and rejoice.
Love God! Love each other! Do not be afraid!