CHOOSING JOY

This homily is based on Matthew 11:2-11.

I don’t know if you noticed it, but that’s a pretty strange exchange of messages between our Lord and John the Baptist.

First of all, John the Baptist requests his disciples to ask our Lord a bizarre question.  Thrown into prison for denouncing the sins of Herod Antipas, John the Baptist hears about the miracles of our Lord and sends his disciples to ask:  “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Now why would he ask a question like that?

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Remember, this John the Baptist is the same person who, upon seeing Jesus in the crowd by the River Jordan, pointed him out to his own disciples, declaring “Behold the Lamb of God!”  In fact, as a result, at least two of his disciples, Andrew and John, left him to follow Jesus instead.

He is also the same John the Baptist who baptized Jesus, and prior to that, kept saying that another one—greater than he—was soon to come, referring to Jesus, of course.

Finally, let’s not forget that this John the Baptist is the cousin of Jesus, the very same one, who, even as a baby in his mother’s womb, upon hearing Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth, leaps in joy, even then already in recognition of the Lord.

And now he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is “the One”?   Strange.

That’s not all.  The answer of Jesus to his cousin’s question is also strange.  He tells the disciples of John to report the miracles and signs that he has been performing.  He enumerates them, quoting the prophet Isaiah:  The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, etc.  And then he adds something quite unexpected and mysterious:  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Which, put bluntly, more or less means:  “Please don’t get upset.”  Now, why would he say such a thing?

To answer our questions about this exchange of strange messages between the cousins, we should pay attention to what Jesus does not say.  Here, I think we have a perfect example of the Bible inviting us, as it sometimes does, to focus not only on what it says, but also on what it does not say; a perfect case of the Bible bidding us to pay attention not only to its words, but also to its silence.

What does the Lord not say in his response?  In his response to John’s disciples, Jesus enumerates the different signs that are associated with the Messiah:  The blind see; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor have the good news preached to them.  Actually, there’s something missing.

One of the best-known passages in the book of Isaiah enumerates four of the things that the Messiah will do.  It goes:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to [1] preach the good news to the poor.   [2] He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and [3] recovery of sight to the blind, [and 4] to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  (Numbers within brackets added).

Two out of the four items happen to deal with prisoners: “to proclaim release to captives” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  Now, why would our Lord exclude them in his response?  Did he simply forget that as the Messiah, he’s also supposed to set prisoners free?  That’s a little hard to imagine considering that his cousin—to whom he’s sending the message—is, at that very moment, himself languishing in prison!

Now we begin to understand John the Baptist’s question to Jesus.  When he sends his disciples to ask Jesus,  “Are you the One?” he isn’t really asking about the identity of Jesus.  He already knows that Jesus is the Messiah; he has known that ever since he was in his mother’s womb.  What he means is: “Are you really the One?  Because if you are, shouldn’t you be helping me out like setting me free as the Messiah should do to prisoners?”

Now we also begin to understand what our Lord means when he tells John’s disciples:  “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me!”  It’s really almost an apology, I think—a request for John to understand and not to be upset because the Lord isn’t about to set him free from prison.

Imagine you’re John.  After all the things you’ve done preparing the way for Jesus, wouldn’t you expect your cousin the Messiah to use his miraculous powers to set you free and to vindicate you?  So you send messengers to remind him about your situation.  But what response do you get?  “Yes, I’m the Messiah, but I’m sorry if I don’t meet all your expectations—like helping you out and setting you free.”

We can only imagine how John the Baptist must have felt upon receiving Jesus’ response.  The Gospel is silent on this.  But we can be sure that he must have been disappointed, maybe even upset or depressed.  Maybe his heart was broken.  But we can also be sure that even if his heart was broken, it was not shattered:  After the initial disappointment or depression, John must have thought about the Lord’s words—“Do not be offended!”—and decided to obey, trusting that the Lord should always know best.

We don’t hear about John the Baptist again until three chapters later when we’re told—almost casually—that he has been beheaded and that his head has been served on a platter at a party thrown by a drunken Herod Antipas.  Next we’re told that upon hearing of John’s death, our Lord withdraws to a secluded place, but is immediately followed by the usual crowd clamoring for help and healing.  Our Lord doesn’t even have the luxury to mourn the death of his cousin and prophet, who trusted and obeyed—even without understanding.

Sometimes when we want something, or when we need something, and God doesn’t give it to us, we can’t help but wonder–not without some resentment, “Should I look for another?”  I mean, if the Lord isn’t going to use his powers to make my life better, what’s the point?

Today John the Baptist teaches us about our own expectations fo the Lord.  Like us, John the Baptist had his expectations of the Lord.  They were reasonable expectations especially if you think about everything he had done for the Lord.  But as it turns out, even prophets, it seems, don’t always get what they expect from the Lord—and it makes no difference if you happen to be the greatest prophet or the Lord’s first cousin.  Even people like them, it seems, have to “let go and let God.”

As they have done, so should we.  As we know, things don’t always turn out exactly the way we expect or want them to.  In fact, usually they don’t.  As we know, our prayers aren’t always answered in the exact same way we want them to be answered.  In fact, usually they’re not.   What we often end up receiving is so different from what we’ve asked for that sometimes we actually feel our prayers have not been answered at all.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent–also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice.”Sometimes  things don’t make sense in our lives or in the world, but the Baptist teaches us that when things don’t always turn out the way we want them, we need to choose joy. For the Christian, joy isn’t just a feeling, but a choice, and to rejoice is not simply a reaction, but a conscious decision.

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10 thoughts on “CHOOSING JOY”

  1. Hi Fr. Johnny!
    What a unique way of presenting the Bible passage! I will never be able to understand the gospel reading that way on my own. And thanks for driving home an important lesson; the decision to be joyful in the Lord, despite anything. May we be blessed with the necessary grace to be joyful always.
    Thank you! Thank you!

  2. Thank you , Fr. This is the explanation and answer to my question . Although I cling to my faith and trust to accept tragedies in our family , I constantly doubt and get sad and feel bad why they happened . Then , I would surrender to God’s will and accept them. But it’s not the answer to my restless mind and feeling . I do my best to cope with the tragedies but the sadness and pain come back in and off . Now with this homily , I have the answer to my nagging questions that I do not directly acknowledge even to myself. This is the explanation I am looking for . To rejoice despite loses and pain . After surrendering is rejoicing! This make sense. Yes, with Gid’s grace , I rejoice.
    You see , Fr. John, our family lost my oldest daughter unexpectedly , almost 4 years ago . She died of mental illness . It’s unimaginable loss to all of us . She’s so loving and loved by many . She left us including her husband and 3. Year old daughter. We are always trying our best to live a good life after she died. Then last summer , while vacationing with a younger daughter in Hawaii as her incentive for being mentally stable, she attempted to hurt herself, fell and broke her back and become paraplegic. She survived the fall that could have easily killed her. . Now , she is doing rehabilitation.
    Now, my acceptance is due to my trust and faith . Now, I will continue to fallow that with joy . Thank you for this opportunity to lead me to joy especially this Chridtmas . Noe, I know peace is

  3. This is truly not one easy thing to do — but Yes – if we believe that no one can love as more than HE — no matter how hurt we may be because we expected man’s ways not Gods

  4. Father Johnny, thank you for enlightening me on a line in the Bible that has always perplexed me. Jesus sometimes doesn’t speak straight talk ,or rather, I do not see what He means since my vision is clouded by worries, doubts and disappointments. Today you have shed light on what I could not understand …and I have hope and joy onc more.

  5. To trust and obey, even without understanding.

    The definition of faith itself.

    This reflection gave me such empathy for John the Baptist. Anyone who pursues God’s heart knows how it is to have your heart broken – but not shattered. And it is there that I find He embraces us as he coaxes us to trust that He knows best.

    Salamat, Fr J.

  6. Decide to rejoice! Fr. J, this is quite a challenge. Only with God’s grace can we make a decision to rejoice inspite of pain, humiliation, disappointment, and loneliness. May Advent fill us with the spirit to rejoice despite all.

  7. And we choose to be patient amidst our frustration with the present administration even when he is not making sense in the world we live in…..we choose patience because we know God walks with us… Patience gives us joy…

  8. Thank you Fr. J for helping us unravel God’s Word and to understand his message in context. Sometimes when I pray I feel a certain degree of self-entitlement that I expect the Lord to grant my prayers the way I expect him to respond however today’s Gospel remind us that the Lord, in his goodness and wisdom, doesn’t always grant us what we ask for reasons sometimes beyond us and our usual control. Instead of whining and making “tampo” to the Lord, may the silence of John the Baptist allow us to meaningfully search for the wisdom that somehow accompanies God’s answers to our prayers, especially in context of our “waiting for the Lord’s coming” this season of Advent. It’s hard to be joyous when we don’t get what we earnestly prayed for but we must somehow be content that the Lord grants us something else that at the end of the day is greater than what we asked for… since He gives us Himself.

  9. How very true that “sometimes things don’t make sense in our lives or in the world” And when this happens, “we need to choose joy” — yes, we need to trust in God who knows all because He sees all. Our daughter never got what she prayed for and this made her sad, but never did she give up in prayer. Finally, when she prayed “Lord, give me what will make me successful and happy in my field of work” — only then did she receive the answer to her prayers. Now she is full of joy thanking God for His wisdom and guidance.
    Years back, I thought I lost my husband to his vices. There were times when I asked God, WHY? There were times when I wanted to give up. But when I prayed for God to never let go of my hand and to take care of my children and I, only then did he take away my husbands vices and turned this to loving service for the poor. His conversion to the Faith, God made whole.
    I will never understand God’s ways. But I know that if I keep the Faith and “let go and let God”, only then can I receive the answer to my prayers. Thank you for this gentle reminder. God bless you more!

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