They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes… Isaiah 35:1-10
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me…” Matthew 11:2-11
I’d like to say first of all what a great pleasure it is to be back after my sabbatical, and how very good it is to see you all again.
I have had a wonderful sabbatical, revisiting the many parts of my life before I came to the United States. Of course, lots of time with my family, who live all over England. Then back to the college where I studied at Cambridge, where I was kindly invited to preach. Then a month in Canterbury Cathedral worshiping once more in the Church of England, which formed me as a priest.
I realized that what I was doing was going back over my life, and tracing the ways in which God has been at work. The different streams and strands of God’s workings in me, forming me, changing, drawing me on. It was a great time for gaining perspective, getting up high and seeing. And now I see how God was at work – when I was a parish priest there – how it all fitted into a pattern. Sometimes in my life, at the time, it all seemed a muddle. But this sabbatical has helped me see the patterns which were not apparent at the time. And I am so grateful.
The culmination of my sabbatical was a 30-day Ignatian retreat in a beautiful placed called St. Beuno’s, in Wales – where I was born. The “30 Days” is really the “mother of all retreats”! Thirty days of silence, and meeting each day with a director who leads you through the Scriptures and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which is the foundation of Jesuit spirituality.
As I reflected on my life, with the help of Scripture, I saw again how God has always been faithful in my life.
This Advent, we are really doing the same thing. Reading the Scriptures, and looking forward in HOPE, because of the promises which God has made, and which we can trust God will keep because God is faithful. God is not capricious, moody, changeable, fickle. God is always true to his character, of love and mercy. God never acts out of character. God will always do what God promises.
Our forebears in the faith know this. And when they were looking to understand God’s activity in their lives, they looked back to the Scriptures to see how God had acted in the past. They knew that God was not capricious, that God never acted out of character. So when God made promises, they could trust that they would be kept.
And so it was for John the Baptist. This strange, enigmatic man, caught up in the Spirit. In studying the Scriptures he came to know his true identity: the voice crying in the wilderness; the herald of the Messiah. So even when in prison he felt compelled to exercise his vocation. “Jesus, are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” John is not sure. For when he studied the Scriptures, he read in Isaiah such words as we heard in our reading today. “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” This is the sign he was looking for. He wasn’t sure if this was Jesus.
But there was another stream of prophecy in Isaiah, and it’s this stream with which Jesus identified as the Messiah. “Am I the Messiah? Well, what do you think?” “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus is identifying with the prophetic figure in Isaiah 61, and John knows, knows that this is the One who is the Messiah.
On my sabbatical I was able to reflect on my past life, and during the Ignatian retreat study the Scriptures, and recognize again God’s faithfulness to me all through my life. And all this has helped me make choices about my future.
For John the Baptist, his personal experience of God, and his faithfulness to the Scriptures helped him make a decisive choice about God’s future kingdom: are you the One, or is it another? Now I know.
I believe that same pattern can be true for each one of us. All of us, at times in our lives, have to make important choices about the future. Which path should I go down? Which job shall I take? Should I marry this person? How do we, as people of faith, make good and wise choices?
St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, taught many ways of good discernment, of making good choices. One of them, which I find very compelling, is just what we have been talking about. That is, our trust that God is not capricious, changeable. God never acts out of character. So if you have been following a path in life, your work, your family, your values, as faithfully as you can, it is not in God’s nature to suddenly upturn our lives and take us in a direction which has no connection to what has gone before. If we feel attracted to a choice which is completely out of character, it is very likely that we are being drawn away from the right path because either that path is very difficult and challenging (and I knew that many times when I was a novice and planned my escape!). Or, we are being attracted by something that has dazzled and enticed us. More perhaps a temptation than the call of the faithful One. I heard a great deal of this at St. Beuno’s.
I was told this true story about a Jesuit priest call Fr. Francis Browne. In April 1912 he received a present from his uncle – a first class ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It was just for the first leg of the voyage, from Southampton to Queenstown in Ireland, where he was to get off and carry on to his studies in Dublin. During the voyage he befriended an American millionaire couple, and he had a wonderful time wining and dining. They also told him all about how exciting New York City was. As they came in sight of Ireland, they said, “Why not stay on board and come with us all the way to America. We’ll pay your way.” Wow, I could do some ministry in New York, he thought. This could be my vocation. So he telegraphed his Superior in Dublin, requesting permission to stay on board. His wise Superior quickly saw that this just didn’t sound right. He had no special gifts for ministry in America, nothing in the past which suggested God might be preparing him for this. He was clearly dazzled by his new friend and rather than a call from God, was as St. Ignatius would put it, an enticement from the “enemy of our human nature.” So the Superior telegraphed back four words – and I’ve seen a copy of the telegraph. It simply said, “Get off that ship!” And he got off, very grudgingly. But of course in a few days’ time he was very grateful to God that he was saved by his wise Superior.
I have been saved countless times by wise friends! Thank God for those who know us sometimes better than ourselves, and when we are drawn to choices which are not right, can remind us that God never acts out of character. Or rather, they whisper in our ears, “That’s just not you, is it?”
You may be faced right now with a decision of some significance in your life. Or you may be wanting to use this season of Advent to sort out, prioritize, or make certain changes in your life. How might you go about making wise choices?
You might want first to do what I did over these past months. You might want to take an account of how you got to where you are now. You don’t have to go on sabbatical to look back over your life and trace how God has been working in your life, and brought you to this point. What is the history of God’s revelation in your own soul?
Then secondly you might ask, “Is this choice, or this job, or this opportunity consonant with what you’ve come to know about your life, with what God has given you the gifts and capacity to do? Reflect on Scripture, like John the Baptist did. Reflect on those particular passages of Scripture which have spoken deeply to you, and helped form you, and made you the person that you are.
In this choice, are you being faithful to the character that God has formed in you? Because God is faithful, and God will never act out of character.
Finally, look at who God has brought into your life, those people who know you and love you and who can confirm or NOT your sense of where God is drawing you. Listen to your wise friend. They might just stop you from embarking on a very unwise journey!
God loves you so much and longs for you to make good choices. So, what is God’s invitation to life for you this season?
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