Isaiah 45:5-8, 18-25
I’m sure most of us have set mousetraps. I’m sure most of us have also accidentally set them off. I think this experiences helps us to feel what Jesus tells us at the end of today’s Gospel. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The root word of “takes offense” in the Greek is often translated “stumbling block,” but literally means the trigger of a trap. Just like touching the mousetrap’s trip, in encountering Jesus we may feel surprise or pain, pull away reflexively, or, if we are unlucky, get caught in a trap.
What did the messengers from John expect to find when they encountered Jesus? A king ready to lead a liberating army? What must they, sent out to see if this man, finally, would be the one foretold—what must they have felt when this man gave as his bona fides his work as a healer, a restorer, and a bearer of good news? Maybe they felt a little surprised or a little hurt. Maybe they tried to create a little distance. Maybe encountering Jesus was a trigger that sprang the trap of their own expectations.
And don’t we do something similar? How often do we come to Jesus and expect him to conform to or affirm our priorities, prejudices, and opinions? We place all these things in front of us so that they mediate and make conditional our encounter with Jesus. We fail to meet Jesus face to face, to take him on his terms, to receive him as he offers himself to us. This is the trap we build, and that we ourselves spring.
Ecclesiasticus 48:1-11 & Matthew 17:9-13
Advent is one of my favorite seasons because it invites us as liturgical Christians to contemplate a vision of time that is circular and cyclical, rather than a merely linear arc. On the one hand, the Christ we meet in Advent assures us that he is the Beginning and the End, the Word and Wisdom of God present at creation and the Omega point in whom all things converge. One day, the story that we are reading will reach its apparent conclusion, and the last page will declare in bold, black letters: “The End.” On the other hand, we are assured that as we turn that final page, we will know in an entirely new way that the Story has only just begun. Likewise, as we follow Jesus through our own experience of past, present, and future, our individual journey can seem quite finite. But in the context of the great Story of salvation stewarded by the Church, the continual re-telling enacted and embodied, contemplated and savored each Advent, each Christmastide, each Epiphany, helps us orient ourselves in relation to a circle and a cycle. At the center of the circle is Christ; its circumference is a lifetime comprised of moments when we have turned – or are turning – or will turn — toward that center. In each turning moment, we know in our bones: we’ve been here before; we’ll be here again. Yet each encounter holds the promise of new grace. We light, we extinguish, we re-light the candles, and points of flickering light slowly connect the dots. Like the gradual, steady, inward motion of a spiral, we are drawn ever closer to that mysterious moment when, as the First Letter of John puts it, “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
It is hard to believe that a week from tomorrow marks one year since my brothers Curtis, John, Luke, and I embarked on a journey to the Holy Land to lead a pilgrimage. Each of us brothers prepared two reflections to give at designated sites during our two week journey. I was assigned to give my first meditation at ‘The Shepherd’s Field,’ in the countryside just outside of Bethlehem where tradition says the shepherds would have encountered the great angelic hosts proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ birth. My second meditation I gave at the teardrop-shaped church on the Mount of Olives called ‘Dominus Flevit,’ which is Latin for “The Lord wept.” It was here that I could begin to piece together in my mind the scene we celebrated at the beginning of this morning’s liturgy.
As you can tell from the name of our Society, we brothers have a special affinity to the beloved disciple which tradition suggests is John. There is an icon in the statio that you pass on your way into the cloister that contains the tender image of the beloved disciple reclining on the breast of Jesus. He was closest to Jesus in his inner circle of friends. But if truth be told, most days I identify more with Peter. You may remember in Matthew’s gospel that Simon is renamed by Jesus and given the name Peter which means rock, “and on this rock,” Jesus tells him, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”[i]
But it is not this aspect of Peter that I identify with. It is because more often than not gets it wrong. Peter is constantly saying the wrong things and sticking his foot in his mouth. It is Peter who steps outside the boat to walk with Jesus on the water but is overcome by his fear and begins to sink.[ii] It is Peter who denies Jesus three times before the cock crows after his insistence that he would never leave Jesus.[iii] The many stories we hear about Peter suggests that he does not have all the information he needs and often acts or speaks out of ignorance.
Preached at Yale Divinity School
…If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched… (Mark 9:42-50)
Don’t do this. Don’t take Jesus literally – plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand. You take this literally, you won’t finish the term. But do take Jesus seriously. This is hyperbole. My little sister used to say this same thing to me when I was acting out, when I had tried her patience to the extreme. She would say, “Curtis, cut it out!” She got my attention.
The words of Isaiah, the prophet: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa 49:4).
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? In that valley of desolation and discouragement; that place where we start wondering if our efforts have made a difference, if they have been appreciated, if they’ve been worthwhile, if we’ve accomplished anything of value. Isaiah is discouraged. The people are in exile and all his efforts to redirect them to God have been met with indifference. He feels like a failure. “I have labored in vain,” he sighs, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Discouragement is something we all experience from time to time. We may feel trapped in a dead-end job or a strained relationship, and have no sense of how to move forward. We may be enduring a chronic illness, with no relief in sight. We may find ourselves consumed with worry about our finances or our home or our work, and we wonder if things will ever get better. A sense of hopelessness settles over us, and we despair of our future. It’s difficult to imagine our circumstances improving and we’re not sure if we have the strength to go on.