Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Third Sunday in Advent, Part II

During these final two Sundays of Advent the liturgy features the odd and unfriendly person known as St. John Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who was born just six months before him. Although he is narrated in the New Testament Gospel, this man was the last of the Old Testament prophets. In this “goodly fellowship of the prophets,” he was the only prophet actually to see Jesus face to face. The One Whom Isaiah and all the other Old Testament figures saw only by faith, John was permitted to see right in front of him.

The message of John is summed up in the words, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The expression “kingdom of heaven” means the active reign of God. The word “kingdom” sounds like a political institution or territorial entity; the phrase is better translated “kingship of God.” John's message was simply that God, who rightly claims rule in His creation, can no longer be defied or challenged, since He is about to re-assert His royal authority in the world He made.

Almost at the beginning of history, our earliest ancestors set out to overthrow God and remove Him from His throne. That was the original sin; that is still the essence of all sin. But John announced that in Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God,” God was about to gain the upper hand and resume control of His world. That was to be His “kingdom.”

John says this kingdom “is at hand.” That expression puzzles us. Did he mean the kingdom has already arrived, was shortly to arrive, or would arrive sometime in the future?

All three of these answers are correct. Because Jesus was physically standing in the middle of the crowd listening to John, the reign of God had already commenced. His perfect obedience and sinlessness showed that the victory over evil was already underway. But very soon, in just three years, that perfect obedience would bring Jesus to His cross and to His empty tomb. That was the decisive victory which proved and made sure that the old kingdom of sin and Satan was overthrown forever.

But the final victory, when Jesus will hand over the kingdom to His Father, will not come until the end of history. This good news of God's reign is summed up in the words, “Already, but Not Yet.” We live between two points of time, the coming of the kingdom in the life of Jesus on earth, and its perfection when He shall come again. And as we look forward to that arrival, John's message to us is simply to “repent,” to change our minds and and to change our lives so that we may be ready for Him when He comes in His glory.

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