Are you a saint? I’ve asked this question many times to many a group. “Who is a saint?” You may get two or three hands at the most. It’s a bit of an unfair question because we have the SAINTS – those are the canonized, the ones the Church gives us as examples and intercessors. But if you look at the most basic definition of a saint, someone who is in Heaven, then we should all be hoping to be saints. Don’t you plan on going to Heaven?
My friend Steve Angrisano always says that the other option is not a very good option: Stick to Plan A.
If you plan to go to Heaven, then you plan on being a Saint. Simple!
But how do we get to Heaven? By doing good works? By praying lots of Rosaries? By going to Mass? Sadly, all those answers are wrong. We get to Heaven because God is good. We get to Heaven because of God’s love and mercy. No one deserves or is worthy of Heaven. But we can get there because God is good and merciful.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus today tells us to repent – we think that repent has to do with asking for forgiveness, but repent is really a word that means change or reform; turn your life around. Last week I reminded you of five things you should be doing every day so that your heart is ready to receive Jesus; to recognize him: Prayer, Scripture, Sacraments, Parish Community and Service/Charity. How’s that been going this week? So while we’re focusing on reforming our lives and changing things in our lives, I’d like to show you what I do.
Let’s pick one of these five: Scripture, and I’ll show how I read, prayed with and studied Scripture this week. If I was able to do it, anyone reading this can do it too.
“I did not know him” says John the Baptist! Imagine, John the Baptist, the relative of Jesus; his cousin, maybe, says that he didn’t know him! And he says it twice! I suppose it’s possible that he really didn’t know him, that they were distant cousins, but a different translation (that I prefer) says, “I didn’t recognize him.” It’s like they’d known each other all their lives… 30 years; they saw each other at all family get-togethers and maybe spent a few summers together; they were cousins…. And John did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. It’s like your little niece who you remember to be so shy and quiet and next thing you know she’s all grown up and she’s class valedictorian and goes to Law School and now she’s running for Prime Minister. Wow! I didn’t know her. No idea.
Two questions I want to ask you today: Do you know Jesus? We know a lot about Jesus, but do you know Him like you know your best friend or your spouse? And if not, what has to happen in your life so that you can know him?
A reflection for the 4th Sunday of Advent, year A. The readings are Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-24.
When we were moving from Toronto to Holland Landing, I knew that we were going to have to get a second car. I was now going to have to drive to work. I literally had a weekend to buy a car. So on the Saturday, I went out and into the first used car dealership. I found a white Pontiac Sunfire; manual transmission. It was about 5 years old, had just over 100,000 kms and was $5000. The dealer let me take it for a spin. I drove it home to show my wife. Seemed like a good car and like a good deal. I really didn’t have time to think about this, so as I was driving back to the dealer , I prayed: “Lord, we believe that you want us to live here and that you want me to work at Salt + Light. I have to get to work and so I need a car. This car will be used to do your work. If you want me to buy this car, please send me a sign. Before I get to the dealer I am going to pass another Pontiac Sunfire.” I had barely finished saying those words, when a Sunfire came flying past me in the other direction. Then another one. And a bit later, another one. So I prayed again: “God, there seem to be a lot of Sunfires on the road today. If you want me to buy this car, before I get to the dealer I will pass one more Sunfire. Another white one.” Sure enough, before I got to the dealer, I passed a white Sunfire. So I bought the car. I loved that car. I drove it for 10 years and up to 450,000 kms.
I was thinking about this today because the readings have to do with signs or asking God for signs.
Look at the first reading from Isaiah. Let me give you a little background: King Ahaz is the king of Judah. If you remember, there were two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Under King David, these two were united, but after King Solomon they separated again. Ahaz is about 8 generations after King David and now the Assyrians are threatening the whole region. Israel (whose capital is Samaria) enters into a coalition with Syria (whose capital is Damascus) in order to defend themselves against the Assyrians (whose capital is Babylon). They want Ahaz in Judah (whose capital is Jerusalem) to join the coalition. Ahaz is terrified and doesn’t trust either of them and instead hedges his bets on forging a pact with the Assyrians. This would ensure their safety. The only hitch is that they would have to accept all the Babylonian gods. Isaiah, the prophet tells Ahaz not to enter into any alliances or treaties with anyone but to trust God. Ahaz is too scared and doesn’t trust. Isaiah tells him to ask for a sign: Any sign. Ahaz says he won’t “not test God”. (Not because he’s pious but because he’s scared and doesn’t trust.) An exasperated Isaiah then says, “OMG! You’re beginning to tire me. Guess what? God’s going to give you a sign anyway: A young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
No one really knows exactly what this sign refers to because it must have been a sign that Ahaz could have recognized at the time. The Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that this sign refers to the birth of Jesus. But Jesus was born 800 years after Ahaz, so that could not have been a sign for Ahaz.
The point is that it’s OK to ask God for a sign and God sometimes give us signs even if we don’t ask for them. And sometimes God gives us signs even before we’re even born. There’s nothing wrong with asking God for a sign. What we should do is test God. Asking for a sign recognizes that God is in control. Testing God is telling God that we have control. So testing God would be like saying, “if you cure my cancer, I will go to Church every day for the rest of my life.” That’s not asking for a sign. That’s blackmailing or bribing God. It’s not letting God be in control. It’s getting God to do our will. But asking for a sign is OK, because sometimes we need confirmation that we are on the right track.
And God wants to communicate with us. In fact, the only way God can communicate with us is through signs. That’s why everything we do in the Catholic Church has signs. All the Sacraments, for example, have visible signs, because we need visible, physical signs. Like road signs, they point us the way.
Compare Ahaz’s story with Joseph in today’s Gospel. I little background here too: Joseph is betrothed to Mary. That means that they have both agreed with their parents arranged engagement and legally they are married. But after the betrothal, the wife continued to live with her parents, until about a year later when they would have the Marriage celebration and the Marriage would be consummated. At that point, husband and wife would begin to live together. So after the betrothal, but before the Marriage, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant. Joseph is not singing “What Child is This?” He’s singing; Whose child is this!? But, Matthew tells us that Joseph is a just man (other translations will say “righteous man”). According to Judaism, this meant a man who knew and followed the Law. According to the law, Joseph had two choices: he could bring Mary to the judge and have her charged with adultery or he could give her a bill of divorce (which Moses allowed for in cases of adultery). Joseph may have been distraught, but he knew what to do. He didn’t ask for a sign. Still, God sends him a sign.
Now – if God spoke to me in a dream, I’d wake up like, “that’s was a weird dream. What did I have for dinner last night?” But Joseph recognises the dream as a sign and he is obedient. That’s another reason why he is a righteous and just man. Not only does he follow the law, but he follows God and he recognizes when God speaks to him.
There’s a beautiful song by Michael Card called Joseph’s song. In the Gospels we never hear anything Joseph says, but the song gives him words:
“How could it be this baby in my arms, sleeping now so peacefully? The Son of God, the angel said. How could it be?
O Lord, I know he’s not my own. Not of my flesh, not of my bone. Still Father, let this baby be, the son of my love.
Father show me how I fit into this plan of yours. How can a man be father to the Son of God? Lord for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter, how can I raise a king? How can I raise a king?”
Joseph may have had many questions in his life, but he trusted. And when God gave him signs, he recognized them and he followed them.
We all need to know how we fit into the plan of God. Joseph’s participation in the plan of God was already being set in motion during the time of King Ahaz.
It’s OK to ask for signs – and Advent is the perfect time to be attentive to the signs that God sends us everyday – maybe something you read or something someone tells you or a song you hear. Just as Joseph needed signs to point him towards Bethlehem, let’s be attentive to the signs the point us towards Heaven.