December 16, 2018
The Third Sunday in Advent
(Zephaniah 3: 14-18; Luke 3: 10-18)
"Along time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..."
Written against the blackness of space, these words pop up at the beginning of every Star Wars movie, signifying that we are about to see and hear a story that transcends time and space. They first appeared in 1977, when the original Star Wars film hit the screen, followed by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
In 1999, a set of three prequels was launched, and then in 2015 a set three sequels was launched.
In these movies, you experience "the Force." This is a power defined by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi as "an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together." The Force has a light side and a dark side, and can be used for good or for evil.
"The Force is strong in my family," says Luke Skywalker to Princess Leia in The Return of the Jedi. "My father has it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power, too."
However, in the non-fiction world, an even stronger force appears when John the Baptist preaches to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him in the River Jordan. "You brood of vipers!" he shouts. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" He describes the people as poisonous snakes, quickly slithering away to escape the danger of a fire. The only way for them to avoid condemnation is to change their behavior and "bear fruits worthy of repentance." John wants them to focus on the light side of the force and use it for good instead of evil.
Such a message fits the world of Star Wars because it reminds us that the greatest evil is the evil that comes from within, not the evil that attacks us from outside. Any one of us -- even the best of us -- can give in to fear, anger and hatred if we're not vigilant; those are powerful emotions that can blur our senses and cause us to lose sight of what true goodness is. The crowds who gather by the River Jordan find their security in having Abraham as their ancestor, but John reminds them that God can raise up children to Abraham out of the abundant stones of the desert floor.
Goodness doesn't come from being a branch on Abraham's family tree. Instead, goodness comes from doing good.
John challenges the people to be trees that bear good fruit. He wants them to avoid the fate of Darth Vader, who fell from grace because he forgot that goodness is expressed only through our love for others. Vader wasn't always this way; he started out as Anakin Skywalker -- a generous, loyal, compassionate little boy, so powerful in the Force that many thought he was "The Chosen One" of ancient prophecy. Anakin used the Force to do great good as he grew up, fighting for peace and justice while protecting the innocent and opposing the wicked.
But Anakin lost his way. Over time, he became so obsessed with his own passions and fears that they ended up taking over what made him truly human -- his empathy and concern for others. Anakin stopped caring about individuals. He thought of himself as the wisest, the strongest and the purest; and, finally, he allowed his own ambitions to justify truly terrible actions against others. Anakin always saw himself as the Good Guy, but in the end he failed to bear good fruit. Through his actions he became the evil Darth Vader, and was, himself, cut down.
The crowds around John want to avoid this fate, so they ask, "What then should we do?" Such a question is as important today as it was in the first century. John says that "whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Tax collectors should collect no more than the proper amount, and soldiers should resist the temptation to extort money from people.
Keep your empathy alive, recommends John. Behave in ways that are fair, just and focused on caring about individuals in need. Being good comes from doing good, not just thinking of yourself as the Good Guy.
When God's force awakens in any of us, we're challenged to channel it into concrete actions of justice, care and compassion. But at the same time, we cannot trust ourselves to remain in the light of God at all times. Each of us is a sinful, fallible human being, as susceptible to sin as was Anakin Skywalker on the path to becoming Darth Vader. Each of us needs a powerful and godly leader to keep us on the right track, and to save us when we stray -- the leader is called "the Messiah."
John knows that he cannot play this role himself, and says, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." John points the people toward Jesus the Messiah, predicting that Jesus will offer a baptism that includes the purifying and inspiring power of the Holy Spirit of God.
Each of us needs to be filled with this Spirit if we are going to follow Jesus and act as his disciples in the world. We cannot consistently bear good fruit with human effort alone, but we require a power greater than ourselves.
Luke Skywalker realizes this when he suffers, in an earlier Star Wars film, a monumental shock to his system -- he discovers that Darth Vader is his father. He sees that he is cut from the same cloth as his father, and he struggles with how good and evil can exist in the very same family.
Luke is counseled by his mentors that the only way to defeat Darth Vader is to confront and destroy him. But what does Luke do? Luke reacts with compassion for Vader -- he responds with love. Not an abstract or ceremonial love, but a concrete, self-sacrificial love for the human being that Darth Vader is, even with all his faults.
Like Jesus, Luke cares more about real people than he does about abstract ideals. Like Jesus, Luke shows sacrificial love for his friends, his sister and especially his father, Darth Vader. Luke's readiness to die for them is the key to the defeat of ultimate evil.
Just as Jesus did on the cross for us.
God's force comes into human life, and challenges us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It offers concrete examples of what it means to act with compassion and justice -- feeding the hungry and avoiding extortion. It presents a Messiah who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, offering us cleansing and inspiration so that we can behave with sacrificial love.
Each of us is challenged to open ourselves to God's force, and to receive the help of Jesus the Messiah. With the aid of Jesus, we can walk in the light and provide coats to the homeless who are shivering in the cold of winter. We can offer food to neighborhood children who live in homes with empty refrigerators. We can behave ethically in our businesses, charging no more than what is right and fair. And we can turn to our Messiah Jesus for help when we need guidance in caring for people and showing sacrificial love.
God's own force is uplifting and hopeful, inspiring and challenging. This force is not trapped in a galaxy far, far away, but it is transforming the world we live in, making us more caring and compassionate, selfless and sacrificial. This force is not seen in events that happened a long time ago, but is at work today -- in our homes, our schools, our churches, our communities.
God's force awakens most visibly in Jesus, the Messiah. The force is strong in him, in his father and in all of us who follow him in faith and obedience.
Remember, in the words of Luke Skywalker: "You have that power, too."
Let us pray.
We pray for the unemployed, the unwaged and those living in poverty for whom this time of year brings anxiety rather than happiness, that they may benefit from the generosity of others and that the peace of Christ may be theirs and their families. We pray to the Lord.
For continued blessings upon our Advent journey, as we prepare our hearts to welcome the newborn Jesus. We pray to the Lord.
On this Gaudete Sunday, we rejoice that we have been blessed as children of God and thank Him for the many gifts He has bestowed on us, our family and our community. We pray to the Lord.
For our Christian faith to grow strong, and for each of us to witness lovingly and generously to the Gospel message. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our world leaders at the United Nations Climate Change talks in Poland that they may recognize the dangers of global warming and take positive action to protect the wonderful environment gifted to us by our loving Creator. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our children that they may have a true understanding of the meaning of Christmas and of the most generous gift which the Father bestowed on us with the birth of Jesus. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, at this time of hardship for so many, we pray that we and our society listen to the message John the Baptist and show true love for the neighbor who is cold, hungry, homeless or lonely. Father, you call your people to rejoice at the coming of Your Son. Make our joy complete as you grant these petitions. We ask all these things through, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love you. +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA