Sunday, December 30, 2018

December 30, 2018
Christmas Sunday
New Year
(1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52)
I was recently asked, why was Zechariah punished for his lack of belief in the archangel Gabriel's message (Luke 1:18–20), but Mary was not punished for hers (Luke 1:26–38)? Given the time of year, I thought it a perfect sermon topic, so here we go!
This is a great question about the events of the conception and birth of John the Baptist and of the Lord Jesus Christ. While there are definite parallels to the conception of both John by his mother Elizabeth and of Jesus by the Blessed Virgin Mary, there are some very plain differences that help us understand why Zechariah was punished by being made mute (which likely included his being made deaf – as details of the story allude to them needing to make signs to communicate with him at the time of John’s birth).
What is similar about the two events begins with the role of the archangel Gabriel, who served as God’s messenger both to Zechariah and to Mary – and both incidents are recorded in Luke 1. First, we hear of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah as he is serving as Temple priest who is to offer incense in worship. (Luke 1:5-25While he is carrying out of his priestly work, the angel appears and speaks to him that he and Elizabeth (who are “advanced in years” and had been barren) are to conceive and a son is to be born whom they are to name John. Zechariah, for his part, simply asks (in verse 18), “How shall I know this?  For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” The question is even more provocative within different translations.
Let me give you some examples.
New American Standard – “Zacharias said to the angel, "How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
New Century Version – “Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I know that what you say is true? I am an old man, and my wife is old, too."
New International Version – “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
New Revised Standard – “Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."
So, we can see based on the differing styles of translating the original Greek that it can seem as though Zachariah is challenging the angel. To this the angel responds by revealing himself while saying that Zechariah, because of his unbelief, will be silent until the time of the child’s birth.”
Meanwhile, in the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the same archangel Gabriel comes to Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son, naming him Jesus. Like Zechariah, Mary asks the angel “how” will this be. Yet, rather than being told of unbelief, the angel proceeds to describe the great gift and mystery that she, a virgin, will conceive by “the Holy Spirit.” She was gifted with holiness, because we know that God could not enter a tainted womb. She would be forever remembered as the mother of Christ.
While the similarities of the two stories are quite clear, there is a very real difference – especially when these two passages are read in the context of the whole of the Scriptures. For though it would seem that Zechariah and Mary both asked legitimate questions of the angel, it is noteworthy that Zechariah’s questioning is in doubt of God’s plan – a plan that had been fulfilled in others in the days of old. Zacharias is essentially asking the angel, "How do I know I can trust you? Prove it." Furthermore, Zacharias's only basis of doubt was his and his wife's old age. This was a miracle for which Biblical precedent had already been set (Abraham, Genesis 18). For the promise of God spoken by Gabriel was like that of Abraham and Sarah (who conceived Isaac when she was 90 years old). Accordingly, what was spoken to Zechariah was not without precedent, and therefore worthy of belief without question.
Mary is not asking "How will I know" (i.e., she's not asking whether she can trust God's word) - she is asking how it can be, in a spirit of amazement and wonder, rather than a spirit of doubt. Some say that Mary may have expressed doubt by asking how this would be initially, but once she was given an answer to her question of how it could be, she did believe.
Additionally, for Mary’s question, there was no such precedent. Though the Lord had spoken to Ahaz that a virgin conceiving a son was to be a sign (Isaiah 7:14), never had a woman conceived without “knowing” a man – and thus her question of “how will this be” is not asked in doubting God, but simply a confusion over how she, a virgin, would be with child. Furthermore, what the angel describes to Mary as the way of this conception will require its own act of faith – that she would conceive not by a man, but by the Holy Spirit. In this moment, Mary expresses without hesitation her true and sincere trust in God by her response to this revelation, saying “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (verse 39).
Thus, the difference is quite simple: what was revealed to Zechariah had happened before and was therefore worthy of belief without question (especially from a Temple priest), whereas what was revealed to Mary was a new and unique act of God that was singularly given to her – and thus her question was not a doubt, but an opportunity for her (and us) to know the power of God so as to say “yes, let it be done.”
Also, note that in Luke 1:38, we read:
And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
It is interesting that Zachariah is almost seen challenging God to give him a sign, and so the fact that he was stuck dumb could very well be also seen as God complying with that request. It might serve as a good lesson to take care what we ask for.
Zachariah wanted God to give him a sign, and so the fact that he was stuck dumb could very well be also seen as God complying with that request. It is important to remember that Zachariah did get what he asked for, Gabriel clearly told Zachariah, "your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son..." How long had it been since that prayer had been made? How long had it been since Elizabeth and Zechariah had resigned themselves to the fact that despite their petitions to God, they would not have a child?
It should be noted that the entire Jewish race had occasions of miraculous birth of men and women who were "past the age of childbearing". Additionally, women who were barren became mothers through the provision of God--not only Sarah, but Rebekah and Rachel as well.
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" (Genesis 17:17)
And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (Genesis 25:21)
When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. (Genesis 29:31)
Additionally, Zechariah had apparently prayed specifically that God would allow he and his wife to have children.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” (Luke 1:13)
So, Zechariah's prayer, like Abraham's, Isaac's, Rachel's, Hannah's and others, was heard. The angel was merely announcing to Zechariah that his prayer would be answered. So, he actually doubted God's proclaimed provision and answer to his prayer.
Mary, however, had probably never ever prayed that she would have a miraculous child out of wedlock, and a virgin had never given birth before, so her questioning is a quite a bit more understandable than that of Zechariah.
The fact that Zechariah had a negative consequence to his question while Mary did not tells us more about God than it does about the two individuals. For God does not judge whether a work or a question is a good work or a sin on the basis of the outward work or obvious question. Rather God is clear that He judges the heart as to the motivation. The conclusion is clear that since Zechariah received a negative consequence to his question it was because doubt and unbelief motivated his question. So also, since Mary received no negative consequence to her question was NOT motivated by doubt and unbelief but simply an inquiry into how God intended to fulfill His promise.
Keep in mind that Zechariah was much older than Mary and was also a priest performing his priestly duties in the sanctuary when the angel appeared. As said before, he was receiving a specific and very detailed answer to his own prayer and yet failed to recognize this! By contrast his unborn son leaps in the womb when Mary enters their home and greets Elizabeth. The theme of recognition is a fascinating one.
Zechariah was a priest. It was customary in that time for only the priest to enter into the temple of God and burn incense (pray to God), and then get a word from God to share with the people who were waiting on the outside to hear a word from God.
Therefore, for a priest not to believe a word from God (doubt, question) was a major occurrence. Lives depended on this word. Priests were seen as the intercessor between man and God before Jesus came. Zechariah was made silent because of his position; while being in that position he doubted.
I think maybe the assumption that Zachariah was being punished isn't quite right. Maybe it was a gift, the gift of silence, within which he was able to absorb the revelation he had received - itself a great grace. True, his response can be interpreted as a bit skeptical, but it appears to be more superficial - in some sense he didn't know what he was saying. So he needed some time to reflect, and an enforced silence freed him from his verbal duties as a priest. Mary, on the other hand, seems like she was already in a state of deep contemplation, and her response came from that kind of frame of mind. She didn't need to be "put on silence" because she was already operating out of a deep interior silence.
If you listen to the responses of Zachariah and Mary to the Angel Gabriel, it should be obvious that Zachariah’s response was one of doubt to something being told to him, a Scripture Scholar. He had asked for a child and he, knowing God as a priest, should have known from past Scriptural history that God is never limited by anything except the person causing the limitation. He knew that he was being visited by a messenger (angel) of God to relate to him God's love for him and Elizabeth by making the impossible happen, the birth of a Great Person. Yet, he doubted.
On the other hand Mary never asked for anything – at least not anything that was relayed to us in Scriptures. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her telling her that a child would be born to her and this child would be the Son of God, her inquiry was a very natural one, "I am a virgin; I know not man." So, essentially she asks to explain this to her. When the angel told her that the Spirit of God would over shadow her and that nothing was impossible to God, her immediate response was out of the love for God in her heart, "Let it be done unto me according to God's word."
Keep in mind that Mary was a child between 13-16 years of age, not a priest, but a simple maiden who loved God dearly. What followed was Jesus, God with us! As a result of her "fiat" (her acceptance was made freely) she made it possible for God to have his divine Son become incarnate and be born bringing into the world his promised redemption to Abraham and the prophets that followed throughout salvation history.
Although, there are additional theological considerations in regard to Zachariah and Mary’s questions and the Gabriel’s response to each, these are the more common Church’s explanation.
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel, we read how the 12-year old Jesus was not lost but in the temple about His Father’s business. We pray that we too, like Jesus, give witness in our lives to promoting the Word of God. We pray to the Lord.
For the Church in the world, and all her children of God. We pray to the Lord.
That the love, holiness and devotion of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph may be our source of inspiration and strength in our families, especially during our challenges and sufferings. We pray to the Lord.
For broken families, that they may receive the care and compassion they need. We pray to the Lord.
That every person feels cared for and loved, as a child of God. We pray to the Lord.
For each of us here: that God will give us strength and courage to grow spiritually and personally through the challenges and excitements of the new year that await us. We pray to the Lord.  
For those on our parish prayer list: that they may be brought to health and wholeness through the mercy of Christ. We pray to the Lord.  
For our family members who have died: that they may enjoy eternal rest in God’s heavenly Kingdom. We pray to the Lord.                
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, we thank you for the gift of life and family. Help us, Lord, we pray, to nurture and persevere in the ties of charity that unite us. God our creator, your strength sustains your people all their days, hear our prayers and stay with us throughout the New Year. Gracious God, you bless your people with peace and justice: accept our prayers and give us your help, Through Christ, our Lord, Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

December 24, 2018
“Mass at Midnight”
(Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)
A woman and her four-year old son were standing in line at a fast-food restaurant when in walked a man covered in tattoos. The boy turned to him and said, “Looks like somebody got into the markers.”
Gentleman tells of flight he had that was a late arrival at the Nashville airport which left him in front of a car rental agent one night. In a heavy southern drawl, she asked, “Can Ah help y’all?” After processing my order, she said, “I have an accent. Is that okay?” “I do not mind at all,” he said. “Being from New England, I have on too.” She waited a minute before replying, “I meant the car. I have a Hyundai Accent.”
PRN is a medical abbreviation of the Latin pro re nata, meaning “when necessary.” Apparently, some nurses never learned their abbreviations. One day, a senior nurse walked into a patient’s room to find a suppository shoved up the patient’s nose. When she confronted the younger nurse responsible, the latter admitted that she thought PRN stood for “per right nostril.”
A blithering idiot enters a building and goes to the counter. “I would like a large soda, a hamburger, and french-fries, please,” he says. The woman behind the counter says, “Sir, you are in a library!” The blithering idiot looks around and notices others sitting quietly and reading. He leans in to the librarian and whispers, “I would like a large soda, a hamburger, and French fries, please.”
A woman texted her husband to tell him that she would be out of touch for a bit since she planned to color her hair. Thanks to spelling auto correct, here’s what he read: “After I finish my cup of coffee, I am going to die. You may not be able to reach me while I’m in the midst of that.”
Okay, now that I know you are all awake, I will actually start the sermon.
I think that is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with each of us; he is trying to get our attention; He is attempting to be sure we are awake. We tend to get so lost in the secular Christmas activities, that we forget to pay attention to the one who’s birthday we celebrate. Sometimes, He has to break in with whatever manner will wake us up or grab our attention. The Birth of Christ is one of those times.
The Incarnation – the birth of Christ – in my estimation, is by far the most important feast of the Christian religion. Some claim that Easter is, however, I, like some other theologians, feel that without the Incarnation, none of the rest would have been able to take place. God humbles himself to become one with His creation. What a radical thing to do. Sure, He has the power to raise Himself from the death of the cross, but why come and restrict Himself as a mere mortal and go through all that in the first place only to end up on the cross to boot?
Dorothy Sayers, a British essayist and novelist, some years ago, said: “The Incarnation means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall … to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death – he has nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine … He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of human experience – from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death … He was born in poverty and suffered infinite pain – all for us – and thought it well worth his while.”
Sometimes, we can look across humanity and think to ourselves how indeed Christ could have thought it worth His while to suffer for us. God gifted us a gift above all gifts. But, we should consider what kind of gift it is. Are we deserving of such a gift? Some gifts by their very nature make you swallow your pride. What are we to make of this gift – the gift of the Incarnation?
Two Sundays ago I spoke about the Star Wars movies as analogies for our faith. (Yes, you Chreaster people missed a good one! That’s what happens when you only come twice a year. I blame the Romans for scaring you away from church!) I spoke of how the movie starts out with opening words scrolled on the screen, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Basically this open scroll is saying, “Once upon a time…”
However, the Incarnation is neither. If we were to read the opening of the Gospel according to Matthew, we would read the genealogy of Jesus the Christ. That means he is grounding what Jesus Christ is and does in history. Jesus is not a metaphor. He is real. It is His-Story. This all happened. And we should be so overjoyed!
The biblical Christmas texts are accounts of what actually happened in history. They are not Aesop’s Fables, inspiring examples of how to live well. Many people believe the Gospel to be just another moralizing story, but they could not be more mistaken. There is no “moral of the story” to the Nativity!
The shepherds, the parents of Jesus, the wise men – are not being held up primarily as examples for us. The Gospel narratives are telling you not what you should do but what God has done! The birth of the Son of God into the world is a Gospel, good news, an announcement! You don’t save yourself. God has come to save you!
Christianity is not really about self-improvement (though that should be one of the effects). It is not just a place to get some inspiration and guidance for life. Of course the Christian Gospel has massive implications for how we live. But it is first of all a message that you need to be saved, and you are saved not in the slightest by what you can do but rather by what He has done.
The part we need to remember, especially today in a society that is so split. We hear about so many people leaving the church. We hear so many that don’t feel welcome to come to church. We hear so many judgmental statements being made about other people – who they are and/or how they live – in and outside of the church.  However, let me tell you tonight, as I do very often in our humble denomination, if the Church were perfect, we couldn’t belong. Not you, not the clergy, not me – not even the Pope.
Jesus, in His Incarnation, made the biggest statement and lesson there is, and so many are missing it – especially theologians and pastors. What is that message?
Earlier I mentioned that the Gospel is based on history. Within that history are many men and women who make up that genealogy. I won’t go through them all, of course for reasons of brevity, however let’s dig into it a little and see how the Incarnation affects us.
When the future king David was a fugitive, running for his life from King Saul, a group of men went out into the wilderness with him, came around him, and put their lives on the line to protect him. They risked everything for him, and Uriah was one of them, a friend to whom he owed his life (2 Samuel 23:39). Yet years later, after David became king, he looked upon Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and he wanted her. He slept with her. Then he arranged to have Uriah killed in order to marry her. He did, and one of their children was Solomon, from whom Matthew lists Jesus as descended from. It was of that dysfunctional family, and out of that deeply flawed man, that the Messiah came.
So, here you have moral outsiders – adulterers, adulteresses, incestuous relationships, prostitutes. In fact we are reminded that even the prominent male ancestors – Judah and David – were both moral failures. You also have cultural outsiders, racial outsiders, and gender outsiders. The Law of Moses excluded these people from the presence of God, and yet they are all publically acknowledged as the ancestors of Jesus.
What does it mean? It means that people who are excluded by culture, by society, or by the law of God can be brought in to Jesus’ family. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter your pedigree, it doesn’t matter your sexual identity or even promiscuousness, it doesn’t even matter if you have murdered someone (though your life could become suddenly complicated, so I wouldn’t recommend it). If you repent and believe in Him, the grace of Jesus Christ can cover your sin or societal inequality and unite you with Him!
Christmas is that time of year when we should allow Christ’s holiness to infect us. We should come to Him, regardless of who we are, what we’ve done, how morally stained we may be, because he will make us as pure as snow. However, He has not just come to the obvious flawed, He has come for all. There is no one, not even the greatest human being, who does not need the grace of God. And there is no one, not even the worst human being, who can fail to receive the grace of Jesus Christ.
Yet, some of you might say that Christ has passed you by. He has ignored your pleas, He has turned away when you most needed Him. Christmas reminds us that this is not so. We can look to Joseph in the Old Testament as an example. For years it seemed like God was ignoring Joseph’s prayers, letting him experience one disaster after another. I know the past two years has seemed the same for me personally, but I am reminded by Christmas and by Joseph that it isn’t always so. Because, in the end, in Joseph’s story, every one of those things had to happen in order for all to be saved. Joseph was able to say to his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
We see Jesus, being called to heal a fatally ill girl but, He stops to deal with someone else instead allowing Jairus’ daughter to die. His timing seemed completely wrong – until it became clear that it wasn’t (Mark 5:21-43). God’s grace virtually never operates on our time frame, on a schedule we consider reasonable. He does not follow our agendas or schedules. When Jesus spoke to the despairing father Jairus, whose daughter had just died, He said, “Believe” (Mark 5:36)! Jesus was saying, “If you want to impose your time frame on Me, you will never feel loved by Me, and it will be your fault, because I do love you. I will fulfill my promises.”
Even if you have not kept your promises to Jesus, He will keep His toward you! In Jesus you stop having to prove yourself because you know it doesn’t matter in the end whether you are a failure or a king. All you need is God’s grace, and you have it, in spite of your failures. After you know Him, you want to live your life to please Him.
We also need to rest from the troubles and evils of this world. We feel like we have to control history, we have to make everything right, but that is not only exhausting but also impossible. The birth of Christ – the Incarnation – tells us that despite appearances to the contrary, our good God is in control of history. And someday He will put everything right. He hears our prayers and is making it all okay in His time.
So, as Jesus answered the people who questioned him why his disciples did not fast like the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” We too, have the bridegroom present. We have God present in the person of the Christ Child. For this, we too, no matter whom we are, should be glad and celebrate. “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” Amen.
Let us pray.
On this Christmas night we pray that the news of Christ’s birth enlighten our hearts and minds and fill us with love for our neighbor, particularly those in need. We pray to the Lord.              
Just as the shepherds carried the good news that a child was born who would be a Savior for all, we pray that we too recognize our duty as Christians to also proclaim the glory of God and Christ’s message to all the world. We pray to the Lord.      
At this time of joy and celebration, we think of those in our community who have lost loved ones in the last year. May they find consolation in the goodness of the Father who sent his only Beloved Son onto this earth to show his love for us. We pray to the Lord.              
We pray for those who, through emigration, illness or other personal reasons are separated from family, loved ones or homeland this Christmas, that God’s comforting and strengthening love will sustain them. We pray to the Lord.
As our children enjoy the wonder of Christmas day, we pray for those children who are in suffering hunger, homelessness and terror in areas of conflict throughout the world. We pray that the peace of the Christ birth be theirs in 2019. We pray to the Lord.              
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we remember in our prayers those, who like Mary and Joseph, are homeless this Christmas and pray that through the help, concern and generosity of those who are spared such tragedy, they may be helped out of their difficulties and experience less troubled times in the New Year. We pray to the Lord.              
We pray for all those present at our Mass today and for their families, that their Christmas holiday may be a happy and peaceful one. 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.
God of love and mercy, may the coming of your son scatter the darkness of the world, and make it radiant with his light. May we follow him faithfully, and come to the light that shines forever. May all of your creation come to know your love for them, regardless of their circumstances or perceived placement in your kingdom. As society moves further and further away from you, dear Father, bring yourself ever closer to them that they may experience your Holy Spirit in profound ways. We ask all this through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
Merry & Blessed Christmas to all.
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA
December 23, 2018
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
(Micah 5: 1-4; Luke 1:39-45)
The Isle of Iona in Scotland is a tiny, windswept place in the western Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. It's a skinny little island, only about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, but it's the destination of hundreds of people each year who brave a long journey involving trains, boats, busses for and more boats to get there.

At first glance it's hard for people to tell what the big deal is. Sure, it's a quiet place where you can get away from the sounds of civilization. Only about a hundred people live on the island, given its remote location. And while it's a beautiful place with emerald green grass, old stone buildings, and a landscape dotted with sheep that far outnumber the people, they say it's also a place where the rain and wind off the North Sea can drive right through you no matter how good your rain gear might be.

And yet, there's something mystical about this place -- the place where Saint Columba landed sometime in the sixth century to establish a monastic community, having fled his native Ireland. The old, 12th-century abbey that still stands on the east side of the isle acts as a sentinel of the island's past. It was there the monks welcomed many visitors who came to the island, searching for something missing in their souls. They were people who knew the early reputation of the place as what the native Celts called a "thin place."

Unlike so many Westerners who think that heaven is some place far away and far removed from Earth, the Celts believed that heaven and Earth were really about three feet apart. Sometimes, they thought, that distance was even smaller --small enough for those on Earth to get a glimpse of the glory of heaven. The Celts believed that Iona was a place where people could feel that thinness and experience the kind of revelations and feelings that one might have when so close to the holy. They believed that was true of other places as well, usually places far away from the crowd and wrapped in both mist and mystery.

The famous 20th century Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton once wrote that thin places are even more prevalent than the ancient Celts believed, but we just don't see them. "Life is simple," he wrote. "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time ... if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes ... the only thing is that we don't [let ourselves] see it." We miss those glimpses of the kingdom of God, breaking in on the earth, which is ironic given the fact that Jesus taught us to pray that we might see the kingdom come "on earth as it is in heaven."

Perhaps one of the most significant thin places and thin spaces we miss on a regular basis is the celebration of Christmas. In the midst of all the last-minute preparations for Christmas Eve tomorrow night and Christmas morning soon after, we can be caught up in thinking that this is just another Christmas season with the same traditions and myriad obligations (most of them self-imposed) that require all of our attention. We can miss the fact that Christmas really calls us to consider the thinnest place the world has ever seen -- not an island, but a manger; and not a feeling, but a person in whom heaven and Earth both fully dwell.

The prophet Micah called the people of Judah to focus hard on finding a thin place in the midst of the thick and foreboding threat of foreign invasion. Like a raging storm, the Assyrian invaders were bearing down on them to sweep them away as God's instrument of judgment against his people. They would dodge that particular fate at the hands of Assyria, but they would not escape the later Babylonian invasion. Like so many of us, the people of Judah made the mistake of thinking that God was far away and put up a thick wall of apostasy as a way of holding God at a distance. God would break through, however, and their walls, both literally and figuratively, would eventually come tumbling down.

And yet, even in the midst of all this impending doom, God offers a word of hope through the prophet with a promise to create a new thin place for his people -- a remote, out of the way place that, like Iona, was populated with only a few shepherd families and a lot of sheep. In Bethlehem, in a place few expected, God was going to bring the life of heaven to Earth in a very personal way.

Bethlehem was, of course, King David's hometown, and it was there that he was chosen as the unlikely successor to the reign of King Saul, who was Israel's idea of what a king should look like. God, of course, had a very different idea. The shepherd-boy David was anointed and would rule Israel successfully until his own moral downfall, but even then God would continue to honor the promise he made to David that one of the king's descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

In the meantime, God would give up his people to exile until that king would be born and his people brought back from distant lands. Then that shepherd-king will "stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God." All of that would happen because God was going to create a thin place there in Bethlehem.

Interestingly, most people in Micah's day thought that the ultimate thin place in the world was the temple in Jerusalem, which was the place where it was thought that God dwelled with his people. But Israel's salvation wasn't coming from the temple, the future of which was already in jeopardy. Security wasn't to be found in relying on the temple, but in God's true king who would bring security and peace through his righteous reign. Instead of a temple, the place where heaven and earth came together, the place where God would dwell with his people, was going to be the feeding trough in a back alley of the tiniest and most insignificant of places.

If you visit Bethlehem today, you'll find that it doesn't have the same kind of pastoral, quiet and mystical aura of a thin place like Iona. There's jostling with a long line of pilgrims waiting to get into the Church of the Nativity, monks yelling instructions to be quiet, cameras flashing, security officers mulling about -- all for people to get one chance to touch the star in the cave below that church that marks the traditional site of Jesus' birth. It's more hectic than holy in there on any given day, which makes it hard to fathom that whole idea of a "Silent Night."

But on this day before Christmas Eve, it's not the Bethlehem of modern-day Israel that we need to pilgrimage to in order to experience the thin place of Jesus' birth. We can do that right where we are by simply focusing ourselves on the humble, obscure and yet powerful way in which God chooses to bridge the gap between heaven and Earth. He doesn't come with chariots rolling or guns blazing, but in the soft skin and helpless posture of a baby, born to a family who number themselves among the poorest of the poor. Life was thin for Mary and Joseph, but the life Mary brought forth in the manger was full of more than God's people and, indeed, the whole world could have ever imagined.

In Jesus, God broke through the barriers between himself and humanity by becoming one of us. We don't worship a God who is distant, cloaked in clouds, and oblivious to our world. Instead, we worship a God who has deigned to humble himself, as Paul says in Philippians 2, and take the road to a cross. This is a God we can know because he has a human face and in him the best of heaven and Earth come together and show us what is possible for us and for the world.

So, as you prepare for Christmas, maybe the best preparation is to take some time to go to a quiet place and consider that God is not far away, that the king is quite near and his kingdom is at hand. Allow yourself to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus. Take a pilgrimage into the heart of the biblical story of Christmas and read it as if you're seeing it for the first time. Serve someone who needs to experience the reality that God has come to give them real hope.

May your Christmas be thin!
Let us pray.
For schoolchildren on their holiday break, and for their parents, that the Lord may bless them during this special time. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are facing a difficult Christmas, that they may be comforted. We pray to the Lord.
As Mary was greeted with joy by her cousin Elizabeth, we pray for all women who are preparing for childbirth at this time that the birth of their child be a safe and happy one for them and their families. We pray to the Lord.
As we look forward to the joys of Christmas, our hearts are with those families who in the last year have lost loved ones. We pray that our belief that the souls of the deceased are in the loving care of the Father who created them is a consolation to them at this time. We pray to the Lord.
As we prepare for this holy feast of Christmas, we pray that we may be conscious of those who are in financial distress and that we may, in the true Christian spirit, share with them some of that which we ourselves are blessed to have. We pray to the Lord.
As we approach Christmas  Day, we pray for love and reconciliation in our community, particularly in families, and that we make a special effort to reach out to those who are lonely or in need. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Generous God, you blessed Mary and Elizabeth, who trusted in you and answered your call. Loving Father, prepare our hearts with your grace, that like Mary, we may be a worthy dwelling place for your Son. Bless us, your faithful people, as we lift our voices to heaven with these prayers. Grant them in the name of your Son, whose coming we await, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, December 16, 2018

December 16, 2018
The Third Sunday in Advent
Gaudete Sunday
(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

Monday, December 10, 2018

December 9, 2018
The Second Sunday in Advent
(Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6)
Why is Luke every historian's favorite gospel? Why do we treat Luke's account of Jesus' birth as the "real one" -- the one it just wouldn't be Christmas without hearing? Even Charles Schulz used this one for Linus to recite!
Luke adds all those nice historical details that make the story come alive. Luke's wealth of names, places, dates and events animates the ancient world, making it seem less like "Scripture" and more like story time.
But do you think you might be comfortable with putting today's Gospel text into a bit more current historical context -- bringing Luke's setting a little closer to home? As an example:
In the second year of the administration of President Donald Trump, when Jerry Brown was governor of the state of California, Kevin Faulconer was mayor of San Diego, Ron Roberts was county supervisor in San Diego County fourth district, during the time when Dean Bekken was Presiding Bishop for the Universal Catholic Church, the Word of the Lord came to you and me! And you went out into your neighborhood, appeared before your city council, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Probably not for most of you, but at least it is easier to pronounce than all those names and places in Luke!
Suddenly the beginning of the Christmas story seem a bit too real, doesn't they? It's so much more comfortable and cozy to read Luke's version, to feel the life pulsing through ancient characters, to sit here safely in the 21st century and know that this has already happened, like Star Wars, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."
We don't want the Christmas story too up close and personal. Today's text is maybe most disturbing when we move it into our own place and time. It suddenly begins to dawn on us just how audacious was John the Baptist's mission and message.
Of course, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the first-century world to which John the Baptist was called to reach and preach was a very different place from the postmodern world of today. But, when you get right down to it, was it really all that different? Luke describes it for us in traditional political terms we can all recognize. First-century civilization was organized into political entities. There were local boards, city officials, regional directors, territorial governors and heads of state. Existing organizationally separate from this political structure was a religious structure. The religious leaders thought they wielded considerable authority. Political leaders tended to let them alone until they threatened to interfere in something deemed important to the state. The two groups John the Baptist singles out, and those most reviled by the general population as needing behavior modification, are those the person in the street thought were always in their pockets (the "tax collectors") or on their backs (the "soldiers").
Ultimately, when you get right down to it, the first century wasn't all that different from the world we inhabit in the 21st century after all. But surely we can reassure ourselves that a raspy, rugged John the Baptist-type figure was needed in those days because it was a pre-Christian era, as yet untouched and unmoved by the Good News of the Gospel. That culture was organized around the worship of pagan gods or simply designed around the political and economic powers of those who were rich and powerful, those who lived by different rules and standards than common people, those with money and status who became themselves popular cult figures.
So, we have the Old World: Pre-Christian. The New World: Christian. So now the differences between centuries 1 and 21 are clear, right? Not really. The truth is that, like John the Baptist, we are all now living in a pre-Christian era.
Not "post-Christian," as often think. It's not a post-Christian era because "post" implies that Christianity was something we had so absorbed that it became part and parcel of popular culture. Can we look honestly at ourselves and our culture and claim it to be post-Christian? Did we ever make it "Christian" in the first place?
Let’s face it, as of 2010, the last “officially tabulated” count, Christianity was by far the world's largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth," the Pew report says. "Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population. So, not really “post-Christian”, but maybe close in some sectors. But, let’s think about this:
Who can look at the terrorists and gangs of empty-hearted youth that exist on violence and despair, and claim we are post-Christian?
 Who can look at the greed and gluttony of some corporate land-sharks, and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the wealth and waste of a Beverly Hills standing next to the filth and poverty of a housing project in, say Ethiopian district, for example and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the loneliness and hurt in the eyes and smells of those shut away in "nursing homes," and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the way we steward our resources of air, land, water and fellow creatures, disbelieve in global warming and claim we are post-Christian?
And the list goes on?
The truth is, like John the Baptist, we are still living in a pre-Christian age. We have yet to be touched, transformed and fine-tuned into communities that are Christ's bodies. Facing this truth sets us free to do John the Baptist ministries. John's message is still the precise one this culture needs to hear proclaimed: "Prepare the way of the Lord."
Let’s think about this. Are you as willing to stand out in a crowd as was John the Baptist? Are you as willing to ruffle some feathers as was John the Baptist? Are you as willing to speak out against customs and conventions that defy the Lord's ways as was John the Baptist? Are you as willing to look odd or foolish for the sake of the Gospel as was John the Baptist? Are you just as willing to live life in "the Way," in "God's Way," as was John the Baptist? When we are honest, we all probably would answer, “no”, to these questions.
We may not be a post-Christian country, but we are a post-Resurrection people. In fact, this pre-Christian culture desperately needs a post-Resurrection people.
Of course, some things have indeed changed since John the Baptist urged the crowds who followed him to participate in a "baptism of repentance." Because Jesus entered into human life as a newborn baby, lived a human life as a simple man, and died a sacrificial death on the cross as our Lord and Savior, we can now offer a message of salvation accomplished, offer a baptism of not just repentance but of new life, and offer a hope and love that transcends all human experience.
That's why Advent is a season of preparation. Christmas is not just the celebration of the birth of a baby; it is the beginning of a nuclear chain of events that transforms human existence. Christmas is not just recognizing God's gift of the Incarnation -- it is also our acknowledgment of what this Incarnation now means for every man, woman and child.
The new word that will reach and preach to this old world is this:
"Christ is born, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
Let me leave you with this. A Gen-Xer hungry for God wrote a poem that explains what this pre-Christian culture is looking for (Tim Celek and Dieter Zander, Inside the Soul of a New Generation).
Do you know, do you understand that you represent Jesus to me?
Do you know, do you understand that when you treat me with gentleness, it raises the question in my mind that maybe he is gentle, too?
Maybe he isn't someone who laughs when I am hurt.
Do you know, do you understand that when you listen to my questions and you don't laugh, I think, "What if Jesus is interested in me, too?"
Do you know, do you understand that when I hear you talk about arguments and conflict and scars from your past that I think, "Maybe I am just a regular person instead of a bad, no-good, little girl who deserves abuse?"
If you care, I think maybe he cares -- and then there's this flame of hope that burns inside of me, and for a while, I am afraid to breathe because it might go out.
Do you know, do you understand that your words are his words?
Your face, his face to someone like me?
Please be who you say you are. Please, God, don't let this be another trick. Please let this be real. Please.
Do you know, do you understand that you represent Jesus to me?
If you will represent Jesus to this postmodern culture, if you would speak this new Word to this old world, then you have to be willing to be all that this poem says you should!
Let us pray.
To take up the opportunities that this season of Advent brings to us, to slow down enough to hear the voice of God in our hearts. We pray to the Lord.
To simplify our lives where possible, to let go of things that prevent us from focusing upon the essence of this pre-Christmas season. We pray to the Lord.
For all who are sick, for those who find themselves forgotten, abandoned or without hope, that they may experience God’s tender care. We pray to the Lord.
For those who have lost hope because of poverty, injustice or violence and for the will to offer hope supported by workable solutions. We pray to the Lord.
For those who endeavor to provide hope to others: family members and friends, neighbors and co-workers, teachers and counselors, therapists and spiritual guides. We pray to the Lord.
For those who diminish hope through selfishness, incivility or cruelty and for a spirit of repentance when we have violated others’ hope. We pray to the Lord.
For forgiveness for all that we have done to harm the Earth for future generations. We pray to the Lord.
For the will to work for lasting care and sustainability for the planet, especially regarding the environment and weapons of mass destruction. We pray to the Lord.
For those among us who need loving support at this time and for those whose hope we seek to enliven through our parish ministries. 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, help us to remember that we are still living in a pre-Christian era, because we have not gone out into the wilderness like John the Baptist, and we are even further from living in the example of Jesus in most of our lives. Because of this, Dear Lord, we need Your help in keeping ourselves focused on helping this world in any way we can to live as a post-Christian world.
In the world we live now, we have the tools and wisdom of Jesus to help convert the world to a place where those who are hungry are fed; those who starve for love are comforted; those who thin war and terrorism is the only answer to find peace in non-violence. We can only do this when we all become John the Baptists and become a voice crying out in the wilderness and prepare the way of the Lord! Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

December 2, 2018
First Sunday in Advent
(Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36)
Most of us look for meaning in the signs and events of daily life. We wonder how God might be acting in our lives – or if he is absent. Was this a chance meeting with an old friend, or part of something greater? Was it a coincidence that I was thinking of this person when I received a call from him or her? Did the inclement weather keep me at home so I was able to spend time with my family? Not only we, but generations of those who have gone before us, discerned meaning in the events of daily life. The ancient pagan Romans looked to the sky for omens, and read the entails of slaughtered chickens to discern how the gods were acting in the world.
The Gospel reading today gives readers signs that will accompany the end times, the coming of the Son of Man. But we would be mistaken if we took these passages literally. And it’s certainly true that hundreds if not thousands of people have done just that – looked for signs to be fulfilled literally.
So, where would we be without signs?

You probably don’t think about them that much, but you use them every day. They tell which streets are one-way, how fast you are allowed to drive, where to find a restroom (and which one is for your gender when you get there), when your favorite store is open, where to buy a meal, what dangerous areas to avoid, where to find a sale, and a zillion other things that are part of daily life.

Without signs, we’d be confused, unsure where we were, have no idea where to find our daily necessities and, a good bit of the time, actually lost. (Of course the adage goes that men don’t stop to ask directions – I tend to add that they do not read signs either!)

But what happens when signs give a mixed message or simply make no sense? That’s the case more often than you might suppose. Doug Lansky, author, columnist and occasional show host on the Discovery Channel, released a book containing photos of signs he and others have taken on travels around America and a number of other countries. Titled Signspotting, the book shows some signs that are unintentionally comical because they were composed by people for whom English was not their first language, such as a sign spotted in Thailand that reads, Of clouse, we spoke England! or the one on a clinic in China that announces the name of the institution in Chinese, but then translates it into English as Painful Treatment Center of Cancer. Or this one from Namibia: Toilet / Stay in Your Car.

Other signs shown in the book are from English-speaking countries and composed, we assume, by people who have spoken English all their lives, but the postings are laughable. Since I need a pick-er-up this week, here are several more examples:

• From Los Angeles, California: Caution: Blind Drivers Backing Out.

• From here in San Diego, California: Cruise Ships / Use Airport Exit.

• From Lake District, England: Barf Bed & Breakfast.

Some of the best, however, are those that send a mixed message, such as these:

• From Kanab, Utah: Six Mile Village / 3 miles.

• From Los Angeles, California: Antique Tables Made Daily!

• From Mill Valley, California: A sign reading Evacuation Route, with an arrow pointing straight ahead, but on the same post directly above it is another sign reading, Not a Through Street.

• From a portable sign in Racine, Wisconsin: Happy Easter! / We Rent Handguns.
• From Burleigh, Wisconsin: Reserved for Drive Thru Parking Only.

• From Mitchell, South Dakota: Safe Haven Small Animal Hospital / Hunters Welcome!

• From Maui, Hawaii: Bottomless Pit / 65 feet deep.

• From Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Walker’s Funeral Home / ATM Inside.

• From Pigeon Forge, Tennessee: Please Help Keep Boogertown Clean.

• From Warwick Castle, England: Torture Chamber / Unsuitable for Wheelchair Users.

Maybe one reason we enjoy the contradictory signs is because contradiction seems to be a characteristic of the more important signs in our lives, too.

Our Gospel reading has Jesus talking to his disciples about signs that will precede the return of the Son of Man to earth. He speaks of cosmic changes, signs in the sun, moon and stars, as well as distress among the nations and deep foreboding in the hearts of individuals.

But some of us might want to say, “Well, that’s fine that you can describe the signs and their meaning, Jesus, but I’m not having that kind certainty when I look at the world. It seems to me that we’ve got all kinds of cosmic changes (witness the hurricanes and devastating fires this year or the dire predictions about global warming that we’ve been hearing for several years now), and certainly there is no shortage of distress among nations today. And many of us are often filled with foreboding after listening to the evening news.”

But — and here’s our problem — in one form or another, this sort of stuff has been going on for centuries, so what do those signs mean, if anything, other than that life isn’t easy? Is Jesus about to come back or is what we are witnessing just the way things are in a world where good and evil battle it out?

One senior citizen remembers as a kid hearing a grown man commenting on world troubles in the news at that time and saying “We must be living in the end time!” But now that kid is an old man himself and the world is still going on. So the troubles back then weren’t signs of the end after all. My mother used to exclaim that the world was going to Hell in a hand-basket, and yet here we are and now I hear myself saying the same words. Apparently, we have forgotten the short-cuts or misread the signs.

Further, even this Gospel text itself is contradictory. Jesus’ comment about signs is part of a conversation with his followers. It began when some of them commented on the magnificent stones used in the building of the temple and Jesus responded by saying that the day would come when not one stone would be left standing. He was clearly predicting the demolition of the temple (which actually happened later that century, in A.D. 70) at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.

Jesus’ followers then ask what sign will signal the coming of that calamity, and Jesus answers by reeling off a list of troubles — false messiahs, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues and cosmic disturbances. But even before all of that, Jesus continues, his followers will experience persecution, which will also be a sign. In addition, Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies, Jesus says, but then we get to the passage we read today, and all at once Jesus is talking about these disturbing signs as signals that he is about to return to earth.

You can imagine his hearers’ sudden confusion. “Say what? I thought we were talking about the end of the temple and the city and now you’re speaking of the end of the world?”

And, of course, we know that did not happen in A.D. 70.

Finally, as if to cement the confusion, Jesus says to his hearers (in verse 32 which is not part of our reading today), “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

Okaaay. But which things? Well, the temple and city, but not the second coming, yet isn’t that what Jesus was saying?

Now it’s certainly possible that Luke, in recording this conversation, actually mashed a couple of different topics Jesus discussed together, but if that’s the case, then Luke was having the same kind of trouble we have in distinguishing a crisis near at hand from another one yet to come — trouble making sense of the signs. If we did not have trouble distinguishing crises, then we would not have times when we think, “We must be living in the final days” or “How can things get worse than they are now?” or “The world is going to hell in a hand-basket.”

Now here we are in the season of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival” and symbolizes both the era before Jesus came the first time, when people were waiting for the promised Messiah, and also our era before the Messiah comes again. And neither the people who lived before the first advent nor we who live before the second have proven very adept at reading the signs.

This is complicated by our trouble knowing what the New Testament’s words about the second coming even mean. The first Christians apparently took them quite literally, and many expected Christ to return within their generation.

But 2,000 years later, it’s hard for many to know quite what to make of Second-Coming talk. You can only stand gazing eagerly at the sky for so long with nothing happening before you start to feel ridiculous.

And so eventually, if you are a person of faith, you might conclude that maybe the second coming is not meant to be understood quite so factually but instead as a promise of God’s final victory and the full coming of his kingdom.

But even that is clouded by the ongoing march of time and the endless stream of troublesome happenings on the world stage. Those troubles could be read as signs (and sometimes are by some people), but once those troubles are past, they seem in retrospect to not have been signs after all, but simply events, and now part of history.

Yet we cannot dismiss the idea that some events are indeed also signs, and to miss a sign can mean to not be ready for what they portend.

Consider this example: World War II actually started on September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s army invaded Poland, but there was a warning sign before that. Hitler’s original plans called for the invasion to begin the preceding week, on August 26. In fact, he had 16 combat units in place and ready by that date. But then, the evening before the 26th, some last-minute developments — including Italy’s sudden decision not to help with the invasion — caused Hitler to put his plans on hold. He had word sent out by radio to all his units to come home, but communication technology being what it was in 1939, one unit didn’t get the message. Thus, at the stroke of midnight on the 26th, that unit entered Poland and captured a strategic mountain pass and railway, and took some Poles as prisoners. When that unit’s leader telephoned headquarters to report the victory, however, he was told of the change of plans. So he released his prisoners and led his unit home.

Naturally, this stumble should have alerted the Polish leaders that Germany was up to no good, but inexplicably, they let the incident pass without recognizing what it meant. Thus, when the Germans did invade Poland on September 1, the Poles were taken by complete surprise, and quickly succumbed. They were not ready.

That idea of not being ready can happen spiritually, too. An old poem by Lois Blanchard Eades titled “If Jesus Came to Your House” put the idea of Jesus’ return in a one-on-one setting.

It begins by asking what you’d want to do if Jesus suddenly announced he was coming to visit at your house for a few days. Would you be eager to see him or would you be busy hiding certain materials you’d be embarrassed for him to see? Would your family conversation be able to go on as before or would there have to be some coaxing of family members to clean up their act? Would you suddenly have to begin using a table grace? Would you take him with you all the places you had planned to go and would you want him to meet your closest friends? The poem ends by asking:

Would you be glad to have him stay forever on and on? Or would you sigh with great relief when he at last was gone?

That may be a bit too literal for some of us to make much out of, but it captures some of the anxiety that the idea of missing the signs suggests.

So in attempting to understand and interpret the events of our day, one hazard is that we’ll miss the signs altogether.

But a greater danger is that we’ll misread them. We can watch reports of great trouble in the news and look at the difficulties in our own lives and view them as signs that despair is warranted. There are facts that even in the broad sunlight are hard enough to take, but couple them with a midnight mood, when all our defenses are down, and they can lead us to lose hope. This is as it has seemed for me this past week.

It’d be a shame to do that because despair can cause us to miss the most important thing Jesus said in this whole passage. Remember that he was talking to those who were following him, and to them he said, “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”

In other words, Jesus says that to read the world’s troubles only as omens of doom is to misread them. Instead, and against all conventional logic, we should see them as foreshadowing’s of our redemption, advance notices of God’s kingdom, in which, as followers of Jesus, we already hold citizenship.

Doom and gloom precede redemption and salvation.

And if that’s the case, then the world’s tribulations and our personal trials can be understood as reasons for us to remain faithful, hopeful and optimistic in the long view.

And the long view is what is called for. Harry Emerson Fosdick, tells of having a conversation with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was so convinced of the universal tendency for humans to abuse power that he was pessimistic about the possibility of society becoming moral. Still, he was not without ultimate hope in God and believed that individual acts could be conducted on a higher moral level than that of the society in which the individual lived. Fosdick, however, had more confidence in humankind’s ability to progress, and thus, he urged Niebuhr to be more optimistic.

Niebuhr responded, “If you will be pessimistic with me decade by decade, I will be optimistic with you aeon by aeon.”

That’s a hard position to take when we are in the midst of conflict, troubles and threat, for it calls for us to see the good news behind the bad news. But of course, Good News is what the Gospel of Jesus means. As Niebuhr put it elsewhere: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”

Thus, if we believe Jesus, then we should not view Advent as merely a preparation season for Christmas. It is a time to remind ourselves not to misread the calamitous signs in our world as reasons to despair. Rather they are signals to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.
Let us pray.
That the Church to be a beacon of hope in troubled times. We pray to the Lord.
That all people throughout the world dwell in safety and work for justice. We pray to the Lord.
That those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and mental illness might know the love and tender care of the God of hope. We pray to the Lord.
That each of us here might give up our daily anxieties so as to live more fully into God’s promise of peace.
That we be reminded that during Advent preparation should begin for Christmas. We pray that our preparation be a spiritual one and that our real joy be in celebrating the coming of Christ, our Savior. We pray to the Lord.                        
That the Lord grant us the time and energy, the foresight and the wisdom to review how we each live our life – with our family, our friends, our community, our work and most importantly, with our God. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers. We pray to the Lord.  
God of abounding love, you call us to live with you in holiness and peace. Grant our prayers that we might grow closer to you each day. Jesus said in today’s Gospel that we should always be awake, for we never know when our loving Father will call us to Him. We pray Lord that in our busy lives, we always remain alert and be prepared to listen to Your voice and carry out Your holy will. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Happy Advent, everyone!!