Homily for the
4th Sunday Advent, Cycle A
Given at St. Jude December 17-18, 2022
By Deacon Ken Steponaitis
Conventional wisdom can sometimes cause us to move away from the truth, not because we necessarily want to, but because our senses and experiences don’t necessarily match our truth. For example, conventional wisdom teaches us that the world is round and not flat. And historically, through much of human history, conventional wisdom taught the world was flat despite evidence of a round earth being discovered maybe as long ago as 600 BC. And the reason it took so long for conventional wisdom to change is that a round world defies our senses.
Think about this … if we were to point up and someone else on the exact opposite side of the globe pointed up, we would be pointing in the exact opposite directions. They would be pointing, what from our perspective is in the direction we call down! Our senses defy the truth, do they not? Our experiences do not necessarily coincide with the truth.
About 21 years ago I experienced something that conventional wisdom would have chocked up coincidence. One night I was lying in bed about 2 or 3 in the morning and I could not fall asleep. I found myself in a disposition of arguing with God. I had recently come back to the faith, and I was struggling to understand why God does what God does. In a way I was questioning His existence. I wanted more proof. In my argument, I was asking, why is it so difficult for me to believe in the Church’s teachings. I told God I want you to prove You exist. If you want me to believe in you, why not prove it. Why not just show me something, anything? How can You say You are present when there is so much evil in the world. How can You want me to be the good lover you want me to be, and I have such difficulty? And as I was mulling these questions over and over in my head, and right on the verge of falling asleep … you know that feeling when you are totally relaxed and teetering on being aware and not … I suddenly heard, maybe more appropriately, I sensed, in a very real way, something that startled me so much that I was now fully conscious, and my heart was racing. What I “heard” was, “YOU WILL KNOW SOON!” … You will know soon!
I can tell you, my argument ended right then and there. In the morning, I told my wife Ruby about the experience. And I’m not so sure how convinced she was about it all. But here’s what is more amazing. About 3 days later, although I don’t recall the exact number of days, what God wanted me to know was revealed. And while I wish I had time to tell you the details, let’s just suffice to say, what I found out was something only God could have done. Here’s what I came to know … I was told through friends of ours about a chance meeting they had of a young man who happened to have the same last name as mine, Steponaitis. Certainly not a common name. As it turns out, this young man was my half-brother. And, if I could tell you about all the apparent impossibilities that had to be in place for me to come to meet my half-brother, I think you would see why this had to be God following up on his promise when he said, “You will know soon.” Conventional wisdom would say this experience was pure coincidence and the message I heard that night was nothing more than a hallucination. I could have dismissed the message, but for me, the experience gave me what I needed to get back on track with my faith. God had answered my prayer.
Unfortunately for whatever reasons, our life experiences can shroud the truth of God. An example comes from our first reading today. King Ahaz was the king of Judah at a time when Assyria, a great and powerful nation was on the verge of destroying the northern Hebrew nation of Israel. King Ahaz was under a great deal of pressure to protect his nation and not let it fall to his enemies. The prophet Isaiah was telling Ahaz if you want to save your nation, quit putting your trust in worldly things, quit putting your trust in other gods. Quit building alliances with the enemy, Assyria, in the hopes they will protect you. Allow God to do that, allow God to enter your heart, trust in the Lord.
Even the Lord himself spoke to Ahaz, telling Ahaz, just “ask for sign.” I can show you my power, just ask! “It can be deep as the netherworld or high as the sky!” But Ahaz had somehow convinced himself that he had the solutions and reasoned that, asking God for help in this way was nothing more than tempting God. Ahaz said, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!”
And how did God react? God calls on Isaiah, his prophet, to tell the nation of Judah, “I’m going to show you how I work and who I am. There’s going to be a sign given you. And the sign will be this … there will be a virgin … yes, a virgin … who will conceive, and bear a son and she will name him Emmanuel,” God with us.
What?! God’s answer to getting us back on track, God’s answer to showing us how much he loves us, God’s answer to saving us is a virgin who conceives a child called Emmanuel?! How does that work?!
And then we have another person, Paul, whose story defies conventional wisdom. In our second reading, Paul opens his letter to the Romans with an introduction of Jesus. He tells about Jesus’ resurrection and how we all belong to Him. He also introduces himself as someone “called to be an apostle,” and that we are all called to be apostles out of the love and grace of God.
You know Paul’s story. He persecuted people who were following the way of Jesus. At that time Paul’s conventional wisdom, said something like this: there was no possibility this guy Jesus was the Messiah. No good messiah would be preaching things like turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, giving up wealth and power that only those in God’s favor could have. A good messiah would be ready to destroy the enemy and bring wealth, peace, and good times to all. And if Jesus is not the way, these Jesus followers were too dangerous. They threaten the very life of the Jewish community. They threaten everything that was believed to be the truth at the time. So the only way to save ourselves is to eliminate these blasphemers following Jesus.
And one day, on his way to persecute more Christians, Paul is struck down and encounters the resurrected Jesus. In that moment Paul’s whole world view begins to change. Paul becomes the most prolific teacher and supporter of Jesus and His way!
Paul could have dismissed this experience; he could have closed his mind to the truth. And,` if he had, it is quite possible all the circumstances necessary for the Church to exist and for that matter, for us to be celebrating this Mass here today, in Allen, Texas, would not be taking place. Paul had to concluded that the truth defied conventional wisdom and his whole world view was changed on that day.
And when we come to our Gospel reading, we learn of Joseph who also fell into the trap of conventional wisdom. For Joseph, conventional wisdom tells him that a woman pregnant out of wedlock could be stoned to death. But Joseph was a righteous man who loved Mary and was willing to quietly divorce her and not shame her.
But then an amazing thing happened. An angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream. Joseph is told, don’t be afraid. The child that was conceived in Mary came through the Holy Spirit. Take Mary into your home, her pregnancy is not how you think it is. Remember the prophet, Isaiah? Remember how he told you that a virgin will conceive and bear a son? Remember that? Well guess what? It’s Mary whose virgin birth has been foretold. Surprise!
Joseph could have chocked his experience up to craziness. He could have dismissed the dream. But Joseph had something going for him, that I pray each of us in our Lenten experience can come to realize. God is after us! God wants us so much, that out of love, God, the creator of the natural world, dispenses with the natural world, and out of love and grace pursues us in our vulnerabilities. God uses life’s difficulties to open up our hearts and our very bodies, and enters into our world in amazing ways, ways that defy conventional wisdom. Joseph recognizes the work of God in his life and his whole world view changed on that day.
God could stay in heaven and let the world run as it wills. But that is not how God works. God loves us too much and wants so much for you and me to enter into His world, His kingdom. God wants so much for us to be part of who He is, he not only enters into our world, but He enters into each one of us, in a very personal way, not just as individuals but as a Church!
Don’t allow conventional wisdom, or maybe more appropriately, don’t let learned wisdom be your only source of truth. Recognize that God is beyond human experience. God is beyond our senses. The truth can sometimes defy nature and our life experiences.
As Mary conceived and bore a child, each one of us too, are being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Each one of us is called the bear the child Jesus as Church and individually. Each one of us, loved into existence, are called to bring forth the good news of God’s love to the world so that God’s will be done earth as it is in heaven.