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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - It's Time to Come Home

Robert Barron - It's Time to Come Home

Robert Barron - It's Time to Come Home

Peace be with you. Friends, on this second Sunday of Advent the Church gives us really marvelous readings. And the second reading from Second Peter is wonderful indeed, but I'm going to focus on the first reading and the Gospel. The first reading of course  from the prophet Isaiah,  and the Gospel is really the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. So the Old Testament reading from Isaiah is taken from chapter 40. That means from the very beginning of the section  of Isaiah the scholars call  Deutero or Second Isaiah. That means the section written not when the first thirty-nine chapters were composed, but rather around the time of the Babylonian Exile, more precisely, the return  of the exiles from Babylon.

Now, I've talked about this many times before, but it just bears repeating how absolutely central to ancient Israel this event was. Here's their great nation conquered by Babylon, their capital city destroyed, the temple burned to the ground, and the best and brightest of their people taken away to a distant land to live in exile and oppression. Now, here's a people that were convinced that God was their protector, that God was caring for them. How do you make sense of this? That their temple and their capital city are destroyed, their political arrangement is undermined, and their best and brightest have been exiled? And this exile lasted for a good long time, about seventy years. So let's say the older people certainly in the first generation of exiles didn't return. I mean, they would have died in exile.

Now we're talking about their descendants who had grown up in this distant land. There's a line from the Psalms that I think is one of the saddest in the whole Bible. Here it is: "There we sat by the rivers of Babylon remembering Zion. 'Sing to us,' they said, 'one of Zion's songs.' But how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil". What is it about that? I mean, I think it just sings to people across the ages. "Hey, sing to us one of those songs from your homeland". "No, I can't even muster it, because I'm in this alien place. How could I sing a song from my homeland? It'd just be too heartbreaking".

That's the point. Whenever I read that line, I think of the times in my life when I've lived as it were in a land of exile. I think of years ago when I was a first-year college student, and I was away from home for the first time, surrounded by people I didn't really know, all of my usual connections now disrupted. Whenever you'd think of home it would just make you sad. Actually, I went through that three times when I was a young guy because I went to Notre Dame University in my first year, then my second year I joined the college seminary in Chicago, then I got a scholarship to Catholic U in Washington for my third year. So three years in a row I faced that experience of feeling far away from home, an alien in a land of exile. But you know the most dramatic in my own life was when I went for doctoral studies to Paris.

And talk about being in the land of exile. I mean this wonderful place, of course, Paris, but when I first got there, I didn't know the language that well, I'm in this house I didn't know, surrounded by people from all over the world whom I didn't know, I'm walking through this city that I didn't recognize. And anytime I would think of home it would just sort of break my heart. Well see, here's the point:  we're meant to move into that space to understand what's being communicated in this reading. These are the ancient exiles now of Israel. But here's what the prophet Isaiah says to those in the land of exile. Listen: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem ... proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt [has been] expiated". When it says Jerusalem here, it means those who have been carried away from Jerusalem. God is now declaring, "I'm going to bring you back home". So for this heartbroken people, "How could we sing a song of Zion on alien soil"? God is now going to bring them back home.

Now, in order to facilitate this process, so they're in Babylon, they've got to get back to Jerusalem, what's in between the two? Well, this kind of rough desert country. It's full of hills and valleys and rivers and obstacles. So listen, "A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God"! So that's the image. Babylon, Jerusalem; God's calling Israel home. But in between the two, rough country. What's needed is a smooth highway that will facilitate the journey of Israel back home. You know, I think of, now living out here in Southern California and in Santa Barbara, we're just right on the sea coast, and just north of us it's just beautiful country, but empty country. When I have to get up to the northern part of my region, if there weren't highways, I'd have to go through very rough country.

If I was back in the time of Junípero Serra, it would take me months to get to the northern reaches of my own region. Thank God though there's this, freeway, we call them out here, there's this freeway: flat, and straight,  and it as it were covers  over the hills and valleys, enabling me in an hour to get seventy miles north. That's the image. Build a highway in the desert to facilitate the journey of Israel from Babylon back home. And then this also from our first reading. Listen, "Here comes with powerthe Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm.... Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom".

Now, you see the image. Israel's in Babylon. We built this highway to facilitate their journey. God has called them home, and now, at the end of the journey, there's the shepherd ready to receive the sheep and to gather them close to himself. It's beautiful. That's why this section of Isaiah is so lyrical, it's so uplifting. It's God summoning his people home. Okay. That's the Old Testament setting. Keep that firmly in mind. But now, in the Gospel, we are fast forwarding five hundred years. And we come to this alarming figure, described in the Gospel today,   of John the Baptist. Listen now to these opening lines of the first gospel: "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet", we just heard it, "Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'" Huh.

Who's John the Baptist? He's assuming the identity of this Isaian prophet who is calling Israel to straighten the highway so as to make the journey back to the Father. We find the same language, but now the exile is not so much a literal and political exile. The exile being described here is a spiritual one: the exile of sin. What does sin do to us? Sin is a distantiation from God. It's an easy way to understand it. We're meant to be gathered  close to the heart of God;  sin is a distantiation. I always love St. Augustine's description of a journey into the land of unlikeness. See, we're made in the  likeness of God; when we sin,  we wander far away from where we ought to be. John the Baptist is the Isaiah figure calling Israel home, not so much from political exile but from spiritual exile. But using the same language. What we need is a highway. We need a straight path to facilitate the journey.

Now, now, keep listening to John: "One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit". Okay. Calling Israel home, now from spiritual exile. God is there waiting to receive them, like the shepherd receiving his sheep. What's needed is the highway. Who's the highway? Precisely the one whom John is announcing. "One mightier than I is coming". In reference to himself, Jesus will say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life". Beautiful. Thomas Aquinas said that in his divinity, Jesus is the truth and the life; but in his humanity, he's the way. Beautiful, isn't it? He's in one sense the goal of the quest because he's divine, but in his humanity, he's the way.

Now we understand why on this Advent Sunday we hear from both Isaiah and John the Baptist. We are meant to move into the space of those who feel exiled from God. The Babylonian captivity is a kind of political foreshadowing of it. We're all in exile, but God is calling us home. "The time of your trial's over; I'm calling you back". We need though to build a highway. The good news is God has built the highway for us. And the highway has a name: Jesus Christ. Advent, now, is this invitation to walk his way. How often in the Gospels Jesus says, "Follow me". "Come after me". But make this even more vivid: it's "Walk on the path that I am. I am the way". Whenever I think about this,  I can't help but think about  the old Paul Simon song: "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". "Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down". So he's proposing himself as the way across this troubled place. In a very similar way now, Jesus himself is like the bridge over troubled waters. He's the highway over the rough country. As we move through the Advent season, let us all resolve to walk on the path that he is, which leads back to the Father who is eager to receive us.
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