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Thursday, third week of Advent

December 16, 2004

Blessed Thursday!

Before I start, could I beg the alms of your prayers for these reflections? I’m finding that I reach the end of my resources well before each post is complete and it’s only with divine help that these are getting out at all. I know that’s really true of everything–I couldn’t so much as take a breath unless God made it possible–but I’m particularly feeling my dependence in this situation. Thank you!

Isaiah 54:1-10
Psalm 30:2, 4-6, 11-13 “I will praise You, Lord, for You have rescued me”
+ Luke 7:24-30

We are destined for greatness, and God is calling us to rise to the occasion. “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song…enlarge the space for your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes for you shall spread abroad to the right and to the left” (Isaiah 54:1-3). He’s speaking to those who feel they’ve failed in life, that they have no purpose, no meaning, certainly no greatness! The source of that feeling is a recognition of their own mistakes. “The Lord calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, a wife married in youth and then cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you…in an outburst of wrath, for a moment, I hid My face from you” (Isaiah 54:6-8). God’s wrath is only kindled against sin, against that rejection of His love that separates us from Him. When we are separated from Him, we can’t bear fruit any more than a wife can conceive a child (legitimately, honorably), the fruit of her womb, apart from her husband. “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it remain on the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me” (John 15:5). In our fruitfulness is our greatness. God is the Source of our ability to bear fruit, hence He is the Source of our greatness.

We get another look at God’s vision of greatness in the Gospel. As John the Baptist’s disciples leave to report all they’ve heard and seen, Jesus turns to the crowd. “What did you go out into the desert to see?” (Luke 7:24). He was challenging them to take stock of their own perceptions of greatness. There was a reason they had taken the trouble to go out to a bare, bleak place to see the Baptist. Something had attracted them. Some greatness had drawn them out of their comfortable routines. What was it? Was it the natural beauty of a reed gracefully swaying in the wind? No. What about a fashion show? Had they gone out to see purple robes and glittering crowns? No. You go to palaces to see those, not to the barren wasteland. So what was it? A prophet? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. A prophet indeed, and more than a prophet. John the Baptist was a holy man, one who spoke the words of the Lord, whose life bore much fruit in turning others to holiness, to God, too. That was his greatness, and there never had been another prophet greater than he. Wow!

But wait…there’s more! The least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he! The least? But…well…surely that couldn’t mean me?! Does that mean I could be great? It does. Not only does that mean you could be great, it means God’s been begging you to be great from the beginning of time! He’s been calling you by name, pleading with you to follow Him, to unite yourself to Him, to bear fruit with Him. He has the wrecking ball of the Cross in His hand to demolish the wall of sin that’s built up between you. He’s just waiting for the word from you to set it in motion so that He can graft you back onto Himself and send His life pulsing through your withered branch. He’s waiting to make you holy, to make you fruitful, to make you great. He’s urging you to be bold, to be confident, to stretch out to make room for the life He wants to pour into you. “Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heavenand nature sing!” (Isaac Watts)

The passage ends with a sad commentary on those who thought they already were great, the Pharisees and the lawyers. As Jesus told His disciples, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). They had built up such a false front of respectability that they’d begun to believe their own press. They couldn’t see how withered their own branch was because they’d painted it green and attached plastic grapes. That’s why Jesus said we have to become like little children, who are only too aware of their dependence, before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:15). God respected the leaders’ choice. He would not force them. But He kept calling. “Things that are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). I note with a certain satisfaction that Acts 6:7 records that “even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” And Saul of Tarsus, the zealous Pharisee who persecuted the Church, became St. Paul, one of Jesus’ most dedicated followers, after God gave him a good hard look at his own helplessness (Acts 9:1-22).

In order for us to effectively respond to God’s call to greatness, then, we need to let go of any mistaken notion of greatness we may’ve picked up. We need to know what God’s definition of greatness is: holiness, union with God, letting God’s life within us bear spiritual fruit. We need to recognize our own lack of greatness, to get rid of any false pretense of greatness, and to boldly, confidently open ourselves to the God who wants to give us the real thing. Grieving our shame and disgrace will do us no good unless we enlarge the space in our tent, lengthen our ropes, make firm our stakes and invite Him in (Isaiah 54:2). “Lift up your heads, O gates…that the King of Glory may enter”! (Psalm 24:7). For where He is, there is the Kingdom of Heaven. And the least in that Kingdom is greater than the greatest prophet who ever lived.

I think I needed just this message at just this time…

God is calling us to greatness. Let’s rise to the occasion!

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