24 Hour News is very depressing isn’t it? No wonder some people give up watching the News and just seek entertainment. And then there are those endless charity appeals, especially at this time of the year! So many people needing help, so many suffering children. Sometimes the sadness of it all can be overwhelming, can’t it?
But we can look at it another way, of course. We can look below the surface, below all the bad news stories, and identify instead all the good things that are being done to help others, even in the darkest and most difficult places in the world. The good things, the acts of love and care and generosity are almost always quiet things, that rarely hit the news headlines; but one of our major tasks as Christians is to highlight such things, to show others that God is at work in our world, not by dramatic interventions, but in and through the quiet things that go on every day, as people bring help to others in the midst of tragedy and suffering.
So when John the Baptist cries out in our Gospel (Matt 3:1-12) “The kingdom of heaven is close at hand” and later “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” we need to remember how this great Kingdom of heaven actually came near then, at the time he was preaching. And the answer to this? The answer, that we know so well that we can easily forget it, is that the kingdom of heaven, came close when a tiny baby called Jesus was born quietly in Bethlehem. There was no lightning bolt from the sky, the fire that John promised, was a fire that burned quietly but strongly in the heart of Jesus and in his loving parents Mary and Joseph. It was a fire that he gave to his first followers, and that he gives to us, deep into our hearts and minds. We do not need to look for the kingdom of God in dramatic events, for as Jesus said to those followers, and says to us, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21) But remember in the end though we see God “Now as in a mirror dimly….. then we shall see him face to face.” (1 Cor 13:12)
But just because the fire and the kingdom come now quietly within us, it does not mean that there is no power. Being a fanatical gardener, I love the images from gardening and farming that Jesus uses to explain the kingdom. He points to the fact that we cannot see plants grow and yet their effect in the long term can be massive. The tiny shoot may become an enormous tree in time with roots that can destroy the strongest house. That is what God’s power in us is like, and that is what John the Baptist is telling us to look out for when he says “Repent”. For repent does not mean “Be good”, it means “Turn your mind round, turn to God. Realise God’s power, God’s kingdom, God’s fire within you”
This is what St Paul means by “hope”. We heard him say in our Reading (Romans 15:4-9) “Everything that was written long ago in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope.” By the scriptures, he means the Old Testament. But we might well ask how the stories we read there give us hope; because it is a series of terrible tales of mistakes and failures and downright sinfulness. Indeed the killing and the brutality and the immorality is so bad at some points that some people nowadays refuse to read it. Yet all the way through, the writers want to show us that, despite all this, God was at work – not in the bad things people did of course, but in the way he helped them on their journey and pointed them to a better future.
So the hope that St Paul is talking about, like the kingdom and the fire that John the Baptist proclaimed, is not some unrealistic expectation that life will someday be perfect, that everyone will in the end “live happily ever after”. No! What St Paul says is that we have hope, because God helps those who do not give up. Like the people in the Old Testament, we have our struggle and failures, we face troubles in our world and in our personal lives that may sometimes feel overwhelming; and yet, and yet, in the midst of all this, if we look and listen carefully, we will find many ways in which God is helping us. This help will be like a plant growing slowly in ways we cannot see, or like the yeast that makes the bread rise silently before it can be baked; but that help is there, and that is our hope.
I was struck by something my colleague in the Immigration Detention Centre said to some of the detainees recently. She told them not to sit around feeling sorry for the difficulties they face now, but to remember that they have a future. They may not know what it is. They may just feel now that there is no future, as they face the scary prospect of a judge ordering them to be deported. But they must think beyond that, to what life will offer them in the future.
We Catholics always have a reminder before us at Mass that there is a future even in the darkest moments of every life. There, in front of us, we see an image of Jesus dying on the cross; but we see more than that because we see beyond that. We affirm that God’s power is at work even there, especially there. With Jesus on the cross we say, “Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit”. I place my life and my death in the hands of God, so that I live my life for goodness and love however dark things may seem; because it is only by doing so, only as human beings around the world look beyond the tragedies, and turn to God, that there is a hope that will sustain and strengthen them and us. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”